Alright, now we’re talking!
After a diet of steadily less serious Earth bound UNIT stories with Jon Pertwee and a place-holder of a debut story for Tom Baker in Robot, we move into a new era of the show; The Philip Hinchcliffe Era.
Hinchcliffe’s relatively fleeting time in charge – alongside script editor Robert Holmes – is considered by many to be a Golden Age of Doctor Who, moving to a more ‘Horror in Space’ genre.
Over the next few reviews we’ll see if that is indeed the case, starting with The Ark in Space.
Doctor Who – The Ark in Space Review: What’s This One About?
In a bid to survive a global disaster (solar flares), a group of humans have left Earth and gone into stasis on a Space station dubbed The Ark. After a few thousand years their plan is to go back to Earth once it has recovered and start afresh.
But there’s a problem…
An insect-like species known as the Wirrn have infiltrated the Ark, laying their eggs inside the sleeping bodies of the humans and thus taking them over. They want control of the whole Ark so they can feed on the humans and then populate the Earth. Can the Doctor, Sarah and Harry – with only a couple of woken up humans – stop them?
Thoughts – Negatives First
On the whole I expect this to be a very positive review, but I think I’ll get the negatives out of the way first.
They aren’t massive problems and they don’t in any way detract from what is a great piece of television, but one or two things just don’t make sense.
As I was writing the section above detailing the plot, it occurred to me to wonder exactly at what point the Queen of the Wirrn infiltrated the Ark? The script explains that the humans have overslept by a few thousand years more than they should have as a direct result of the Wirrn knocking out their alarm clock, so to speak. It also hints at how long it’s been since the Queen got there because it’s described as being ‘almost mummified’.
But if that’s the case, how come it took Dune so long to become a fully fledged Wirrn? Especially when poor old Noah managed to make a complete change (admittedly accelerated by the increase in power) within a matter of minutes?
And if we assume one of the Wirrn is Dune and the other is Noah, where do the other Wirrn come from?
I could be accused of over-analysing things by asking that, but these questions have only really ever occurred to me now.
Still, these are small fry issues in what is a very good story.
The Positives – Fantastically Creepy
So we go from toy dinosaurs having a superimposed fight and a giant camp eyeball with a girl’s voice to this…
A survival horror story in cramped conditions played without a hint of ‘this is one for the kids’.
The Ark in Space is a creepy story. Yes, I watched it as a child and I don’t think I was particularly scared by it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an adult concept.
In fact, I think it’s more creepy for adults to watch than for kids because of the plot and the dialogue. As scary as the Wirrn will be for kids – or indeed anyone with a basic fear of insects like bees and wasps – they aren’t particularly active creatures. They aren’t going around killing dozens of people in the same way as the Daleks of the Cybermen. But they have bad intentions…very bad.
Think about it; they lay eggs within humans and when those eggs hatch the larva eat the human from the inside out. They bargain with the Doctor and Vira to leave the Ark under safe passage just so they can be left to feast on the sleeping humans, while Noah slowly but surely turns into one before our eyes (and of course you’ve probably all heard of the scene that was cut from the show where he begs Vira to kill him).
It even has a scene where the Doctor tells Vira to shoot him dead without hesitation if the mind transference bit didn’t go to plan. Grim.
Did the kids at the time really ‘get’ what some of that stuff meant? Possibly not. I could quite imagine the plot of the Ark in Space being turned into a film that was either a 15 or 18 certificate, and indeed the well-known film Alien is heavily influenced by this. It’s just gorier.
The Supporting Cast and the Look
The script is helped out by some great acting and excellent work by the design team.
The guest cast is small in number but they are all serious actors. And that helps things along wonderfully. Look at the ramshackle lot in Planet of the Spiders or the very ‘Just William’ style of villain in Robot and compare that to the Ark in Space. Some Doctor Who is played like the actors aren’t taking things too seriously, knowing that they aren’t doing Cathy Come Home but rather a ‘family show’ for a Saturday tea time.
But not here.
They set the tone and manage to convey the gravity of the situation they find themselves in. It’s played as a very serious drama, as Doctor Who should be.
And it’s done in a top-notch set.
Up to this point there hasn’t been anything approaching a set of this quality in any ‘space age’ Doctor Who. It looks expensive – probably because it was expensive in relative terms – and it again makes things appear of a higher standard.
