Doctor Who: Planet of Giants

2

September 24, 2012 by Aidan

Title: Planet of Giants
Placement: 
Season 2, Serial 1
Broadcast Dates: 
31 October to 14 November, 1964
Writers:
 Louis Marks
Director: Mervyn Pinfield and Douglas Camfield
Characters: First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan

The Blurb: The TARDIS doors open accidentally while the ship is still in flight. Although they have arrived back on Earth in the 1960s, a time they have been trying to return to since they all met, the travelers soon realize that something is very wrong.

The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan discover that they have all been reduced in size and the world they are now exploring has dangers at every turn.

(Summary taken from Region 1 DVD Cover)

I wonder what sort of a world could produce an insect that size?

The Production: Watching Planet of Giants I think it is pretty apparent that the script was written to allow a visual effect to be used rather than the effect being used because a script required it. Though writer Louis Marks does give us an explanation as to how the Doctor and his friends come to be miniaturized, it is unconvincing at best and becomes more and more contrived with each additional scene.

These things haven’t been made bigger. We’ve been made smaller.

Still, once you get past the ludicrous explanations for how they initially shrink and later return to their normal size, the story is surprisingly engaging. The serial’s second episode, which features the least exposition, delivers the strongest action and the most intriguing challenges for the TARDIS crew to overcome but as a whole the story creates tension well and does a good job of exploring the dangers of being the size of an ant.

Cleverly Louis Marks has a second story play out in the background of the TARDIS crew’s adventures with a government officer being murdered by a shady businessman to prevent him from filing a report about a product he has invested heavily in. This works nicely as a way of expanding the cast but it also ends up tying nicely into the main plot with its revelations about the effects of the insecticide and the characters’ discovery of the victim.

I love that even when reduced to a tiny size, the Doctor and his friends are still able to bring a killer to justice and save the day while the realization that Barbara has been poisoned by the same chemicals adds a satisfying layer of tension to the second and third episodes. Sadly the resolution to that plot strand is weak, but it does keep things moving.

The Doctor and Susan are still in that sink, Barbara. And he’s turned the tap on.

Part of the reason this story succeeds is that the props and special effects really are of the highest quality. With the exception of some blown-up photographs used as backdrops, the world looks very convincing, especially once the characters find themselves indoors and interacting with familiar household objects.

As for the enlarged animals they come into contact with, the serial does benefit from most of them having died (and thus not needing to move). Still, when we do finally encounter a living insect in the second episode it proves surpisingly effective, moving quite realistically and seeming genuinely threatening. I am quite sure that it was a challenge to make a prop of that type appear to come to life but the surprise it gives makes it all worthwhile and the design work is phenomenal.

Other particularly effective props and sets include the enormous matchbook Ian climbs into, the briefcase and the sink with its threatening-looking drain and the enormous chain connecting the plug to the faucet. All of these manage to look quite realistic, selling the illusion that the characters have been shrunk.

Do  you know why I’m a success, Mr. Barrow? Because I never allow the word “can’t” to exist! There’s always a way. Always!

Still, as good as the effects work turns out to be, what really makes the story work are the excellent performances from each of the cast. All of the actors work hard to sell the reality of their situation, their expressions evoking a very real sense of fear as they take in the strangeness of their surroundings and the dangers around them.

I liked that this is one adventure that the crew really never intend to go on. As soon as they begin to figure out just what is going on they are resolved to return to the TARDIS but they end up getting dragged into events against their will. Given how hard it is to imagine why anyone would choose to risk exploring a world so much larger than them, this does help to make the story a little more believable.

I also liked that this opening adventure to the show’s second season plays on Ian and Barbara’s desire to return to their own place and time. Finally, after so many adventures, they end up at their chosen destination but are too small to safely enjoy it. It seems all too tragic, giving them a taste of home while making it impossible for them to stay.

Susan… This means we’re on Earth!

Though this is a very visually striking serial and features some good performances, I do think its pacing is quite uneven. At several points in the story the plot seems to unexpectedly jump forward, such as in the first episode when Ian suddenly is with the Doctor, Susan and Barbara having moments before been trapped in a matchbox. There are several points where it feels like cuts were made in the story but rather than improving the pacing, it leaves those scenes feeling rushed and incomplete.

What makes this particularly frustrating is that there are other moments in the episodes that could have benefited from being trimmed that remain in full. Still, at just three episodes long the story never outstays its welcome and when it is in full swing proves quite compelling.

In Review: If you can ignore some moments of exceedingly convoluted storytelling, Planet of Giants is surprisingly successful on a visual level. Everyday items like matchboxes and plug chains are wonderfully recreated on an enormous scale, making the world feel surprisingly real and dangerous to our heroes. Though it would be hard to label this one a ‘classic’, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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2 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Planet of Giants

  1. A story that doesn’t seem to get a lot of love, but I enjoyed it too. Obvious concepts, fitful pacing and inadequate production, yet still enjoyable, especially if you like the original cast. Most of the first dozen or so stories are among my Who favorites despite their shortcomings. I feel a sense of wonder and limitless possibilities from the show in that early phase. One shortcoming of that early era was a usually glaringly unequal treatment of the cast, which this story is a welcome exception to. In fact, some of the best parts wouldn’t be possible without its relative equality. A couple of favorite segments: when it deftly cuts between the Doctor / Barbara and Susan / Ian as both the Doctor and Susan reach the same conclusions individually; when the team is working on striking the match.

    Not sure if you knew, but:
    - The kernel of this story was among the first Dr Who story ideas.
    - This was shot as 4 part story and when it was felt the story was overlong, a full episode worth was crudely (at that time, working with video tape, including edits, was difficult) edited out. Unfortunately that episode worth was thrown away. A narrated “reconstruction” of sorts is included in the DVD to give an idea of it. The cuts are responsible for some of the jumps you commented on.

    • Aidan Brack says:

      Some very good points. I did know that the idea of miniaturizing the TARDIS crew was one of the pilot proposals – I am not sure quite why they were so certain the idea would be a winner but Marks does figure out a way to make it work.

      That sequence of the cutting between the Doctor/Barbara and Ian/Susan does work wonderfully well. As for the reconstruction, I haven’t watched it yet but it’s good to know that it fills in those gaps I was talking about. I look forward to watching it soon and seeing what was supposed to happen!

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