The strange world of Irwin Allen is one of fantastical adventures in time and space. A world where exotic lost civilisations are rediscovered living in remote corners of the planet, or where monsters from Earth’s distant past return to wreak havoc in the present day. A world in which even the apparently mundane and the ordinary can come to be seen from some strange, unsettling new angles, and large scale disaster -- sometimes on a global scale -- might descend at any moment. And through all of it, only a makeshift family of flawed but clean-cut and wholesome individuals can come together, restore order and promote understanding and fair minded values.
Irwin Allen began his career as a journalist, later became a documentary and feature film producer in the ‘50s, and was intimately involved in TV production during the medium’s infancy. In the 1970s his name became associated with a series of blockbuster disaster movies, most notably “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure”. But arguably his most lasting legacy belongs to a run of action and fantasy-based TV series which he produced and sometimes wrote for and directed during the 1960s. “Land of the Giants” was the last of these ‘60s shows – ending its run after two series in 1970 – and is possibly the most outlandish, surreal and exotic of them all.
The series tells of the extraordinary adventures that befall the surviving crew and passengers of a small sub-orbital transport spaceship called the ‘Spindrift’, in the year 1983 (a retro-‘60s version of the 1980s as amusingly envisioned from the vantage point of a pre-moonwalking America). On a routine Los Angeles to London sub-space flight, the craft encounters an anomalous space storm phenomenon that causes it to crash-land on a strange planet that looks exactly like 1960s Earth. Its inhabitants look and dress exactly like 1960s Americans and have the same level of technology at their disposal (which would seem to make them far less advanced than our futuristic protagonists from the ‘1980s’), yet everybody and everything -- man, animal and plant alike – has been scaled up to a size that makes the inhabitants at least 70 feet tall in comparison with earthmen!
Of course, it could be that the inhabitants of the Spindrift have been miniaturised when passing through the storm into what appears to be a parallel dimension, but if that’s the case then the same process has clearly also affected the numerous other travellers from Earth who have previously disappeared and, it eventually transpires over the run of 51 episodes, also ended up on this hostile world, where giants seem to have an overwhelming desire to capture and cage such ‘little people’, to the extent of placing a large reward for their capture. Our heroes are trapped in a world of curious giants, forced to hide from a society that wants to capture them and harness their advanced space travelling technology, perhaps in order to travel to Earth where the giants assume they would be able to rule like kings. The opening episode sees the bewildered crew menaced by a child who thinks their spacecraft is a toy, hunted by a pet cat, and abducted by two slow-moving scientist giants who fasten them to a desk with sticky tape and poke and prod at them with a pencil.
“Land of the Giants” was at the time the most expensive TV shows on the air. Broadcast by the ABC network, it cost $250,000 per episode and must have caused one heck of a headache for the production designers who had to make all the sets scaled to match the correct difference in size between the earthmen and the ‘giants’. It’s also definitely one of the most surreal, dreamlike and amusingly bizarre series of all time – pitched halfway between a child’s fairy tale and a science fiction show. Even today, it has a tone quite unlike any other series in the Irwin Allen cannon, incorporating elements from all the producer’s previous obsessions, such as “The Lost World” and “Lost in Space” and combining them in a concept that allows for an attractive child-like “Alice in Wonderland” penchant for wild, colourful fantasy. It’s a show that is easy to pick holes in for its lack of believable continuity and the complete absence of any real character development. And don’t start with the crazy physics of the situation --it never bothered Jonathon Swift, after all. The episodes were designed to be shown in any order but still result in numerous inconsistencies occurring between episodes; there’s never any real sense of a believable alien world being discovered by the viewer over time: instead we are presented with a bright, attractively designed series of stand-alone episodes that work best in isolation, hardly any of them needing to refer much to what has gone before, and none of them really worrying too much about developing a consistent picture of the giants’ world.
