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Doctor Who: Planet of the Giants

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
BBC Worldwide
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Mervyn Pinfield
Douglas Camfield
William Hartnell
Carol Ann Ford
William Russell
Jacqueline Hill
Bottom Line: 
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The original story idea of having the first Doctor and his companions shrunk down to inch-high size, had been mooted as a possibility ever since the programme’s earliest conception, but never quite succeeded in getting beyond first draft stage until the time “Planet of Giants” finally hit British TV screens at the beginning of the series’ second run of stories which started, after a six week break in transmission, from October 1964. By that time, the concept, presumably influenced by the success of the 1955 movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man”, had been toyed with at least twice before and mentioned in the original ‘format guide’ for the show, where it was an option that could well have formed the basis for the first ever adventure for William Hartnell’s Doctor and his companions Susan (Carol Ann Ford), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian (William Russell), had it not been for the objections of BBC Head of Drama and DOCTOR WHO co-creator Sydney Newman. Strong among his reasons for initially mothballing the idea were the evident technical limitations imposed by the BBC series’ confinement at the time to the cramped surroundings of Lime Grove’s Studio D. “Planet of Giants” illustrates, though, just how far the production side of the show had come in just a year: Raymond Cusick’s set designs for the story, which were now able to benefit from the extra space afforded by the more expansive studios of BBC Television Centre, still impress today with their vivid realisation of the distorted world our heroes first find themselves in the middle of when they emerge from the TARDIS after a malfunction during its materialisation (after a previous adventure in 18th Century Revolutionary France), to find themselves trapped within the cracks of some crazy paving, which turns out to lead up  a driveway to the door of a country cottage in the South of England in the year 1964 rather than the alien planet they first assume themselves to have arrived on.

The reveal itself -- that the travellers are in fact finally back on Earth in Ian and Barbara’s present day, but miniaturised and surrounded by giant-sized, discarded matchboxes and seed packets and the like (and soon to be menaced by the neighbourhood moggy) -- is one of the most brilliantly executed examples of direction working in harmony with production design to be seen during the show’s early years, vividly illustrating the sense of wonder and uniqueness DOCTOR WHO was intended by producer Verity Lambert to be all about. These were still experimental early days for televised drama, when the show was often attempting to explore original new methods for bringing action to the screen in an inventive way; television was still a relatively novel phenomenon, and the show’s associate producer (and director on this story) Mervyn Pinfield, who came to the series from a background in weekly repertory theatre and had directed some of the first ever live drama broadcasts from the BBC’s initial home at Alexandra Palace in the 1950s, was also a member of a group of directors renowned for bringing stage techniques to the new medium. His innovative method of using longer takes and moving the camera to investigate and reveal new aspects of Cusick’s impressively detailed sets really works well here, in the first episode especially, and the contrast in style with the latter half of episode three when one of the show’s great directors, Douglas Camfield, takes over (for the first time), and introduces a pacier tone, with an emphasis on close-ups and more frequent cuts between the actors, makes this story an especially interesting example of the series’ ability to constantly evolve its format and expand its remit through technical and artistic innovation behind the scenes.  

The most notable thing about “Planet of Giants” though, is the way in which writer Louis Marks so cleverly and subtly tweaks the standard adventure narrative format in order to address a then-current contemporary issue with it … although it’s still executed within the gentlest traditions of BBC paternalism, of course. Marks, unusually, came to TV drama from an background in academia (he had a PhD in Renaissance Italian politics) and after leaving Oxford to edit a literary journal, suddenly made this surprising career detour into TV -- whereupon he wrote for many classic shows including “Danger Man” and “Doomwatch”.  At the time he was commissioned to write this serial for DOCTOR WHO, Marks had recently been reading Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring”, in which the influential social critic first ignited public concern about what she considered to be the widespread overuse of pesticides and their unintended polluting side-effects on the environment and wildlife. A text widely credited with actually galvanising the environmental movement, “Silent Spring” also claimed that pesticides were responsible for harming the health of humans, and that the Chemical industry widely engaged in misinformation in order to cover up the worst facts about such issues. The debate about the effects of DDT in particular -- credited on the one hand with helping to prevent widespread starvation in Africa, but also increasingly being seen as a polluter of the environment as it accumulated further up the food chain -- was at the heart of this debate between science, social policy and industry.

