The second season of Doctor Who had a lot to prove after the runaway success of the first. So it’s kind of odd that the production team went for such a low-key opener (actually something that’s par for the course these days in modern Doctor Who). The main hook is, of course, the concept of shrinking our time travelling buddies down to the size of ants. These days, it’s nothing new, since many films and TV programmes have pursued this hoary old plot device with different levels of success.
Doctor Who’s take on miniature disasters actually works well with some excellent set designs and visual effects. The sets from Raymond Cusick are very effective, as is the visual effect of the giant fly. The back projection of a giant hungry moggy isn’t quite so up to scratch but it’s passable enough – squint your eyes for the cliffhanger and you might dispel the feeling of one of those old Walt Disney movies. In fact, I was amazed that Dick Van Dyke didn’t come along to urge The Doctor and co to “Step in toym” to the mews of the giant cat.
Great effects. Strong concept. Lousy story. That’s the real problem with Planet Of Giants. We could have had some dramatic epic, full of eerie aliens or vicious monsters and a gripping, edge-of-the-seat plot. In the end, though, what we get is what looks like a dodgy used car salesman shuffling about, peddling his deadly new insecticide DN6. The upside of this is that the insecticide at least gives a plausible reason as to why the time travellers are shrunk in the first place (and neatly pre-empting the ecological concerns of the early 1970s stories). The downside of this is that the plot is so slow and sluggish, it could be outpaced by a pensioner running through quicksand.
Forester, the used car salesman, is actually a corny old evil businessman. He looks like a cross between Del from Only Fools And Horses and an Ealing film comedy version of Alan Sugar. There’s no denying that Forester’s bad news – he even resorts to murder – but somehow, he still feels like third-rate small fry in the pantheon of Doctor Who villains. Alan Tilvern tries hard, but he’s dragged down by poor character development and stereotyped panto baddie lines. Forester even gets his own ineffectual sidekick called Smithers. Long before the days of The Simpsons, the Smithers of Planet Of Giants is just as fawning and useless as his Malibu Stacy loving cartoon namesake.
Even worse, though, are the two “comedy” characters, Bert and Hilda Rowse, a pair of bumbling old fools, who could have fitted into any of those old Famous Five stories. Corny and clichéd, Bert’s and Hilda’s lone functions are to state the obvious in hammy, Ealing B-movie fashion. Good thing that there were no Doctor Who spin-offs in the 1960s, or we could have ended up with some dodgy sitcom in which Bert and Hilda set up their own amateurish detective agency in a village populated by bourgeois clichés. Long before the days of Hetty Wainthrop Investigates.
Such a shame, since the potential’s there, not just with the strong visual effects, but also with the regular characters, and once again, Jacqueline Hill plays a strong part in this. In Planet Of Giants, her reactions to the poison are very convincing, and add that all-important bit of realism to proceedings. Hartnell, Russell and Ford are also inevitably strong throughout.
Apparently, so the story goes, this tale was meant to be four episodes, but had to be cut back to three at the last minute. Considering that there’s not enough storyline to fill out three episodes, never mind four, you can only guess at what the other episode would have included. Forester’s version of The Apprentice in which all successful candidates must wear long camel-skin coats and smoke cigars. A music hall number from Bert ‘n’ Hilda. Or even Dick Van Dyke doing a tap dance number with William Hartnell.
Still, two of the show’s most talented behind-the-scenes stars make their débuts in this story. After two episodes of Mervyn Pinfield-helmed madness, prolific director Douglas Camfield makes his début. The third episode is by no means representative of his later outstanding work, but it’s still a competent enough start to a long and rewarding career that would see Camfield earn his place in the upper echelons of Who directors.
The other début is from a rather talented Australian composer called Dudley Simpson. Say what you like about Murray Gold, but in my humble opinion, he can’t even hold a candle to Simpson, who possesses that elusive knack of summing up the mood of a scene (whether it’s dramatic, comedic or poignant) so succinctly, without resorting to OTT orchestral or choral histrionics. A musical genius and my favourite Doctor Who incidental composer without a shadow of a doubt, ladies and gentlemen, I give you – Dudley Simpson.
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