Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Serial 9: Planet of Giants

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Susan, Ian, and Barbara

Written by: Louis Marks
Directed by: Mervyn Pinfield & Douglas Camfield

Background & Significance: One of the things that strikes me about watching Doctor Who out of order like this is the show's approach to season openers and finales. It's most interesting early on in the show's history, when Doctor Who was broadcast weekly like clockwork and there was very little delineation between seasons. (Really, it was just a sixish week gap, which is barely anything when you're broadcasting over forty weeks a year).

So this is the kickoff to Doctor Who's second season, and what a kick off it is.

The most interesting thing about "Planet of Giants" is the core conceit/concept, which, for those who don't know (MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST HALF OF EPISODE ONE) is that the TARDIS and her crew are all shrunk down to miniature and it basically becomes "Honey I Shrunk the TARDIS" for three parts. This was, interestingly enough, one of the major ideas the production team wanted to do right from the very beginning. It was planned to be one of the first things they ever did on the show (going so far as to be one of the first four stories to be transmitted), but it was pushed back and back and season one became season one (scifi, historical, scifi, historical, etc), and then here we get this new story that is something totally different.

It's written by Louis Marks who would later go on to write "The Planet of Evil" and directed by Mervyn Pinfield with additional work by Douglas Camfield (specifically the "abridged" final episode).

But the thing that strikes me most about this story is the way it just sets up things that are coming down the line. Susan's departure, for one, seems nothing but inevitable, and the whole shrinking thing just pushes The TARDIS into weirder "let's do whatever we want" territory that's... extremely welcome, if you ask me. Watching the Hartnell stories later in the watching of Doctor Who (and helped by reading the thoughts of people who've watched the show differently than I did, that is to say: in order), it's rather brilliant to see just how far the production team is really pushing itself in these first two seasons, where they're only Doctor Who stories in retrospect, not in any sort of "this is a Doctor Who story" sorta way.

"Planet of the Giants" itself was considered by the BBC unfeasible and boring as a four part story and was, unfortunately, edited for time. This resulted in episodes three and four being mashed together and sliced down into one. Honestly, I doubt you'd be able to notice (that said, I'm looking for it this time), but it's a point to note. There's rumours that it'll be around in some capacity for the forthcoming DVD release, but that's another point for another time.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

It’s fascinating how much this story echoes things that will be done later, but does them in completely different and interesting ways. (Arguably better, but we’ll get to that).

For starters, we have the TARDIS malfunction, as it is wont to do fairly often. But in this case the TARDIS seems to detect no problems whatsoever and sends them outside without the use of the scanner for warning or what have you. It’s interesting and convenient that the TARDIS (with all of her infinite wisdom) manages to make the great shrink happen and doesn’t mention it to those it will inevitably end up affecting the most. More than just about anything else, it reminds me of something the TARDIS says in “The Doctor’s Wife”, when she says, “I didn’t take you where you want to go, I took you to where you were needed.”

Clearly (as we’ll find out later) The Doctor and his companions are absolutely needed here, but why does the TARDIS shrink them down to size like she does?

On a purely premise level, it’s definitely a sexy idea. It’s one of those things that layers in just how weird and strange and mysterious the TARDIS actually is and it really takes the form of Doctor Who (which, let’s admit CAN get stale) and completely subverts it in such a way that it feels fresh and unique and clever and cool even after fifty years. There’s never REALLY been another Doctor Who story quite like this one (although there actually has, but I’ll get there) and coming after fifty years of stories, that’s really saying something.

And from a character perspective, the show can’t have Ian and Barbara return to modern-day London, lest they leave the TARDIS forever.

But from a story perspective, I think the answer is something different, and it’s all in the lone scene in this episode that features Alan Tilvern as Mr. Forrester.

See, Mr. Forrester is the reason the TARDIS shrunk down for this story. Were The Doctor and co. actual regular people and they were dropped on Forrester’s doorstep (as they are here only, you know, if they weren’t small), they’d be in a hell of a lot of danger, more than they are just being here as little tiny people. That’s saying something, I think, and it’s a big claim to make, especially considering that they have to deal with tons of bugs, insects, and a cat (cliffhanger!), not to mention feet, and the fact that the world that they suddenly find themselves in is hardly designed for mini-people.

