Doctor Who: Planet of Giants DVD Review: Reconstructing the Doctor

The legendary BBC program Doctor Who holds the world’s record for the most episodes of any series. The count is 788, plus various specials and one-offs. It is an incredible number any way you look at it, but for fans the earliest shows are the most sought after. This is because many are lost, due to money-saving efforts such as “wiping” old tapes, poor storage, and other mistakes made by the company.

The three-part Planet of Giants serial was the second season opener of the series, and originally aired from October 31 to November 14, 1964. It is the earliest one I have ever seen, and the new BBC DVD of it is something very special indeed. One reason for this is the simple fact that the serial features the First Doctor (William Hartnell), who defined the character for all who would follow. In 1964, Doctor Who was a relatively low-budgeted children’s show, just trying to stay alive in the cutthroat world of television.

As the first episode “Planet of Giants” opens, an alarm sounds inside the TARDIS, and the doors partially open. The Doctor is very concerned by this turn of events, as he knows it cannot be good. During the era of the First Doctor (1963-1966), his companion was his 15-year-old granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carol Ann Ford). Two adults are also along for the ride, Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), and Ian Chesterton (William Russell).

When the four depart the TARDIS, they come face to face with giant ants, earthworms, and bees. Thankfully, these are all dead. It slowly dawns on the group that they have landed on planet Earth, and the malfunction of the TARDIS has shrunk them to about an inch in size.

For a children’s show, the Planet of Giants serial is fairly sophisticated. The reason the insects are dead is because they were sprayed with an experimental pesticide. The poison is “deadlier than radiation” though, and the scientist who was testing it is planning on telling his superiors not to approve it because it is too dangerous. When the ruthless businessman who stands to make a fortune from the sales of the pesticide finds out that it will not be given the go-ahead, he shoots the man.

All of this drama takes place in front of the miniature Doctor and company, and they seem helpless to do anything about it. But this is the Doctor we are talking about, and his brilliance can never be underestimated. The group manage to alert the authorities by manipulating the telephone to be off-line. The ego of the businessman also contributes to his discovery, as he tries to use a fake voice to verbally approve the spray to his colleagues, and an alert operator picks up on it.

Much like Irwin Allen’s later U.S. TV show Land of the Giants, a great deal of the fun of Planet of Giants is in seeing how the miniature people cope with ordinary objects. A lot of business is conducted with a matchbox for instance, with the wooden matches appearing to the size of telephone poles. As a matter of fact, one of these matches literally ignites the climactic finale of the serial.

One of the elements of these new BBC Home Video Doctor Who releases that have been universally lauded are the extras. In the case of Planet of Giants, the bonus features are something very special indeed. This serial has an interesting back-story. First of all, it was originally intended to be the very first Doctor Who serial ever. For a variety of reasons, this did not happen, and the story was re-worked in a number of ways.

The most significant of this was the fact that Planet of Giants was originally written as a four-part show. In episodes three and four, there was a great deal more expository information which was cut out to make for a more exciting tri-part serial. Through the magic of 21st century technology, the episodes “Crises” and “The Urge to Live” have been reconstructed as written, and comprise the bulk of the special features. Since the scenes were never filmed, the reconstruction uses various effects, including CGI and static shots of the Doctor and others, while impersonators recite the dialogue. It is a fascinating addition to what is already a pretty good program.

There is a short documentary of the process involved in the reconstruction titled “Rediscovering “The Urge to Live”” (8 min). Two interviews that were recorded for The Story of Doctor Who (2003) are recycled, one with Carole Ann Ford (15 min), and one with producer Verity Lambert (14 min). Audio commentary, PDF materials, a photo gallery, and an odd Arabic Mono Option round out the special features.

Doctor Who: Planet of Giants is yet another brilliant entry in the ongoing mission to release the early episodes of this most excellent series. The work involved in reconstruction the original four-part script alone makes this a real “giant” among the BBC’s efforts to satisfy Doctor Who fans.

Greg Barbrick

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