Imagine for a moment you are involved in the creative side of making Doctor Who in the 1960s, and you have made Planet of Giants. It has been transmitted and well received by the viewers. The ratings are a couple of million up on where the previous series finished, and the story has increased its viewers by half a million by the last episode. The end results of your efforts are stunning and this has to be judged one of Doctor Who’s greatest successes so far. What lessons do you take from this as to the way forward for Doctor Who?
Well, you can’t shrink the TARDIS every week or you’ll end up making Land of the Giants instead of Doctor Who, but there are maybe three things you could try to repeat. One of those is impossible, one of those is a blind alley, and one of those has endless untapped potential.
- The three episode format. This unfortunately is the impossible one. It is quite clear that Doctor Who benefits from the faster pacing of a smaller episode count, and the editing down of Planet of Giants from four episodes to three benefits the story hugely. You only have to look at the reconstruction of the missing bits on the DVD to understand what a yawn-fest this could have turned out to be. But the reason it was impossible to emulate at the time was that the budget just wasn’t going to stretch. There was one more attempt with The Rescue (two episodes), but by and large the costs of building sets had to be spread across at least four episodes and often six or more.
- Giant sized creatures are exciting. This is the blind alley, but unfortunately it was the lesson that was most learnt from this story, and learnt incorrectly. In theory it’s a great idea, but in practice Doctor Who was never going to be able to achieve that kind of thing successfully on a regular or even occasional basis. The budget and technology just wasn’t there in the 1960s, and it still wasn’t there in the 1980s. But look what happened: four stories later (and into the second run of stories in production terms – this is still the first year behind the scenes) we have giant ants. This would be tried again and again over the course of the classic series: crabs, maggots, flies, spiders, slugs, bats… there are plenty more. And I think it is fair to say the success rate is fairly hit and miss.
- Making ordinary domestic things scary is really, really effective. Just look at the cliffhanger at the end of Dangerous Journey. Yes, that is a Doctor Who cliffhanger ending which is water going down a sink, and it’s one of the most exciting and unconventional cliffhangers imaginable. But where are the subsequent examples of everyday things being made scary in Doctor Who? Nothing comes to mind until the magnificent Troughton era has a bit of a go with foam, web, seaweed and toy soldiers. It’s hard to argue that any of that has anything to do with being inspired by the success of this story. Then we have shop window dummies, dolls, chairs, cables, plastic flowers – but those can all be found in the one story, and apart from a few tenuous ones (I suppose you could say the Tom Baker era does a similar thing with shrubbery and stones) that’s about it. Even the last two years of the classic series, which really have a lot more in common with the 2005 flavour of Doctor Who than even the 1985 flavour, didn’t spot the potential of that trick, beyond a couple of half-hearted attempts with sweets and cats.
So the story of Planet of Giants is one of a brave experiment that should have been used to inspire more stories and possibly was, but in the wrong way. Maybe somebody took this success and decided they could repeat it with The Web Planet. Perhaps if Raymond P. Cusick had designed that as well they might just have got away with it. Seriously, the man was a genius. First the Daleks, and now this. There is some fantastic set and prop design for the oversized objects and creatures, including: a worm, ant, burnt match, match box, briefcase, drain pipe, wheat, pad of paper, cork, phone cable and gas tap. That’s quite a challenge to give a designer! One scene that works particularly well is the shot of the drainpipe in Dangerous Journey, which then cuts to the Doctor and Susan emerging from it. Everything about this sequence is perfectly executed. The plug and plug hole are fantastic, although the chain looks a bit two-dimensional. There is a nice echo effect when the Doctor and Susan are in the sink to make it all more believable.
The predicament the TARDIS crew find themselves in here is much more interesting and better executed than the story of Forester, Smithers and the insecticide, and to be honest the guest actors sadly don’t really acquit themselves too well. It is a shame that the regulars never get to interact with the humans, or are even seen by them, as this would really have added an extra dimension to the story. But you can’t have everything.
Just a side note to finish. This was the first Doctor Who story to be released in VidFIREd form, replacing the original fluid look of the video. I can remember being astonished by what this achieved. We might take it for granted nowadays, with virtually every 60s story receiving the same treatment for DVD, but at the time it seemed like magic. How fitting that this, one of the most pioneering of Doctor Who stories, should have been chosen to be a groundbreaker all over again in another era. RP
The view from across the pond:
I commented on something just one review back: Doctor Who should not have been the target of jokes about special effects when the show was going out on a limb time and again to bring good, thought provoking ideas to television. In Planet of Giants, the TARDIS doors open while landing creating a freak effect. And here’s where Doctor Who once again exceeds expectation…
It doesn’t matter if the story is a minor one. What matters is the execution and thought that went into it. When the TARDIS crew encounter giant bugs, their first thought is about what sort of planet could have created such monstrosities (Vortis and Metebelis III have yet to be encountered). It’s actually Susan who first makes the realization (I know, right? Susan!!!) that they are in fact on Earth but that they have been reduced in size. So we see a very typical British garden from a very atypical perspective: that of beings so small that they can fit into the cracks in the walkway.
Most likely influenced by other sources such as the 1957 Richard Matheson classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man (and possibly sparking interest for Irwin Allen’s The Land of the Giants in 1968), Doctor Who tells a brief tale of corporate greed and murder in a way we have never seen it depicted before. In a nutshell, a greedy corporate villain, Forester, wants to get a pesticide approved, but runs into some opposition. The miniature crew has to think outside the (match)box to get someone to notice how dangerous the chemical is and then get out of a room they are trapped in. (Talk about a whole new Escape Room experience!) Using the echo from a sink as a voice amplifier, paper clips to form a ladder and a drainpipe to exit the room, even to the point of hiding in an overflow spout, are just some of the things the crew has to piece together to survive. There’s even the “giant cat” reminiscent of Matheson’s classic prowling after our intrepid explorers. Meanwhile DN6, the aforementioned chemical, is the real problem. It kills insect and animal life nearly on contact so when Barbara touches a peanut of unusual size (no relation to ROUS’s), she is in a race against time to get back to her proper size where the pesticide will have diminished effect.
Some observations: this story works for the 60s since part of the resolution hinges on a nosy switchboard operator. If this were to happen today, where switchboard operators no longer exist, Smithers would have taken the gun from Forester, but without the local constabulary arriving just in time, there’s no telling how things would have ended up. DN6 might be everywhere. More importantly, Smithers might have been killed and this is important because I’m fairly certain his son would move to the United States and get a job working with a Mr. Burns in a place called Springfield. Had Smithers died, this might never have happened! Doh!
All joking aside, the thought involved, regardless of this being a blip in the science fiction aspect of Doctor Who, again illustrates the creativity and bravery that made the show the classic that it is. It could be said that their budget was small, but their ideas and execution were far from minuscule. That small budget still managed to create a giant, and that’s something we fans should be very proud of. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Dalek Invasion of Earth