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Doctor Who (Classic): "The Ark In Space"

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“The Ark In Space” (season 12, episodes 5-8. Originally broadcast Jan. 25-Feb. 15, 1975.)

Now, then… where was I?

Ah, yes: Hopelessly lost, surrounded by monsters, and cut off from all escape. Right where I should be.

Before we dive into “The Ark In Space,” I’ll just say I’m glad to be back on the police-box beat after taking some time off for our newborn twins, Beatrice and Zoe, who just turned four months old. It’s taken me most of that time just to learn the Venusian lullaby from “The Curse Of Peladon.” (Aroon aroon aroon…)

Tom Baker’s second adventure as the Fourth Doctor, “The Ark In Space” is in many ways more of a true start to his era than the transitional “Robot,” his actual debut. “Robot” had actually been filmed by the Third Doctor-era production team the year before, and thus features Baker in what was otherwise very much a Jon Pertwee-era situation, still on Earth helping the military organization UNIT investigate a threat rather than flying around the universe as his own boss. The new showrunners for 1975, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, took over full-time here, sweeping in with their new broom. It was simultaneously forward-looking and a return to Doctor Who’s original format of essentially random wandering through time and space. Very much the mode of the First and Second Doctor eras, that hadn’t been the case for the previous five seasons, when the Third Doctor was comfortably ensconced on Earth as a more or less permanent home base. But Baker’s Fourth Doctor went mobile again starting here—partly by choice and a restless temperament, but in no small part also because of mistakes and machinations beyond his own control. It seems to me that that’s a crucial element in keeping the Doctor’s travels dramatically compelling: If he never knows where he’s going, and often gets knocked off track like some sort of cosmic pinball, there’s always a sense of mystery and danger. It also helps undercut the tendency any long-running series character runs into of becoming ever more superheroic, nigh-invincible, and (eventually) boring.

The plot here, in which the Doctor must save a space station filled with Earth’s last surviving humans against an onslaught of giant space insects who can consume both their bodies and memories, is very much in the base-under-siege mode that the Troughton era relied so heavily on. What was innovative about “The Ark In Space” wasn’t so much in the kind of story being told, but in the way the story was told. The Hinchcliffe/Holmes vision was darker, more serious, and more openly embraced horror elements. In particular, the emphasis on body horror, lingering on the slow transformation of an unlucky human into an implacably hostile insect, went for outright creepiness in a way previous Doctor Who usually kept at a simmer.

“The Ark In Space” ushered in a new wave of popularity for the show in 1975—one of the highest-rated serials of the Classic era, with viewership climbing from 9 to 13.6 million between episodes one and two, indicating that word-of-mouth was strong. It’s also continued to be influential on the modern Doctor Who series—both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat have stated this is their favorite Classic-era story, and each homaged it during their first seasons as showrunners. I’ve also seen it mentioned as an influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien, which is possible but I’m not sure is true.


It’s also, if not absolutely ideal, a very strong hopping-on point for newcomers to old-school Doctor Who. At least, I have pretty solid anecdotal evidence that it is, considering that this is where I got hooked. “The Ark In Space” is the first Doctor Who serial I remember watching all the way through, back in the prehistoric days when I was 12 and saw that my local public-TV station had picked up an odd little British sci-fi import. (So I found it funny to realize that it’s now the first Doctor Who my girls watched with me, though they’re still a little too young to get the whole concept of TV.) The two biggest stumbling blocks for a newbie in 2013, I’d imagine, would be, first, some then-innovative but very low-budget effects that haven’t aged well (ahem green bubble wrap ahem), and second, the minor problem that the main characters were all introduced in earlier episodes, and the story begins with them in mid-conversation—mid-argument, really, considering that the first line is “you’re a clumsy, ham-fisted idiot”—with no overt explanations of who they are, why they’re exiting a blue phone booth, and how exactly it brought them to a space station in the far future. Still, that’s only a paragraph’s worth of basic Doctor Who fundamentals—beyond a quick introduction of the TARDIS, the Doctor, and his companions this time out, you can follow along easily enough from the first scene onwards.

