Their adventures in revolutionary France behind them, the TARDIS has resumed its journey through time and space. “Our lives are important—at least to us—and as we see, so we learn,” the Doctor muses. “Our destiny is in the stars, so let’s go and search for it.”
I’ll admit it: I’ve never read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. It’s sitting on one the shelves behind me, somewhere below a collection of sonic screwdrivers and an action figure of
James Bond the Narrator from The End of Time. But given its almost immediate cultural influence as one of the seminal oeuvres that helped launch the environmental movement of the early sixties, it’s no surprise that environmental activism would find its way into Doctor Who.
That said, Planet of Giants is activism for kids, and its premise is straightforward (but fun), and it works well for the message. The Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara find themselves in an ordinary English garden, belonging to a seemingly ordinary English house, is what is no doubt some ordinary English village. The catch, of course, is that a TARDIS mishap has reduced the time travelers to just an inch tall, giving them—and us—a bizarre new perspective. Ants are suddenly two feet long; an earthworm becomes a giant snake; paving stones form a maze; and where one swipe of a cat’s paw could finish off our stalwart heroes for good. Except that almost everything in this wilderness is dead, and the only clue is a peculiar odor.
The second, but connected storyline offers the explanation, namely that the sleazy businessman Mr. Forrester and his scientist associate Mr. Smithers have developed a new pesticide, DN6 (a barely-disguised fictional version of DDT, the pesticide Silent Spring rallies against), that kills indiscriminately. Mr. Farrow, a government scientist testing the affects of DN6 on animal life, refuses to approve it, so Forrester kills him, too. Throw in a few lines about how many insects are beneficial to agriculture and the wider ecosystem, and the environmental activism is more or less at an end.
Tiny time travelers!
Part of me wants to call this a wasted opportunity by writer Louis Marks to tell an engaging story that also shares an important message. On the other hand, no kid wants too much education thrown at them on a Saturday afternoon—what they really want is tiny time travelers in a great big oversized world, and that’s what Marks delivers, moving the story indoors, and shifting the focus on how the Doctor and his friends can alert the authorities to Farrow’s murder using the commonplace, but giant, items in the Smithers’ lab. Barbara also comes into contact with DN6, and due to her reduced size, it very quickly affects her, making the need to return to the TARDIS even more urgent. In the end, of course, the Doctor is able to return them all to normal size, and Barbara’s immune system is able to fight the DN6 in her body.
When it’s all said and done with, Planet of Giants as a season opener is a fun, but mostly irrelevant story, along the lines of Smith and Jones or Partners in Crime more recently. There are some genuinely funny moments here and there, and, for the most part, really well done—the giant housefly that Barbara encounters in the lab, for example, is very effective. My one complaint is that the scale is inconsistent and not quite what it should be if the Doctor and his companions were really one inch tall.
One thing I actually really enjoyed watching is Barbara’s relationship with the Doctor. She’s clearly quite fond of him by this point, and is often watching quietly while he pilots the TARDIS, playful with him, and expecting him—like we all expect of the Doctor—to have all the answers. Likewise, the Doctor is very fond of Barbara, too, and almost as protective of her as he is of Susan.
(Losing) The Urge to Live
Interestingly, Planet of Giants was scripted and record as a four part serial, but Head of Serials at the BBC Donald Wilson believed the story was “fascinating and exciting,” but he wasn’t completely satisfied with the outcome. Therefore—in a move that you, if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, I wholly approve of—he ordered the serial be reduced to three parts, combining the original third episode, Crisis, with the fourth episode, The Urge to Live, in an attempt to move the story along more quickly. (Where the heck was Wilson during The Sensorites?)
The other interesting note is that this isn’t the first time the idea of tiny time travelers has been mooted. In fact, the very first story was originally planned to feature the Doctor and his companions shrunk to minuscule in Ian’s science classroom, but this was ultimately abandoned in favor of An Unearthly Child.
Next time on Doctor Who
With Barbara already on the road to recovery, the TARDIS begins to materialize—but the image on the scanner is unclear, and the Doctor uncertain about where they may have arrived…
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)