Planet of Giants is an interesting start to season 2 both in terms of its lack of scale (literally) but also the way that it makes a great deal out of not-very-much – surely a recurring production motif for the entire run.
At the end of the Reign of Terror the Doctor invited us to consider the power of his travel machine. We have all of space and time to explore – indeed “our destiny is written in the stars” – the Doctor grandly proclaims at the end of season 1.
Season 2 brings us down to size with a bang – across the channel, a hundred years into the future and shrunk with a broken scanner at the back of a cottage.
Thank heavens then that Planet of Giants over delivers in a number of ways and does so within a pocketsized story.
While the recent DVD release invites us to experience how Planet of the Giants might have played out across four episodes the reality is that the re-invented episode three is 90% padding and the producers were wise to take the scissors to it.
Resisting the temptation to go where Irwin Allen (Land of the Giants) would take us a few years later and have the regular cast spend an entire serial dodging stock footage of oversized dragon lizards and giant murderous children who want to put them in a dollshouse and shake them around a bit, Planet of the Giants creates a believable and even mundane dramatic microcosm.
A small stock of simple, believable and effective oversized ‘gigantic’ props are well realised. The matchstick, the cigarette packet and even the insects – ant, fly and bee – which could easily have been cringeworthy – are believable. The producers avoid the temptation to dwell on them and they work all the better for being only briefly in shot.
Credibility is aided by the way the cast travel through a trademens entry landscape – concrete, a drain pipe and a sink are the main set pieces that we visit in this story. Of these the plughole in the sink is perhaps the best drawn. A simple, yet punchy way of achieving scale.
Unlike Land of the Giants the story misses some visual opportunities such as using camera angles to emphasise size, but it also avoids too many overtly dodgy moments. We steer clear of overlays with still photo’s and when these are used they are fairly effective. The scenes where the travellers walk in front of the face of the dead Farrow make startling viewing.
This also manages to be a multilayered tale that plays out several threads at the same time as the drama in the house unfolds. The biggest threat to our hero’s it emerges is not their size but a tale of science, greed and ambition combined and gone wrong. This feels like a very modern story – one that conjurs Malcolm Hulke – as the Doctor battles his first group of dangerous, sociopathic scientists/businessmen who can see the ends, but not the means. One can almost imagine Jon Pertwee cursing Smithers “Why won’t that wretched man just listen?”
Indeed they can’t listen at all as the serial introduces the very interesting conceit that the travellers voices would sound like a record played at the wrong speed due to their size differences. An idea familiar to science fiction fans of 2012 (a variation of it even turns up in a Star Trek episode a few years later) but which would have been fresh in 1965.
As Daniel notes the serial owes much to Rachel Carsons Silent Spring – a pre-ecology book which highlighted the danger of residual insecticides leaching into the soil and killing everything in the food chain. It’s not a big leap from DN6 to DDT and this – along with the Daleks and the Aztecs with their lessons in dictatorship and cultural superiority – is another sign that Doctor Who is prepared to be a show with a ‘message’.
Moments of greatness (and silliness)
- The collapse of the Farrow/Forrester relationship is like a textbook class about how not to handle public/private sector partnerships. Lesson 1. “See it in writing” – it matters not if you think your product is going to end world poverty in an instant just don’t put your lethal food chain destroying insecticide into production until you see the ink dry; Lesson 2. “Establish appropriate personal and professional boundaries” – telling a stakeholder that you are taking off in a yacht around the south of France just prior to destroying their livelihoods was never a good idea on whole range of levels; and Lesson 3. “Allow people to exit with grace” – This will ruin me. Can’t I have a few days to put my affairs in order? Forrester opines. Well, 20/20 hindsight is a rare thing but would it really have hurt Farrow to have said yes?
- The Tardis set looks better in this one but that still doesn’t stop things going wrong like the scanner screen “Perhaps you need a new tube Doctor?” Ian chortles. Even at the end the scanner is still broken
- There are some good cliffhangers especially episode 2 where they are threatened by drowning in the sink. Susan clings to the Doctor and Billie’s expression is priceless. Not even the Daleks managed to elicit such terror. The conclusion to Episode 1 also marks the only time the TARDIS crew were menaced by a cat. Unfortunately both cliffhangers sag under an underwhelming resolution in the following episode. The cat just goes away and Susan and the Doctor are saved by an all too handy overflow pipe.
- There is some great acting from Jacqueline Hill as Barbara rubs at her hand and goes into denial about being poisoned. This is as good as it gets however and Barbara’s illness develops a very operatic tone as she faints recovers, climbs ladders, faints again and generally pivots between dire illness and frantic activity over the course of two entire episodes.
- Billy plays the first Doctor like an escaped pyromaniac presented with a bumper book of matches and a house crammed full of dry tinder. “Nothing like a good fire” he says rubbing his hands with glee. He even seems reluctant to leave the exploding can of insecticide. A theme that will be revisited in The Romans.
- The nosy telephone operators are well played and remind us how long ago these episodes were recorded – it re ally is the 50th anniversary. Imagine having all your calls routed through a set of wires by paid operator.
- Forresters “pistol” might sound like a cannon if you’re about an inch tall but it looks like an empty waterpistol to anyone else. “The Walking Dead” this aint.
- An allusion is made to a pre television adventure with the Doctor and Susan facing zeppelins – there’s one for Big Finish
Tenuous Aussie connection
- DN6 is most likely a thinly veiled allusion to Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane (DDT). DDT was first registered as an insecticide in Australia in the 1950s and was widely used here even after being banned in many other countries. A 1972 report from the Australian Academy of Science recommended continued use of DDT where its use clearly outweighed the disadvantages, plus further emphasis on research for alternatives and it was only banned in 1987 due to wider knowledge about its effects on birdlife including Peregrine Falcons.
Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.