Review: Doctor Who - Planet of Giants / Cert: U / Director: by Mervyn Pinfield / Screenplay: Louis Marks / Starring: William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford / Release Date: Out Now
It’s 1964 and Doctor Who is back for a second run little more than six weeks after the end of its first series.
The second season was where the show, still produced by Verity Lambert but with new script editor Dennis Spooner ready to take over from David Whitaker, began to flex its creative muscles as Doctor Who started to explore its own boundaries, only to find that it didn’t really seem to have any. Under Spooner the show loosened up a bit - with audiences of around 10 million it could afford to take a few chances - and the second season was to offer up outrageous comedy (Spooner’s The Romans, which could have been run with a laughter track), hardcore historical (Whitaker’s steely and atmospheric The Crusade), absolute weirdness (Bill Strutton’s The Web Planet which is about as alien as the show has ever been) and rambunctious space opera (Terry Nation’s The Chase, heavily Spoonered for comic effect). The Daleks were becoming fixtures, of course, but the second season started off rather ignominiously with a little three-part throwaway originally written as ‘The Miniscules’ and intended to be the very first serial back in 1963; rewritten and reshaped - and eventually remolded from a four-part script - Planet of the Giants has, ironically, rather been overshadowed in the intervening years by some of the bigger boys which loomed over it. Now it’s here on DVD presented in its transmitted three-episode version with a special feature in which the scripted fourth episode is recreated and all the excised material reimagined courtesy of some inventive CGI, crafty editing and often uncanny voice mimicry recreating the late Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and William Hartnell himself. It’s all very clever and probably very worthy but the style of it does tend to jar somewhat with the very staid production of the episodes as screened.
Disaster looms when the doors of the TARDIS swing open mid-flight, much to the Doctor‘s flustered concern. But the Ship seems to land safely and the Space and Time Travellers wander outside and eventually realise they’ve been shrunk to microscopic size and are stranded in the garden of a small country farmhouse. Elsewhere infamy’s afoot as a Government Inspector arrives to close down experiments on revolutionary new insecticide DN6 because of its deadly and permanent side-effects. Ian and Barbara are separated from the Doctor and Susan and find themselves transported into the house inside a giant (apparently wooden) briefcase and as they try to get back into the garden the Doctor and his granddaughter are trying to find a way in to rescue them.
It’s not difficult to see why BBC One Head of Serials Donald Wilson decreed that the serial should be cut down from four episodes. At three episodes Planet of Giants is sluggish enough; the additional material presented here adds nothing new to the story and just drags out a pretty thin yarn to breaking point. What’s most impressive about the serial is its ambition; clever giant props and some primitive back projection are surprisingly-effective in creating the illusion of the Doctor and his chums reduced to “roughly the size of an inch” and their encounters with dead ants and worms and their clambering in and out of giants sinks and matchboxes is all good fun and genuinely quite convincing. But unfortunately there’s really just not enough plot to go around. The ‘giants’ of the title are a rather dreary bunch of 1950s stereotypes - a pompous official who gets shot through the heart, a bushy-eye-browed greedy businessman, a nervy scientist who just wants to do the right thing with the nifty new insecticide he’s created which can end world hunger. Their clumpy dialogue and boring motivation just slows down an already achingly-turgid story and the introduction of a matronly telephone switchboard operator and her George Dixon-lite bumbling policeman husband in the third episode serve to make Doctor Who seem suddenly creakily old-fashioned. For the show’s first return visit to 1960s Earth since the first episode a year earlier it all seems very parochial and just a little unimaginative.
But the main cast at least are having a good time. Hartnell huffs and puffs away through the episodes as he climbs up drainpipes and giant paving stones and Jacqueline Hill is superb as Barbara who inadvertently picks up a potentially-lethal dose of the DN6 insecticide and can’t bring herself to tell her companions. William Russell’s Ian is as steel-jawed and stoic as ever - if a bit slow on the uptake in the face of overwhelming giant evidence - and Carole Ann Ford’s golly-gosh turn as Susan is in danger of becoming as wearing on the audience as it clearly was on the actress who left the series at the end of the following serial.
But 1960s Doctor Who is always worth a look and Planet of Giants is close enough to the very beginnings of the series to still possess an almost-indefinable sense of pioneering television magic even in the face of an often rather pedestrian script. The Liliputian conceit of tiny people in a giant world is endlessly fascinating and it’s a bit of a missed opportunity that Doctor Who wasn’t able to do something a bit more interesting with an idea usually so full of dramatic potential.
Special Features: The combined episode three is also presented as two separate episodes and whilst uber-fan Ian Levene, who masterminded and directed the reconstruction, is to be commended for his sterling work in recreating a long-lost piece of Doctor Who history, it really does the story few favours and it’s very much a watch-once experience. Elsewhere there’s a brief piece on the making of the reconstruction (a ‘making of’ the actual serial being impractical with so few members of the original cast and crew still alive to tell the tall tale). Archive interviews with Carole Ann Ford and the late Verity Lambert, the usual extensive optional on-screen production subtitles, photo gallery and a rather dry commentary featuring an array of backroom talent round off a typically-thorough set of bonus material.