The fourth and last of Irwin Allen’s colourful fantasy science fiction series, produced for 20th Century Fox during the 1960s, “Land of the Giants” is perhaps the most purely delightful of them all in terms of its willingness to forego any attempt at making coherent sense: many of the 51 stories that constitute its two seasons are often endearingly nonsensical, particularly so in this second batch of episodes, which saw the show into the ‘70s before the expense of producing it became too prohibitive even for FOX. These episodic tales about the crew and passengers of a space shuttle service in 1983, which is on its way from Los Angles to London when it gets caught in a space-time anomaly that forces it down on a planet in an alternative universe where the entire population are seventy-foot giants, is a garish form of fantasy adventure, built up from a still-unique combination of broad storybook fairy tale strokes and popular ’60s science fiction tropes. The planet on which the crew of the Spindrift find themselves is like an enchanted forest in which they are the TV equivalent of a’ Tom Thumb’ or of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Thumbelina’. They become a make-do family of broadly sketched characters who fulfil a very particular and easy to predict function in each adventure, although, particularly in the latter half of this second series, they will often act completely out of character for the sake of the contrived plot in hand. The series is far more concerned with spectacle than with meaningful stories, and to that end it always looked, and still looks even today, striking and colourful – the attention to detail in the crafting of the enlarged sets is meticulous, and even if the giant mechanical hand seen in almost every episode is hilariously clumsy-looking, it all adds to the heightened air of unreality the show habitually deals in.
This is a series that best sums up the sensibility of Irwin Allen himself, who is described by cast member Stefan Arngrim (who played orphan Barry in both series) as a 'strange innocent’ in the special features’ cast interviews, included in this second box set from the UK’s Revelation Films. Like those of all Allen’s other TV series, the individual episodes, directed by a complement of trusted veterans of Irwin Allen’s previous productions, such as Harry Harris and Sobey Martin, are stand-alone adventures designed so as to be understood when watched in any order or in complete isolation, with little previous knowledge of what came before; so, although past references and recurring characters are occasionally tolerated, it’s never necessary to have ever seen a single episode before in order to be able to enjoy the show’s combination of broad homespun morality and outrageous sci-fi-based populist fantasy. Having said that, one can easily distinguish second series episodes from those of the first simply from the fact that Stefan Arngrim, who was only a small boy during the making of series one, has since hit puberty and is clearly now the same height as many of his co-stars in these episodes; he’s still required to play the same naive youngster he was cast as in the previous season, though.
During the first half of the previous series, we saw that the writers of the production were still experimenting with the format and trying out various conflicting ideas across a number of episodes. In the first few, the sheer alien-ness of the unnamed planet of giants was emphasised much more than its similarities to Earth: the giant inhabitants were seen as slow, lumbering creatures that spoke a different language from the tiny humans and lived in a civilisation that was in many ways closer to 1950s America and which possessed far less sophisticated technology than did the humans -- who came from a 1983 where space shuttle flights between cities were a commonplace. As the series went on though, the whole alien culture theme was entirely ditched and by the start of this second season, the little people are now quite clearly living among a race who are to all intents and purposes exactly like Earth people, and who are therefore now quite capable of communicating and even having friendships with the Spindrift crew.
In fact, barely an episode goes by in this second season without the crew forging relations with at least one giant. An early episode in the new run, “The Inside Rail”, brings out all these elements. The series’ regular comic relief, the selfish and clownish former bank robber Fitzhugh (Kurt Kaznar), takes Barry (Stefan Arngrim) for a day out at the races (yes, the giants have horse racing -- and judging by the heavy use of stock footage, it looks exactly the same as earth-based turf meetings). Despite being repeatedly warned to stay out of sight by the crew’s heroic lead, Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), Fitzhugh involves Barry in a plot to commandeer the services of a happy-go-lucky hobo in order to win some money after they discover a lost winning ticket lying on the ground, offering to split the winnings with their giant helper if he agrees to hand it in them. Naturally enough, the plan goes horribly wrong, endangering most of the crew and involving them in various racing-related adventures over the course of fifty minutes, including a horse doping racket, which they eventually manage to foil.
In “Every Dog Needs a Boy” -- one of the best episodes of this run -- Barry’s pet dog Chipper finally pays dearly for his annoying habit of rushing into plain view of dangerous giants and barking out loud, when he tries to make friends with a giant prize-winning dog owned by a giant veterinary surgeon who runs a pet store. The sequence in which the yapping miniature Chipper is propelled into the air by the force of the blast of the giant dog’s friendly barked response is possibly the single funniest moment in Irwin Allen’s entire filmography. ‘What to do with Chipper the dog' is clearly a frequent problem for the show, especially as the series goes on. A lot of stories try to minimise its involvement by simply not having it present for most of the episode and having no one refer to it, then surreptitiously smuggling it back for a few shot at the end as if we won’t notice the creature’s been absent the rest of the time. Here, writer Jerry Thomas deals with the problem by having the mutt critically injured and comatose for most of the story, so the three different stunt dogs usually used to portray Chipper can be replaced by a stuffed replica instead!