Besides the Fourth Doctor, the TARDIS crew here includes Sarah Jane Smith, who’s a veteran space traveler now after befriending the Third Doctor in season 11, and newcomer Lt. Harry Sullivan, a doctor (lowercase—an actual medical specialist working for UNIT) whose doofusiness and chauvinism make him less than the ideal traveling companion, though he makes up for his thickness with bravery and a generally good heart. “The Ark In Space” begins only a few minutes after the end of “Robot,” when the Doctor had offered Harry and Sarah Jane a ride back to UNIT headquarters in the TARDIS. The Doctor has been unable to resist taking a side trip to impress Harry, intending to make a quick pit stop on the moon, but he hasn’t counted on Harry’s ability to muck things up. Curious about the TARDIS controls, Harry’s given one of them a twist just to see what would happen, and sent them careening off into the far future. It’s also far beyond his or Sarah’s comfort zone, and even the Doctor has no idea where and when they are or what they’ll find. This is dangerous, unknown territory.


Naturally, the Doctor’s instinctive reaction is to explore it. And in fact, the entire first episode features only the three of them, exploring this apparently abandoned space station whose mysteries they slowly piece together. The pacing is leisurely compared to today’s Doctor Who—it’s impossible to imagine the Eleventh Doctor spending 20 minutes just poking around, instead of just leaping right into the fray. Of course, it’s not the case that the time spent in this exploratory beginning is either boring or wasted. Between the Doctor’s curiosity and Harry’s continuing compulsion to flip random switches without knowing what they do, they quickly get into trouble, and add new trouble in getting out of the old trouble, like being caught in quicksand.

The station is low on both power and oxygen, and thanks to Harry, Sarah gets trapped in an airless room. In rescuing her, the Doctor and Harry get trapped themselves. In restoring power so that the doors and the air-vent systems work again, the Doctor also reactivates a deadly automatic security system, threatening himself and Harry with electrocution, and accidentally loads Sarah into the automatic suspended-animation system, where she winds up sleeping in a coffinlike berth in the station’s massive cryogenic chamber. Moments after discovering her, Harry also unpleasantly finds out what caused the sabotage in the first episode’s terrific “gotcha!” cliffhanger—opening the door of a closet only to have a seven-foot insect leap out at him.


Far from being dull or pointless, this early section deftly interweaves its cascading series of what-the-heck’s-gone-wrong-now surprises with important background about the purpose of the station and what’s threatening it.  Eventually, the trio discovers that they’ve landed on the futuristic equivalent of a fallout shelter—Nerva Beacon holds thousands of human beings in cryo-suspension, plus a massive archive of biological, historical, and cultural treasures, all collected to repopulate the Earth after a disastrous series of solar flares thousands of years before. But something has gone very wrong in the interim—the humans have overslept by centuries due to sabotage. The alien insect that cut the power—a Wirrn, we later learn it’s called—did so purposefully to shut down the security system, and wound up shutting off almost everything. This prevented the humans from waking up but also, ironically, put the Wirrn’s plan to consume and conquer humanity into hibernation also, since its larvae apparently went dormant until the arrival of the TARDIS. The Doctor’s presence not only offers hope for humanity’s survival, but reawakens the creatures who threaten it.

The Wirrn that Harry stumbles across is long since dead—”almost mummified,” notes the Doctor—and so that mystery is tabled momentarily as the space station’s humans begin to revive, a process automatically kickstarted by the reconnected power.  The first one to wake up, logically enough, is the station’s lead medical officer, a woman named Vira. She, too, is almost mummified, and the cryo-chamber also bears an unsettling similarity to a morgue. That thematic similarity was not lost on writer Robert Holmes, whose original concept was for Vira to be played by a Haitian actress, to accentuate the idea that freezing people in cryogenic suspension is a sort of technological voodoo that turns them temporarily into zombies. Instead, though, the role went to a white British actress, Wendy Williams, who puts a little different spin on the character, playing Vira as unemotional to the point of coldness—not overtly hostile, but so focused on the practical necessities of her mission that she’s lost touch with her own feelings. Before she agrees to wake Sarah, for example, Vira asks “is she of value?” This coldness is probably something of a job requirement, considering that the Ark can only hold thousands of people, not billions, meaning that there must have been an utterly ruthless screening process to decide on which people got to survive. (I don’t think it’s explicitly stated, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that the Ark’s leaders were trying to preserve as wide a range of human diversity as possible—certainly that was implied by Holmes‘ original concept of Vira’s character.)


