Doctor Who: Planet of Giants
There are a number of popular games based on your date of birth, such as what was the Number One in the singles charts on the day you came into the world? (Herman's Hermits with “I'm Into Something Good”, just in case you ever wanted to know.) In Doctor Who fandom, one variant is “which episode was broadcast when you were born? As I was born between series one and two, the first episode shown in my lifetime was “Planet of Giants”, the first episode of the three-part serial of the same name, sent out into the ether when I was at the ripe old age of twenty-seven days. I don't remember it very well, if at all. It was released on VHS in 2002, towards the end of that line, which was when I was finally able to see it, and here it is in the tail-end of the DVD releases, with the number of surviving stories yet to come out on disc in single figures.
For the first time since the very first episode, the TARDIS lands on contemporary Earth. However, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan soon discover that something is amiss, following the discovery of a dead earthworm and an equally dead ant. They have been shrunk to about an inch in height. Meanwhile, in normal-height land, another plot develops. Forester (Alan Tilvern), an industrialist, and his assistant Smithers (Reginald Barratt) are working on DN6, a new insecticide. Farrow (Frank Crawshaw), a government scientist, confronts Forester and advises that DN6 should not go ahead because it is too dangerous, not just to the insects it is designed to eradicate, but to the insects on which agriculture depends. Forester is ruthless enough not to let anything stand in his way, and he shoots Farrow...
A miniaturised Doctor and companions was a storyline Who co-creator Sydney Newman wanted to include from the outset, and at one point some version of it was going to be the opening serial. In the end, written by Louis Marks after work from two other writers fell through, Planet of Giants became the last-but-one story in the first production block and was held over, after a month and a half's hiatus, to become the first story of Season Two. To put this in context, this was four years before US television made Land of the Giants, though no doubt films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man lurk in its DNA, not to mention the many adaptations of Gulliver's adventures in Lilliput.
Planet of Giants was written and produced as a four-parter, and Newman thought that it was too slow-paced as a season opener. At one point it was considered swapping it with the next story, The Dalek Invasion of Earth (also held over from the first production block), but that would have caused continuity problems as Carole Ann Ford left the show at the end of that serial. So the decision was taken to edit Episodes Three and Four (“Crisis” and “The Urge to Live” - back then episodes had invidual titles rather than the later convention of STORY TITLE Episode/Part N) into one, called “Crisis”. Mervyn Pinfield directed the first three episodes. Douglas Camfield, who had been a production assistant at the very beginning, made his directorial debut on the fourth, and gets sole credit on the re-edited version. So a rare example of a three-part story it became.
Who connoisseurs will find things to appreciate in the worst examples of the show, and it's fair to say that the principals are all on good form, and the serial is noteworthy for some excellent outsized set design from Raymond P. Cusick, in a change of pace from the “futuristic” stories he usually worked on. The technical challenges of making this serial in the tiny studio TC4 (with film inserts shot at Ealing Studios) should not be dismissed. This was also the first story for prolific composer Dudley Simpson. Planet of Giants was the first time Who dealt with an ecological theme, inspired by a then-topical book, Silent Spring Yet newcomers proceed with caution. It's no less contemporary (to the time it was made) than An Unearthly Child or, the next serial set on present-day Earth, The War Machines (leaving out the ending of The Chase and the now-lost Christmas episode of The Daleks' Master Plan), but somehow it's dated more than those, to the point of being creaky. Among the guest cast of five, telephone operator Hilda Rowse (Rosemary Johnson) and her policeman husband Bert (Fred Ferris) seem to have strayed in from something made at least a decade earlier. (It seems on a different planet to Z Cars, say, which began the same year.) After a very wordy first two episodes, the re-edited third suddenly picks up in pace – all things considered, those edits were a good idea – but I suspect many viewers may not last that long. Existing fans' mileage will vary.
Planet of Giants is released on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. As usual with the Who DVD range, there is an audio-descriptive menu option.