The ensuing story revolves around Barry ignoring orders from the Captain and, with the help of flame-haired series sexpot Valerie (Deanna Lund), delivering the tiny canine to the giant vets’, hoping the surgeon will take pity on it and operate to save it. The tale then develops into a typical example of the series’ broad characterisation and moralistic storytelling by having the kindly store assistant agree to help the tiny dog while the store owner’s callous and cruel wastrel son sets about trying to capture the thumb-sized crew. Many crazy antics with the pet store’s chimpanzee then ensue, with the store owner arriving at the end to reward the responsible and good-hearted store assistant and chastise the good-for-nothing son. There are more simian related hijinks in the episode “The Marionettes” when an affable old puppeteer happily rescues Valerie from a gorilla that’s escaped from the traveling circus (or someone in an ill-fitting gorilla suit) where he is trying to find work, and helps Betty (Heather Young) escape from a mantrap. After the giant puppeteer breaks his wrist in helping her, putting his livelihood at risk, she and a strangely obliging Fitzhugh agree to repay him by becoming living marionettes in his puppet show, despite the objections of Steve and Mark (Don Matheson). This is a complete character change for Fitzhugh, who elsewhere in the series is always utterly unwilling to put himself in danger for the sake of anyone!
Kind-hearted giants who are only too happy to give a helping hand to the little people from Earth become more and more frequent participants in these stories, while at the same time it’s apparent that, though the planet of the giants may look exactly like 1960s America and the giants all speak American-English, giant civilisation seems to be something of a paranoid police state, with the little people being treated as though they were political dissidents, and any giants caught helping them equally libel to be punished for harbouring fugitives. There’s even a secret police force called the SID, headed by a frequently recurring character called Inspector Kobick (Kevin Hagen) -- and this strangely political element to a show in which the stories were otherwise fantastical and unrelated to everyday reality apparently helped it become something of a cult in Eastern Europe, according to Stefan Arngrim.
The fairy story and TV fantasy sides come together more and more until the show achieves a unique style during this second series which could be termed Magical Scientism. Certainly, science fiction concepts are treated with such loose abandon that they might just as well be considered to be magical powers from a fairy tale. This becomes apparent in a particularly hallucinogenic episode called “Nightmare” in which another friendly giant scientist tries to help the Spindrift crew develop a power source for their ship. Unfortunately, a strange form of ‘radiation’ is emitted from it when the power source malfunctions and it turns out to have a number of unwanted side-effects that cause humans to become invisible to giants and visa-versa, while also trapping Steve in a bizarre parallel dimension. This is one of those episodes where the need for the plot to make any kind of sense is first sacrificed in the name of exciting, colourful and stimulating visuals: from here on in, many of the stories get increasingly wild.
“A Place Called Earth” sees silver-suited Earthmen from a distant future in the year 5477, arriving on the planet of the giants after their time travel pod brings them there by mistake. The Spindrift crew at first hope to get a ride home, but it turns out that the strangely alien futuristic humans are renegades who intend to alter the Earth’s past so as to allow them to take control of its population in the future. These beings have practically god-like powers over time -- freezing it at will; they also possess an amulet with which they can destroy and disintegrate any foe. The episode’s incident is largely driven by these sci-fi ideas of time manipulation, but they’re treated in a way that makes them more akin to magic spells being cast in a fantasy yarn. Other stories follow suit by mixing fantasy and sci-fi in equal doses so that the tiny protagonists variously find themselves confronted with a “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” scenario in “The Secret City of Limbo” when they get teleported to an underground city populated by a new race of giants unknown to those on the surface. In “Land of the Lost”, Steve, Mark, Valerie and Barry take a ride in a toy balloon, then get caught in a tractor beam which pulls them many miles away across a raging ocean to another land ruled by a tyrant -- a place which is unknown to the giants in their own neck of the woods. In stories like these, the giants’ planet becomes more and more a site of wild fantastical civilisations and fairy tale adventures.
Perhaps the absolute apotheosis of this recurrent theme, and probably my favourite episode of the entire two series, comes in the episode “Pay the Piper”. This starts off with a dreamlike image of all but two of the little people being drawn, in slow-motion, towards a box-trap, when they hear the mesmerising sound of a piper’s tune being carried on the wind. A giant then materialises who identifies himself as the Pied Piper of Hamlin! He claims he is being paid by a local politician to capture the Spindrift crew as part of a vote-winning election campaign. Naturally, the politician goes back on his word and refuses to pay the promised fee, and so the Piper (who is really an alien presence of some kind, capable of traveling between worlds and dimensions extracting money for services rendered and stealing children if he’s double-crossed) decides to take the politician’s winsome young son Timmy instead (played with amusingly cutesy cherub-cheeked charm by Michael-James Wixted). Being already familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, the captured crew try to warn the arrogant politician of the danger to his innocent young son, but to no avail. Eventually they do devise a method of cancelling out the mesmerising effects of the Piper’s music by playing a reversed tape-looped recording back over the top of it, cancelling out its hypnotic spell. But the corrupt politician still refuses to let them go, even though they have willingly helped him save his son from kidnap.
