Planet of Giants

Planet of GiantsEpisode 4 of Planet of Giants, titled The Urge to Live, was the first Doctor Who episode deemed too boring to air.  Seriously!  Taped towards the end of the first production block, but held over to be the premiere episode of Season 2 in October/November 1964, the BBC’s then-Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, ordered Episodes 3 and 4 to be spliced together in order to make for a tighter season-opener.  About 12 minutes of footage was cut from each episode and destroyed shortly thereafter.  Newman knew a thing or two about Doctor Who, seeing as it was, um, his idea in the first place, and this move proved to be one of his better proposals.

So.  Not making this up.  25% of this story was literally destroyed before it could be aired, and when the condensed version of Planet of Giants aired as a three-part story, almost nobody noticed that anything was missing.  When Terrance Dicks novelized the story 25 years later (the very last Hartnell-era story to be published in book form), he reinserted several of the missing scenes, but even then, the underlying material was so lightweight that the book barely topped 100 pages.

What is Doctor Who Fan’s reaction to this?  To recreate those 24 minutes of discarded material and put them back in the story.  That’s right.  A whole episode was destroyed because it was too boring for air, and now in 2013, it’s all been put back, via wacky editing, a replacement cast of voice actors, and truly horrible CGI.  Again, I am not making this up!

"No, Bert, seriously!  Those two young actors are really trying to impersonate us!"

“No, Bert, seriously! Those two young actors are really trying to impersonate us old folk!  And the guy who plays you, has a pierced eyebrow!”

I made the mistake of watching Planet of Giants spread out over five nights, distending the three-part story into an affair that never seemed to end.  I watched the first two episodes on separate nights, enjoying the irony that Episode 1 (the titular Planet of Giants) aired on Halloween 1964 and ends with the cliffhanger shot of a cat’s face (I bet they would have cast a black cat for the role had they correctly predicted the eventual air date).  I watched the recreated and reconstructed Episodes 3 and 4 on the next two nights, and then on night #5 went with the broadcast edit of Episodes 3/4, combined into what we now know as Episode 3, or Crisis.  For one of the classic series’ shorter stories, watching it spread out over five nights… really does it no favors.

Which is a shame, because there are a lot of very nice individual moments.  The set designs, as our heroes (reduced to an inch high after a TARDIS malfunction) wander around inside an enormous flagstone-path walkway and then across an enormous laboratory bench, look as about as authentic today as any set constructed back in 1964 could ever look.  It helps to simultaneously play the DVD pop-up production notes, which take great pains to show how well the normal-sized and over-sized sets were matched up together by the directors  The composite shot of the house still looks great, even now.  And Dudley Simpson, scoring the show for the first of what would be 61 times,  brings his A-game; the incidental music is sardonic and fits in with the almost-a-kids’-show theme of the episode (I do believe he uses violin to accompany the cat’s-face cliffhanger)

"Look at the size of that thing!"

“Look at the size of that thing!”

The character portrayals, however, are a bit of a mixed bag.  This story was filmed during the first production season, and everyone had been working together for nearly a year, non-stop, at this point, but it’s Louis Marks’ first script and he clearly didn’t get a good read on the regulars’ personalities.  His … limited portrayal of Susan is par for the course by now, but his handling of Barbara seems rather baffling.  The high point comes at the beginning; the Doctor, apologizing to Barbara for what seems like the 19th time so far, says that “I always forget the social niceties under pressure.”  But once Barbara becomes infected by the poisonous insecticide… and doesn’t tell anyone … the story becomes what is now known as the “idiot plot”, in which at least one of the main characters has to behave like an idiot in order for the plot to unfold the way it does.  Watching the show in sequence, it’s hard to reconcile the lady who stood up to Ian in The Reign of Terror, to the Doctor in just about every other story to date, and to the entirety of the Aztec civilization… with someone who acquires a deadly illness that requires urgent medical attention… and refuses to tell anyone.

But here’s an interesting point about this script, at least as per the DVD production notes.  Planet of Giants wasn’t made because this was a story that Needed To Be Told.  This story wasn’t conceived because it beat out dozens of other less-impressive proposals in a competitive process.  These particular scripts weren’t produced because it was believed that Louis Marks had a better handle on characterization and dialogue than any other comer (note that he would not write for the show again for another 8 years after this).  Rather, this story was made because the production team needed a technically complex scenario in order to persuade the powers-that-be to grant them access to a larger and more modern studio than the cramped and obsolete studios in which they’d filmed the rest of Season 1.  And it worked, at least temporarily.  So this story is an important step in Doctor Who‘s evolution.  Thus, issues such as idiotic behavior within the script have to be accepted as an expedient.  If this means that the Episode 2 cliffhanger is a shot of a slowly-draining sink, so be it… next time I have a clogged sink at home, rather than call a plumber or buy Drano, I’m just going to play Dudley Simpson music in the background.

Whistle while you work...

