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Doctor Who – The Ark (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Ark originally aired in 1966.

Yes, I bet it’ll take some time to get the whole of the population down here, so the sooner you get started, the better, I should think.

Don’t worry. It may not take as long as you think.

What do you mean? Are you up to something?

Em… no.

– Dodo (yes, Dodo) outwits a Monoid

The Ark is an interesting piece of Doctor Who, both in terms of structure and in terms of theme. It’s a very clever concept, with the four-parter effectively split into two halves as the Doctor and his companions join the same story at two different intervals. It’s a wonderful high concept, with the action jumping from across time while keeping a fixed location. However, The Ark is also notable because of its less-than-subtle political under-currents, one of the relatively rare times where Doctor Who has seemed reactionary, conservative and downright colonial in its attitudes.

The end of the world as we know it...

The end of the world as we know it…

To be fair, any television show that has been running as long as Doctor Who is going to go through phases. Every time a new producer comes on board, the show is going to shift. Some of those changes are aesthetic, others are more fundamental. However, it’s always easy enough to detect the shift in the show’s priorities and even its values. The Ark just comes at one point in the show’s history when the series tended to be quite reactionary.

A lot of Doctor Who can be read as having a decidedly liberal slant. It is, after all, the story of a madman with a box who drops into a given world and turns everything upside down. The Doctor is his own moral authority, working alone and distrustful of political institutions and those holding power. The character can topple dictatorships and end oppression with a minimum amount of fuss, before getting quickly out of the way so that the survivors can go about rebuilding their society without his interference.

I, for one, welcome our new Monoid overlords...

I, for one, welcome our new Monoid overlords…

However, there are times when the show has swung the opposite direction. For example, the Jon Pertwee era seems relatively conservative in outlook, with the Doctor even accepting the perks of an establishment job and cooperating entirely with U.N.I.T. Writers like Malcolm Hulke would point out just how uncomfortable the Doctor should be with this arrangement, but the show (and the character) would become increasingly settled. Paul Cornell once quipped that the show turned the Doctor into “a Tory.”

While that might be a bit extreme, the Pertwee era did lean a little to the right of where the show normally stood, and it maintains a unique feel because of that. John Wiles was only producer on Doctor Who for a short time, for four stories between the end of Verity Lambert’s time on the show and the start of Innes Lloyd’s term. The bulk of Wiles’ episodes were devoted to the gigantic epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, something that Wiles was less than happy about:

The Daleks’ Master Plan was an enormous rock in the middle of a sea, and one on which any boat we were going to run would be submerged. It was immovable and right in the middle of this period, handed to me by Verity and Dennis. Donald and I virtually washed our hands of it, and it went on more or less without us in he hands of Dennis Spooner – who did most of the writing – and Duggie Camfield. I was nominally in charge, but I had absolutely no authority over it since none of it was my concern.

The writing's on the wall...

The writing’s on the wall…

It seems like Wiles had only really begun to get a handle on the show when he departed. Indeed, he points to The Ark (his last serial) and The Celestial Toymaker (the first produced by his successor) as the kind of stories that he wanted to tell with the show:

Brian Hayles’ The Celestial Toymaker was a good indication of what we really wanted. So too The Ark, about the spaceship on its way to another planet. That story was mine, at least from the conceptual point of view.

Wiles has admitted to considerable involvement in the early stages of development of The Celestial Toymaker. Indeed, there’s significant thematic overlap between The Ark and The Celestial Toymaker, to the point where the two almost seem to develop the same sorts of ideas and hit upon the same notions and fear of the unknown.

Not-so-noble savages...

Not-so-noble savages…

While The Celestial Toymaker has – like so many of the episodes around it – been lost to time, there is a convincing argument to be made that it stands among the most unfortunately racist Doctor Who serials ever produced. To quote from the wonderful Phil Sandier over at TARDIS Eruditorum:

The entire story is based around having a Fu Manchu style villain who is evil precisely because he’s Chinese. To an audience watching and even remotely aware of these stereotypes, the fact that he is Chinese is how we know the moment we see him that he’s evil. And just think about the xenophobia here – his toys and games are all classic Victorian stuff. So this is a nefarious, evil Chinese man who twists good Victorian children’s culture into sadistic and evil games.

As such, it makes a fitting companion piece to its direct predecessor, The Ark. The rather obvious subtext of The Ark is that all those stupid foreigners who have immigrated over here are just biding their time and waiting for an opportunity to take over and possibly kill us all. It’s a very disturbing, very reactive piece of television.

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

Did somebody call for a Doctor?

To be fair, The Ark is really two two-part adventures stuck back-to-back. And the first is very much a sort of a typical Doctor Who science-fiction adventure. It evokes a rather condensed version of The Sensorites, as the Doctor finds himself working on a cure to save a dying civilisation. The twist, of course, is that this dying civilisation is humanity. The Earth is dying (and the second part features the destruction of the planet), so humanity has set off into the stars to make a new home from themselves.

