Sunday 24 June 2018

Land of the Giants, season 1 (1968)

Land of the Giants was the fourth of Irwin Allen’s 1960s science fiction TV series. It aired on the US ABC network between 1968 and 1970.

The suborbital spaceliner Spindrift on a routine flight from Los Angeles to London encounters a strange cloud and loses control. The crew eventually regains control and lands successfully but pretty soon it becomes obvious they wherever they have landed it certainly isn’t London. Somehow they have ended up on a planet inhabited by what appear to be normal humans except they they’re enormous. And everything else is enormous, and potentially dangerous simply because of the scale.

There are only four passengers on board the Spindrift. Why anyone would build a spaceliner for scheduled services that can only carry four passengers is a valid question but from Irwin Allen’s point of view it made sense. With the pilot and co-pilot and one stewardess that made for a regular cast of seven which was ideal for this sort of series.

The basic setup is certainly reminiscent of Allen’s earlier Lost in Space series. It has a small group of people stranded on an alien hostile planet. It even has a character roughly equivalent to Lost in Space’s Dr Smith in the person of Commander Fitzhugh (Kurt Kasznar), who is cowardly and conniving but manages to strike up a kind of friendship with the young Barry Lockridge who is just a little older than Will Robinson. Fitzhugh though is less of a purely comic figure than Dr Smith and he has considerably more complexity.

Although Land of the Giants obviously had the potential to be even sillier and more high camp than Lost in Space the admittedly slightly far-fetched subject matter is approached reasonably seriously (and if you rewatch the the first few episodes of Lost in Space you can see that Irwin Allen originally intended it to be at least a semi-serious sci-fi series). And while the setup is remarkably similar to that of Lost in Space it’s still a very good setup. The really major difference between the two series is the genuine ever-present sense of danger and struggle in Land of the Giants. When you’re effectively only six inches tall then absolutely everything is dangerous and everything is a challenge.

The really interesting, and courageous, decision by Irwin Allen was to dispense with monsters. The giants are terrifying but they are not monsters. The giants’ world seems to be identical in almost every way with 1960s America. The giants are just regular folks. They are to be feared mostly because the giants’ government wants to capture every “little person” on the planet (and there are quite a few of them from previous space missions that had suffered the fate of the Spindrift). What the government intends to do with them is an unanswered question but it’s a fair assumption that the best they can hope for is to be kept in captivity and used pretty much as lab animals. A reward has been offered to anyone who finds little people and hands them over to the government, and human nature being what it is there are plenty of people willing to take the money. So the giants are a very real threat, but they’re not evil and they’re not monstrous.

As the first season progresses Inspector Kobick of the Special Investigation Department emerges as the principal villain but even he is not a monster - he’s doing his job and while he might be over-zealous and ruthless he’s not actually evil.

This posed a challenge to the writers who had to maintain a constant feeling of danger without being able to resort to evil monsters. On the whole I think they managed quite well. The humanness of the giants also adds a subtle touch of paranoia - some giants really are friendly and trustworthy but you can never be sure.

Land of the Giants was an incredibly expensive series. On the whole the money was well spent. The special effects mostly work quite well. The massively oversized props (matchsticks several feet long, a cotton reel the size of a 44-gallon drum, etc) look good. The Spindrift itself manages to look kind of bizarre, kind of goofy but kind of cool all at the same time. Some of the techniques used are pretty simple - using lots of low-angle shots to make the giants look huge and menacing and lots of high-angle shot to make the castaways look more vulnerable. Simple, but effective.

The US broadcast order bore no relationship whatever to the production order. I think it’s highly desirable to watch the series in production order. While there are no actual multi-episode story arcs the growing menace of the Special Investigation Department emerges more effectively if you watch it that way.

The way the giants are handled in the early episodes is very interesting. They’re menacing but in a subtle and indirect way. They look like very ordinary humans but they seem to be oddly lacking in emotion. At this stage we don’t know if they really are emotionless or whether they simply don’t see the tiny humans as actual people - whether they regard these miniature people as alien animals of some kind, worth studying but not worth treating with respect. But it’s all kept very ambiguous which is very intriguing.