Vira’s robotlike behavior is all the more shocking since she’s the first of the Nerva station’s crew we meet. Especially in comparison to perfectly ordinary Harry, her oddness raises the notion that maybe we’re far enough in the future that humans have become essentially alien to us, and we to them. Or as Vira puts it, “I hypoid in classicals, but you dawn-timers seem to have a language all your own.” You said it, sister.

Having said that, the other revived Nerva crewmates are more relatable than Vira, like the endearingly grumpy technician Rogin, but it’s still a first impression that lingers, and helps drive home that Harry and Sarah are in a much stranger place than home.


After helping Sarah, Vira awakes Nerva’s “prime unit”—no snickering, please, she means their leader, Lazar, who goes by the nickname Noah. “It is a name from mythology,” she explains, which once again subtly suggests how much the world has changed, since the very idea that “Noah” being in charge of an Ark would need explanation implies that Christianity is nearly forgotten by the 30th century. I don’t think Harry picks up on that implication, but I imagine him lying in bed weeks later, suddenly realizing  what Vira was saying, and being unable to sleep the rest of the night. Not that I think Harry’s especially religious, but that for him it’s such a basic part of the world he knows that he’s never even thought about it.

If Vira is computerlike to a fault, Noah is suspicious, unfriendly, and disquietingly worried about the effect that three “regressives” like the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry will have on his carefully tended garden of frozen people. Still, it’s important to try to see his point of view, since Noah’s unwanted transformation into a Wirrn is the tragic heart of the story. Whatever faults he may have (and his interest in genetic purity is a hard one to forgive), Noah is also in the position of a great hero—he’s in charge of saving all human culture from destruction, after all. So it’s especially devastating for his people that he’s taken over by the Wirrrn, not merely losing his own humanity but  inexorably transformed into an engine of destruction for everything he has pledged to protect. He literally wrestles with himself, fighting a doomed fight between his human and inhuman selves.


In light of that, it’s interesting to note that the story doesn’t necessarily make that distinction easy and clear elsewhere. The humans on the Ark are threatened by absorption into an insectile hive mind, but in some ways, they’re already well on their way there anyway. Visually, as I mentioned earlier, the cryo-chamber looks like a morgue—but it looks even more like a hive, each worker bee sleeping in its own cell. The Doctor tells Harry and Sarah that at this time in history “human society was highly compartmentalized,” with people bred for their job roles like drones, and of course Vira is so out of touch with her emotions that telling the Doctor that she and Noah “were pair-bonded for the new life” is the closest she can come to saying she was in love with him. (Though she does learn to smile by the end, so there’s hope for her.) Ironically, one of the most unsettling moments is when the Wirrn-bitten Noah becomes confused about his own identity and says he is Dune, the technician killed and eaten in the first episode—thus breaking out of the role that his life was assigned to, but not in a way that implies freedom.

Then, of course, there’s Noah’s bombshell that the Wirrn are only attacking humans because they were driven off their own homeworld by humans. That doesn’t forgive their attempt at genocide, of course, but it does mean that the Wirrrn are not entirely unsympathetic or uncomplicated. It’s possible that the Wirrn have a perfectly valid grievance against humanity, if they’re telling the truth that humans genocidally attacked them first. But unlike the Pertwee-era “The Silurians,” the Doctor doesn’t try to reconcile the two sides, unequivocally calls the Wirrn plan to absorb humanity and make themselves galactic conquerors in our place “the most immoral idea I’ve heard for centuries,” and sets about to destroy them. It’s probably the chief flaw in an otherwise well-plotted thriller—the story dances with the idea that maybe the issues here aren’t black-and-white, then basically says “nah,” and gets out a six-foot-tall can of Raid.


