Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Serial 76: The Ark in Space

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan

Written by: Robert Holmes (and John Lucarotti)
Directed by: Rodney Bennett

A note: Hey everyone! So, as you probably know if you're reading this, it's March, which means that I've been doing this blog for a whole year (also, Cassandra! Hi, Cassandra! (She helped)). Haven't missed a week (miraculously), so I think it's time for an anniversary celebration. To kick things off, I'm talking about the real start to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era with a Robert Holmes story, but the fun doesn't stop there! We've got Troughton next week, the story that started it all the week after that, and then a regeneration trilogy I've been looking forward to talking about for a long time. Thanks for all your support over the past twelve months, thanks for sticking around in the tickling of my fancy, and most of all, thanks for reading. Means the world.

Background & Significance: If you were to ever talk about Tom Baker, you'd almost have to start here.

While "Robot" started off Tom Baker's first season and kicked off his seven year run, it still doesn't have the feeling of awesome that is the legendary Gothic Era under Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. I talked about this back when I reviewed the story, but "Robot" is a very different story in terms of tone and feature. It's a UNIT story, it's a little silly-goofy, it's very much got the silly campy feel of the Pertwee era, etc. etc. Sure, there's the script editing of Robert Holmes, but the story was still being guided by the influence of producer Barry Letts and it's written by Terrance Dicks, who had just overseen five years of UNIT stories, so the formula was in-built.

It only makes sense, then, that the next story, the first one overseen by Phillip Hinchcliffe, is where the era really starts.

"The Ark in Space" came from an idea by John Lucarotti, who had previously written such widely acclaimed historical Doctor Who stories such as "The Aztecs" and "Marco Polo". He'd been away from the show since the Hartnell era (that's almost ten years) and Holmes invited him back on the recommendation of outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the script came out less well than Holmes had hoped and (due to Lucarotti's living on a houseboat and problems with the postal service (both of which were, admittedly, beyond the show's control)), the script became unusable. Because they were set to wheels up on filming soon, Holmes scrapped Lucarotti's drafts and most of his ideas (excepting that of the titular "Ark in Space") and set about writing the damn thing himself because he just couldn't wait anymore.

He wrote the whole four-part story in eighteen days.

Magic. Serious magic. And to see this thing turn into a pretty stunning story is pretty awesome. It's also a wonderful tonal and thematic gateway into what would be a staple of Hinchcliffe/Holmes Doctor Who: great scifi ideas, heavy horror, thematic darkness. It's certainly not as much as the show would get in just a few stories, but their era certainly starts here. Even coming off of "Robot", this story is so different, different from anything seen on the show in about five years. It's one of the all-time classics and it's become a cornerstone of Doctor Who's overarching mythology; even Starship UK and Liz X are byproducts of the solar flares devastating Earth.

Not only that, but it's because of the absolute quality of this story that Holmes gets such free reign later on. Hinchcliffe (very famously) trusted Holmes's style and sensibilities and often encouraged Holmes to do page-one rewrites if he thought the story not up to snuff. This, of course, wasn't very popular with the BBC, which discouraged script editors from writing for their own show. Hinchcliffe, however, eventually fought for and won Holmes's right to write two stories per season. And without that, we wouldn't have "The Deadly Assassin" or "The Talons of Weng-Chiang".

Without those (or the other stories Holmes wrote or re-wrote from top to bottom), this era wouldn't be nearly the era that it was. And that would be sad. But that all comes from this. And thank goodness for that.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

Despite “Robot” being “the last UNIT story and hurrah” of Barry Letts (and, to a degree, Terrance Dicks), it’s interesting to compare the opening shot of this story (and really, the opening shot of the era) to the previous five years of stories.

The difference is stunning. Really, truly. Just thinking back to all that I’ve seen of the Pertwee era (which, again, five years of stories), “Ark in Space” must have been a huge kick in the mouth to all those who were watching and had grown accustomed to the UNIT zeitgeist. It’s a testament to Hinchcliffe/Holmes that even in the first part of their first story together you can tell that you’re in for something interesting and special. Maybe it’s the opening shot of a slow push in on a lone space ship or the passing glimpses of the Wirrn, or maybe it’s the fact that this entire episode stars NOTHING but the three regulars as they explore this eerie and deserted space ship with its white washed walls and massive scope.

What it comes down to is just a combination of all this awesome. Not that that’s an unobvious statement, but there it is. It’s just mad compelling. And it’s quintessential Hinchcliffe/Holmes: strong sci-fi elements, undercurrents of horror, and really well-done character work.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What we have here is the kickoff to what appears to be a fairly standard Doctor Who story. The Doctor and his companions arrive at this space station. Things seem weird. They are going to investigate. All that’s well and good and fine and standard, but it’s the style and flair with which they pull it off that this story begins to succeed and succeed so well. The space station itself is truly magnificent and an incredibly well-imagined set. The white washed walls just SCREAM 70s sci-fi in the best of ways, and the linear progression through the rooms of this location where we’ll be spending the vast majority of the rest of our story is just…. so well done. The silence alone is positively chilling. Compare the sound design here to the modern era which is all about wall-to-wall music and sound. But here the silence is deafening, at one point only the air of a vent perforating the scene to let us know that our heroes will not actually suffocate.

