|The real problem with the giant phone props is how
easily you can see the human operators.
It’s October 31, 1964. Sandie Shaw has the number one single with “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me,” and will hold it for two more weeks before yielding to Roy Orbison.
Since Doctor Who was last on the air, Martin Luther King has won the Nobel Peace Prize, and thirteen years of Conservative rule in Great Britain has come to an end, with Harold Wilson becoming Prime Minister, a position he will hold until 1970. Wilson’s term will be dominated by two trends – significant economic problems (that will eventually result in his being voted out of office) and the rise of British counterculture – a tendency started by the Beatles, who Wilson would ensure received an MBE strategically close to his 1966 re-election.
The wound caused by the Kennedy Assassination is festering. The world is not a stable place. The collapse of the British empire continues, with Rhodesia becoming Zambia. It is easy, in 1964, to be afraid. The year is closer to World War II than it is to Nintendo. It is in no way clear that the defeat of the Nazis was anything other than a postponement of the end of the world.
And now Doctor Who is back. Planet of Giants, along with the next story, are odd holdovers – filmed in the first production block and held back a few months, they are the transition from the first season of Doctor Who to the second. These will be the nine most important episodes of Doctor Who since the Daleks and Edge of Destruction.
Planet of Giants, on the face of it, may seem like a relatively insignificant episode. Its concept – the TARDIS crew gets shrunk – is one that was attempted twice in the first season, and was actually just about the only idea Sydney Newman, who created Doctor Who, actually had for the series. Now, in its third go-around, this somewhat puzzling idea is actually implemented. The constraints this leaves on the story are significant. Although there is a supporting cast, the TARDIS crew never interacts with them directly, making it an odd juxtaposition of a chamber piece in the Daleks-episode-one tradition and, basically, an episode of The Avengers (a TV show we’ll deal with in time, as, although it exists now, it will not reach its iconic and most influential form for a year yet).
But there are three vitally important things that happen in this story – three things that make this bit of strange fluff an extremely vital turning point in the series.
First of all, this is the first time that Doctor Who has been set in contemporary England since Ian and Barbara fell out of the world. Eventually, contemporary England will become vital to Doctor Who, most obviously in 1970, but Hartnell actually only has two stories set in it, and this is one of them. Still, the return to the present is a key opening of a door that, although it will sit relatively unappreciated for the next few years, will eventually become very important.
This is one of several things that leads these episodes to actually be quite well-paced – although the decision to reduce the final two episodes into one episode helps that a lot as well, resulting as it did in things like the exciting sequence where the Doctor and Ian map the molecular structure of a pesticide getting cut. The bulk of the dramatic weight in this story comes from Barbara, who continues to be jaw-droppingly impressive. Whereas William Russell seems largely incapable of mustering any dramatic registers other than stunned fascination and terror – and those two are only distinguishable via context – Jacqueline Hill is actually quite compelling. She and William Hartnell are, by this point, the heart of the show – it positively sings when the two of them are on camera together.
Indeed, this episode seems to me to make it even clearer that there is a romantic tension between the Doctor and Barbara. His concern for her seems to surpass even his concern for Susan, and it is a concern that is characterized primarily by respect for her. The Doctor is actively affectionate and apologetic towards her, and, perhaps more to the point, acts very similarly towards her to how he did with Cameca in The Aztecs. It is difficult to argue that this is an overtly sexual relationship – in no small part because that involves the dreadfully unpleasant business of sexualizing the First Doctor – but it is equally difficult to argue that the tension is not present. Take, for instance, the scene in this story in which Susan attempts to climb up a steep surface, and fails. Barbara goes to try, and the Doctor stops her, saying it’s dangerous. At which point Carole Ann Ford – who a glance at Edge of Destruction will confirm is actually quite a good actress when someone takes the time to write her a role – looks immensely irritated that it was OK for her to risk her life, but the Doctor is pampering Barbara. It’s solidly subtle and sophisticated storytelling.