And if ever you watch a Doctor Who DVD – from the Peter Davison Era especially – with the commentary on, you’ll hear the actors and directors bemoaning the brightness of the lighting for exposing the sets. I think the brightness works very well in the Ark in Space, to sell the sterile and clinical nature of the future.
So top marks all round.
Well…I suppose I could criticise the (over)use of bubble wrap, but in fairness it was quite new at the time.
The Doctor – An Alien
The Doctor is an alien; we know that. But he’s always been played as an English gentleman of sorts. Pertwee’s Doctor was essentially played and dressed like a member of British High Society, old bean. But Tom Baker in the space of two stories has found his stride by making the Doctor into an alien.
Which is superb.
As the series progresses I’ll examine his acting style more, but take a look at some of the lines like ‘…and Harry here is only qualified to work on sailors'; a lesser actor would make that seem like a badly performed joke in amongst a serious drama. There could almost be a laughter track. But Baker conveys the line so as not to compromise the mood, even if we as an audience find it amusing.
Already you begin to understand why he is such an enduringly popular actor in the role.
I couldn’t let this review pass without taking a moment to focus on Episode One.
They don’t come along that often but once again the writers have hit a home run with an episode written using only the regular cast. That first episode is one of the best individual episodes in the history of the show; so much happens and yet it happens without the need for running along corridors, place-holding scenes in the TARDIS to start off, exposition with guest artists or anything else like that
From the first moment there is an instant threat to Sarah, then the Doctor and Harry, then Sarah again and so on. Wonderful; just wonderful.
It’s helped on especially by the interplay between the Doctor and the brilliant Ian Marter as Harry. He might have just been ‘there’ in Robot but he’s very much an integral part of things in this one.
And just take a moment to think about what the viewers at the time must have felt when this episode was first transmitted. What a departure, especially after the lackluster three weeks they had to go through previously. Suddenly Doctor Who had changed and changed dramatically.
And changed for the better in my opinion.
- As a child of the 80s, when I watched The Ark in Space on video when it first came out, I thought it was someone deliberately trying to sound like Margaret Thatcher playing the Earth High Minister speaking to Sarah as she was put to sleep. A nice bit of foreshadowing from the BBC.
- Then again I also thought Vira was played by Sue Lawley.
- And I also thought the ‘This Is A Sterile Area: KEEP OUT’ line was done by Jimmy Bree.
- But what a great scene that is to start Episode 3. The Ark is facing serious danger and the automatic message of triumph from the Earth High Minister plays throughout while the Doctor & Company look worriedly on, and Noah stands in another part of the ship with his hand already turned into a Wirrn. Stirring stuff.
- Of course, it’s fair to ask that in a situation where something clearly isn’t right in the Ark and a giant insect lies dead in the corner of the room, why is Noah so hostile towards the Doctor before he’s infected by the Wirrn, as if he’s the cause of the problem?
- Everyone’s favourite line of the story has to be “There’s been a snitch-up”. Class.
- Or it could be the “Well there are only two of us here and your name is Harry”, which is also top-notch
- Oh, another wee criticism of the story. The amount of times they re-use that shot of Sarah wincing is pretty annoying.
- It would appear as though Lycett is played by German footballing great, Jurgen Klinsmann. Or his doppelganger.
- Take a moment to watch Ian Marter’s ‘preoccupied hand acting’. He’s always got something in his hands which he seems transfixed by.
- Another big plus point of this story is the music. It adds a lot to the tension and drama.
- I’ve always thought the Wirrn would make fantastic Kids TV hosts. Imagine shows like Going Live or Live & Kicking (I don’t know what kids TV shows there are anymore), but instead of them being presented by Philip Schofield or Ant & Dec, they are presented by Wirrn, with their wonderful voices and turns of phrase. Awesome.
Doctor Who – The Ark in Space Review: Final Thoughts
I’ve read it said before that if the Ark in Space doesn’t tickle your fancy, then you really are watching the wrong TV show.
It’s an absolute classic piece of Doctor Who, one of the very best.
There are a few niggles which I’ve detailed above, but on the whole it’s a masterpiece within the Doctor Who world.
And what makes it even better is that it kick starts a new era rather than being something they’ve led up to with similar stories.
The Fourth Doctor’s Era has started proper, and the quality stays high for the next while at least.
If you haven’t seen it yet, you should do so immediately.