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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (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 Arc in Space originally aired in 1975.

I’ll have to link in my own cerebral cortex. That’s the only thing.

That is highly dangerous.

I know. Two more leads, Rogin.

The power could burn out a living brain!

I agree. An ordinary brain. But mine is exceptional.

– the Doctor demonstrates his tremendous ego to Vira

It really is amazing how quickly Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes established their mark on Doctor Who. Barry Letts finished up his time as producer working on Tom Baker’s first serial, Robot. The Ark in Space was the second adventure to star the Fourth Doctor, and certainly a lot more indicative of the shape of things to come. While you could argue that Holmes and Hinchcliffe did improved over the following years – for one thing, this first season still has the odd pothole – it is clear that they immediately knew what they were doing.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes would cast a tremendous shadow over Doctor Who, and it’s no coincidence that so much of that influence can be traced back to The Ark in Space, the first indication of their plan for Doctor Who.

The Wirrn really bug the Doctor...

The Wirrn really bug the Doctor…

Indeed, you could make a case that The Ark in Space is very much a mission statement for this new era of Doctor Who. Philip Hinchcliffe himself saw it in those terms, arguing that the serial was very much about establishing what he and Holmes wanted to do with the show:

The two of us gelled! We immediately felt we wanted to make the series more exciting, and what we did with The Ark in Space was to take it into the realms of real science-fiction. That point of view we then carried over into our treatment of other stories, including the ones that had been commissioned already. We wanted to lose the Cowboys and Indians approach – of men in red hats shooting at men in blue hats in caves, that sort of thing. It seemed to me that there was a poverty of genuine science fiction within the series – and by genuine science fiction I mean of the literary kind.

Given that The Ark in Space feels like something of a progenitor to Alien, which was released four years later, it seems fair to suggest that Holmes and Hinchcliffe succeeded in tapping into the nexus of science-fiction and horror.

She's alive!

She’s alive!

Even today, The Ark in Space stands as one of the best examples of body horror in Doctor Who, even after the Colin Baker era tackled similar ideas in a somewhat more graphic fashion. The notion of a person being eaten alive from the inside, used as the reproductive system of an alien race, is a wonderful primal and visceral horror. It still unnerves today, even though the Wirrn models are a little bit gnaff and the transformation effect is clearly just bubble wrap painted green. Even if it is, it’s the scariest bubble wrap painted green that you will ever see.

I feel somewhat vindicated that The Ark in Space was certified “U” by the British Board of Film Classification and “G” by the Irish Film Classification Office. Mary Whitehouse might have rallied against the Hinchcliffe era as “teatime brutality for trots” or similar nonsense, but it’s hard to argue that even the scariest stories were inappropriate for children. Kids like being scared. I speak from experience, as a person who – believe it or not – used to be a child.

Harry on...

Harry on…

Facing fear is part of the wonder of being a child, and I think the Hinchcliffe era really honed in on just the right level of fear for the audience at home. Kids are smarter and more resilient than adults typically give them credit for. The real world is scary place at times, so it makes sense that television can also be scary. However, Doctor Who presents the story of a man who comes and scares away all the monsters. Kids are going to be scared at one point or another. Doctor Who seems like the best way to deal with that, because we know that fear will eventually be overwhelmed by the delightfully silly man with the jelly babies.

Horror is also a legitimate storytelling tool. After all, it’s hard to worry too much about the fates of the characters if the show can’t make you a little uncomfortable. On a fairly fundamental level, a show that is afraid to make children a little bit worried is a show that cuts off an avenue of dramatic tension. It is not the only avenue of dramatic tension, but it’s an effective and legitimate one. It makes the show exciting and compelling, and there is nothing wrong with using a little horror to tell a story.

In space, no one can hear you wittily banter...

In space, no one can hear you wittily banter…

It’s ridiculous that Whitehouse was able to use the fact that Doctor Who could be a little bit frightening as a way to chase Hinchcliffe off the series and effectively neuter the show. I’m glad that both Davies and Moffat have been willing to allow the series to be downright terrifying at times. The Empty Child is something that can give adults nightmares, and Midnight is one of the most frightening episodes of the revived show.