Whistle while you work…

In Running Through Corridors, Rob Shearman points out that Frank Crawshaw, who plays Arnold Farrow, the British public servant who opposes the poisonous insecticide known as DN6, has the unusual-yet-comedic speech impediment causing him to whistle the letter “S”.  And is plunked down in a script that forces him to say “S”-heavy words such as “DN6” and “insecticide” (trust me, this sounds much funnier when Shearman is describing it).  I admit I’d never noticed this before, but now it’s impossible to not laugh like a less-mature 9-year-old when I watch his scenes.

The rest of the story, issues with Susan and Barbara aside, is quite ahead of its time.  The whole thing is inspired heavily by Rachel Carson’s environmental manifesto, Silent Spring.  The story’s villain, Forester (Alan Tilvern) is a soulless industrialist who will literally commit murder in order to protect his investment in, and expected profits from, DN6, no matter what the consequences to Farrow, to the environment, or to the TARDIS crew (who, in a nice story touch, he never meets).  Tilvern, incidentally, joins Derren Nesbitt in the hopefully accidental category of Jewish actors playing evil villains in early Doctor Who.  Anyway, the business aspects of this story still have resonance today; Silent Spring has fallen under intense criticism from libertarians, and one would wonder if in, the Doctor Who universe, there’s a spirited right-wing defense of DN6 and Forester’s company… if not of Forester’s murderous tactics.

"Help meeee!  Help meeeee!"

“Help me! Help meeeee!”

So let’s turn now to the elephant in the room.  Ian Levine, eccentric millionaire and the public face of Doctor Who fandom in the mid-1980s, evidently paid for the remounting of the material excised from Episodes 3 and 4 (because, if you’ll remember, those episodes as originally videotaped, were so dull that they sapped Sydney Newman’s Urge To Live).  Since every single guest cast member is now dead, and as only William Russell and Carole Ann Ford survive among the regulars, this meant hiring a lot of replacement voice-actors, of varying quality (this, incidentally, extends Ms. Ford’s tenure for the longest-ever portrayal of a teenager).  John Guilor, who played the role of William Hartnell for this production, is quite prolific and quite good.  Toby Hadoke steps in pretty effectively for Tilvern as the bad guy.  The rest of the replacement voices are… variable, at best.  The replacement for Smithers, Forester’s sniveling scientist sidekick, and the replacements for Mr. and Mrs. Rowse, respectively the village constable and switchboard operator who actually solve the mystery of Farrow’s murder, sound noticeably different from and more cartoonish than their originals.

What Ian Levine usually does with his reconstructions is commission new animation, but in this case, as most of the source material still exists, he and his staff mostly resorted to recycling existing footage.  There’s one particular tilted-angle shot of Alan Tilvern that crops up so often in the reconstruction that it became a family friend and I’m surprised that it didn’t show up as a guest at my nephew’s bar mitzvah this past weekend.  And then there’s… the cat.  Killing an animal in order to further a point is typically one of the lowest forms of drama.  We are fortunate that in the original version of Episode 3, the death of Smither’s house cat by DN6 poisoning, was removed.  For the reconstruction, though, the cat’s death is recreated, via very poor animation.  Seriously.  I’m not kidding.

We sat him at Table 5.

We sat him at Table 5.

Some of the restored material is excellent.  The Doctor delivers one of his earlier impassioned pleas for the necessity of interfering in the affairs of humanity.  Where he once refused to intervene in the name of human sacrifice, his dander is most certainly gotten up at the plague of dead earthworms in Smithers’ garden.  A moment in which the TARDIS crew attempts to evade Smithers’ cigarette smoke is found comedy, and one would hope that Dudley Simpson’s original musical accompaniment to this scene was suitably Benny Hill-esque.  However, the endless conversations between the Rowses (which amount to the pilot episode of CSI: Pastoral England) were better off lost, as were the similarly repetitive talks between Forester and Smithers about how to best dispose of Farrow’s corpse.  One other unfortunate loss, though, was Smithers’ revelation that DN6 destroys everything, so the reconstructions are worth it just for that “a-ha!” moment.

A last historical note is that the original Episode 4 was Douglas Camfield’s Doctor Who directorial debut; he was arguably the show’s best director during its original run, and it seems unfair that half of his debut material got destroyed.  Levine’s reconstruction can restore the scripts, but it can’t restore whatever clever directorial flourishes Camfield would have originally added to the proceedings.  One nice attempt at a nod to that is an added on-screen countdown from 10, as the Doctor attempts to dematerialize the TARDIS  and restore the travelers to full size.  I’m not a position to know if this is something Camfield actually did on the day Episode 4 was taped, but it’s a nice visual flourish all the same.

About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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8 Responses to Planet of Giants

  1. I enjoyed the three episode version of this story, but I’ve never seen the restored episodes three and four. I didn’t feel like the story was lacking anything in its three episode version, so I agree that it seems rather…unnecessary to restore them. I also agree about the bizarre behavior of Barbara. She seems to be a bit more like the Barbara from the very beginning of the series, before she grew and developed into a stronger character.

  2. drwhonovels says:

    The restored version of Episodes 3 & 4 is available as a special feature on the recent DVD release. It’s worth a look, although some of the production choices are cringe-worthy. As for Barbara, Louis Marks didn’t really do so well writing for companions in either of his two subsequent stories either.

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