These humans are hardly the most enlightened bunch. They seem to know the world they are heading towards is inhabited, and expect to meet resistance, but don’t seem to care too much. When the Doctor and his companions show up, the humans accuse the TARDIS crew of being enemy spies sent to infect them with a deadly disease. Facing extinction and panicking, the humans prove quite close-minded and xenophobic.

The ark in space...

The ark in space…

Zentos’ initial assessment of Steven is predicated on his species. “You yourself, I take it, are human?” he demands. If he had discovered the Doctor was a Time Lord, how would he have reacted? Zentos explains that the crew is terrified of Refusians, the alien race that inhabits their destination. Of course, that fear is rooted in the fact that humanity knows nothing about them. “We only know them as intelligence’s that inhabit that planet. They might have a way of assuming human bodies, of using them to pass, to mingle amongst us!”

When Steven is put on trial, the humans admit that they have no evidence of his wrong-doing, just some deep irrational feeling that assures them the strangers mean them harm:

Are you still on about that? I’ve told you before. We know nothing of that planet.

My instinct, every fibre of my being, tells me differently.

And that, unfortunately, tells me only one thing.

What’s that?

That the nature of man, even in this day and age, hasn’t altered at all. You still fear the unknown, like everyone else before you.

We discover that humanity has taken in the Monoids, a race that communicates through sign language, and seems to depend entirely on humanity for food and support. These silent creatures hover in the background and are introduced doing menial labour. They notate trials and guard prisoners and bring food. The human characters don’t seem to consider them to be specially intelligent, treating them more as children who can’t take care of their own needs.

Bring out your dead...

Bring out your dead…

It’s revealed that the humans are bringing the Monoids along as a labour force. As the Commander explains, “The origin of the Monoids is obscure. They came to Earth many years ago, apparently from their own planet which was dying. They offered us their invaluable services for being allowed to come on this joint voyage.” This recalls the way that Britain would recruit directly from the colonies in order to combat the labour shortage following the Second World War, drafting in immigrants to feed the recovering economy.

Anyway, the Doctor and his companions seem to note how poorly the Monoids have been treated and proceed to teach the human race a lesson in trust and open-mindedness. You can’t have humanity travelling through the cosmos with a close-minded and racist attitude, can you? “Remember your journey is very important, young man,” the Doctor assures Zentos, “therefore you must travel with understanding as well as hope. Goodbye, Zentos.”

Maybe we'll never see eye-to-eye...

Maybe we’ll never see eye-to-eye…

And an average episode of Doctor Who would end there. The Doctor would go on his merry way, having taught humanity a valuable lesson about how irrational fear of the unknown and slavery are bad things – even when you think you can justify them. However, The Ark doesn’t end there. In fact, we’re just shy of the half-way point of the four-episode arc when the Doctor and his companions return to the TARDIS. In what is a rather magnificent twist, the Doctor jumps ahead in time to the future of the world he has just visited, allowing him a sort of a “time skip” glimpse of the future of the society he just interacted with.

To be fair, it’s a very clever plot point. It’s the kind of twist that really takes advantage of the show’s serialised format, and catches the audience by surprise. Of course, the fact that all four episodes are on the same disc minimises the effect somewhat, but I can’t imagine how clever that final reveal must have seemed at the end of the second part of The Ark. The show had never done anything like this before, and it’s the kind of clever timey-wimey format tinkering that Steven Moffat would employ quite well in The Eleventh Hour.

"Quiet, our stories are on!"

“Quiet, our stories are on!”

So The Ark definitely deserves some recognition for that plot point – it’s something the show never really attempted again, which is a bit of a shame. Unfortunately, the twist is used in the worst possible way. And, again, it’s a reasonably clever concept on the face of it. The episode wants to deconstruct the Doctor’s modus operandi, and the idea that the character always leaves a world better than he finds it. It’s an fascinating idea, and it’s one that the revived show would revisit in its first year with Bad Wolf.

After all, the Doctor drops out of the sky, changes a whole society and then slinks away quietly. It seems a bit convenient that it always winds up working out for the best. If I were a villain, I’d simply wait until he left – there’s little chance he’ll be coming back in my lifetime. And you can see that The Ark is sort of getting at that idea. The Doctor arrived here, made massive social changes to the way that the Ark works, abandoned it… and then crazy stuff happened.

Their plan proved quite fruitful...

Their plan proved quite fruitful…

Unfortunately, The Ark chooses the worst possible ideas to undermine. It turns out, apparently, that the humans had been completely right to be xenophobic and racist, because aliens were out to kill them. It just wasn’t the Refusians. It was the Monoids, who apparently overthrew the human race in the Doctor’s absence, reducing them to slaves. This isn’t just a role reversal, though. While the human race were kind masters to the Monoids, the Monoids are cruel slave-drivers who aren’t afraid to plot genocide against the human race that welcomed them aboard the Ark.

The political subtext is uncomfortable, and hard to divorce from the political realities of Britain in the mid- to late-sixties. Those immigrants who had been welcomed to Britain (like the Monoids to Earth) now found themselves falling prey to racism and xenophobia. Racial tensions in Britain were simmering during the late fifties and into the sixties, with the Notting Hill Riots and the Bristol Bus Boycott serving as two of the most noteworthy incidents. The National Front would be founded in 1968, advocating the mandatory repatriation of all “non-white” immigrants.