Having kvetched about that, I’ll end on a positive note by noting something “The Ark In Space” does particularly well, namely giving Tom Baker his first truly great showcase for his iconic performance as the bohemian Fourth Doctor. In “Robot,” Baker hadn’t quite captured the character yet, though the clownish sense of humor and Sherlockian arrogance was already there. Here, though, the quintessential characteristics of the Fourth Doctor are all on display. Like Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, he’s a scruffy outsider who doesn’t mind being seen as foolish—as when Sarah angrily accuses him of being frivolous because he’s playing with a yo-yo instead of trying to fix the lack of oxygen. He likes humanity, and individual humans, a great deal, but does not consider himself a part of them. He is often thinking several steps ahead of everybody else, to the point where he seems aloof or off on his own mental plane. (Sarah: “He talks to himself sometimes because he’s the only one who knows what he’s talking about.”) He is emotionally mercurial, even slightly manic, and shifts his mood unpredictably—so much so that it’s surprisingly unsettling when he dazedly comes out of his mental connection with the dead Wirrn and seems to be confused about whether or not he’s become an insect himself.

Jon Pertwee was, ironically enough, best known as a comic actor pre-Doctor Who, but rarely showed a whimsical or comic side to the Third Doctor. Baker, though, plays his Doctor as a genial force of chaos, whipsawing between cold arrogance and ingratiating charm, leaning toward both vanity and pomposity yet taking great pleasure in playing the clown. That’s essential to the overarching character of the Doctor, there to varying degrees in the performances of all 11 lead actors from Hartnell (see especially: “The Romans”) to Smith, but it was never so central as when Tom Baker played the role. You get the idea that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing and doesn’t have a plan. And furthermore,  that he likes it that way because what really thrills him is coming up with that brilliant idea at the last moment.


Stray observations

• Money was always tight on Doctor Who, but there is probably no other serial where the ambition of the ideas is so badly matched by what the production team, talented though they were, could actually make using the resources available. The Wirrn are simply not as convincing as living things than as fiberglass puppets, and the horror of Noah’s transformation is muted by the blindingly obvious fact that he is slowly being covered in green bubble wrap. I don’t mean that as a criticism, exactly, but a friendly reminder that you need to bring your own imagination to get the most out of old Who. The designers, to their credit, do what they can, aiming for 2001-style realism on a $20.01 budget. The cryogenic chamber, as described in the dialogue, must be a huge and labyrinthine place holding tens of thousands of frozen people, but all we see of it is one small part of one room, with about a dozen pods, and a corridor with an angled mirror at the far end to suggest that there’s much more to this part of the Ark than we can see, probably miles and miles of it. Similarly, the section containing all of Earth’s nonhuman plant and animal life—which you would think would have to be even larger than the human cryochamber—is represented by a solid white door that is never opened.


• Some great quotes here, typical of a Robert Holmes script, starting with the Doctor’s admiring speech on human survival: “Homo sapiens! What an inventive, invincible species! It's only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to out-sit eternity. They're indomitable… indomitable!"

• “My doctorate is purely honorary. And Harry here is only qualified to work on sailors.”


• “You’re improving, Harry! Your mind is beginning to work. It’s entirely due to my influence, of course—you mustn’t take any credit.”

• The Doctor claims his scarf was made by Madame Nostradamus, “a witty little knitter.”


• The Doctor discusses their options: “Vira, if you fail, your people will die in pain and fear. If I fail, they'll die anyway, but at least only the six of us will know anything about it.”

• “It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.”

• Exasperated technician Rogin, proving that even if Vira is emotionless, sarcasm has survived into the future: “There's been a snitch-up. Didn't I tell you, Lycett? Five thousand years ago I said there'd be a snitch-up.  … Oh, beautiful. We should have taken our chance with the solar flares. We'd have been happily dead by now.”


• Rogin: “After what happened to Lycett, I want to see where I’m putting my feet.” “You should worry,” replies Harry, who has been running around in his socks after his shoes were blown up in episode one.

• And finally: I realized a long while ago that one of the functions of the companions on Doctor Who is to be perspective characters for kids watching at home. But just how much that’s true, I had never really realized until I thought about how my little baby girls must see me: An impossibly old (42! How can anyone be 42?), eccentric but friendly man, whose job it is to take them on adventures, protect them from monsters, and show them the universe.


Upcoming schedule: I’ll be back on a biweekly basis at a new date and time, Saturdays at 2 p.m. Central. The next two installments will be:
• July 13: The Third Doctor wonders why the Master is rehabilitating criminals in 1971’s “The Mind Of Evil
• July 27: The Fifth Doctor gets caught up in London’s great plague of 1666 in 1982’s “The Visitation