Indeed, you can see the massive influence of The Ark in Space on the revived series. For one thing, Russell T. Davies heavily borrows from the Fourth Doctor’s ode to humanity when the Tenth Doctor stumbles across the remains of human civilisation in Utopia. Here, the Doctor remarks on humanity’s ability to survive:

Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only a few million years since they’ve crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They’ve survived flood, famine and plague. They’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are amongst the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They’re indomitable. Indomitable!

Davies channelled that scene so well that I can actually almost hear Murray Gold’s musical score in the background as the Doctor makes his declaration.

The reactor's gone green...

The reactor’s gone green…

The climax of the episode is also a moment that the new series has channelled quite a bit. The final episode of The Ark in Space effectively puts the Doctor in a position of choosing between humanity and the last survivors of an alien species. Naturally, he chooses humanity, as he always does. The episode even ends with what appears to be the destruction of the last of that alien species, something that the revived series would repeat with some frequency.

The Ark in Space also establishes some of the cynicism that would seep into the show – the notion that the universe is a place of cosmic and inexplicable horrors. Hinchcliffe and Holmes would make a conscious effort to shift the show away from contemporary Earth, but they also made an effort to make sure that the horrors and ideas were still accessible and familiar to the viewers. The Wirrn of The Ark in Space are effectively gigantic insects that roam the galaxy. Bugs much larger than we could have imagined.

Crawling along...

Crawling along…

“Strange how the same life patterns recur throughout the universe,” the Doctor remarks, establishing the blend of the weirdly familiar and yet horrifically strange that would recur in the years to follow. The universe is just a big empty space that is home to grotesque reflections of our own greatest fears. I have to confess, I’m surprised that the revived series never saw fit to bring back the Wirrn. They’re a horrific, but actually surprisingly terrifying, design.

The show struggles to make them work on the budget that it has, but you’d imagine that they’d be perfectly suited to CGI – much like the Macra. As it stands, I actually think the designs here work well enough. Deciding what special effects work and don’t work in Doctor Who is always arbitrary, and the Wirrn come very close to not working. And yet there’s something so decidedly theatrical about the costumes that they seem almost hyper-real. That said, the rat in The Talons of Weng-Chiang has always been a special effect that I just couldn’t get past, so what do I know?

A model alien...

A model alien…

Still, the Wirrn are only an expression of the horrors of the universe that The Ark in Space hints at. This is a future where the Earth is dead and abandoned. The last of humanity are floating in orbit, with vital signs so faint that they might as well be dead. “What’s happened to the human species, Harry?” the Doctor asks, and even he seems genuinely worried about the state of affairs for a moment. the hibernation chamber is so grim and so funereal that Harry confuses it with a “mortuary.”

And that’s before we get to the rather blatant colonial subtext that grounds it all. This is really not a happy future at all, on any level. The fact that humanity survives might give us something to hope for, but there’s not too much else to get excited about. It’s clear that colonial attitudes still exist. Only, of course, relative to colonised worlds rather than countries. This attitude alternates between relatively harmless and remarkably dangerous.

Tom Baker does his best David Tennant impression...

Tom Baker does his best David Tennant impression…

Vira patronisingly writes off Harry’s mannerisms and language to the fact that the Doctor and Harry must be “dawn-timers” with their “colony speech.” She is friendly and helpful, but there’s a sense that she initially considers them a bit slow because they’re not from Earth. In contrast, Noah’s paranoia about finding the Doctor working on the solar stack is rooted in a more aggressive colonial attitude. “Earth is ours,” he explains, brandishing a gun.

Of course, Noah is being influenced by the Wirrn, but the subtext is clear. On some level, he suspects the Doctor is the inhabitant of a colony coming to lay claim to his Earth. Next thing you know, those colonials will be taking Earth jobs and Earth women. There’s something decidedly nationalistic (or whatever the adjective is when referring to global pride) about the address to the inhabitants of the Ark.

That's what happens when you play with bubblewrap...

That’s what happens when you play with bubblewrap…

“You have been entrusted with a sacred duty,” the recording assures them, “to see that human culture, human knowledge, human love and faith, shall never perish from the universe.” There’s almost a concern about the purity of human values and ideals. It’s not too far before you reach the xenophobia of Cassandra in The End of the World, especially since one assumes that human values must exist on the aforementioned colonies. Obviously not pure human values, seems to be the subtext of the broadcast.

