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16 Jan 2007Planet of Giants, by Eddy Wolverson
16 Jan 2007Planet of Giants, by Shane Anderson
16 Jan 2007Planet of Giants, by Paul Clarke

Originally recorded as the penultimate serial of the first season, Planet of Giants was held over to open the show's second season, beginning a tradition that would run throughout the sixties. This story had been in the pipeline ever since the series inception a year earlier, but due to the extensive visual effects requirement the serial  originally penned by C.E. Webber  was shelved. Louis Marks ended up reworking Webber's miniscule idea into the three-part ecological thriller that eventually aired in October and November 1964, and I have to say it is one of my favourite William Hartnell stories. Whether its long incubation contributed to the story's brilliance or not I don't know, but it seems that a year's hands on experience producing Doctor Who certainly imbued Verity Lambert and her production team with the confidence they needed to attempt such an ambitious project.

For a low-budget TV serial that aired in 1964, the production quality of Planet of Giants is out of this world. Monochrome may be forgiving, but even so director Richard Martin has managed to pull off some wonderful visual effects here - the clever use of scale models and camera trickery really helps to convey the difference in size between the real world and our miniaturised travellers, and best of all it doesn't look cheap and nasty like the C.S.O. catastrophes that would plague seventies Who!

Even more important than the visuals though is the story. Louis Marks' first Doctor Who script manages to find just the right balance between drama, spectacle and that ol chestnut, education. Ian and Barbara are at their schoolteacher best, educating the audience about pesticides and such like. The �baddie�, Forester, is the first real twentieth century villain that the Doctor and his companions ever come up against. He�s just a man; someone who is out to make a buck and damn the environment. In a sense, he is a much more disturbing protagonist than a Dalek or a Voord because he�s closer to home. This element of familiarity is one of �Planet of Giants� greatest strengths, and is something that would become a staple of Doctor Who in later years, particularly in the mostly-Earthbound Jon Pertwee era and also in the next serial, �The Dalek Invasion of Earth.� This story takes everyday things like a man in a suit, an insect, a cat and a plughole and turns them into the stuff of nightmares.

However, �Planet of Giants� does have one rather major flaw, although it isn�t one that can be blamed on the writer, cast or crew. For some reason, Donald Wilson, then Head of the BBC Script Department, decided to cut the serial down from four episodes to three two weeks before it aired. Obviously this resulted in the hasty editing of the final two episodes into the aptly named single episode, �Crisis,� and sadly a lot of the remaining material is a bit nonsensical, especially at the beginning of the third episode. How do the Doctor and Susan escape the water coming down the plughole, ey?

Regardless of its problems, �Planet of Giants� remains to this day one of my favourite first Doctor serials. The performances are all top-drawer to match an inspired production, and its brevity aside I can�t think of a bad word to say about it. Think Honey I Shrunk The Kids� but in black and white� and good.

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This is a fun little story. The basic plot about a ruthless businessman who commits crimes to protect his profits isn’t terribly engaging, but the twist of having the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan at an inch tall is. It’s fascinating and rather amusing to watch them struggling to survive the perils of a garden walkway and a laboratory sink. Perhaps more than any other Doctor Who story, this one taps into the imagination of childhood, where ordinary objects become extraordinary and perilous.

The production values are excellent. For the tiny budget that was available to the production crew, they turned out some pretty good giant ants and a reasonably convincing giant fly (and the thumping drumbeats that accompany Barbara’s discovery of the fly are the perfect accompaniment to that scene). The briefcase looks good, as does the giant match and pile of seeds. The phone is decent, though the phone cord isn’t too convincing. The lab sink and plunger are the best of the lot. 

The guest characters are not terribly inventive, but they work to keep the story moving. Forrester, the ruthless businessman who will lie and kill to try and avoid financial ruin is a character of pure cliché. But the story needs a villain to drive the plot, and with the size reduction of the crew being the primary focus, there’s really no time to develop more complex characters, so Farrow works in the context of the story. Smithers is a bit more interesting. He’s supposedly driven by concern for humanity, yet he’s fairly blasé about the death of Farrow, the government official sent to oversee the DN6 project. In the end he realizes just how destructive DN6 really is and the indications are that he would ultimately have abandoned the project. He’s not a sympathetic character though, just more realistic about consequences than the driven Forrester. Farrow is little more than a conscientious official doing his job, but he does come across as sympathetic, and his murder is a brutal thing, if creatively handled by the production team as an explosion heard by the tiny TARDIS crew.

The four regulars do their usual excellent acting job. They seem to be having fun with the script and the concept, and it had to be easier to act against giant props than it would have been to act against a bluescreen. Ian impresses as always with his adaptability and resourcefulness, and Barbara’s selflessness in wanting to stay and do something to stop the murderers rather than get back to the TARDIS immediately to cure her condition is admirable. I’m not quite sure why she’s so reluctant to tell Ian that she got insecticide on her hand though. And it’s nice to see the Doctor and Susan get one last outing together before Susan leaves the ship in the next story. She really is a lot more likeable than I’d remembered.

