“Planet Of Giants” (season 2, episodes 1-3. Originally aired Oct. 31-Nov. 14, 1964)
Maybe the most interesting thing about this one is what it isn’t. As broadcast in 1964, “Planet Of Giants” is a respectable but not overly exciting artifact of the First Doctor era, talkier and duller than a single-sentence synopsis makes it sound: The TARDIS crew has to stop a murderer and avert an environmental holocaust while trying to survive in a world where they’ve been shrunk to one inch high, menaced by ants that now seem as big as wolves. It’s not lacking in ambitious ideas but never quite gels together, and a last-minute re-edit that condensed the original third and fourth episodes into one hurt the story more than it helped. (And I hardly need to point out the irony of that in a story about making the characters victims of traumatic miniaturization.) In the end, it’s something of an offbeat little curiosity, and not much more.
If history had gone a little differently, though, “Planet Of Giants” could have been a much bigger deal: It was supposed to have been Doctor Who’s first trip. As originally planned, after being confronted by his granddaughter’s teachers Ian and Barbara in “An Unearthly Child,” the Doctor would have kidnapped them by unexpectedly dematerializing the TARDIS—only to botch the takeoff and miniaturize them all. But the script fell through, so “100,000 B.C.” went into production instead, followed by the unexpected blockbuster of “The Daleks,” and the rest was history.
So what? Well, I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but it’s interesting to note that unlike about 99.9% of Doctor Who plots, “Planet Of Giants” doesn’t involve time travel at all. It’s set in the present day, and gets its science-fictional mojo not by jaunting into the past or the future, but sort of sideways. That physics-gone-crazy, our-magic-technology-is-actually-crazy-dangerous kind of story would become a minor but significant subset of Star Trek episodes, but Doctor Who never really got into it in a big way again, despite the original intentions of its creators. It’s implied in the very name of the TARDIS, after all. The acronym describes how the ship travels: through Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. Most Doctor Who shows are about time. “Planet Of Giants” is one of very few that’s about relative dimensions. If it had been produced in 1963 instead of 1964, it might have inspired more stories like it instead of being an anomaly.
Because series creator Sydney Newman particularly liked the miniaturization idea, what became “Planet Of Giants” simmered despite persistent problems and multiple scripts, finally getting cracked by writer Louis Marks, who added a murder subplot and a cutting-edge environmentalist angle, inspired by Rachel Carson’s then-new book Silent Spring, in which the real problem was not the giant insects but the insecticide that was killing them.. Filmed at the end of the first season, it was held over to be the kickoff for Doctor Who’s second year, just before the highly anticipated event that was “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth,” which would feature the emotional farewell of the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan. The timing of all that led directly to the editing fiasco that chopped up the second half of “Planet Of Giants,” but let’s table that for the time being and take a look at the three-episode, 73-minute version that actually went out over the airwaves in 1964.
We begin in the TARDIS, mid-flight, when something suddenly goes wrong. The console turns red-hot and the external doors fly open of their own accord, nearly causing a disaster. After a few moments of terror, the Doctor gets the ship under control. Unable to find the fault that caused their rough landing in the TARDIS mechanics, the Doctor suggests they go outside to explore instead. I love the way he cheerfully burbles to Ian about how they all were just nearly killed: “The strange thing is that we all came out of it unscathed. It's most puzzling! It's a big mystery, my boy! Come along.” There’s something quintessentially Doctorish about that line: It perfectly captures the recklessness of William Hartnell’s version of the character, and would sound completely in character for Matt Smith’s version too.
Outside, they think they’ve landed in a rocky canyon on yet another alien world, this one populated by giant worms and three-foot-long ants, all mysteriously dead. But soon they come across giant versions of ordinary objects like a matchbook and a seed packet manufactured in the English town of Norwich, and the truth is revealed. After a year of bouncing around time and space, the Doctor has finally brought Ian and Barbara back home to 1960s London, but thanks to the TARDIS malfunction, at the wrong size. The camera pulls back from the TARDIS, out of the “canyon,” and in a splendid moment that shifts us out of the extraordinary into the mundane and back again, reveal that we’re actually at an everyday English house fronted by a walkway made of paving stones.