The Episode Guide
The opening episode, The Crash, sets things up efficiently enough. The Spindrift is stuck on a planet of giants and her power cells are exhausted. The nature of the giants is kept cleverly ambiguous. We have no idea at this stage if they’re actively hostile or not. There are a couple of terrifying encounters with domestic animals - on a planet of giants dogs and cats are very scary creatures indeed.

It’s obvious that the Spindrift’s crew members -  Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), his co-pilot Dan Erickson (Don Marshall) and stewardess Betty Hamilton (Heather Young) - are resourceful and are determined to do what’s necessary to survive. It’s also obvious that some of the passengers are likely to cause problems.

The DVD release also includes the original unaired pilot version of The Crash. A number of changes were made in the broadcast version which went to air in September 1968. A couple of very poorly executed action scenes were added, and a lot of the scenes filling in the backgrounds of the characters were eliminated. That’s unfortunate because those scenes make spoilt rich girl Valerie (Deanna Lund) and arrogant engineer/tycoon Mark Wilson (Don Matheson) much more understandable. On the whole I think the unaired version is the better version but by 1968 Irwin Allen had become painfully aware that what the networks wanted were monsters so in the broadcast version he gave them monsters.

The second episode to be filmed was The Weird World, in which the castaways discover that they are not the first humans to find themselves on this strange world. Even more importantly, there may be a fully functional spaceship they can use to effect their escape from the planet.

In The Trap Betty and Valerie are caught by giants and an ambitious and dangerous  rescue mission has to be mounted to save them. There are lots of tensions among the party over this.

The Bounty Hunter presents new dangers for our space travellers - the giants are now actively searching for them and rewards have been offered to anyone who finds them or their spaceship. We also get a bit more insight into what the giants are really like.

In The Golden Cage another human is discovered on the planet. A beautiful girl, in a specimen bottle left out in the woods. To Steve this is an obvious trap. Mark however doesn’t see it this way - he is determined to rescue the girl. The girl, Marna, had been a passenger on a spacecraft that disappeared fifteen years earlier. She seems like a nice girl but she’s convinced that the giants are her friends and mean no harm. To Steve this is more evidence that Marna is part of an elaborate trap laid by the giants. This is an excellent episode.

The Lost Ones are a bunch of juvenile delinquents who are also marooned on the planet of the giants. They’re almost as much of a menace as the giants. This is one of those 60s TV episodes that tries to be hip and happening and in touch with youth culture. Such attempts never end well and this is an irritating episode.

The worst disaster that could befall our space castaways strikes them in Manhunt. A giant finds the Spindrift. The giant in question is an escapee from prison and he may be hoping to using the Spindrift as a bargaining counter to get his sentence reduced. The escapee then manages to get himself into real trouble and is facing certain death until Captain Burton decides the castaways have to save him. The question is, will the giant show gratitude or will he betray them?

Framed is a very convoluted and rather far-fetched tale but it is ingenious and it’s another episode in which the interactions with the giants are not necessarily always hostile. The giants are just like anyone else. Some are evil, some are good, most are in-between. And Captain Burton again decides to help out a giant who’s in trouble - he’s been framed for a murder but the castaways know he’s innocent because they witnessed the murder. The way in which they try to prove the man’s innocence is quite clever.

The Creed forces the castaways to make a very hard choice. Young Barry is desperately ill and needs medical help. But can they afford to trust a giant to provide that help?

The Flight Plan is an interesting idea but it does include a plot device that really stretches credibility. OK, I know the whole series stretches credibility but this idea just stretches it too far for my liking and undermines the necessary suspension of disbelief. The castaways encounter another castaway but there is something about this guy that makes Steve Burton just a little suspicious. The guy does however claim to be able to find a supply of the special fuel that the Spindrift requires so there’s a definite incentive to trust him.

Underground seems to confirm something that has been vaguely hinted at in other episodes - that the land of the giants has a government with certain totalitarian tendencies.

