Saturday, 28 March 2020


First broadcast: Oct/ Nov 1964
Written by Louis Marks

“There's nothing but death all around us”

The Great Indoors

I once wrote a post about how fans love to believe the essence of a series is to be found in the very beginning, and how very very wrong they are in this. I used Superman as my prime example, but I could have chosen ‘Doctor Who’.

Though it did come up with some essential elements the show’s original pitch was no foundational text. What was distinctive about ‘Doctor Who’ developed on the wing. Like the way the Tardis is portrayed at this point it was home-made, extemporised and somewhat error-prone. In fact we probably have the fates to thank that the pitch’s author, CE ‘Bunny’ Webber, never went on to write an actual episode. He was not, to put it gently, another David Whitaker.

Webber did conceive of the Tardis travelling ‘sideways’ into shrinkage, drafting what was then called ‘The Giants’ as an mooted first story. Presumably because this demonstrated from the get-go how the Tardis screwed with scale, just as ’Tribe of Gum’ did with time travel.

Going by descriptions, this was a fairly transparent cash-in of the 1957 American film ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’. Everyone remembers him dealing with adversity, marooned at micro size like a Robinson Crusoe of scale. (Google Image it and its giant cats and monstrous spiders which show up.) But it’s about a character who progressively drops out of human society in every definition of the term, with you waiting awhile for those moments to show up. His travails in his own basement are memorable largely because it’s simultaneously a domestic and an alien environment. 

So Webber’s story was to take place in the familiar Coal Hill School and involved various menaces including - inevitably - a spider. Sensibly, this cheap copycatism was dropped. But the concept hung around.

But there is another way of telling this tale. The ’Avengers’ episode ‘Mission… Highly Improbable’ (1967) as the title might suggest, plays the theme for fun and uses the props for pop surreal effect. Coming across a desk the size of a room, Steed parades around it like Gene Kelly on a movie set. Menacing creepy crawlies are entirely absent. Unlike the incredible but rather slowly shrinking man, Steed is instantly zapped down to micro-size so he can come across these mega props the sooner.

And so it wasn’t so different to the way old Batman comics would sometimes place normal-size characters on giant typewriters and the like. Or for that matter Pop artist Claes Oldenberg, who was making oversize sculptures of domestic items (such as ‘Dropped Cone’) from 1959.

And this makes an aesthetic out of a necessity. Back then the props department would obligingly knock up an actual giant matchbox the actors could sit on or climb into. There’s no confusing it with the real matchbox used when it goes into the giant-size cut-tos. It’s a prop and it looks like a prop. But that’s like complaining the puppets in ‘Thunderbirds’ look like puppets. As Andrew Rilstone says “We aren’t looking at ‘special effects’.” These being actual objects, free of CGI shimmer, grants them a surreal charm. Compare the two images below, the shower in the recent Marvel movie ’Ant-Man’ and the sink from ‘Planet of Giants.’

And this story shares with Steed not just a giant desk prop but an oversize phone call. Early on, Ian even speculates this is all “part of a crazy exhibition, where everything has been increased in size.” (One reason this story kept being deferred was that their original recording studio, the small side of pokey, wouldn’t have easily accommodated those Oldenbergian props.)

Yer the oddity of ‘Planet of Giants’ is that it looks like ’The Avengers’, but still feels much more like ’The Incredible Shrinking Man’. For all it’s playing with props tonally its quite definitely played straight. And this works surprisingly well.

Some are keen to say it isn’t a typical ‘Who’ story. Which seems to be down to their not thinking too much of it, and looking for reasons to discount it. But as Nick Waghorn rightly points out “Just because it doesn't have slobbering monsters or men twirling moustaches sinisterly doesn't mean it isn't Doctor Who.” The title suggests Earth transformed into a foreign place, and the familiar defamiliarised is quite possibly the show’s defining feature. Dramatic moments are wrung from briefcases being picked up and - yes, really - a sink being emptied.

”Think of the Ants and the Worms (Please)”

And, unlike Webber, Marks found a unique feature - an environmental theme. Shrinking its leads to bug size is a relatively ingenious way of conveying this, allowing them to witness and even experience the ravaging effects of pesticide up close and personal. (In this way, it does bear a resemblance to ’Incredible Shrinking Man’, though not one so neatly summed up in a memorable still. The protagonist’s shrinking is down to… you guessed it… pesticide.)

The show would return to environmental themes repeatedly. But what’s striking isn’t so much that this is the first time. There was always going to be a first time. What’s striking is how early this first time came.

In ‘British Environmentalism: A Party in Movement?’ Brendan Prendiville states “it is commonly accepted that British environmentalism began at the beginning of the 1970s with the first edition of The Ecologist magazine (July 1970) and the creation of the British branch of Friends of the Earth (FOE) in September 1971”. Both some way after 1964.