View a great heap of episodes in close succession and you also soon notice that practically every episode has almost the same plot and relies on a limited number of narrative tropes that simply get rearranged in varying combinations across each episode of the series: two or more protagonists are usually captured in every episode and have to be rescued in an operation that requires much scaling of mountainous furniture (with a homemade miniature armoury consisting of an axe made from a section of razor blade tied to a matchstick, and a grappling hook made from a giant’s safety pin attached to a piece of string); the giants hatch a multitude of cunning plot to capture the little people, and one of the group invariably falls out with the others over how best to respond to it; giants blackmail or otherwise persuade the little people to help them in some scheme or other, usually requiring smuggling them unseen into a top secret facility of some kind, etc.; and sometimes the crew of the Spindrift encounter other little people from Earth, but come into conflict with them for various different reasons, and the two groups have to learn to work together in order to survive.
There is also an incongruous element of contemporary Cold War paranoia discernable amongst the outlandish mix of action, suspense and fairy tale colour, which crops up in many an episode: a few of the surviving little people that our heroes encounter from previous crashed ships from Earth assume that the Spindrift crew are themselves part of a plot by the giants to trap them. In “The Weird World” the crew of the Spindrift encounter a raggedy surviving captain from a flight that went missing years before, who, rather than being glad to see them, doesn’t trust them at all, and assumes they’re in league with the giants. In “The Lost Ones”, the crew meet a gang of delinquents led by a violent teenager called Nick, who once again believes they are all spies for the giants. In later episodes we see why there is such mistrust between scattered groups of surviving little people: a number of stories feature little people who have been brainwashed into collaborating with the giants, or giants who have been shrunk to the size of little people in order to lead the tiny fugitives into a trap. In “The Golden Cage” the gang find a beautiful woman in a giant bottle -- left out as a lure to the more red-blooded members of the group -- and discover that she has been brainwashed as part of an behavioural experiment, allowed to live in a luxurious miniature house as long as she collaborates with her captors and accepts their control over her destiny. In “The Flight Plan” they’re hoodwinked by a survivor who turns out really to be a giant who’s been shrunk to mini-size in order to lure them into yet another trap. The giant society itself seems to be some kind of totalitarian state despite otherwise resembling the United States right down to the make of its cars. In one episode, the crew help a political dissident destroy a document that contains the names of his associates and which is in the possession of the giants and kept inside a top security unit.
And yet, despite a limited number of plot permutations, the show is a real joy to watch, requiring no work on the part of the viewer as each man-against-giant adventure slides down effortlessly -- a family dose of vivid colour, attractive visuals and simple, familiar storylines. It’s like the TV equivalent of an illegal hallucinogen, in which the stories become increasingly wild and off the wall as the series goes on, presumably to make up for the increasing overfamiliarity of its central concept. Soon the stories in which giants are miniaturised are accompanied by others in which the Spindrift crew’s pet dog Chipper is made gigantic, or captured and displayed in a circus as ‘the smallest dog in the world’; and by stories such as one in which our fun-sized heroes are captured by gipsies and sold to a circus!
“Land of the Giants” features a solid group of central characters who take on the role of a family very quickly, much like that of the family in “Lost in Space”. Gary Conway perfectly fits the bill as the immaculately coifed, square jawed hero, Captain Steve Burton: the pilot of the Spindrift who very quickly becomes the leader of the group. Burton is the all-American, utterly principled hero who is the primary focus of the series’ promotion of fair play, decency and moral rectitude. Even when they’ve been betrayed or done wrong by someone, whether they be giant or little person, Burton will still insist on helping that person if they’re in trouble. In one episode, Burton even rallies the others to help him trap a giant murderer who tries to frame a giant hobo after he accidently kills a woman in the forest where the little survivors spend their whole time hiding. Burton and the others manage to take a photograph, with the murderer’s giant camera, of him setting up the frame, and they then travel inside the camera to the killer’s darkroom, where they attempt to get the incriminating photograph developed in the giant’s massive developing tray! After having their lives threatened by the gang of teenage delinquents (there’s one Dylan-like beatnik, another slack-jawed yob and the leader, Nick, wears a James Dean imitating frown and a leather jacket), Burton still insists on risking all to help the leader’s brother escape a trapper’s cage by causing a diversion while his friends drug the giant’s coffee flask with sleep-inducing berry juice.
