Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Planet of Giants

Susan: Can you get us back to normal size?
Doctor: Well, of course!  Yes, I'll try.  There's always a chance.

As the TARDIS crew exits to yet again explore their surroundings, they find giant dead ants and what appears to be a gigantic matchbox.  At first, it seems they're on a particularly strange world.

But they haven't actually landed on either a planet with giant insects (yet) nor have they shown up in an incredibly bizarre museum (yet).  They're actually on earth, in 1963, exactly where Barbara and Ian want to be.  It's just that they've all shrunk to about an inch high. (In a great touch, the Doctor and Susan figure out what's going on simultaneously, while paired off with Barbara and Ian, respectively.  It's a good character moment for both, and the intercutting is very effective.)

Consequently, Planet of Giants is basically a story based entirely around special effects.  That's the sort of sentence that makes Classic Who fans shiver.  But, amazingly, it pulls it off superbly.  Raymond Cusick yet again designs truly brilliant sets, carefully detailed and thought out.  The few scenes involving more difficult effects - such as the living fly - work remarkably well.

Best of all are the images of the crew looking up close at a dead body.  It's a frightening, Hitchcockian image.

And writer Louis Marks and directors Mervyn Pinfield and Douglas Camfield (taking over for the second half of Episode 3) come up with all sorts of clever things to do.  Neither the crew nor the full-sized humans can hear each other, as they wouldn't be able to.  Ian hides in a matchbox as a human looms overhead, only to find that the human was there specifically to pick up said matchbox.  The first cliffhanger is simply an ordinary cat.  And it's absolutely terrifying.  The crew's clever and difficult attempts to do seemingly simple tasks like dialing a phone number are genuinely exciting sequences.

... if only the plot wasn't so dull.  The basic idea of the shrunken heroes threatened by a too-powerful pesticide is compelling, but the weakly thought-out, lazily characterized and flatly acted scenes with the full-sized humans are so boring they constantly kill the story's momentum.

Even that might be forgivable if it weren't for the ending.  The TARDIS crew decides that despite their condition, they have to stay long enough to somehow prove the pesticide is too dangerous.  This ultimately leads to the heroes' thrilling climactic attempt to light a match so they can blow up a bottle of the pesticide, thereby causing a fire in the house, drawing enough attention that the plot could be uncovered.  Which is a great idea for a climax.

But despite the pesticide literally exploding in the villain's face, all the crew's heroics in the second half of the story are for nothing.  The plot is, in fact, solved by a phone operator who suspects something is strange when the villain calls her.  She just so happens to be conveniently married to a cop, and gets him to go check things out.  If our heroes had never showed up at all, it would have ended exactly the same, albeit without the villain getting blasted in the face by the pesticide (which he rinses off without any apparent effect).

The entire plot is not only boring, but a complete waste of time.  And in particular, it's a hugely disappointing payoff for that "set a fire" setup.  That should have made for a terrific close.

But it's hard to dislike a story where the quote "the heroes' thrilling attempt to light a match" isn't sarcasm.  Planet of Giants is a wildly ambitious story, attempting to deliver a adventure based entirely around visual effects despite a tiny budget and tight schedule, and succeeding.  In that way, it's a perfect opening for this season - a season where every story tries to do something it has no right to pull off, and then succeeds.  And more often than not, spectacularly.  Doctor Who's second season is a masterpiece of imaginative storytelling.  It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the second season is what makes it Doctor Who.  Planet of Giants isn't one of the peaks, but it aims really high and hits its target, even if it misses on several other important levels.

All the elements are in place.  The Doctor is heroic.  Ian and Barbara are successful companions.  Susan works well enough.  And the production team is confident, ambitious, and has the ability to do whatever they set their minds to.  After this, all they really need is a story that pulls all those elements together and knocks it out of the ballpark.

Time to bring back the Daleks!


* * ½


  • I also like how Susan calls the ship "TARDIS" rather than "The TARDIS", as though she accepts she's a fifth character.
  • Another obnoxious flaw: Barbara knows she's been poisoned by the pesticide, but doesn't tell anyone.  This is presumably to build suspense, but it's so stupid and out of character that it drains much of the suspense the subplot could have had it the desperation to save her had been at the forefront.  
  • I love the delighted excitement Hartnell gives the Doctor when he suggests they start a fire.

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