“Planet of Giants” engages with all of these issues, but manages to do so in a charmingly non-didactic manner. One might see the story as belonging in much the same tradition as “The Green Death” from the Jon Pertwee years under producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrence Dicks – except that Letts’ political leanings were always a lot more explicit in their on-screen manifestations. Here, Marks makes his point simply, by putting the series’ miniaturised regular cast in much the same helpless predicament as the insects being exterminated all around them by the lethal DN6 insecticide: an ‘everlasting’ pest exterminator that is just about to be exposed at the beginning of the tale as a danger to the whole of wildlife, and not just the pests it was originally designed to destroy, by placid ‘Man from the Ministry’ Arnold Farrow (Frank Crawshaw), in his upcoming Government report -- which he conveniently brings with him in a briefcase for a meeting at a remote country cottage with the substance’s developer Professor Smithers (Reginald Barratt) and his industry backer Forrester (Alan Tilvern).

While our heroes continue to explore their environment in their miniaturised form, encountering numerous examples of the insecticide’s unintended side-effects -- such as a dead earthworm, a perished ant surrounded by its egg brood and a bumble bee that drops dead from the air and only narrowly avoids hitting them all (all of which are encounters that also provide them with numerous opportunities for emphasising how important each creature is to the health of the general environment, and therefore to fulfil the programme’s educational remit as well!) -- a crime thriller plotline plays out completely separately in the normal sized world, after the industrialist Forrester murders Farrow, the kindly Government scientist who’s threatening to terminate the potential production of DN6 and who therefore threatens the profits of Forrester’s chemicals company. Forrester persuades Professor Smithers to help him in the ensuing cover-up without telling him about the harmful side-effects Farrow discovered just before his death, and so they set about plotting to dump the body and fabricate the dead man’s report.

This is the only DOCTOR WHO story in which the series regulars never actually get to interact with the guest cast at all during any stage of the proceedings! In the later 1968 Irwin Allen produced fantasy series “Land of the Giants”, a similar plotline plays out in one particular episode when the perennially miniaturised heroes of that series witness a murder being committed and set about attempting to clear the name of the person framed for the crime by contriving to take a photograph of the real murderer altering the crime scene. They contrive to operate the victim’s discarded camera -- which, to them, is a huge contraption – to photograph the act which they then attempt to bring to the attention of the authorities. When the Doctor and his companions stumble upon the body of the dead scientist (which is an effect crudely achieved here simply by projecting a giant still of the scene, which the actors then pass in front of), it at first looks as if a version of that same story is just about to be anticipated -- but Marks’ screenplay instead emphasises throughout the protagonists’ complete detachment from the normal sized world, and their inability to influence what goes on in it. The conversations of Forrester and Smithers, for instance, sound to their ears like low-pitched rumbling, and when they try to call for help (after spending a good deal of time figuring out how to lift a telephone receiver on a table inside the cottage) the exchange operator cannot hear their tinny voices, no matter how hard they shout in unison; the story instead lays stress on how the Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian are suddenly put at the mercy of a world of everyday phenomena that would normally be perfectly innocuous: for one thing, a house cat strolling past on the lawn becomes a source of great danger; and when Smithers and Forrester go into the cottage’s lab to wash their hands after having just carried Farrow’s body from the pathway outside, the fact that the Doctor and Susan have been forced previously to hide in the sink’s overflow pipe, makes the simple act of pulling a plug out of the sink and watching as the water drains away, a terrifying cliff-hanger to end an episode on!

In the end it’s the nosey exchange operator Hilda (Rosemary Johnson) and her officious village policeman husband Bert (Fred Ferris) who set about, as a couple, bringing the callous Forrester to justice, while the Doctor and co only manage to influence events in a minimal fashion after Bert and Hilda have already deduced that something is up (thanks to Forrester’s poor attempts to impersonate the dead man on the telephone when Hilda rings the cottage to check everything is okay because of the telephone receiver dislodged by the inch-high TARDIS crew earlier) when they attempt to start a fire by directing a gas jet from a lab bench at a can of insecticide, which then explodes in Forrester’s face just as Bert arrives to apprehend him.