Planet of Giants was recorded in its original four-episode length using 405-line video cameras. The first two episodes were broadcast from two-inch quad tapes. Episodes Three and Four were intended to be broadcast that way too, but were transferred to 35mm film and edited that way, resulting in some rather sharp cuts you didn't see then in video material. The re-edited Episode Three was broadcast from a final 35mm print. However, that was junked long ago, along with the deleted material and the master tapes of the first two episodes. All that survive are 16mm telerecordings of the first two episodes and a 16mm print of the third which is either also a telerecording or a reduction print of the 35mm, no-one being certain which. The VHS release was the first Who release to be VidFIREd, and clearly a lot of work has been done to the surviving materials, so this is as good as you are ever likely to see, so the usual congratulations to the Restoration Team.
The soundtrack is the original mono, as you would expect, but here's a bonus. As well as the 16mm prints mentioned above, BBC Enterprises had in its possession all three episodes dubbed into Arabic. (A voice-over translates the series title, episode title and writer;'s credit, plus the “next episode” caption and the end credits.) Certainly one for the connoisseur this, but it does at least provide a record of how the show was watched, or rather heard, in certain parts of the world. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are provided for the episodes and all the extras except the commentary. Also available are the invaluable information subtitles, this time the work of Matthew Kilburn. These are up to the usual standard, though inevitably spend much of Episode Three detailing the deleted scenes.
Given that two of the regular cast, all of the guest cast and both directors are no longer with us, who would you expect to be on the commentary? William Russell and Carole Ann Ford and Raymond Cusick, moderated by Toby Hadoke? Well, that would be the predictable option, and by no means am I dismissing the contributions of those people, but points to 2Entertain for going beyond the obvious. However, Mark Ayres (composer in the show's later years, and much involved with sound restoration over the years of the DVD range) is the moderator. His guests are sound designer Brian Hodgson, makeup supervisor Sonia Markham, vision mixer Clive Doig and floor assistant David Tilley. All of these are present on all three episodes and the result is a good commentary, informative and appreciative without being blind to the story's shortcomings.
Those deleted scenes for Episodes Three and Four are long gone, but the scripts survive. What we do have on this DVD, produced by Ian Levine, is a full-scale reproduction of those two episodes' original form. This is accomplished by the not-too-obvious reuse of shots from the serial, some animation (for a brief scene featuring the cat) plus a newly-recorded soundtrack to plug the gaps. William Russell and Carole Ann Ford reprise their roles, with soundalikes playing the other parts, including Toby Hadoke as Smithers. You can spot the new scenes, as the ambience changes every time, but you have to commend everyone for the effort. This isn't something you can imagine on many DVDs, even more so when you consider that Planet of Giants is a distinctly minor entry in the Who canon. A featurette, “Rediscovering The Urge to Live” (8:30) gives the background to this.
The next two items are akin to the “Doctor Who Stories” interviews that have appeared on recent DVDs and are, like them, derived from interviews done in 2003. “Suddenly Susan” (15:19) features Carole Ann Ford, who goes through how she was cast, her expectations of the role compared to how it turned out, and her one year on the show story by story. She also has a lot of praise for original producer Verity Lambert, who features in “The Lambert Tapes” (14:01). This is subtitled “The Doctor”, which implies that there will be more to come on a future DVD. Lambert seems to take a short time to warm up to her interviewer but hits her stride, and describes how she came to cast William Hartnell in the role. In a reversal of the previous featurette, she discusses Carole Ann Ford as Susan, then on to the challenges of producing a futuristic show on a tiny budget in a cramped BBC studio, and how she commissioned Ron Grainer to write the theme tune with its hugely influential original arrangement by Delia Derbyshire. She does end with some sharp words about the direction of the show after she left, and after the actor she cast's departure. The 80s edition for her was overly camp and the work of people not believing in what they were doing, and you'll get no argument from me about that.
The extras are concluded by a self-navigating stills gallery (3:23), a Coming Soon trailer for the next DVD release, a special edition of Vengeance on Varos (1:10). Also on the disc in PDF format are Radio Times listings, which include an article on the returning show, and Cusick's prop design plans. This review is from a checkdisc, so an error in the Radio Times listings may have been corrected on the final retail version: we get two copies of the listing for Episode Two, “Dangerous Journey”, and none for “Crisis”. There are no Easter Eggs on this DVD.