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Doctor Who II.1: Planet of Giants

June 15th, 2009 (12:12 am)

I finally caught up this weekend with one of the few Doctor Who stories which I'd never seen, Planet of Giants. When original story editor David Whitaker divided the stories of the first production block into categories, he chose the labels (IIRC) 'past', 'future', and 'sideways'. Planet of Giants is the only 'sideways' story made - Inside the Spaceship is really of a fourth category, as its title suggests - and as has been well recorded is the scripting grandchild of the abandoned projected first story, The Giants, in which after dematerializing from the junkyard of An Unearthly Child the TARDIS would have appeared in the science classroom of the proto-Ian, Cliff, at his school, except with ship and passengers miniaturized.

This scenario was striking in terms of imagery, but fails to work as drama by itself, and was certainly out of place in the more sophisticated programme Whitaker and Verity Lambert crafted over the first year. Planet of Giants only went ahead, according to fan lore, because the scenario had been given prominence in the series' format document before Lambert and Whitaker were assigned to the Doctor Who project and they believed that their superiors were adamant that the 'minuscules' concept be executed.

The way Louis Marks's script acts upon this is to add extra elements which make the plight of the miniaturized TARDIS travellers easier for the audience to relate to. The presence of the DN6 insecticide and the knowledge that they are in the house of a murderer rapidly become more concrete threats to the travellers' well-being than the problems of their size; even if they could communicate with the nearest human beings, they are presumed hostile. Nonetheless, for at least the first episode the travellers' environment is well-realized, with giant seed packets, wheat grains, some still quite scary puppet insects, and calculated use of back projection which makes even the most guileless-looking domestic cat a threat. One domesticated feline in 1964 could have ensured the success of the Dalek invasion of Earth two centuries later.

This is as much the regulars' story as any since Inside the Spaceship, as they are utterly isolated from the other characters. The Doctor and Susan have mellowed considerably in the eleven months since An Unearthly Child, but even seemingly humorous and throwaway exchanges can serve to enhance their otherworldliness. There's a moment where the Doctor and Susan are reminded of an air raid, an event for the older 1964 viewers as close as the fall of the Berlin Wall is today; the questions "How old are they? How long had they been living on Earth? How long had they been travelling, and how far backward and forward?" might spring to mind, only for the Doctor to then make a comment about Zeppelins; the Doctor and his granddaughter are remembering the First World War, not the second. Ian, the action hero, is rendered helpless in a matchbox, a scene of nervous high anxiety and not one which one feels William Russell was able to take terribly seriously; in another moment he is too conscious of the need to take charge and provide a solution that he fails to listen to what Barbara is trying to tell him and silently connives with her decision to stoically succumb to the effects of DN6.

Series co-creator and BBC head of drama Sydney Newman seems to have wanted Doctor Who to encourage its younger viewers to become responsible members of the technocracy, but here its more responsible representative, Farrow, is fatally as interested in his sailing holiday as the report which will deny Forester, an ethically barren industrialist, government funding for DN6. Heroism comes from the ordinary village folk, the switchboard operator and her policeman husband, who see through Forester's attempts to impersonate the dead Farrow and take action to expose him as a killer. Homespun wisdom wins over the misapplication of education; Hilda and Bert, our heroes, could have walked off the set of Passport to Pimlico, and their scenes help make this perhaps the most mid-twentieth century of all Doctor Who, a series which otherwise liked to stress its modernity and futurism.

The final scene dispelled one of those phrases from fan lore which has been with me since childhood. In the early 1980s Doctor Who Monthly, as it then was, ran a feature called the Episode Guide which instead of offering a synopsis of each episode gave a summary of each episode's ending. That for Crisis, the third episode of this story, referred to the scanner screen showing only (from memory) "a grey, putrid sludge". This isn't what we see, only continued interference, suggesting that the TARDIS's equipment is fighting a power which is its equal: the caption 'Next Episode / WORLD'S END' intimates disaster.

Hindsight relegated this story to a curiosity: it was telling that it was the last story to be novelized by Terrance Dicks, who ended it with a reprise of his closing phrase from Doctor Who and an Unearthly Child: "Out there on [Skaro/Earth], the Daleks were waiting for him." The implication that a more exciting story was waiting to be told was obvious. However, there is a lot which foreshadows later Who in Planet of Giants, from the high camera angles which will become a trademark of the work of director Douglas Camfield, who receives his first credit on the third episode; the dedication of the crew in adverse circumstances, which results in remarkable props and sets such as the giant sink in which the Doctor and Susan are trapped, and overall probably more effective than the comparable The Web Planet a few stories later. This was of course not the last time Doctor Who would take the side of the ecology movement: Barbara, semi-conscious and near death as a result of her having touched poisoned wheat, is just as powerful an image as Jo Grant being threatened by a giant maggot. It's perhaps the most extreme example of the tendency in early stories for the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara to be as much victims of their situation as in charge of it, and the victory in this case, as in the first story, is sheer survival. It's not a dismissal to say that it's a brave exercise, because Planet of Giants largely succeeded at what it set out to do; it feels odd because it could not offer a viable template for the programme's future.