It's lonely out in space...

It’s lonely out in space…

In that context, it’s hard not read The Ark as a xenophobic parable about how sometimes it is okay to be racist, because those strange-looking people are going to come over here and take control… and they’ll probably try to kill us all as well. The second two-parter even manages to recast several sections from the first two-parter in a more sinister light. At one point, the Doctor discovers that the Monoids are quite astute.

“Ah, thank you, thank you,” he remarks as one hands him a tool he had yet to ask for. “You know, you’re far more knowledgeable than most people realise, aren’t you?” In its original context, it would seem to affirm that the Monoids are not the dumb grunts that the humans consider them to be. However, considering how the episode eventually plays out, it seems that the Monoids are simply playing dumb, as if to lull us into a false sense of security. The trick is to never trust a foreigner, it seems, no matter how friendly thy may seem.

The invisible ally...

The invisible ally…

Of course, The Ark doesn’t present the Monoids as especially intelligent. I do actually quite like the design of the creatures, which is a very effective way of portraying an alien on a BBC budget. The Monoids do seem distinctively “alien”, rather than just some actors in a cheap mask. “Actors with balls in their mouths” is much more creative. However, the show presents them as stupid natives. I mean, Dodo outwits them… and the show seems to have nothing but contempt for Dodo. There’s a sense that it’s really better for everybody involved if the humans simply run the show, rather than those upstart aliens getting any ideas.

And it’s clear that this is the intended subtext. There’s no ambiguity here. Even in the opening scene, as Dodo leaves the TARDIS, there’s a very heavy and almost fearful political subtext. Dodo is a footloose and fancy-free companion, one who engages with the magic of time and space with an incredible energy and enthusiasm, perhaps as a stand-in for the youth of the 1960s. Certainly, actress Jackie Lane saw her that way:

Dodo was very much a Sixties character – I think I was one of the first girls on television to wear a mini-skirt. Because I am so small, it was quite difficult to find trendy clothes in my size, but I selected this Dylan cap and that really started the character off for me.

However, the show seems pretty mean-spirited towards her. Apparently Wiles had wanted Dodo to speak with a “modern” accent, and you can hear that in the character’s speech-patterns. However, the BBC insisted that she speak “BBC English”, and so the Doctor spends a significant portion of the episode remarking that he’s going to teach her how to speak proper English.

This sort of treatment makes me sick...

This sort of treatment makes me sick…

While this might not have been what Wiles had intended for the character, it does feel in keeping with how the adventure treats her. Dodo is portrayed as a young woman who has no idea of what the world is really like. When she leaves the TARDIS to engage in an adventure – like an TARDIS crewmember before her – Steven is quick to reprimand her for not being scared enough:

Look, Dodo, you don’t know what you might have found out here. No gravity, poisoned atmosphere, all sorts of things. Look, stop prancing around over there. What happens if you get lost?

Yeah, Dodo, what were you thinking? Getting all excited about travelling in a magic box that could take you any time or anywhere you wanted to go? Bah, you don’t know what the universe is really like! It’s scary and frightening and full of things trying to kill you? If you’re not in a state of constant fear, you’re not doing it right!

You can take that to the computer bank!

You can take that to the computer bank!

Indeed, the Doctor is quite patronising and condescending to Dodo. The First Doctor had a habit of being rude to his companions, but his attitude to Dodo isn’t anywhere near as abrasive as his conduct towards Ian or Barbara. Instead, he seems to treat her like a confused young child who doesn’t understand what is going on around her. When everything’s sorted, he remarks, “Now, I suggest we take a last look round and we’ll get you off to bed.” He doesn’t say the same thing to Steven, who is still recovering from a potentially fatal illness.

If you piece together The Ark and The Celestial Toymaker and the show’s portrayal of Dodo, it doesn’t add up to a pretty picture. It seems like Doctor Who is very firmly rejecting sixties liberalism in favour of a more closed-off conservatism. Dodo seems to exist as a figure who can be mocked, one of those liberal kids with big ideas but with no real knowledge of the way things really are. Indeed, you could even read The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve as fitting within that framework – a rather staunch defence of the status quo, and a rejection of the idea that a broken system can be fixed by good ideas and the best intentions.

"Waiter, could I have a little racism with my metaphor, please?"

“Waiter, could I have a little racism with my metaphor, please?”

This isn’t just conservative Doctor Who. There is a way to do a conservative version of Doctor Who that still manages to remain true to the show’s roots. I’m not a massive fan of the Jon Pertwee era, but I think that period of the show’s history manages to balance a decidedly conservative outlook with the show’s general enthusiasm and optimism. In contrast, The Ark feels almost like a cynical and bitter attempt to “anti-Doctor Who”, chipping away at the principles that define the show.

It’s a shame, because there is some very clever format-related stuff going on here, but in service of a very frustrating end.

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