The opening serial of the second season of Doctor Who, Planet of Giants saw the return of the Tardis Crew after a break from the television screens of a mere six weeks. The penultimate serial to feature all the original cast members, Planet of Giants, albeit in a somewhat divergent form and with a different writer, was originally intended as the premiere serial of the first series. Rather unsurprisingly given its infancy, the ninth Who story was the first since the premiere episode, An Unearthly Child, to be set in modern day England. That being said, the action is all studio based and not a glimpse of London can be spied. Although modern day London was featured prominently in the season three finale, The War Machines, viewers didn’t have to wait that long to see the recognizable landmarks of England’s capital. Set in the twenty second century the next serial, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, would undoubtedly have satiated the tastes of all those viewers seeking earth-bound points of reference. That story, however, is for my next review.
Planet of Giants was an ambitious story, beautifully realized on what was undoubtedly a budget almost as minute as the Doctor and his companions were in the serial. Originally filmed as four episodes, but cut to three to quicken the pace of episodes three and four, Planet of Giants saw the Tardis Crew reduced to not much more than the size of ants. As the Tardis was materializing in a suburban London backyard, presumably to return Barbara and Ian home, the doors flung open. For reasons unable to be later explained by the Doctor, the ship and its occupants were shrunk. The Tardis Crew, however, were unaware of their diminutive size until they stumbled upon a series of strange and perplexing objects whilst exploring outside. After splitting into two groups, Ian, with Susan, initially presumed that they had landed in the middle of some form of trade fair. An exhibition, of sorts, in which huge copies of various objects were on display. Ants were the size of dinosaurs and matchboxes like houses. It was Susan, though, who quickly realized that it was the Tardis Crew that had been shrunk. Perhaps it was her alien antecedents that permitted her to see that which Ian couldn’t.
Soon the Doctor and his companions were confronted by the hazards that naturally confront ant sized people. Ian, who had climbed into a near empty match box, was picked up and carried away but a short distance. He was bounced around the matchbox brutally, slamming uncontrollable from side to side. To the others, this otherwise short stroll across a nicely manicured lawn to be reunited with Ian was a treacherously long haul. The Doctor, who was now much more concerned about the well-being of his companions, was insistent on locating “Chesterton”. Eventually they are reunited.
In the interim, the viewers were witnesses to a conversation about a new insecticide, DN6, between Farrow, a “Ministry” man and Forrester, a conniving business person whose income and life style is dependent upon the approval, production and marketing of DN6. Developed by the scientist Smithers in his back yard laboratory, DN6 has the capacity to kill more than just insects and remains effective indefinitely. Farrow had learned of the potentially fatal consequences of DN6 whilst preparing a report for the government, however the insecticide’s inventor, Smithers, seemed blindly unaware of its hazards. Unprepared to risk losing approval for DN6, Forrester shoots Farrow dead. He soon after reveals the murder to Smithers, thereby implicating him as an accessory after the fact.
The Doctor and his companions are confronted by Farrow’s body on the lawn but are soon separated again when Ian and Barbara seek shelter in a brief case. The brief case is picked up and carried inside the house. Barbara considered the ride in the suitcase not dissimilar to that of a roller coaster and sustained a bad bruise to her knee from an unsecured paper clip. The Doctor and Susan must now rescue the teachers and in doing so encounter adventures galore. Whilst outside a domestic cat was a menacing beast, inside a common sink and drain is sufficient to make out heroes contemplate imminent death by drowning. Lighting a match is akin to ramming a stockade, whilst lifting a telephone receiver is almost as laborious as lifting a London bus an inch off the ground.
Perhaps what I admire most about this story is its strong environmental message. Concern for the long term effects of pesticides is something I would have thought was rarely discussed in the early 1960s. It’s certainly Doctor Who’s first venture into enviro-politics, an area of much concern in a number of Third Doctor serials including Inferno and The Green Death (yes, the one with the giant maggots!). Not only is the Doctor concerned about the effect of the insecticide on his companions – he advises them not to eat or drink anything – but also other insects. When Barbara questions what would kill insects in an ordinary garden, and then posits that killing “bees, and worms, and things” is wrong, the Doctor concurs and states that “Quite so. Both are vital to the growth of things”.
Barbara, who absolutely shines in this story, subsequently becomes gravely ill after touching a grain of wheat which had been sprayed by insecticide. Ian, who is with her at the time, does not notice and upon realizing her error, Barbara hides her actions from him. This is in spite of the fact that Barbara had asked to borrow Ian’s hanky and was aggressively attempting to clean the poison off her hands. The usually observant and intelligent Ian was clearly away with the fairies on this occasion. Once Barbara becomes so ill that she collapses, and can no longer deny that she touched the insecticide, the Doctor determines that they must return to the Tardis as soon as possible. When the ship’s crew is returned to their normal sizes the pesticide will only be 1/70th as potent on Barbara, the Doctor asserts. Naturally the Doctor was entirely correct and at the serial’s end the grain of wheat which was taken into the Tardis with much physical exertion, had resumed its normal proportions. Barely could it be seen.
A thoroughly enjoyable romp, with an honourable message and momentous adventure, the Planet of Giants was a memorable start to Doctor Who’s second season.
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.