The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Look at the Scale of Things": Planet of Giants/Dangerous Journey/Crisis

Right, there are two ways I could go about this. The first is I could be glib, and say that the primary merit of this three part story (that's the originally aired version available on BritBox, so that's what I watched; I gather the four part version has been reconstructed) is that it preserves the beauty of a particularly nice-looking calico cat.

The other is to admit that the second season of Doctor Who starts with...mot exactly a whimper, but a misfire. It's not that there aren't things to like in this odd story; it's just that it doesn't work as a whole. But the good is quite worth seeing. Let me explain:

The story begins in the TARDIS, shortly after it left Revolutionary France. But not immediately; the travelers have all changed (the Doctor is swanning about in a cloak rather like that he received in The Sensorites, but (so it appears) lighter in color), when suddenly the TARDIS doors try to open in mid-flight, the console is hot enough to burn Barbara's hand, and the travelers barely manage to land intact--in fact, the scanner shatters, when they try to view their surroundings.

Team TARDIS spills out into a canyon, and discovers that they are surrounded by huge (but very, very dead) earthworms, ants and other insects. They wander around in two groups trying to figure out where they are, when they discover that giant humans live on this planet. Giant humans who use giant English products made in (seemingly) giant English manufacturing locales...

In a neat touch, the Doctor (with Barbara) and Susan (with Ian) realize the truth at the same moment, and explain it in the same words: the planet and its inhabitants aren't giants--the TARDIS and its occupants have shrunk, with the travelers reduced to an inch in height. Susan is sharp here, overriding her onetime science teacher with the same authority Hartnell as the Doctor brings to his explanation to Barbara. She is once again the brilliant "Unearthly Child" of the pilot, who has intermittently shown up when she isn't screaming. Carole Ann Ford is great as this Susan, and it's good to see her in a more mature and compelling role.

The travelers try to find Ian (who rather stupidly hid in a briefcase to avoid being spotted, and literally was carried away. Barbara makes the mistake of touching a huge seed, and begins to sicken...

Meanwhile, a greedy investor and an idealistic (albeit obsessed) scientist are hosting (at the scientist's home and personal lab) a government scientist who is testing the safety and efficacy of a new insecticide that will (if it works properly) end world hunger and make the investor a fortune (which he needs, having sunk all his money into it). The regulator realizes the insecticide is too effective--it kills everything, and for decades. When he tells the investor, in the absence of the scientist, the investor, er, kills him. Sorry, old chap. He tells the scientist that Farrow (the government scientist) was corrupt, and going to end the project--and thus no end to world hunger, so the scientist agrees to move the body.

Oh, my insecticide!

If this sounds like a crossover between Doctor Who and Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), well it bloody well feels like one. The two stories run parallel to each other, only intersecting occasionally, and at the end, when the Doctor and Barbara work out the harm the insecticide will do, and they try to get the attention of the police to not just the murder, but the underlying cause. That's when this already odd story crosses over again, this time with Dixon of Dock Green--the local constable, and his telephone exchange operator wife work out that the calls to London are not coming from Farrow, and the constable makes the arrest.

Because of the disparity in size, the travelers cannot make out the voices of the people around them, and can't be heard by them. So these stories only touch so that the big people can imperil the travelers (washing their hands in a sink while the Doctor and Susan hide in the drain), or the travelers try to stop the accomplice's covering up their crimes.

The idea isn't terrible, but because it's so disjointed, it's hard to get invested in the story of the insecticide and murder.

What does work, and works beautifully, is the relationships between the Doctor, Susan, Barbara, and Ian. Ian comes last in this list because he's least well served by the script. William Russell plays his role as stalwart here, but the script makes him repeatedly grab the idiot ball. But he portrays Ian's intrepidity and loyalty simply and convincingly.

Barbara oddly doesn't tell anyone that she's been poisoned, though she works up towards it at least once, only to be interrupted. This doesn't make sense, but Jacqueline Hill puts in a performance of mounting terror and disorientation that you believe it. Earlier in the story, the unaffected warmth between her and Hartnell's Doctor, and Susan, is both charming and earned.

The Doctor is more likable in season two than in the pervious stories--after being curt and dismissive during the initial crisis, he apologizes quite humbly to Barbara, addressing her as "my dear," and treats Ian as a friend throughout. He and Susan trust one another implicitly here, and work well together. Hartnell is quite good here--light where he can be, firm where needed. His boyish enthusiasm for explosions is pure Tom Sawyer, but he sells it.

The Doctor and his companions end up back safely in the TARDIS--with Barbara restored to full size, the poison that entered her system through skin contact is too small to affect her. They realize that they had touched on modern earth, but had to dematerialize to restore themselves to full size; the effort to move in time, but not in space led to an error the shrank them.

So where have they landed now, they wonder?

The next episode's title is "The End of the World."

In more than one way, that's just what it is.

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