The Ark in Space [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But recently I decided to spend some of my 50th birthday spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #27)

The Ark in Space

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor.
Companions:  Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan.
Written by Robert Holmes.  Directed by Rodney Bennett.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  January-February 1975 (Episodes 5-8 of Season 12)

The Ark in Space is the second Tom Baker / Fourth Doctor story, but the first to be released under the official creative auspices of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Thus it shows a marked increase in the use of horror-themes in its storytelling, which is a tone very different from the Barry Letts / Terrance Dicks era which ran over the previous five seasons of the show.

Spoilers Ahead!

If you didn’t know any better, it’d be easy to think that The Ark in Space ripped heavily off of the movie Alien. After all, the story is about a small group of survivors of a space vessel, who awaken from cryosleep to find themselves in a confrontation with a malevolent and destructive alien that gestates inside a human host body. Many characters are killed off as the humans attempt to survive, and the plot involves a character having to crawl through the ship’s ventilation tunnels, under constant threat of an alien attack. On top of all that, the Hinchcliffe / Holmes era is known for borrowing from famous horror movies for some of its plots, such as Frankenstein (The Brain of Morbius), The Thing From Another World (The Seeds of Death), The Mummy (The Pyramids of Mars) and so on.

However, if you thought this, you’d be wrong, because Alien came out in 1979, over four years after this story. So…did The Ark in Space influence Alien? Maybe. Who can tell?

Either way, it does stand out as the start of a new era in the series, and a solid piece of science fiction storytelling.

It’s interesting that The Ark in Space starts with a whole episode with almost no other characters but the regulars. The Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane arrive at the seemingly lifeless ark and are left to just wander around and try to make sense of the future they have found themselves in. It creates a context for the story that is both expansive and bleak. When the Doctor comes to understand what the rows upon rows of frozen humans represents, he marvels at their perseverance and ingenuity, but there’s very little inspiration in the scene–rather, there’s a sense of humanity desperately clinging to life, like we don’t know if they are going to make it or not. It’s an unusual sort of melancholy for the series to achieve.

And this is of course followed up by the absolute horrific idea of the Wirrn eating out their human hosts from the inside. The show takes that even a step further with the idea that those humans are then mentally absorbed into the Wirrn consciousness–humanity is not only in danger of being eaten, they are in danger of losing their identity. And because of the whole solar flare / ark idea, they are actually on the verge of extinction. Of course, there have been threats to earth before, but rarely has that danger felt as convincing.

Of course, what’s not convincing are the special effects for the story. Noah’s transformation in3to a Wirrn is achieved largely through the use of painted bubble wrap. It’s one thing to have some bad special effects. It’s quite another thing to have those bad special effects be instantly recognizable as repurposed common household objects. Now, in fairness, bubble wrap was apparently not such a common object in 1975, but that doesn’t help me now. Either way, there’s no choice but to actively suspend ones disbelief and just accept some of the ludicrous visuals and get on with the story.

But in this case, I don’t find it difficult to do because the rest of the material is so compelling. The world that is created around this story is fascinating and filled with some of the more bizarrely alien versions of humanity that the show has ever given us. The main cast are all solid and believable, and do a great job reacting to all the weirdness going on.

With the story I was only a bit disappointed by the death of Rogin, as his more passionate personality seemed like the perfect one to set up as the guy who is going to help his people face the challenge of reclaiming their world. Also, having him knock out the Doctor in order to save his life is a tired cliche that is made worse by how unconvincingly the punch is actually performed and staged.

Still, it’s an impressive and worthwhile effort which everyone involved should be proud of.

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