Back in the late 1960s, Dr.Who’s sci-fi Saturday night supremacy on British TV was regularly challenged by the glossier, faster-paced fantasy adventure series created by Irwin Allen, the so-called ‘master of disaster’. Allen’s high concept science-fiction shows like Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel seductively offered bigger and better thrills than the Doctor and co running around a quarry in Southern England chased by boxes with flashing lights on top.
The resilience and feistiness of Dr Who’s format meant that the old boy in the Police Box won out in the end but Allen’s big budget shows gave him a good run for his money for a while. Perhaps the best of Allen’s shows was the one which received the shabbiest treatment from the ITV network, screening intermittently across some regions and never airing at all in others. Land of the Giants was an enormous hit for Channel 4 back in the early 1990s when the complete run was screened on Sunday mornings and now the first season arrives - at last - on DVD in the UK. Unlike many of Allen’s other shows - Lost in Space and Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea (the first season of which has also just been released on DVD) - Land of the Giants still stands up remarkably well in the cold light of the 21st century CGI day because its visuals remain surprisingly impressive for their age and the show is just bursting with colour, invention and a real sense of adventure.
You know the score. We’re way in the future (1983!) and sub-orbital liner Spindrift (crew of three, four passengers - imagine those tiny profit margins!) passes through a scary twirly spacewarp and finds itself on an Earth-like world populated by giants forty times larger than Man and our heroes. Led by square jawed space pilot Steve Burton (Gary Conway) they are soon attacked by over-sized cats, insects and, of course, the lumbering giants themselves. The first episode of the series is probably the best of the bunch; Allen famously lavished his pilot episodes with generous budgets before skimping on the regular episodes and here the opening instalment The Crash is full of incident and spectacle, with giant props and clever optical effects which give the story a palpable sense of scale. Interestingly, the giants in the first episode are depicted as slow, lumbering, monosyllabic and quite threatening; as the series progressed the giants became much more talkative and their society very clearly just like Earth’s but quite a bit bigger.
Being a show from the 1960s, don’t expect much in the way of character development and look elsewhere if it’s a complicated story arc you’re after. Across these day-glo, vaguely psychedelic 26 episodes you’ll see the "Little People" (as they’re dubbed by their giant enemies) tormented by a sadistic young girl in a miniature town, captured by gypsies and, eventually and inevitably, helping downtrodden giants who have been framed for murder or trapped in drains. Whilst some of the stories are mundane and undersell the concept, the show never looks anything less than gloriously vibrant and, fortunately, never falls into the trap which scuppered the promising Lost in Space by playing for broad, childish comedy. Land of the Giants is great fun and endlessly entertaining. It’s actually rather refreshing to be reminded of simpler science-fiction days when just telling an exciting and spectacular story was enough. The DVD set imports the extras from the lavish limited edition set released in the USA a few years back, consisting of interview snippets, the unaired pilot and some footage of Irwin Allen in action.