Double-Cross sees the castaways involved in a jewellery heist planned by a couple of ruthless but not overly bright giant crooks. It’s not a bad story but it’s the visuals that make this a really fine episode. The special effects are extremely good, the low-angle shots emphasising the size of the giants are particularly effective and the boy-in-the-lock sequences are very clever.

In On a Clear Night You Can See Earth the castaways try to steal a lens (which they need to recharge the solar batteries) from a giant but the giant turns out to be a mad scientist. In fact he’s totally insane and severely paranoid but he has come up with an invention that poses a serious threat to the castaways. Somehow that threat has to be neutralised, by whatever means may be necessary. Not a bad episode but the seeing Earth in the binoculars thing is a pretty silly.

Ghost Town is clever, scary and creepy. Crossing a force field brings our travellers into what appears to be a perfectly ordinary, normal-sized small town. It seems like they have somehow made it back to Earth. In fact they’re in a model village full of toy houses and toy cars, a village constructed by a giant, albeit a giant who is a kindly eccentric old man. He clearly intends to keep these little people as pets. That’s a bit disturbing but there is worse news to come out. The old man’s grand-daughter looks like a sweet little girl but she’s a psychopathic demon child from Hell and her intention is to torture the castaways to death.

The model village works really well. It looks normal but somehow not quite right. It’s just a bit too perfect. And the fact that the village looks so cute and innocuous makes the whole story quite unsettling. A very good episode.

Brainwash further develops the conspiracy theory thing involving the giants and their intentions towards the little people. Unfortunately the brainwashing technique that drives the plot is very silly - it’s like magic shaving foam! An episode with good bits and bad bits. The device of having a member of the Spindrift’s crew captured by the giants and needing to be rescued is starting to get a bit old.

Terror-Go-Round is yet another episode in which the castaways get captured by giants. At least this time they get captured by a circus and circuses do have the potential for fun. There’s also the added danger of being eaten by a giant bear. I must admit that this time the method of escape is pretty ingenious.

Sabotage pits the castaways against their most dangerous and ruthless enemy yet, the corrupt and fanatical security chief Bolgar (played by Robert Colbert who of course starred in Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel). If Bolgar’s scheme works there will be nation-wide panic and all the little people will be hunted down and killed. But Steve thinks he can come up with a plan to thwart Bolgar. It’s a bit contrived but it works and this episode does have a genuine sense of menace.

In Genius at Work a 12-year-old giant boy scientific genius has invented a formula for making small animals very large, which of course means that it can turn little people into giants. My own view is that in a science fiction series you can get away with one outrageous assumption, such as astronauts marooned on a planet of giants. But when you start adding further outrageous assumptions, such as a special formula that can turn a little person into a giant, you’re basically resorting to magic. It’s lazy writing, and it also destroys the suspension of disbelief. It’s basically cheating.

In Deadly Lodestone the implacable and malevolent Inspector Kobick of the security police has come up with what he believes is a fool-proof gadget that will allow him to track down and capture the Earth people. The totalitarian nature of the giants’ society is becoming ever more obvious, although the surprising thing is that that society is presented as an odd mixture of Cold War stereotypes about eastern bloc countries and all-American elements.

Night of Thrombeldinbar represents a definite turn towards whimsy. Mr Fitzhugh is mistaken by a couple of giant orphan boys for Thrombeldinbar, who is a magical folkloric figure who can grant wishes. Fitzhugh has his faults but he likes kids and feels sorry for the boys and sees a chance to cheer them up. Unfortunately he doesn’t know about the fate that awaits Thrombeldinbar according to time-honoured custom. While there’s some definite sentimentality neither this nor the the whimsy is pushed too far and this episode is at least an interesting change of pace.

In Seven Little Indians the castaways find themselves on the run in the zoo as Inspector Kobick comes up with another plan to capture them.

Target: Earth seems to promise a chance to return to Earth, but it will involve putting a great deal of trust in a giant scientist. The scientist has designed a guidance system to take a rocket to Earth but he needs help to make it work and only the castaways can provide that help.

Rescue is interesting since for once the castaways are being a bit pro-active, putting themselves forward in an attempt to rescue two trapped giant children.