Before that, the main source of drama, from the perspective of the Doctor and his friends, revolves around Barbara’s contamination after she touches some grains of wheat on the lab bench which had been coated in the lethal DN6 spray during an experiment. Barbara’s reluctance to own up to having done something so foolishness is beautifully played by Jacqueline Hill, who vacillates between denial of the situation in hand and embarrassment at her thoughtlessness, and thus irrationally refrains from telling anyone of her companions about her life threatening situation; and although many viewers often find it odd that Ian doesn’t notice Barbara’s plight, even though he’s standing right there when she picks one of the grains up -- and then even asks him for his handkerchief to wipe off the sticky substance – Ian’s obliviousness is  actually a really astute way of paralleling the science teacher’s absorption in the problem he’s working on at the time to the detriment of what’s happening around him, with Smithers’ own particular scientific tunnel vision when it comes to DN6 and Farrow’s convenient death. There’s a beautifully written scene in which Smithers notes that he’s not too distressed by what’s happened to Farrow because he’s seen millions starve in Africa before now, and that’s what got him into this pesticide research business in the first place: the possibility of making a difference and potentially saving millions of lives. This is a deeply ironic but succinct way of demonstrating how those committed to the noble aims behind much scientific research can become blinkered and unwilling to face countervailing evidence, to the point where they can end up actually becoming corrupt; and as Smithers comes to admit to himself that Forrester has been lying to him and that DN6 is in fact too lethal to be allowed on the market, so Ian eventually comes to realise what has actually happened to Barbara to make her so sick.

William Hartnell, now nine stories and one year into his tenure, is clearly relishing the role of the Doctor at this stage, and is by now routinely embellishing it with an armoury of eccentric old codger mannerisms which especially bring to the fore the Doctor’s alien curmudgeonly nature: one minute he’s beside himself with anger when the TARDIS doors open accidently during materialisation, but the next he reacts only with mild, quizzical nonchalance when Susan becomes hysterical after miniature Ian is unwittingly carried away in Farrow’s matchbox. By now, the Doctor has fully assumed his role of wise explorer, who, in this case, is determined to see that justice is done at all costs and the insecticide menace remedied (even though he and the others are able only to play a minor role in the drama and are otherwise too busy attempting just to survive their hostile environment for most of the story to make much of a difference to anything). In this story, William Russell also gets to remind us of Ian Chesterton’s science teaching background and Jacqueline Hill is the star of the show with her vulnerable but resilient portrayal of Barbara Wright, who nevertheless suffers the most from the protagonists’ inability to affect their destinies in their newly miniaturised state. Only Susan is short-changed by the script, and is stuck with the kind of childish histrionics that made Carol Ann Ford eventually ask to leave the show -- which she finally did in the very next story.

Otherwise, this is the perfect showcase for the original cast line-up. Dudley Simpson provided his very first incidental score for this story, and it’s interesting to note the vast difference in style to the kind of work he was later known for producing in the seventies. Although the flat, painted backgrounds and back projected stills used for the large-scale world are laughable, the serial does achieve a surprisingly believable imitation of a scaled-up environment at times, especially with its huge sink & plug props, and the giant telephone and matchbox, all designed by Raymond Cusick; authentic details such as the giant corks the TARDIS crew use to lift the phone receiver and the enlarged grains of wheat in the test dish on the lab bench, really help to sell the illusion that the cast have been reduced in size, and the results often look equally as good as the much more expensive major studio produced US series “Land of the Giants”. Dalek designer Raymond Cusick particularly excelled himself with his rostra mounted set designs, which bring the drama to life magnificently. “Planet of Giants” is certainly an oddity, and it had its fair share of production hiccups (as are extensively documented in the DVD extras) but it is arguably also a standard-bearer for the series’ developing  philosophy, illustrating it at one of the most important junctures in the show’s history: after spending the first series methodically swapping back and forth between educational historical adventures set on Earth and science fiction stories involving outlandish aliens in space, this was the first story to be set in a recognisable version of present day ‘60s England to be broadcast since the very first episode, but also the first to expand the series’ scope by incorporating fantasy elements alongside a contemporary crime story. And this was the first inkling that the series’ previously simple format was potentially infinitely extendable, and could do a lot more than it had hitherto been used to accomplish. “Planet of Giants” attains an especially magical quality it seems, and reminds us of a time when all such ideas were new and when directors such as Douglas Camfield were inventing the visual language we all now take for granted.