Let’s say it didn’t happen like this, though. Let’s say it was just them in person trying to stop Mr. Forrester. Know what Mr. Forrester would do? He’d shoot them. He’d shoot them dead.

Mr. Forrester is one of those bad guys I really like. He’s rotten, and rotten to the core. Is he nuanced at all? No, but that’s hardly a bad thing (there are more egregious errors you can make) especially considering that his goals and objectives are clear. He’s also a believer, and he doesn’t care about anything except himself. That’s good, if you ask me. Sure, there could be more nuance, but Forrester’s actions and beliefs tell you that he is far more dangerous if you come up against him while big than if you come at him from being small.

This is the strength of this story. The Doctor and co. solving this mystery and dealing with Mr. Forrester… if they were tall it’d be more akin to Hardy Boys than it would to Doctor Who. But the shrink factor really does wonders for it here.

And already it works. Everything in this episode is extremely well thought-out and composed. I love the earthworm bit and the reveal of the ant and the placard revealing the advertisement… they’re all extremely well done. But it’s the touches like cross cutting between The Doctor and Susan as they reveal what it is that’s happened to them, or the moment when you hear the “thunder clap” that’s actually the one dude being shot dead that make me really really love this episode. It allows them to find interesting ways to tell the story without being hamfisted or obvious about it.

Great stuff. As always.

Part 2:

So remember how I said it’s weird that they sorta kinda never really did this basic conceit or premise again? Yeah… remember how I said “sorta kinda?”

If I had one story to compare “Planet of Giants” to it’s “Carnival of Monsters”, and really it’s extremely apt in a lot of ways. For one thing, the core conceit of “Carnival of Monsters” is much the same as the core conceit for this story (that is to say: The Doctor and his companion are shrunk down), but it goes further than that. For “Carnival of Monsters”, Robert Holmes wrote the story to be tremendously cheap so they could cut down on booking guest cast: specifically, he kept them completely separate with only The Doctor and Jo bridging the two storylines.

“Planet of Giants” is like “Carnival of Monsters”, only taken to an extreme.

For one thing, it’s clear by this point that (spoilers) the TARDIS crew and Mr. Forrester are not really going to share any scenes together (because it would run the show completely over) and so they’re both stuck in completely separate spheres of influence and storyline. And it’s something that’s… really interesting and also unique. It doesn’t always work (“Vengeance on Varos” is a great example), but it does lead to a good amount of plotting. It doesn’t take much to get the TARDIS crew inside if you just shove them in the briefcase. So it’s like a shortcut and loophole without actually feeling like one.

It’s also telling how much influence the TARDIS crew has on this story, especially at this stage in the game, which makes this a rather excellent bridge between the first two seasons of Doctor Who (but I’ll discuss that next episode…).

I’m also fascinated by the different pairings of teams in this. I love that The Doctor and Susan are paired together, as are Ian and Barbara. Ian and Barbara are what’s interesting here, getting in the thick of all the things that are happening and stumbling across poisoned wheat and flies and office equipment. It’s interesting that The Doctor is shunted aside for most of the episode, stuck with climbing his way to the top of a drain pipe in the hopes that it will lead him and Susan to Ian and Barbara.

And we also get a lovely cliffhanger of a basin slowly draining. It’s a great moment and a great closing image, especially because the screen doesn’t go black until the sink has completely drained. Great cliffhanger.

We also get some lovely stuff with Ian and Barbara, the kinda stuff that really just… rocks. The way Barbara hides her poisoning is intensely, immensely human, and it’s a welcome added amount of stakes to get her back to the TARDIS. I love watching them figure out what to do next, and the play between Hill and Russell is outta this world. It’s also completely understated, but I love the fact that the scene in which she picks up the seed is one whole, uninterrupted shot. It really allows them to get into the moment and their characters in a  way that most shows don’t allow them to. Again, it’s the little things.

It’s a strong episode, but there’s not much I can say about it beyond that. Why? Because… Just because.

Part 3:

The thing that strikes me the most about part three is the sheer amount of set pieces we get in this episode.