At this point, the Doctor apparently knows enough about what happened to fix the whole size problem, because the question of getting them back to normal is dropped. Instead, the action is driven by the early Doctor Who formula of separating the main characters from the TARDIS so that they’re forced to deal with the strange world around them to survive. Most pressingly, that means having to rescue Ian when he’s unknowingly picked up by a normal-size human and carried off, relative miles away, to the house’s front porch. But it also means figuring out why all the insects they meet are dead or dying—and how it’s connected to the dead man on the porch, whose face looms above them like a ghastly Mount Rushmore.
The corpse is Farrow, a government official who’s been testing a new insecticide called DN6—on his own lawn rather than in the safety of a lab, for some reason, which is why all the insects are dead. He’s just made the mistake of telling a ruthless businessman named Forester that he won’t OK DN6 for manufacture because it’s too effective. It kills everything it touches, including beneficial insects and eventually, if in heavy use, larger creatures too. But Forester hears only the sound of his money flying away, so he shoots Farrow and prepares to cover up the murder. To do this, he dragoons his colleague Smithers, the scientist who invented DN6, into helping him cover up the murder via a combination of bullying and lies to make it sound like Farrow was corrupt himself. Because Smithers is naively idealistic about DN6‘s potential to end world hunger, he’s reluctantly willing to be an accomplice in Farrow’s death for what he thinks is the greater good.
Those of us playing along at home have all the answers to the murder mystery much earlier than the main cast, because the story cuts back and forth between the big and small worlds. The TARDIS crew is hampered by their size: To their much-smaller ears, the frequencies of normal human speech sounds like low rumbling thunder, so they can’t understand what’s happening above them even though they’re eyewitnesses. And the big folks never even realize the little ones are there. That’s part of the reason the story feels so under-dramatic: The main cast and the villain never interact directly, and sometimes barely seem to be part of the same story at all, like we’re switching channels back and forth between old episodes of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Marks’ script is constantly undercutting its own dramatic potential in subtle but pervasive ways. The overly long sequence in which the main cast lifts a giant telephone handset to try to call the police is a near-total waste of time since the Doctor has already pointed out that big people can’t hear them. I suspect the only reason it stayed in the final edit was because the prop was expensive. The sheer killing power of DN6 effectively nails the intended environmental message, but also means that most of the animals the Doctor and companions meet are already dead—sure, they look creepy and unsettling, but there’s no possibility of a memorable action scene. Those that are still alive aren’t as menacing as they could be: The fly that surprises Barbara simply flies away and dies offscreeen, and the cat that sneaks up on them gets bored and wanders off. Compared with, say, the hero of The Incredible Shrinking Man desperately fending off a spider with a sewing needle, the animal encounters in “Planet Of Giants” might as well just have been with a photograph of a fly instead.
And when Barbara is poisoned by DN6 herself, the plot twist doesn’t drive home the urgency and danger the way it could have because the script insists on Barbara keeping her illness secret from the others—making her behave like a noble martyr for no good reason, while making Ian in particular look like a clueless dolt for not noticing anything’s wrong with her even as he warns her that “whatever killed those insects could easily kill us.”
Despite the problems, there is quite a bit that works well here. Even though I found Barbara’s silence about her situation a frustrating and unnecessary plot-dragger, Jacqueline Hill does a great job of conveying the determination to be brave in the face of her growing exhaustion, terror, and nausea. And Alan Tilvern makes a suitably nasty, cold-eyed killer as the single-minded Forester. The visual effects and set design are particularly effective in creating a convincing miniature landscape, at least by the standards of 1960s British TV—it doesn’t hold a candle to similarly themed Hollywood movies like Incredible Shrinking Man (made 8 years earlier) or Dr. Cyclops (made 25 years earlier), but their budgets weren’t exactly the same size.