This mixture of sci-fi trappings and outright fairy tale hokum best sums up the tone of the series (‘there’s got to be a scientific explanation for all this’ someone implausibly says at one point!), and the fact that the actors treat the absurd storyline with complete seriousness helps sells much of what transpires in the course of these episodes. This particular story gets interesting when it finally gives Fitzhugh an opportunity to once again be as bad as he was originally in the opening episodes of series one, and yet to also ultimately have the opportunity to redeem himself when his capacity for selfish immorality is at last pushed a little too far by the Piper’s unfeeling plan: it comes about when the Piper later appears to the crew, sometime after their escape from the politician, and offers to take them back to their own planet in their own time, if they will only help him lure Timmy to his doom! Naturally, the little people decline … except Fitzhugh, who sneaks off behind the others’ backs and secretly agrees to the Piper’s demands, with predictably disastrous results.
The series never reached a third series. It had at one time been the most expensive television shows ever put on the air, but perhaps the times had shifted and Irwin Allen’s bizarre fantasy adventures, with their simple fairy-tale ‘science’, no longer seemed credible to audiences in the 1970s, although reruns would continue for years to come. Whatever the reason, the crew of the Spindrift never got to return home; although there is one episode, late in the production run of season Two, which makes for a pleasingly rounded note to end on: Dan and Steve come into possession of a Space-Time Manipulator device, belonging to Bruce Dern’s time traveling alien, Throg. They finally manage to travel back to Earth in their own time, but just before the Spindrift originally took off on the fateful Los Angles to London flight, which the two know will eventually end with their crash on the giants’ planet. The whole episode sees the two confronting the past versions of their friends (who at this stage have no idea of who they are) and attempting to convince them that they shouldn’t board the flight. Meanwhile Throg and his time travelling alien assistant Berna (Yvonne Craig) attempt to stop Dan and Steve from endangering the universe by altering their past. Unusually, Steve and Dan seem to have actually cancelled the existence of the past versions of their selves and taken their places just by traveling back in time, so they never get to meet themselves in the past. But Throg nevertheless maintains that they must board the flight and take-off as before in order for the original order of events to play out once again, and so as to maintain the balance of the universe. Eventually, the duo is drugged with special memory loss pills and do get back on-board the Spindrift along with the original passengers, unaware of what awaits them. We see the original crash play out as before (the same footage from the pilot episode is played again) and the episode ends with events coming full circle and Dan and Steve exploring their new home, but this time with a faint recollection that they’ve lived through these events before! Although this episode was in no way intended to be the final one, it makes a fitting story to save till last if you’re re-watching both series’ on DVD.
This second UK set offers simply stunning re-mastered transfers of all 25 episodes, all of which look extremely vibrant and pin-sharp and feature beautiful rich colour. The audio is equally impressive and disc 7 comes with a slew of great extras including an exclusive commentary track for the original pilot episode, “The Crash”, recorded by the surviving cast members especially for this UK DVD set. It’s a rumbustious affair with no moderation and much excitable chatter, although don’t expect to get too much detailed information from it – it’s more a reunion track in which the cast remember the hectic times they had making the series on a tight schedule that would often see them filming scenes for several or more episodes at a time.
The collection of cast interviews is the place to go for more considered anecdotes. Stefan Arngrim has much of interest to say about the sensibility of Irwin Allen (he was more obsessed with the cast’s hairstyles than with the stories apparently), the popularity of the show and the trials and tribulations of working with the infamous mechanical hand. Don Matheson tells how he used to let Heather Young have some of his lines, since she’d often be left standing around in scenes with nothing to do otherwise. Nobody noticed! Deanna Lung proves still to be every bit as gorgeous as she was back in the late sixties and relates how she was cast in the series after Allen saw her in an un-credited bit part in the 1967 Frank Sinatra film “Tony Rome”. There are several galleries of “Land of the Giants” merchandise and publicity stills, a well-observed MAD magazine parody comic strip and a short Deanna Lund gallery of bikini shots!
“Land of the Giants” is child-like, fantastical, imaginative, and is really just an awful lot of easily-digestible fun. The episodes have never looked better, and the series is surely well-made enough to entrance a whole new generation of youngsters, as well as feeding the nostalgia of their parents – a must-have for fans of TV fantasy of the 1960s.