But there is an antecedent - Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (1962). Shannon Sullivan comments that Marks was “heavily inspired” by Carson. But then to call this book ‘influential’ would be to undersell it. Writing in the Guardian, Tim Radford called it “one of the most effective books ever written.” And yet it pulled no punches. Prendville counterposes “a largely apolitical conservationism to a politically-aware environmentalism,” and Carson surely sat with the latter group.

As Wikipedia put it, she “accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and public officials of accepting the industry's marketing claims unquestioningly.”

Also from the Guardian, none less than Margaret Atwood recalled its effect: “Those were less cynical times: people still trusted large corporations. Cigarette brands were still cosy household names… Chemical companies were thought to be making life better every day, in every way, all over the world… Scientists in their white coats were presented as crusaders against the forces of ignorance and superstition…

“But now Carson was blowing the lid off. Had we been lied to, not only about pesticides, but about progress, and development, and discovery, and the whole ball of wax? So one of the core lessons of ’Silent Spring’ was that things labelled progress weren't necessarily good.”

Carson was of course writing in America. And while a similar cult of progress prevailed in Britain, there simultaneously existed a Romanticised heritage industry identification with the land. The founding myths are mirror images of one another. In brief, in America they the immigrants (well, you know, the white ones) had made the land what it was. Here the land had made us, fertilised our flowering into examples of Britishness.

In practise this has left apolitical conservationism and politically aware environmentalism strangely tangled. With weird effects such as radical environmental groups defending a piece of countryside against ‘development’ because Gainsborough painted it.

An example of this in ’Who’ is coming up quite soon. Bu, refreshingly, this story has no space for myths of Albion. The suburban, humdrum nature of the pocket-handkerchief front garden is part of the point. Here insects may be creepy or even threatening but they’re a necessary part of the ecosystem. Like they actually are.

And it opens well, with the crew exploring the cracks in crazy paving like an alien planet. The revelation might have worked well on contemporary viewers, at least if it wasn’t (as so often) given away by the title. It’s semi-reminiscent of the opening of The Daleks’. And by finding a reason for the insects to be dead, it plays down any interaction with them. Which, let’s be honest, would have been less than effective.

In a nice touch they can’t understand the ‘giants’ when they speak, the words just sound like thundercracks to them. 

Unfortunately, however, we can.

The truth is that Marks had a great concept for a story, but one he singularly failed to turn it into a great story. The event-empowering conceit is ‘from above to below’ - that events happen at the macro scale, which impact upon the travellers’ micro scale. Olympian heights. But really, nothing very interesting is going on up there, and it proves almost impossible to maintain your interest through those scenes.

The two villains are an obsessive scientist and a wicked capitalist. The scientist is called Smithers. The other one isn’t Mr. Burns but might as well be. If they’re both walking cliches Smithers would be the only possible point to mount a defence, ostensibly motivated by solving world hunger while Forrester just schemes for profit. (Though he has a good line in “ don't feel guilty.… I'm too busy.”)

The best way to read them would be that Forrester is Smither’s id, doing the dirty but supposedly necessary tasks and allowing him to carry on testing with aloof and feigned innocence. His sullied white lab coat becomes an effective synecdoche of his character.

Yet for the plot to work Smithers has to only lately become aware how lethal his pesticide is. So not only has he done no proper testing he can’t even ask why officialdom would want to nix it until the final episode. Which doesn’t sound like the model of the enquiring scientific mind. He also seems more concerned by coming across dead ants than a murdered man. Yes, we’re supposed to be a nation of animal lovers, but even so…

Not only is absurd for the regulator Farrow to show up and say his stuff to Forrester in person, this is even underlined by his continually repeating he’s already said all this over the phone. What’s more, the day is really saved by the prompt appearance of the Constabulary. (And actually has precious little to do with the efforts of the Tardis crew.)

More to the point, if robust regulation was protecting us from dangerous chemicals Carson would scarcely needed to write ‘Silent Spring’ in the first place. As ever, this ruthless scheming capitalist trope isn’t just tiresome, it obscures the self-evident fact that business as usual isn’t some ‘normal’ state we need to get back to, it’s the very source of our problems. World hunger remains unsolved to this day, and that’s because there’s no profit to be made from solving it.

As is well known the story is itself reduced in size. The intended final two episodes were hastily telescoped together, resulting in an unusual three-parter. To get this thing over with and move more quickly onto the reappearance of the Daleks. Yet if the resultant compound final episode sometimes seems to rush past plot points, such as the travellers’ decision to stay and see justice done, the whole thing is so perfunctory you scarcely notice. We could follow it with our eyes closed.

Marks didn’t write for the show again for eight years.

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