There is something that’s often overlooked about this story. The Doctor actually succeeds in returning Ian and Barbara to 20th century Earth, in the right year! “The War Machines” isn’t the first story set in present day surroundings, “Planet of Giants” is. Not that it does Ian and Barbara much good at an inch tall!

Overall, as I said in the beginning, this is a fun story. Nothing deep or weighty, just pure imagination. A good start to the season.

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'Planet of Giants' is a fairly forgotten story, this imbalance only redressed by its recent video release. Prior to seeing it for the first time some months ago, my only knowledge of it came from the Target Novelisation, which IMO is one of Dicks' two worst novelisations (the other being 'The Space Pirates'). Consequently, I'd decided it was crap – actually seeing it forced me to re-evaluate it. 

The most obvious feature of 'Planet of Giants' is of course the miniaturization of the TARDIS crew. In essence, this is pure gimmick, for which the rest of the story is thus tailored. Nevertheless, it is an effective gimmick, well realized thanks to the superb "giant" sets, especially the sink in Smithers' lab and the telephone, both of which are realistic and convincing. The fly is especially impressive for 1964, particularly when compared to the feeble realization of another giant fly years later in 'The Green Death'. The challenges presented by their diminutive size thus preoccupies the Doctor and his companions throughout, making for an interesting story, as they face danger not from Voords and Sensorites or historical villains, but from cats, flies, and insecticide. Not only the TARDIS crew, but also the actors themselves, rises to these challenges, convincing the viewer that the characters really have been shrunk. To add an extra dimension to this plot, we have the DN6 subplot, with the inch-tall travelers struggling to bring to justice Forrester and Smithers for the murder of Farrow. One of the main criticisms often leveled against 'Planet of Giants' is that it has a sparse plot, and whilst this is certainly true, it is I think entirely justifiably; coupling a miniscule story with a Dalek invasion or a complex historical plot would have been a logistical nightmare for the production team and certainly outside the confines of a mere three-parter. The DN6 subplot is basic, but effective – it presents a threat to the Doctor and his companions and gives them a goal, whilst limiting the story to (more or less) a single house and garden. Forrester, Smithers and Farrow are played with conviction, despite not really having much to do. Of the three, Smithers is the most interesting, as he is at least motivated by a overall desire to do benefit mankind, forcing him to struggle with is conscience in the wake of Farrow's death, and eventually accept that DN6 is too deadly to ever be marketed. The obviously conscientious Farrow is quickly dispatched, but again a three dimensional character based on what little we see of him. Forrester is the least successful, coming across as little more than a stereotypical ruthless businessman, but it is this ruthlessness that drives the plot due to his murder of Farrow and he thus fills an important role. The other two characters, Burt and Hilda Rowse, are again well acted during their brief appearances and again their brief scenes are crucial to the plot. Hilda is particularly annoying for me, since I loathe the kind of curtain-twitching busybody neighbour that she represents, but it is her nosiness that leads to Forrester being brought to well-deserved justice. The fact that a character only present in two scenes can still manage to frustrate me in this way is a sign of effective, if functional, characterisation. 

The main problem with 'Planet of Giants' is that it lacks a sense of any real danger. Despite being small enough to be at considerable risk from virtually everything that they encounter, the story fails to really convey a sense that the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara are in real peril, the Doctor in particular seeming to enjoy himself rather too much throughout. Even when climbing the drainpipe and almost being drowned in the sink, he gives the impression that he is merely out on a stroll, which robs the miniscule sub-plot of momentum – after the initial impact of the gimmick, the story is a bit too leisurely to be truly involving. Even when Barbara is poisoned by DN6, there is little sense of danger, despite the decent acting from both Russell and Hill. Her illness is established and gets progressively worse, but is suddenly sidelined in episode three, with both Barbara and the Doctor insisting that they have to bring Farrow's murder to the attention of the authorities, despite the enormous risks inherent in delaying their return to the TARDIS and whilst Barbara just flutters a hand now and again and looks vaguely tired. In short, the TARDIS crew should feel and seem more vulnerable. I've already mentioned that the difficulties inherent in the realization of the regulars' diminished circumstances dictate the limitations of the overall plot, but the story could still have been made more gripping within that plot. Had Ian and Barbara been, for example, been found and trapped by Smithers, it would have fitted easily into the overall story and added an extra dimension of excitement, as their rescue would have presented greater challenges to the Doctor. Instead, the impression is given that the Doctor and friends could have defeated Forrester and Smithers in their sleep, and this is not helped by the swift and (so far as we know) easy return to the TARDIS in episode three. And Susan, who I've barely mentioned here, gets nothing whatsoever to do, except stand around for the Doctor to explain things to, and bury her face pathetically in Barbara's shoulder when asked to give her opinion on a moral dilemma. 

Overall, 'Planet of Giants' is slim pickings, but not an entirely unsuccessful experiment. The gimmick works, and just about keeps the attention despite the increasingly flagging drama as the story progresses. It isn't the strongest season opener, but it isn't the weakest either (stand up 'Time and the Rani') and is basically a whimsical and (for Doctor Who at least) original chapter in the series.

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