Indeed, the Wirrn are explicitly identified as the victims of human colonial expansion. The fact that the Doctor attempts to reason with them and is surprised by their use of the sleeping humans suggests that the Wirrn are not a normally belligerent race – they explain that they typically gestate in wildstock on their home planets. However, the human colonists have pushed the Wirrn to the brink of extinction.

I think they've Wirrn out their welcome...

I think they’ve Wirrn out their welcome…

“Long ago,” the creatures explains, “long ago humans came to the old lands. For a thousand years the Wirrn fought them, but you humans destroyed the breeding colonies. The Wirrn were driven from Andromeda.” It seems like a familiar enough enough story. Much like the insect reproductive cycles repeat in outer space, it seems like history does as well. It’s clever for the show to raise it, and to make the Wirrn relatively sympathetic for a bunch of body-hijacking insect people.

Of course, the show falls into its old routines. The Wirrn might be well-developed and well-motivated monsters, but they are still monsters. The Doctor doesn’t even hesitate about supporting the human race that has been responsible for the near-genocide of an alien species. It’s something the show has done quite a bit – there’s always monsters and humans, and the fact that we side with the humans is normally taken for granted. It does slightly undermine the colonial metaphor, but there’s still a wealth of good ideas here.

Talk about a frosty reception...

Talk about a frosty reception…

For the record, the sharpest illustration of the divide between humans and monsters might come in Resurrection of the Daleks. The Fifth Doctor is prepared to commit genocide and wipe out the Daleks. However, he can’t bring himself to shoot Davros. The only tangible difference between the two is that Davros at least looks somewhat humanoid, despite his lower half and his warped face. The Ark in Space isn’t nearly so blatant, but it’s still there. Of course, it’s very clear that the Fourth Doctor is the hero of The Ark in Space, while the Fifth Doctor is more of the universe’s punching bag in Resurrection of the Daleks.

That said, it is nice to see the Doctor injected into this utterly bleak and cynical narrative, and bringing some measure of optimism to it. “There’s plenty of room in the galaxy for us all,” he states, and he seems to believe it. The Doctor’s optimism doesn’t completely pay-off, but some of it does. Noah retains his humanity despite it all and the human race survives. If this were a Fifth Doctor story, everyone would die. Although, as noted above, the Fifth Doctor seems to take the cynicism of the Fourth Doctor’s era and just amp it up significantly.

Ch-ch-changes...

Ch-ch-changes…

We see the introduction of an effective Holmesian and Hinchcliffean technique here. It happens quite a bit in their stories that they’ll underscore the threat by making the Doctor afraid. In a very tangible way, that immediately sells the credibility of the threat more than the fate of the world or the galaxy or the universe. The Doctor is not meant to be afraid. He’s meant to be the thing that gives nightmares pause.

It helps that Baker can really sell it in a way that Pertwee couldn’t. Pertwee could to flustered, upset and angry remarkably well. However, Baker can convince you that he is absolutely petrified, but in a way that doesn’t make him seem any weaker. It doesn’t make the character any less exciting or engaging or fascinating. “Don’t make jokes like that, Doctor,” Sarah Jane states. The Doctor responds, “When I say I’m afraid, Sarah, I’m not making jokes.” Baker has a wonderful gravity that is evident even here.

Time to vent...

Time to vent…

There’s also a sense that the Fourth Doctor is decidedly alien. The Third Doctor was very much an establishment hero, and he could have been just as easily appearing in The Avengers for most of his time on the show. He was this patriarchal figure who was surprisingly human. In contrast, Baker’s got this decidedly bohemian and eccentric charm that gives him an otherworldliness. His scenes needling Sarah Jane wouldn’t work with the Third Doctor.

Trying to convince Sarah Jane to push through, he uses reverse psychology. “Oh, Doctor?” he mimics. “Is that all you can say for yourself? Stupid, foolish girl. We should never have relied on you. I knew you’d let us down.” It’s a weird scene because it’s very hard to imagine Pertwee doing the same to Jo. Indeed, compare Baker’s delivery and the way that he plays it to the Third Doctor’s sexism in The Time Warrior. The Third Doctor sounds like an old man being cranky because he likes winding people up.

Crossed wires...

