Sunday, 22 June 2014

Planet of the Giants

Recently I have tried to focus on Hartnells in my introduction of old Dr Who to my girlfriend, some weeks ago I chose Dalek Invasion of Earth.  Last weekend I settled upon Planet of the Giants for various reasons.  Numerous stories are incomplete due to BBC junking, some are very long to fit into a weekend.  Ruling out the simply terrible, like Web Planet or Keys of Marinus, and the interminably dull like the Sensorites there are only a few I particularly would recommend.  The Aztecs and the Romans are good, the War Machines is good but atypical when introducing the Hartnell era.  Planet of the Giants is a bit of an oddity, short, overlooked, yet is entertaining and effective.

Web Planet often held an example of something having huge ambition but failing, as though that in itself makes it worthy of praise when it falls so far short.  Planet of the Giants is very ambitious in other ways and about gets away with it, but seems forgotten because, like the Rescue, it's short and backed up against a much more memorable story.

The first notable thing, is that it's the first contemporary Earth story in Dr Who aside from the opening scenes of Unearthly Child.  It's also around this point that the 'get Ian and Barbara home' theme that underlies the series becomes less important after Giants and Dalek Invasion.  Instead of worrying about getting home as soon as possible, the Tardis crew spend more time adventuring in the past and future, lounging around for weeks prior to the Romans.  They take the opportunity to go in the Chase, but they feel as though they are leaving their second home by this time.  There is no significant historical backdrop to the story or grandiose villains or aliens, which stands it from most other Dr Who stories ever made.  The villains are ordinary humans with a scheme that's fairly small potatoes.  Pesticides killing all the insect life is a serious issue, but the story focuses around the murder to achieve a cover up, which the miniaturised heroes make efforts to foil.

There is some preposterousness in the set up of the story which is so contrived as to make some dismiss the story I suspect.  As with other Hartnells there was more freedom to play with the format, you could have something humorous with the Romans, something very alien with the Web Planet.  Planet of the Giants takes a stab at something different again.  The explanation is 'space pressure' resulting from the Tardis doors inexplicably opening during flight causing them to 'reduce'.  Further, the scanner blows outwards when the crew attempt to view what is outside the Tardis because it's trying to shows 'something too big for it's frame'.  Beyond this, the story is fairly simple, the Tardis crew pick their way up the garden to the house and have to alert the authorities as to the murder.  They encounter various large hazards along the way.  Not being a complex story, it's no great surprise that it was pared down to three episodes from four, but this works as too many other stories are just too long for little content.

Barbara contemplates an oversized Sugar Puff
The story is a simple one, but other aspects of the production appear a high standard.  The model work and inserted backgrounds are great.  There are giant bugs of various kinds, the ant pictured above, a fly that moves a little, a dead worm.  All look good on screen.  Some of the set pieces are very good as well, the oversized seeds, matches and other small items, and larger things like the telephone or the sink make for great scenes.

There's are few cliffhangers like those in Planet of the Giants.  Who would expect one to me turning around to see a cat's face filling the entire screen?  Or another where the peril is derived entirely from someone pulling the plug out of a sink.

A sink empties.  Cliffhangers don't get more tense than this.
All these sets had a good presence on screen, but it would be nothing to achieve these effects today.  They wouldn't impress children at all because 'people getting smaller' is something that has been done many times over.  It was done rather well in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in 1989, and people roaming around a house encountering large cotton reels and matches was seen in the Borrowers series during the 1990s as well.  Even as far back as the '60s the idea wasn't unique, I recall Steed being shrunk in a black and white episode of The Avengers and the original Incredible Shrinking Man film was as far back as 1957.

The roots of the story were in something about the crew being shrunk in the science classroom of Coal Hill School, which may explain the laboratory theme that remains in Planet of the Giants.  See above as the team try to turn on a bench gas tap.  Overall it's a good story worth taking a second look.  It's a bit of an oddity and often overlooked in favour of more significant stories.  But it's a good Hartnell story with which to introduce someone; it's pleasantly short, all the cast get plenty to do inside only three episodes, there are a series of impressive set pieces and you're always rooting for the team to expose the villains.

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