Thus when Barbara is poisoned by the insecticide that forms the major threat of the plot, it’s genuinely gripping. The growing realization that something is wrong with Barbara is one of the creepiest, darkest moments Doctor Who has yet offered, and the show previously gave the entire cast terminal radiation poisoning. Jacqueline Hill even makes a sequence in which a giant rubber fly is pushed into shot behind her gripping.
The ability of Jacqueline Hill to make Barbara a gripping and dramatic character leads directly to the second major development of this story. In part three, the Doctor knows that escaping to the TARDIS will cure Barbara. Nothing is actually keeping him from the TARDIS. But he insists on staying because Barbara wants to stop the insecticide from being made. Even though Barbara is dying, the Doctor opts to stay and fight for what is right. This switch is crucial – the Doctor is steadily becoming a crusader for good. And, for that matter, becoming a pyromaniac, declaring that he loves a good fire.
Again, all of this is nascent. It is not yet that Doctor Who is Doctor Who. Rather, more and more of the parts of Doctor Who are being moved into place. After all, the basic plot of the story still amounts to a TARDIS crash plot. Admittedly, even in the new series, TARDIS crash plots happen – the most recent season has four of them. And if this story were to be restaged, it would still have to be a TARDIS crash plot because the story needs some excuse to shrink the cast. But it’s still significant that there has yet to be a story where the TARDIS isn’t disabled and inaccessible. There are still things like that fact that have to be dealt with. But on the other hand, we can already see that the show is becoming Doctor Who additively. Since taking Ian and Barbara on board, Hartnell’s character has steadily been changing from the cranky, dangerous man of An Unearthly Child into the Doctor – a name he visibly adopts from Ian’s suggestion in the premiere.
There is a third key aspect of Doctor Who to show up in this story for essentially the first time: domestic horror. Now, this point is arguable – one could claim The Daleks as an essentially domestic horror story given the deliberate similarities between the Daleks and domestic appliances. But The Daleks merely made shapes scary. Planet of Giants is all about making domestic objects terrifying.
This is, in Steven Moffat’s view, the heart of Doctor Who – he has said many times (this interview being the first one I found) that Doctor Who is set under your bed. And one of the iconic images of Doctor Who is that of children watching it from “behind the sofa.” All of that began here, really with the first episode cliff-hanger in which the camera freezes on a still image of a cat that is menacing the TARDIS crew. The cliffhanger works. That’s the key thing to stress here – the show succeeds in making a lone cat, or, in the other cliffhanger, a man washing his hands (with the TARDIS crew stuck in the sink) truly terrifying scenes.
This episode, actually, is also worth remarking on because it’s a rare case of Doctor Who attempting a special effects bonanza. Which is usually a worrisome move, but in this case, the show actually pulls the effects off reasonably well – there are a few clunkers, in particular a giant phone that is particularly embarrassing given that a giant phone is one of the famous props from the now decade-old Dial M for Murder. But for the most part, in particular spurred by Raymond Cusick, the show’s reach and grasp are relatively in stride here.
Which is one of the odd charms of Doctor Who – one that does not make its debut here (that would be in The Daleks, where the eponymous monsters themselves embody this charm), but is well on display here – the way in which its juxtapositions are not just in setting from episode to episode, but in tone and quality within an episode. The aforementioned shot where Barbara is menaced by a giant fly is, as I said, quite good. And is then immediately ruined by Barbara gratuitously fainting. Enormously well-done shots and stagings juxtapose laughable crap on a regular basis.
And, crucially, the design team is already aware of this. One of the single worst special effects in Doctor Who is the early model shot of the TARDIS, which frankly looks like a seven-year-old knocked it up out of modeling clay in about five minutes, possibly while sniffing glue. It looks absolutely horrible, and is obviously a model. Which makes using it as the image of the shrunk-down TARDIS actually very clever, and results in what is possibly the most visually impressive shot thus far in Doctor Who, where the camera pans up from the crappy model to reveal that it is in fact a dinky miniaturized TARDIS in an ordinary back lawn, making the low quality of the model shot part of the storytelling. This is remarkably savvy, and demonstrates a self-awareness on the part of the show – something that will become altogether more important in the next televised adventure…