Planet of Giants

Written by:
Louis Marks
Directed by: Mervyn Pinfield/Douglas Camfield
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1964
Video Availability: Try

Planet of Giants is quite an unpopular Doctor Who story, and I've never really been able to fathom out why. Okay, at the time of transmission then it was probably a nondescript season opener and disappointed those who were just waiting for the much-hyped return of the Daleks, but in isolation four decades later, why aren't people admiring what is a well-made, well-told tale?

Okay, I don't normally like to get too bogged down with facts on this particular part of the site, but it's interesting to acknowledge that the basic storyline for this one was proposed as the very first serial of Doctor Who, under the title The Miniscules. (Quite obviously they rejected it and used another). It's also the first story to undergo the "VIDFire" process by the restoration team. Without going into too much detail, the original transmissions of the stories were on video, and had more frames and looked more fluid, but the copies retained by the BBC of most of the b/w stories were copies taken from the original via film cameras. This is all fairly recent, and it was a surprise to see that Who didn't actually look like it was shot in the 1920s. Even now, it's weird, seeing this story for the fourth time, to see it as it would have originally looked.

Anyway, the story itself. Here we see a fault locator on the Tardis, which is charmingly dated, and the notion that the Tardis doors opening in flight (something that happened on a number of occasions after this) would shrink the crew. I'm in quite a respectful mood, as I normally am towards Hartnells, so I won't make a juvenile gag about Barbara's "Doctor, it's a huge snake […] It's a fantastic size!" Instead, I'll mention the nice scene where the Doctor apologies to Barbara and she tells him there's no need, an indication of the evolving relationship between them. Okay, the modern conventions of television perhaps make it a little slow, and you might think the regulars are a bit thick not to realise they've been shrunk until several minutes in, but I still think it stands up. Best of all is a moment of almost postmodernism where they show the shrunk Tardis on a driveway by using one of the actual Tardis models they use to show it landing.

One notable point of the story is that it marked the debut of Dudley Simpleton, Who's most prolific incidental music composer. In total he wrote the music for no less than sixty Doctor Who stories, including all but six of the Pertwees, and all but four of Tom Baker's up to the end of the Graham Williams era. Altogether Dudley's work accounted for over a third of the series' output, and - to be fair to him - most of it is absolutely f****** horrendous. Dated, tone-deaf cymbal crashing and trumpet playing, you can always rely on Dud-ley to put in a comedy horn or a whistle when it's supposed to be dramatic, or just buggering off down the pub when a scene requires tension. He really is an appalling old fart, well overdue a good shoeing, and, as I've written these reviews in a random order, you'll probably come across many more moans about him on this site. In fact, if it wasn't for Terry Nation and Keff McCulloch I'd probably be slagging Simpleton more than anyone else. He's as awful as ever here, and his wholly inappropriate score never fits with the images it's there to support.

The episode as a whole though is a strong one, a Twilight Zone style quirk coupled with an ecological subtext that, while arguably overstated ("Surely it's wrong to kill bees and worms and things, isn't it?"), is commendable for being there in the first place. VIDFired, the crapness of the effect that links the regulars with the dead Farrow is shown up for how limited it is, but the production on this one is remarkable for the time. One last thing - Frank Crawshaw has the worst lisp in the entire series (yes, even worse than Pertwee's) making the phrase "DN6 Insecticide" only audible to dogs.
* * * ½

"I've seen more death than you can imagine. People dying of starvation all over the world." That's a nice line, maybe overstated due to 60s naivety, but a nice line nevertheless. While the regulars are perhaps given mildly below-par material to work with, the guest cast have some good dialogue, further adding to my puzzlement as to why this story isn't more highly rated.

On a production note, then all the large sets created on Who's ironically microscopic budget are a marvel. Just think… if Ian's now an inch high, that'd make his taddywhacker about two millimetres… no wonder he can't wait to get back to normal size. What I also like about this one is the way Barbara thinks she's contracted a disease but is too scared to share her fear with anyone. Reminds me of that time my mum told me that swallowing bath water could kill you, and I was too frightened to admit that I had. (Haven't I admitted this story before somewhere? I dunno, I give so much away, don't I? And what do I get in return?)

That giant fly fourteen minutes in is absolutely superb - considering they only needed it for about ten seconds and this was forty years ago, then it really is tremendous. The sink where the Doctor and Susan end up is no mean feat either… vastly underappreciated, all of it.
* * * *

The debut of possibly my favourite Who director, Douglas Camfield… sort of. One of the weirdest things about Planet of Giants is that the story is so under regarded that no one really gives a toss that they threw a lot of it away. Originally a four-parter, the third episode, Crisis ran to 24'25m and the fourth episode, The Urge To Live lasted for 23'42m. Condensed into a single episode by the request of the BBC Head of Serials, Donald Wilson, this new composite episode (also entitled Crisis), officially runs to 26'35m. Now, while you'd have the extra opening/closing title sequences in this 48'07m, knocking off about 56 seconds, that's still over twenty-and-a-half minutes discarded. Anyway, the fourth episode was the one to be directed by Camfield and, while he only directed nine stories, his work was always a notch above the norm for me. In particular, look out for The Time Meddler, The Invasion and Terror of the Zygons - he rocks like a daddy on all three. The technical note on all of this is that Camfield is credited as the director on the final transmitted episode, even though around half is still Pinfield's work. Now if only they could find the stuff they chucked away (it was almost certainly destroyed) they could release it onto DVD with the intact episodes as a special feature. Sadly, as I've said, the story isn't that popular, so I doubt anyone would care if they did.

Okay, let's Billy Fluff. Not a great story for the man, there seems to be bluff and hesitancy behind nearly every line, but the only real fluff comes in this episode with the considerable "She - see, she got it on her hands." Another technical note is that this composite episode was originally on film, therefore there's no VIDFire involved. Even though Who on film sort of looks cooler in a way, the sound is far scratchier and the picture not as clear. For a cinematic production this is probably preferable, but for a televised serial episodes 1-2 have the best look.

Sometimes contrivance can really annoy - the villain's plan is only really disrupted by a nosy exchange operator - but here it's quite charming. Maybe it's just the likeably twee nature of events, like Smithers sitting smoking a cigarette three minutes in, almost as if we're catching him in a post-coital state with Forester. Also look out for 6'50m in, where Barbara tries to cover her infection by suggesting she's hungry - William Russell accidentally looks into camera for a split second, breaking the fourth wall if you clock it. Or is it accidental? Is wily old Willy sending up the loveable pulp of the piece by giving us all a cheeky nod? The cocky little bugger, let's big him up for it!

The burning match effect is very obviously worked around the series' budget, but I can forgive the occasional cost-cutting (which isn't that bad anyway) for the series daring to have such wild ambition. In many ways, Planet of Giants represents what I love about Doctor Who - while Irwin Allen's tedious Bland of the Giants was a effects extravabora, this has characterisation and subtext to add to the mix, and doesn't take the lazy option of just relying on spectacle to fill its duration. Commendable stuff indeed.
* * * *

I'm off to scour the web for reviews of this one, in order to get a handle on its negative reception. Okay, it's not an all-time classic, but it's well produced, well acted and has something to say - so why don't people like it more?
* * * *