Flawed and occasionally old-fashioned though it is, this story is still a favourite from the show’s early years and fans will be delighted to see that it gets an interesting make-over for its DVD release. The original video elements have been wiped of course, but all three episodes exist on 16 mm film copies and have been spruced-up nicely by the restoration folk. As an added bonus, you even get an Arabic soundtrack as an extra option on the audio menu alongside a commentary which, under the moderation of composer Mark Ayres, concentrates on the technical side of the production with vision mixer Clive Doig, special sounds creator Brian Hodgson, make-up supervisor Sonia Markham and floor assistant David Tilley. Everybody here agrees that none of the crew ever thought the programme would last more than a year when it first started broadcasting and, as someone who was there at the start, Markham states that she considers all other Doctors after William Hartnell to be imposters -- although she also mentions that having to keep an eye on the star’s wig to make sure the hairline wasn’t showing was a perpetual headache for the make-up department! This commentary provides a decent overview of what it was like to work on serial drama for the BBC in the mid-sixties, and is well supported by the usual highly detailed accompanying text based production notes, where you can learn everything from who was contracted to mend the TARDIS’s central control column when it broke during rehearsals, to accounts of the Doctor’s original scripted lines, as opposed to the often mangled version of them Hartnell actually delivers on screen! We also learn the fascinating fact that Carol Ann Ford wore her own pink checked blouse for this story, and that she wore the same outfit again when she appeared as a guest star in a later episode of “Public Eye” in 1965!

One of the intriguing facts about this three part story, which audiences at the time would have been unaware of when it was first transmitted in 1964, was that it was originally written and filmed as a four-part adventure. A memo from Donald Wilson, BBC Head of Serials, reveals that the original version was considered too slow-moving to be used as the story with which to kick start the new series, but the fact that Carol Ann Ford was to be seen leaving the show in the next adventure, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, meant that it was also impossible to swap the broadcast order without messing up the series continuity -- despite the fact that the latter half of “Planet of Giants”, according to Wilson, couldn’t sustain its running time. The solution was to cut episodes three and four together, upping the pace and concentrating on action rather than talk; but losing a fair bit of sometimes quite interesting material in the process, including a sequence judged too upsetting for children by series producer Verity Lambert (in truth this might well be the real reason for the decision to cut the episodes together) in which the cat who was earlier seen menacing the TARDIS crew in the garden is shown dying from the effects of the pesticide poisoning.

Nothing remains of the two original versions of these episodes, but armed with the shooting scripts which do survive, Ian Levine has created a reconstruction of them for this DVD release which gives us some idea of what they would have been like, and allows us to experience those excised scenes, at least in some form, for the first time. The results, it has to be said, are often quite eccentric: Levine has brought in surviving original cast members William Russell and Carol Ann Ford, and employed a troupe of actors to impersonate the rest of the now-deceased cast in order to record all the cut and missing scenes. Then, after carefully degrading the recordings to make them fit in tonally with the surrounding audio from the surviving episode, those scenes have been slotted into what would have been their original position in the story by manipulating some original footage and, when necessary (such as with the scene involving the death of the cat), using CGI to create the missing visual material. It’s an odd experience, and the episodes often look like some misbegotten attempt by Ed Wood to direct a couple of episodes of mid-sixties DOCTOR WHO -- with the same endlessly re-occurring footage cropping up again and again in a variety of different contexts -- sometimes only moments after it has already just been seen – but with different dubbed audio.  Nevertheless, voice actors John Guilor (who does a most impressive job of impersonating the first Doctor’s vocal mannerisms), and Katherine Hadoke (nee Mount) who plays Barbara Wright in the reconstituted scenes; and also Toby Hadoke (Forrester), Paul Jones (Smithers), Patricia Merrick (Hilda) and Steve Johnson (Bill)  -- all execute their roles with persuasive vigour.

