World of Giants

by Olivia Riley

The 1950s saw an explosion in demand for television content, surpassing what live performances and Hollywood film reruns could provide—enter, the “telefilm.” These pre-recorded programs were made specifically for TV, produced and sold by independent companies for distribution by local stations. The Frederick W. Ziv company was a leader in this mid-fifties boom in first-run syndication, producing thousands of episodes of primarily action/adventure television. The WCFTR is now home to Ziv’s cache of early-televisual riches, including not just famous shows like The Cisco Kid (1950) but unremembered gems like World of Giants (1958) (or as announced with great gusto in the show’s interstitial credits—WOG!).

Crew prepares oversized fire extinguisher.

WOG stars Marshall Thompson as Mel Hunter, a “special, special agent” who was exposed to dangerous rocket fuel in a mission behind the Iron Curtain. Upon his return home, he began to shrink until he was a mere six inches tall, and no doctor knows how to return him to his original size. However, his diminutive stature provides new opportunities for his work as a secret agent, allowing him to sneak unseen into gambling dens, carrier pigeon coops, and the purses of nefarious lady agents. With the help of his “normal” sized partner, Bill Winters, and their kind-hearted secretary, Miss Brown, Mel must combat foreign powers and ferocious possums alike in the World of Giants.

WOG was born in the fading glory of Ziv’s earlier successes, as the company began to work with and air their material on networks, with WOG airing haphazardly on CBS. Ziv typically favored recycling material, whether by re-cutting stock news footage or by re-booting successful radio shows in a new televisual format. This went hand in hand with Ziv’s tendency towards the inexpensive, in contrast to the higher budgets and visual quality of network fare. WOG, in open and perhaps unwise defiance of these tried-and-true strategies, relied heavily on stunning and expensive visuals in the form of massive props designed to make the regular-human-sized actor Thompson appear tiny. For example, WOG featured a massive telephone prop, which Mel dramatically struggles to dial for help in the pilot. This “high-quality” programming may have been a response to the gleaming Hollywood feature films regularly broadcast on networks, an attempt to compete with their movie-sized-budgets as well as make a claim to television’s aesthetically pleasing—and thus advertiser-attracting—potential as a medium.

Camera team and various crew are pictured next to a giant telephone

In terms of genre, WOG may have been an attempt to build on past Ziv money-makers such as Science Fiction Theatre (1955), by following in this non-realist tradition. However, World of Giants also represents a relatively early televisual foray into spy thrillers and Cold War dramas. Unlike the genre-stretching success of Ziv’s ambitious Sea Hunt (1958), WOG’s expensive sets and novel combination of science-fiction and spy-drama were not realized in profits or longevity. Only 13 episodes of WOG were produced, meaning the show did not fit the contemporary television industry’s desire for long runs of episodes to fill the widening TV-hours-of-the-day, and thus likely did not fit Ziv’s (by this time, already failing) profit model, which relied on money from rerun sales to balance the high costs of initial production. WOG was not a success story in its time, but it can be of great interest to the scholars and afficionados of today, as it contained a hodge-podge of elements that would become essential building blocks in mid-sixties genre television.

For example, WOG predates the wildly popular spy-show Mission: Impossible (1966) by almost a decade, providing a sort of trial-run for episodic and team-based spy-shenanigans. WOG’s set director, Robert Kinoshita, went on to construct one of TV’s most famous robots in the show Lost in Space (1965), illustrating the power of imaginative sets and props in creating engaging speculative television. Science fiction shows like Star Trek (1966) have been celebrated for conveying politically resonant messages regarding the experiences of people marginalized on the basis of race, sex, and class to a wide audience. WOG offers an early taste of how the perspectives and experiences of one marginalized group, disabled people, may be shared via television. Mel Hunter is disabled, albeit in a fantastical sense: he experiences bodily impairment and limitations due to his small stature, with his embodiment considered negatively non-normative by those around him. WOG’s raison d’etre is to allow viewers compassionate access to its disabled protagonist’s point of view as he survives in our “World of Giants.” The show does not pity or ostracize Mel, but rather illuminates the difficulties he experiences as a disabled person navigating an inaccessible world. Thus, WOG can be understood as part of a long line of genre fare that deals not just in fist-fights and femme fatales, but which engages meaningfully with issues of identity and acceptance that are still deeply relevant to modern audiences.