Crossed wires…

The Fourth Doctor, on the other hand, knows exactly what he wants and is willing to be manipulative to get it.  (“You’re a brute,” Sarah protests when she figures out he was winding her up.) While we come to trust him through familiarity and through Baker’s charm, there’s a strange sense that the Fourth Doctor can’t be taken at face value. Indeed, that’s why the first couple of episodes of The Invasion of Time work so well. Before the serial goes to hell. But that’s another debate.

It’s also worth noting that The Ark in Space also devotes considerable time to developing Harry Sullivan. Part of doing this involves shoving Lis Sladen into cold sleep for a while, but Sarah Jane has been around for a season. Harry is a bit of an awkward character, clearly around just in case the Fourth Doctor needs some muscle. Since Baker is well-capable of providing his own muscle, Harry feels a bit surplus to requirement and is subsequently removed fairly quickly. (At which point we get to focus on the classic dynamic between the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane.)

In a tight spot...

In a tight spot…

There’s also the fact that Harry feels quite weird as a companion. For one thing, he seems very upper crust and establishment. Even the mandatory new companion freak out scene is decidedly stiff-upper-lipped. I’d suspect he came from a fine family of respected military officers, with a very impressive education behind him. “Bad luck,” he comments after the Doctor fails to deactivate the weapon that has trapped them. “Jolly good try, though.” When the Doctor points out they aren’t playing cricket, Harry suggests that he actually has substantial experience with the sport. “Mind you, if I had a cricket ball, I’d jolly soon knock that switch.”

Indeed, he rather quickly integrates himself with the superior human officers during the adventure. He’s running around with a laser gun battling aliens and hanging out on the bridge with the senior officers. In contrast, Sarah Jane is hanging out with the Doctor and doing the sort of clever science-y stuff. I think it’s fair to read Harry as a very conservative character, and not the most dynamic supporting cast member. Of course, he is a military officer, so the characterisation fits.

Well, I'd say he adapted quite quickly...

Well, I’d say he adapted quite quickly…

Rather notably, Harry seems to spend a great deal of The Ark in Space being sceptical of the Doctor. Which is strange, because I’d tend to take the word of the guy running the time machine. When the Doctor explains that the crew are in stasis, Harry chimes in, “Sorry to contradict you, Doctor. Not a flicker of life.” He seems to take some measure of pride in trying to prove the Doctor wrong. “Sometimes latent neural impressions can be revived,” the Doctor explains at one point. “Really?” Harry asks. “I’ve never heard of that.”

Indeed, Harry even questions the rules by which the narrative of Doctor Who must work. “Strange how they’ve given us the run of the ship,” he notes at one point, which isn’t something I would be rushing to question. “Why doesn’t Vira try and stop us?” In many respects, Harry seems to be a companion who simply refuses to get into the spirit of things. I like companions who challenge the Doctor. Sarah Jane is great because she understands he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing. Romana won’t let the Doctor condescend to her. Donna isn’t afraid to reign in the Doctor’s ego. However, Harry seems to be just contrarian.

Harry should chill out...

Harry should chill out…

And then there’s the fact that Harry seems to be… well, a little bit sexist. It plays into the aforementioned that he’s very much a gentleman in the conservative tradition, seemed remarkably straight-laced to go travelling the universe. When Vira revivies herself, despite his offers of assistance, Harry patronisingly notes, “Independent sort of bird, isn’t she?” After the recorded speech from the world leaders, he remarks to Sarah Jane, “Well, I bet that did your female chauvinist heart a power of good.”

I like that Harry is effectively accusing Sarah Jane of being sexist for the very act of being feminist. The seventies were a very weird time. Anyway, instead of punching him in the face, she asks why. He replies, “Well, I mean, fancy a member of the fair sex being top of the totem pole.” The 1973 version of Margaret Thatcher would probably agree. Ironically, Thatcher was official made opposition leader right before the final part of this serial aired – actually making it even more likely there’d be “a member of the fair sex” at the “top of the totem pole” quite soon.

I'm beaming with enthusiasm at the the thought of where Hinchcliffe could take the show...

I’m beaming with enthusiasm at the thought of where Hinchcliffe could take the show…

Still, the trouble with Harry notwithstanding, The Ark in Space is a wonderfully impressive start to the Hinchcliffe and Holmes era of Doctor Who. Indeed, you could make a credible case that the team started very near the top of their game, which is perhaps testament enough.

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