An eight minute featurette, “Rediscovering the Urge to Live”, places the endeavour in some sort of context with the aid of interviews with Levine and DVD features producer Ed Stradling, who each talk about their reasons for pursuing this project rather than providing the DVD with the usual ‘making of’ documentary (basically, almost everyone but a handful involved with either starring in or making the original serial is now dead!). The reconstruction’s cast members are also interviewed, alongside footage from the recording session where we get to see, for instance, Carol Ann Ford and William Russell giving Guilor advice on how to better reflect Hartnell’s way of ‘being’ the Doctor.

Also included is “Suddenly Susan” -- a lovely interview with Carol Ann Ford recorded in 2003 in which the actress who played the first Doctor’s otherworldly granddaughter Susan, talks about her time on the series. Ford relates how her character was originally envisioned as a stylish, Avengers girl-like telepath with a wonderful wardrobe and an otherworldly air when the part was first offered her, Susan’s oddness being intended to convey the fact that, although she was nominally only fifteen, in reality she might be hundreds of years old. But the role ended up being that of a rather more conventional ‘schoolgirl’, designed as an identification figure for similarly aged teenage viewers who was destined to spend most of her time screaming and being chased by monsters. Ford did however get to have her character’s hair styled for her by Vidal Sassoon and at least one of her tops was designed by Mary Quant! Ford talks fondly of William Hartnell and how he sometimes almost forgot that she wasn’t really his fifteen-year-old granddaughter and was prone to scolding her for ‘frittering away her monies’ on fashion! She talks about the weekly studio routine and about her recollections of the show’s first pioneering young producer (and one of the few females in the job at the time) Verity Lambert; also she mentions her first encounter with a Dalek during rehearsals for the first ever Dalek story, and how they seemed comical rather than scary until they acquired ‘the voice’. Ford remembers how her life at the time became something like being a pop star: recognised wherever she went. Finally, she lists some of her favourite stories and memories from making the series (the first full costume historical adventure “Marco Polo” is one of them – now only existent in the form of an audio recording) and talks about the manner in which she eventually left the series, recalling how Susan was left to start a new life with a strange man she’d barely even met when her grandfather left her on Earth in the aftermath of the Dalek invasion, and how her exit rather skated over the fact that she was really only meant to be fifteen years old!

“The Lambert Tapes” is another 11 minute featurette, also taken from the 2003 documentary “The Story of Doctor Who” and this time featuring an interview with original show producer Verity Lambert who talks about the qualities she was looking for when casting the original Doctor. The character had to be an anti-establishment figure – kindly, authoritative, but also unpredictable and rather like ‘a grown up child’ is Lambert’s assessment of what she was aiming for. She talks about William Hartnell’s commitment to the character and gives a rundown of her own views on the subsequent Doctors. She also talks about the difficulties of actually getting something presentable on the air in the first place, with only a £2,000 pound budget per episode with which to pay the actors and make the sets, as well as having initially to make the programme in the cramped and old-fashioned Lime Grove studios.

Finally, the disc includes PDF files of episode listings and a reader’s letter in the form of a poem asking when the programme was due to return from its season break. There’s a page-long article from 1964 summarising the Doctor’s previous adventures from the first series for those potentially new viewers who might be unfamiliar with the show before the return of a new series, and the disc also contains images of Raymond Cusick’s original design plans for the story.

“Planet of Giants” is a charming early experiment in the show’s history which showed the production team fearlessly branching out, now that they were freed of the constraints previously imposed on them by the inadequacies of BBC Lime Grove. The original line-up is caught at the height of its powers here, despite the evident problems with the story that led to it being truncated to only three episodes. Nevertheless, what remains is worth revisiting to experience a show in transition, still clinging to the old-fashioned template of paternalistic educational storytelling, but also starting to forge ahead, almost despite itself, into new areas of drama which would enable the show to survive in the future, far beyond the life-span those originally involved in bringing it to the screen could have envisioned. A nostalgic ‘60s televisual treat.

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