Planet of Giants is a remarkable serial, for a vast number of reasons. It is the first serial of the second season, and as such shows how, due to the success of the first season, the series began to forge its way forward in a new direction. It is ambitious and bold, with extraordinary scripts, fantastic performances and truly exceptional set design. The crew are now kitted out in some rather dapper new costumes, and the whole thing feels fresher. At only 3 episodes long, the pace is sharp and direct, with very little padding – although it had originally been intended to be 4 episodes, but at the request of Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman, the serial was shortened to 3, editing together parts 3 and 4 into a faster paced climax to the story.
The serial opens with the crew, dressed in their finest, waiting for materialisation. When it comes, however, it is interrupted by braying klaxons and flashing warnings, and the doors terrifyingly open of their own accord during the materialisation. As had already been stated in The Edge of Destruction, for this to happen can mean huge catastrophe, and the TARDIS crew quickly try to work out exactly what has gone wrong. The scenes with the crew working together are fantastic – at first, Hartnell comes across exactly how he started the first season, grumpy and crotchety, before suddenly realising what he is doing, and apologising to Barbara and Ian – “I always forget niceties under pressure”. It is a touching reminder of exactly how much his character has progressed and grown to appreciate these interlopers within the TARDIS.
Due to an explosion from within the scanner screen, the crew are unable to see what lays ahead of them, but the sensors all dictate that everything is safe, and so they step forth into a strange alien world. And what a world it is – Raymond P Cusick’s set designs to create this abstract world are truly breathtaking. As the group split, and separately discover a dead earthworm – “A giant snake... no eyes or head” – and a dead ant, they realise that they are on Earth, only they have shrunk to approximately an inch in height. The malfunction with the transcendental force field of the TARDIS has caused them to shrink. The cross-cutting between Susan and the Doctor explaining this to Ian and Barbara is very cleverly handled, reinforcing that they know far more about this sort of thing than the human companions do.
What’s so fantastic about this first episode is that it twists the expectations of the audience. Having sat through the entire first season, there was a definite formula; the contemporary audience knew that there were two types of story, sci-fi and historical. Whilst Ian and Barbara were desperate to get home to their own time, the only time the TARDIS landed on Earth was during an important historical period which allowed for a formative educational backdrop. Otherwise, they were surrounded by aliens dealing with their own historically significant crises. So, when the title captions ran, and “Planet of Giants” appeared, the audience would have been expecting a sci-fi story. What Louis Marks’ script does so successfully here, with the assistance of Cusick’s incredible design work, is create a truly unsettling alien world, of monstrous aliens and unknown creatures, only then to show us that this is, in fact, Earth. Everything is distorted due to the size of the crew, and the Doctor has finally managed to get the crew back to their own time and place, only to make it impossible for them to leave due to their miniscule stature. Everything becomes dangerous – the huge trek to the house is exhausting, and banal everyday objects such as a sink and a book of matches become deadly. It truly is wonderful.
The camera panning out to show the house is one of the most majestic shots ever realised in Doctor Who. Just as we learn that the crew are stranded on Earth, only an inch tall, we pan out to show the front of a house, and meet the supporting cast – who, interestingly, never share a scene with the TARDIS crew. Frank Crawshaw’s portrayal of Farrow, a man harrowed by his task of writing a report on the insecticide killing off all of the living organisms in the area, is wonderful – his whistling, wearied responses to all of Forrester’s arguments are brilliant. Sadly, Alan Tilvern’s slimy villainous Forrester doesn’t agree – and swiftly pulls a gun on him and shoots him in cold blood. Tilvern’s performance is spectacular – he oozes repellent charm, with his hair slicked back and in his well-cut suit, he is atypically a capitalist sleazebag. As he looms over Farrow, he looks so intimidating – and his name, too, deserves some credit – that someone who cares so little about the environment, and is only interested in financial gain, is called Forrester is fantastically ironic.
Episode 2 features a stellar performance from Jacqueline Hill, as Barbara becomes infected by the DN6, but decides to silently cope, rather than admit her mistake of handling the infected grain. Her distracted rubbing of her hands and the frequent glances she throws at them throughout are wonderfully restrained. The scene in which she knows that the Doctor and Susan are back is equally fantastic – she forgets all about the infection, showing that her faith in the Doctor is complete, and she knows everything will turn out alright in the end.
When Barbara sees the fly on the grain, it is a laudable special effect – the realisation of the fly is one of the single most effective creations in Doctor Who history. It is magnificent, repulsively vibrating as it rubs its legs together and positively thrums with excitement. Whilst the aliens in Doctor Who at this point can be iconic, as with the Daleks, and effective, as with the masks of the Sensorites, this serial shows Cusick at his very best – something so ordinary becomes incredibly malevolent. The greatest set within the entire serial is, in my opinion, the sink – what at first looks like a blown-up photograph, like Farrow’s face in episode 1, turns out to be a fully-functional set, with scale plug, plug-hole and drainage. It is incredibly ambitious, and something utterly believable. It also leads to the most effective cliff-hanger yet, as something as ordinary as washing your hands becomes perilous to the crew.
Episode 3 is a triumph too. Whilst it should have been two separate episodes, it is interesting to think how this would have looked had it not been shortened. The pace is incredible, and the action barely stops – we can imagine that far more exposition and footage of the travellers moving back and forth between the sink and the telephone would have slowed down the pace. There are one or two complaints about this episode, though – when the crew discover the notepad with the formula on, Ian’s protestation that he is “not very well up on this, Doctor” and that it is “about as far as I go” do not ring true, considering that in a former life he was a Chemistry teacher. Likewise, Forrester’s plot to throw the ministry off by pretending to be Farrow is ridiculously unbelievable – he simply covers the mouthpiece with a tissue, and doesn’t even try to impersonate Farrow’s voice. Bearing in mind the dreadful speech impediment of Crawshaw’s Farrow, it is unfathomable how Forrester thought he would get away with this basic con.
However, that is nit-picking – it does lend itself perfectly to the resolution of the serial, where Forrester’s plans are not overthrown by the Doctor and his companions, but rather a very nosy phone operator who listens in and realises that they are the same voice. Sending her police constable husband to investigate, it is her, rather than the explosion devised by the Doctor and his crew, which saves the day, and potentially the population of the world.
A wonderful touch, too, comes at the very end of the episode, in the lead-in to next week’s adventure, incidentally reuniting the Doctor with his nemeses the Daleks – as he manages to get the scanner working again, he comments about seeing where the TARDIS is taking them next – and as the scanner screen flickers to life, all it shows is the ‘next time’ card, warning us that their next adventure is at the “World’s End”. Fantastic.