What’s interesting to think of is how many set pieces we didn’t get because this episode was actually the amalgamation of two different episodes, because what’s here is actually rather delightful. It’s fun to watch The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan all attempt to make a phone call and what’s more delightful than thinking about how hard it must have been for Ian and Susan to light that match by running past it over and over again?

To make matters more interesting, it’s worth noting that each of these set pieces actually advance the plot rather effectively. Were it not for their attempt to ring the police, they never would have inadvertently tipped off the authorities. Were it not for the lighting of that match, they never would have exploded the can of insecticide all over Mr. Fellowes’s face. It leads to an exciting and thrilling sort of conclusion that does feel rather strong and well-paced, despite being a Hartnell episode. I mean, it’s really hard to argue that these two episodes mashed together didn’t help the overall product.

But it also means The Doctor stays in the story and gets involved, despite previously not wanting to. According to Philip Sandifer, this is another step in The Doctor becoming a hero: staying behind intentionally in an effort to stop evil. All that’s left is for Susan to leave, but that’s up in the subsequent story.

And it’s nice to see Hartnell acting that way. For one thing, this is some amazing Hartnell. He’s always rather good, but the way he grabs the seed and takes it under his arm is the sort of wonderful mischievy that I love from The Doctor, especially from an elderly man such as Hartnell and such. It’s also interesting to see him try an experiment, but isn’t it an awful risk to take that seed into the TARDIS? What if it didn’t shrink? What then, Mr. Hartnell? What then?

It's also a huge risk to just blanket assume that making the TARDIS bigger won't make the viruses bigger with the ship.... What then? I mean, it's a fair question and rather surprising The Doctor took such a risk.

I also think it’s mad hilarious how Mr. Fellowes thinks that covering the receiver with a cloth will mask his voice… I dunno. Maybe he had a grandmother who did that once, but she was actually changing up her voice and then he thought all she did was the cloth. Regardless, in what world does covering the handset with a cloth fix your voice so it doesn’t sound like your voice? Because ummm… I doubt that works. But I love that the people on the other line aren’t nearly convinced at all. It just makes him sound a bit muffled and all that. I am far from convinced.

It’s also interesting to see just how daft the assistant to Fellowes actually is, and to see that he didn’t realize that Fellowes killed him OR that DN6 was tremendously poisonous. Talk about an idiot of a scientist.

All in all it’s just a fun end to a fun story. The bad guys lose, the good guys win (and they did a good deed). There’s a ton of set pieces. It’s a good time. It’s nowhere near an episode too long, it’s just solid.

Final Thoughts?: So really, all it is is a solid story.

In the end, there's not really a lot to talk about. There's two parallel stories that are both entertaining and amusing and rather well done, and a bunch of fun set pieces that are just... super cool...

But really, I don't know what else to say. It's always nice to see The Doctor and Barbara and Ian and Susan again, and they all play very well off each other. I kinda wish they had the opportunity to meet up and interact with the guest cast, but... we can't have everything. And besides, they're plenty strong just by staying where they are in terms of the story. The main plot doesn't need them, and it's even more interesting and clever without them. It's fun to watch them knock the dominoes just slightly enough that they put all the events of the final episode into motion.

So it's solid. And I apologize this entry is short but (among other things), there's not a whole lot to say about it other than it's really solid and it's got some great early Doctor stuff. It's basically everything you could want out of Doctor Who.

Except without aliens, spaceships, planets, or just about any science fiction whatsoever.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Romana II! Adric? E-Space Place! Evolution gone mad! Entropy (of course)! And some other stuff. Yeah. Just stuff. Next MONDAY we kick off our week long look at "Adventures in E-Space" or "The E-Space Trilogy" (whichever you prefer) with "Full Circle!" followed by "State of Decay" on Wednesday and "Warriors' Gate" on Friday!

1 comment:

  1. Another that I haven't had a chance to see, but your review makes me want to track down a copy pronto... thanks! I love the First Doctor, Ian and Barbara (never been so keen on Susan), and this one really does look like a lot of fun. I rather thought you'd make reference to the two shrink-y stories in Nu-Who's series 6 as well as carnival of monsters, but neither of those were for extended periods of time so it's quite understandable :)