This is the kind of middle episode that the show sometimes struggles with, particularly in the longer serials: not a huge amount happens, but it’s still too far from the last episode to start pushing things towards a climax. Instead, Nation focuses on more world building, expanding the story beyond central London to show the mines of Bedfordshire mentioned during the previous couple of weeks, and showing us the characters’ various journeys towards what’s clearly shaping up to be the epicentre of the Daleks’ invasion plans.
This is a thoroughly grim episode. The opening battle sequence goes on for ages, and oddly benefits from Richard Martin’s slapdash direction because it looks genuinely chaotic and shocking, with explosions going off, and people running in all directions. It works really well. So does the later (film) sequence of Barbara, jenny and Dortmun’s desperate race across London, with the classic images of Daleks outside the Palace of Westminster, in Trafalgar Square and outside the Albert Hall.
The purpose of this episode is to reformat the Daleks from the vulnerable, confined, static-dependent outer space robot people, as seen in their first outing, to world-conquering Space Nazis: as big a shift as the Doctor’s development from shifty antagonist to series hero. It’s not done in a particularly sophisticated way, but there is some effort devoted to answering the questions kids might have about how the Daleks can move outside their city (Ian notices the discs on their backs), and how they can still be alive (Skaro was ‘a million years ahead of us in the future’). Later, the Doctor references the Daleks’ use of static electricity. A lot of it might be handwaving, but it does gloss over the inconsistencies. Plus, it’s not like these Daleks are a complete departure from the ones we saw on Skaro: they still subject their prisoners to weird experiments (last time it was radiation drugs, here it’s some convoluted intelligence test), and they’re still genocidal. Only their weedy-sounding voices are less impressive than in their first appearance.
It wasn’t badged as such, but watching this, it’s inescapably a first anniversary episode. Twelve months ago, a mild curiosity / creepy stalking led Ian and Barbara into a junkyard in London. World’s End returns them to a scrap heap in London, where the TARDIS is incongruously parked in a decaying building site, evoking our first sight of it among a dilapidated pile of junk. The Doctor even comments on how curious people would be to discover a Police Box in such an odd, out of the way place – perhaps a nod back to that very first shot in An Unearthly Child, of a policeman discovering the TARDIS.
Crisis is an apt name for this episode – everyone knows it was a last-minute lash-up job from the original third and fourth episodes of the serial, which were apparently so tedious they had to be merged. It’s not noticeable – despite the change of director (Pinfield directed episode 3, Douglas Camfield episode 4).
This is the first example of a Doctor Who story that’s used up all its ideas in the first episode. There is a real dearth of new information in this episode. We already know the deadly secret of DN6 thanks to the long discussion between Forrester and Farrow, and seeing its devastating effect on the wildlife in the garden in Planet of Giants. This information is regurgitated here, and we see a fly die from its effects (having seen a bee die last week – this is starting to look like an entomological snuff movie). We also know who killed Farrow, and why, so there’s not even a murder mystery angle.
It’s impossible now for any fan to experience this episode without the foreknowledge that the ‘Planet of Giants’ is actually England, and that this is an adaptation of the original ‘minuscule’ pilot storyline that they’d been toying with making for nearly a year. But trying to get into the spirit of it: to date, every new adventure has fallen into one of two categories ‘adventures in time’ or ‘adventures in space’, and every one of the former has alternated with one of the latter (The Edge of Destruction is an exception because the time travellers don’t leave the TARDIS at all). At the end of The Aztecs, the production crew explicitly called out that the next episode would be an ‘adventure in space’ thanks to the onscreen next episode caption. Prisoners of Conciergerie similarly cued the audience to expect an outer-space serial by playing a caption card ‘Planet of Giants’ over a starfield. Looking at the Radio Times publicity material for this episode, other than drawing a comparison to Gulliver’s Travels (which is pretty evident from the title) there’s no hint of the bigger twist – this is actually a contemporary Earth adventure.