Steve Burton has some initial competition for the role of group leader from a hot-headed businessman and engineer passenger called Mark Wilson (Don Matheson). In one episode they even have a major punch-up over whether to help the trapped girl-in-a-bottle they find in their forest home. Gradually, although Wilson retains his tendency to disobey Burton’s orders and will sometimes risk capture in pursuit of any idea that occurs to him that might help the group repair the Spindrift and return them to Earth, the group does eventually come to resemble a family, with the three handsome male leads resembling brothers, with Burton as the eldest and the one commanding the most authority, and the two others -- Wilson and Burton’s co-pilot Dan Erickson (Don Marshall) -- mainly deferring to him, except in special circumstances. The group also has two attractive young females vying for role of maternal figure and sister figure. Deanna Lund plays red-headed heiress Valerie Scott. Lund is faced with a difficult role, since there seems to be no definite agreement from the writers over how her character should be perceived. In early episodes, viewed in production order, she seems quite sisterly with Betty (Heather Young) the Spindrift’s air-hostess -- a young, blonde, almost angelically innocent young woman, whose saintliness sometimes verges on the naive and which consequently risks endangering the group in a few episodes – while in others she comes across as spoilt and even almost verging on the mutinous when she tries to use her womanly guile to tempt Wilson into going against the level headed captain’s orders, seemingly just for a lark.
These character’s traits are all rather broad and don’t really change much from episode to episode, except on a whim of a writer or for the convenience of that week’s plot. Perhaps the show’s most memorable and ultimately likable character is initially the show’s main ‘villain’ and its viper in the nest. Kurt Kasznar plays the German-born fraudster and bank robber Alexander B. Fitzhugh. He starts out being untrustworthy to the point of being dangerous in the first few episodes (at least when they’re viewed in production order) but soon his negative traits settle down to encompass merely inveterate laziness, cowardice, greediness and pompousness. All this soon comes to be written, and played by Kasznar, as broad comedy. The only other passenger on the Spindrift is an orphaned child called Barry (Stefan Arngrim) who’s en route to London to stay with an aunt in the first episode, travelling with his lovable pet dog Chipper (whose main role seems to be to bolt into the open whenever the others are hiding, thereby causing the risk of discovery and capture). One of the long running relationships of the series – and the only one that really develops across a number of episodes – occurs between Barry and the roughish Fitzhugh, who is himself in many ways a child, lacking any kind of moral sophistication whatsoever. Barry starts out believing all of Fitzhugh’s self-aggrandising stories of heroism, but gradually begins to cotton-on that the man is rather unreliable in a scrape. Yet the two still eventually form a strong friendship, and a strange sort of respect develops between them over time. Fitzhugh’s character softens so much, in fact, that when a knock on the head causes him amnesia and he forgets who he is, it’s quite shocking to see him revert back to his villainous ways and unfeelingly betray Barry and the others to the giants.
The crew spend the entire series hiding in a forested area of parkland, which, to them, looks like a jungle (early episodes erroneously include jungle noises in the sound design). Although they have the occasional run-in with the fauna, this studio-created paradise seems to host very few bugs and creepy crawlies; in reality, the little people would surely soon be overrun with ants. The giants themselves start out as great lumbering behemoths that seem to move in slow motion and rarely, if ever, talk. Soon though, the crew start to interact with a number of giants in various ways, and they gradually start to be represented in a more naturalistic fashion. The crew even befriend a giant hospital surgeon who helps them operate on Barry for his appendicitis with the aid of a magnifying glass in one episode.
This 7-disc UK DVD box set from Revelation Films includes all 26 episodes of season one, restored to look as immaculately pristine and colourful as they have ever been. Extras include an unrestored version of the original un-aired pilot episode (which features a slightly different edit and a few different scenes from the broadcast version); a presentation reel of artwork, originally put together by Irwin Allen In order to sell the show concept to the networks; and a couple of short interviews with stars Gary Conway and Don Marshall, who talk about the difficulties of acting in a show in which your eye line was often set at the studio rafters, and about the physical fitness required for roles that demanded such a lot of climbing up and down gigantic prop objects week after week.
“Land of the Giants” is slick, undemanding but essentially enjoyable ‘60s fantasy entertainment, and this first season set presents the show beautifully in all its colourful, crazy glory.