I mentioned earlier that this serial was originally one episode longer. That seems a little dumbfounding if you’re judging it only by the final broadcast version, which seems padded and slow as it is. The truth is a little more complicated, and and to explore that it’s well worth checking out the reconstruction of the original edit on BBC Video’s recently released “Planet Of Giants” DVD. Bare-bones but assembled with care, it brings the original full-length script back to life by splicing the broadcast version into a combination of new animation and old film footage, with newly recorded dialogue by the two surviving cast members, William Russell (Ian) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan), and new actors standing in for the deceased. (John Guilor, in particular, pulls off an impressive impersonation of Hartnell, down to the characteristic hmm?s and eh?s that pepper his sentences.)
Rough though it is, it should help rehabilitate the reputation of “Planet Of Giants”—it’s certainly not a lost classic, but it is much better at four parts than three. Two things are immediately clear: First, the BBC exec who insisted that the story was talky, slow-moving, and undercooked was … well, he was still pretty much right. There’s not much new animation in the reconstruction because it’s so dialogue-heavy and lacking in action sequences that repurposed footage of characters standing around talking is nearly as good and surely much cheaper. The only real way to have fixed that inertness in a supposedly finished serial in 1964, though, would have been to kick it all the way back to the writer, using as much of the already-shot material as possible while revising the script to punch up the action and beef up the story. That wasn’t an option, though, because it would have meant delaying “Planet Of Giants” until later in season two—an impossibility, since Susan would be gone after “Dalek Invasion Of Earth,” which was the next serial in the pipeline. Assuming you’re a BBC exec who thinks the story is disastrously dull and might lose the show’s audience just before the crucial tentpole event of “Dalek Invasion”—which seems like a skittish overreaction to me—then you either have to kill “Planet Of Giants” entirely, or commit radical surgery so at least it’d be shorter.
The other thing that’s immediately clear from the reconstruction is that in the name of speeding up the pace, the single-episode edit cut out far too much of what had actually worked, blunting the dramatic and emotional impact, and creating plot holes and making the story logic harder to follow. In the reconstruction, important plot points and character motivations are clearer, the final resolution is stronger, and the environmental message Marks had painstakingly included hits home with much greater impact. Sure, there’s filler too—the sequence in which the TARDIS crew slowly deciphers the chemical formula for DN6 from Farrow’s giant notebook is agonizing, and any additional time spent on the yokelish local cop and busybody telephone operator is too much. But Smithers’ character arc is much more satisfying, as he moves from dealing with his panic and confusion about being caught up in Farrow’s murder by trying to pretend he’s not really involved, to coming to terms with the fact that both his business partner and his insecticide are deadly and poisonous. It’s much clearer that he’s not an evil man himself, but just can’t see the bigger picture.
And that parallels the Doctor’s own important character-building moment here, when he insists that they have a responsibility to try to do something to stop DN6 rather than just flee back to the TARDIS, even though they’re an inch high. The Doctor of season one would have had to be convinced by one of his companions to take action, which he points out himself: “Aren’t I usually the one to condemn meddling? To urge that we leave well enough alone?” It’s an important step forward in the growth of the Doctor from irascible, unreliable coward to someone who will fight for what’s right, and it’s a shame that the broadcast edit chopped out the clever little implicit embedded there, that it was only after the Doctor was shrunk into almost nothing that he could decide to stand tall.
• Susan repeats her idiosyncratic habit, first seen in “An Unearthly Child,” of referring to the Doctor’s timeship as just “TARDIS,” rather than “the TARDIS.” Does it mean anything? Probably not, but for some reason I find that little quirk endearing.
• The Doctor and Susan offhandedly mention a previous incident they were caught in involving an air raid and a zeppelin—apparently, either before “An Unearthly Child” or in some untelevised adventure after picking up Ian and Barbara, they landed in the middle of World War One sometime around 1915, when Germany was routinely sending dirigibles on bombing runs into England.