Return of Inidu is a change of pace with an illusionist on the run and a haunted house. It’s not a bad idea and it’s amusing and different but the illusions are a bit unconvincing and it therefore stretches credibility fairly thin.

In Shell Game the castaways have to convince a giant woman that they can make her deaf son hear in exchange for their freedom. This one perhaps veers a bit too much into heart-warming territory.

The Chase provides a pretty decent season finale with some suspense and with Captain Burton having to make a tough decision - can he trust Inspector Kobick enough to make a deal with him? And maybe Kobick is not the only giant willing to make deals.

Series Overview
Land of the Giants suffers from some of the same self-inflicted weaknesses as Lost in Space. The fact that the adventurers’ spaceship is disabled means they’re stuck in the same place episode after episode. That’s good news for the producers since it keeps production costs down but it does get rather tedious. It also tends to impose certain limits on the stories, which almost invariably involve one or more of the party getting captured by giants and needing to be rescued by the others.

Land of the Giants is also limited by the decision to make the giants the only alien species (with absolutely no monsters), and to make them completely human-like and their planet completely Earth-like. Overall that was a good decision but it means the writers needed to show some imagination and cleverness, and unfortunately in practice there isn’t always quite enough of that imagination and cleverness.

The series’ big strength is that the group dynamic is quite interesting. As the commander of the Spindrift Captain Burton more or less inevitably assumes the leadership of the group. And it’s just as well that he does. The other crew members and passengers are well-meaning but they’re just not the stuff that heroes are made of, and not only do they need leadership, they need very strong leadership. They are inclined to be impulsive and impatient and reckless and short-sighted. The biggest problem is Mark Wilson. He’s a brilliant engineer and he’s brave and resourceful, but he’s also arrogant, pig-headed and impetuous and his judgment is simply atrocious. He always thinks he’s right, and he’s almost always wrong. Steve Burton is basically the only grown-up in the group and leading the group is like leading a group of small children who are enthusiastic but disobedient. Gary Conway handles this very well, making the character a generally easy-going guy but you can see the steel underneath. He really does have what it takes to be a leader and he’s quite prepared to make unpopular decisions and stick with them. Steve Burton is a likeable guy but he’s the boss.

It also has to be said that a certain amount of genuine thought has been put into the disadvantages, and the advantages, of being very very small in a world of giants. And visually the series is generally very well executed.

Despite the very similar format Land of the Giants is definitely much less campy than Lost in Space. Apart from a few blemishes it’s surprisingly successful in avoiding outright silliness. It was a bold move to approach this kind of material in a straightforward non-campy way but it works.

The DVDs
The first season looks extremely good on DVD. There’s not much in the way of extras but there is a very good interview with star Gary Conway. Conway comes across as an actor who gives his job a certain amount of thought and he’s still very enthusiastic about this series. He makes one extremely interesting point. At the time they were making the series the actors wanted it to be more character-driven which is something Irwin Allen strongly resisted. Conway now believes that Allen was right (and I agree with him). Getting sidetracked by the characters’ emotional dramas would actually have weakened the series, just as it has weakened so many series over the past thirty years or so. It’s unusual to come across an actor who can see this so clearly.

Summing Up
Land of the Giants is much better than it has any right to be. It’s far-fetched but it’s skilfully executed, the effects are mostly exceptionally well done (certainly by the standards of 60s network television) and it’s entertaining. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. According to Gary Gerani's "Fantastic Television" book, Land Of The Giants was not AN expensive series - it was THE most expensive TV show ever made up till then, with a budget of $250,000 per episode.

    I did used to wonder about the title, though - given their situation, did it ever occur to the group that their new environment was normal-sized, and they had all been shrunken by whatever it was they flew through?

    With you on the Spindrift design, too - you start at the front, looks great; then start going back to the doors and engine pods...OK; after that it all kind of fizzles out. In fact, when you see it in its entirety, it looks slightly ridiculous.

    But who am I kidding - at the age I was when it came out, I'd watch anything and everything in a similar vein!