‘Doctor Who’: ‘Planet of Giants’ DVD review

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The first season of Doctor Who ended up very different to how it was planned on paper. From the companion team that never was (Cliff, Biddy and Lola McGovern) to a TARDIS design concept that would have the TARDIS as an invisible bubble, many ideas fell by the wayside before they even got into studio.

Planet of Giants, produced at the end of the first season but held over to start the second, was a concept originally tipped to open the series, as the travellers navigated the dangers of Cliff’s science lab having been shrunk to the size of a fly. The treatment passed through several writers before landing with Louis Marks.

The story – and the season – begins with much drama as the TARDIS doors open before landing. Setting out to explore, the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan discover themselves in reduced circumstances, typified by giant insects, a monumental worm and matches the size of telegraph poles.

This is the result the unscrupulous Forester’s plan to monopolise coverage for his new agricultural insecticide – despite the fact that it kills all life, including vital parts of the ecosystem. When his man from the ministry threatens to expose the danger, Forester kills him. It is up to our miniaturised heroes to have him brought to justice – but how can they do that in their position?

Of course, this leads to a problem familiar to any fans of The Borrowers: interaction between the miniature heroes and the ‘Giants’ of the title. Planet of Giants favours keeping the two scales mostly separate – but this means that the attention to matching the Minis’ sets to the Giants’ props is nothing short of brilliant. The technical skill involved is breathtaking, displaying what was undoubtedly Doctor Who‘s best effects work and set design to date.

The spectacle helps to support the story, but the supporting characters are mostly forgettable, with the exception of Alan Tilvern’s nervous scientist, Smithers. The regulars are brilliant, with Jacqueline Hill and Carole Ann Ford wringing great performances from the script.

The strong environmental commentary of the story is commendable, but detracts somewhat from the storytelling. The Daleks and The Aztecs had already dealt with issues of nuclear war, xenophobia and blind faith, but in a way that supported the story, rather than being the story. As a result, the Doctor and his friends’ presence seem rather perfunctory.

Planet of Giants is still an entertaining and experimental three-part story, and it’s for the best that the story is not just about the dangers of miniaturisation. The only problem is that it becomes a matter of style over substance – a surprising rarity in ’60s Who!

Extras: The story was originally produced as a four-parter, but the final two episodes were cut down to a single episode to tighten up the action. Although all material was retained by producer Verity Lambert, the tapes were wiped some time before 1969.

Given the difficulty in producing a ‘Making Of’ documentary (Ford and Russell are the only surviving cast members), the decision was taken to reassemble the original episodes (Crisis and The Urge of Live) as best as possible. Overseen by director Ian Levine and producer Ed Stradling, the resulting reconstruction uses the original script as well as newly recorded audio of the missing scenes (with actors standing in for the cast no longer with us).

The result is surprisingly effective, and John Guilor’s First Doctor should be singled out for particular praise. The visual element consists of judiciously employed footage from elsewhere in the story, and Stuart Palmer’s CGI is used sparingly and effectively.

The overall result is a more proactive role for our heroes, there is also a lot of superfluous material. As such, both the three and four-part version have their flaws, but it’s a sheer delight to have both available to watch.

A short feature on the making of this reconstruction, Rediscovering the Urge to Live, features brief interviews with those involved and footage of dialogue recordings. The original and new cast members have an infectious enthusiasm for the project, and Russell and Ford’s encouragement of Guilor’s Hartnell is heart-warming.

Released on DVD on Monday 20th August 2012 by BBC Worldwide.

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