That’s to say nothing about the actual ambition of this opening part. Riding your entire first episode on the strength of your three leads and no guest stars is stunning and a testament to both Holmes as writer and the actors who manage to sell this silly BBC set as an actual space station.

There’s just an air to everything that feels fresh. No matter how many different space station Doctor Who stories you’ve seen (and to be fair there’s really not as many as you might think), there’s something about this one that feels fresh and exciting and new. Maybe it’s the wonder with which Harry marvels at his first trip in the TARDIS or the way The Doctor plays everything with such curiosity and reverence or the dangerous traps and pitfalls that are lurking around every corner in this space station… It just feels so good and so right. It’s slow, but in the way old Doctor Who is slow. It’s terribly compelling is what it is (I said that before BUT IT’S STILL APT!) and the way that everything just feels so logical and well-thought-out is fantastic.

There’s also a lot to get the brain churning. There’s the mystery of all the suspended animation folk and the strangeness of the slug that leaves the weird mucus behind. There’s also the constant worry of “What is happening to Sarah Jane” and the knowledge that something creepy is lurking just around the corner. All of these mysteries only help fuel the mind towards pushing on to the next episode and seeing what’s in store. And then there’s the final two revelations of cliffhanger: Sarah Jane in animation and the GIANT ASS BUG FALLING TOWARDS HARRY.

It’s just a strong, strong opening episode and totally new and fresh and exciting. The hard sci-fi tact, the horror motif and direction of the show, the characters, their interactions, the gorgeous everything (sets etc), the writing… everything does a damn good job of kicking off not just the story, but the entire era with panache.

Oh, and I’d mention the Homo Sapiens speech but uhhhhhh…. To be honest, it never really did all that much for me. It’s well done and well-presented and well performed and well shot (it feels total Shakespeare in the best of ways; love when Holmes feels like Shakespeare) and well-written, but it’s... I dunno. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. But maybe I'm just not able to appreciate it for whatever reason. It's never resonated with me, but maybe that's my hangup on Tom Baker's Doctor. But really, that's my own personal hangup.

Part 2:

About halfway through this part I made a realization: The Ark in Space is just quintessential Doctor Who. It’s just… it’s got everything.

If I’m struck by anything this time, it’s the pace of the story. While it is definitely moving, I’m struck by the pace at which it does. I mean, really all that happens in this episode is the awakening of various people, Noah’s chosen as they were… and The Doctor goes to shut off the power but he discovers something in the power station and shuts it down. And then there’s the “Noah” of this arc and the possession he gets from the alien menace, but that isn’t even revealed until the end…

But it’s all done with such style and panache. It’s very much… You can tell it’s pre-Star Wars. A modern story could NEVER travel at this pace and get away with it. People would change the channel.

And yet, it’s just so compelling. The post-Star Wars generation would never let this slip through, and yet show it to most Doctor Who fans and this would blow them away. It’s just so compelling, and the scope of things blossoms so well. The entire part is only carried by the three regulars, Vira, Noah, and Libri. Again, ballsy. To boot, there’s a bit more excitement in this, but it’s still NOT the action romp that you would expect from a sci-fi adventure show. I mean, there’s actionyish parts to it, but at the same time… If you really think about it, the whole episode is mired in horror-based violence. There is the firing of only two shots and the sliming of “Noah.”

What makes this story so strong and quintessential is its reliance on strong storytelling.

Compare this story to ANY other major, mainstream, or popular science fiction story in the past… ten or twenty years and you can see the difference. In those stories it’s all about the action beat every fifteen pages and you have to keep the story moving, run and gun, action action explosion action. But this is decidedly not that. GRANTED, this pre-dates that notion, but the principle is still there. Halfway through the story and the bad guy hasn’t even become a present force in the story yet. It’s all just background. With Noah’s possession and the reveal of said possession at the end of the episode, the story spirals off and the tension is about to build, but the fact that it’s still moved incredibly slow is no less noticeable.

Know what the killer bit of that is? It’s no less compelling.

Seriously. This story is AS COMPELLING as any other Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen and NOTHING is happening (seemingly). But the way that it’s told and the character interaction and the mysteries can’t not drag you into it. The way that “Noah” starts acting like a slightly more dick. The way that the giant bug in the closet plays a role in later events of the episode is a great example of that. And that sack of mucus trail thing goes back to the first episode when it led away from the casket/case of the missing engineer. It’s just… Holmes is so good and he gets it. The slow trickle of information is masterful and the way the characters interact is so… specific. It’s just Holmes doing what he does best and it’s done so skillfully that if you’re not paying attention you won’t notice what is or is not happening.

Beyond that, the cast of The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry are right on board. The Doctor has his typical role of “Telling people what’s up and them not listening to him” and he does it so well. It’s telling that this is one of the best Tom Baker stories, in my opinion. Especially in a season that doesn’t necessarily showcase him at his best (“Genesis” is good Tom Baker but it’s hardly his best), “Ark in Space” is a particularly strong showing for the show’s leading man. I’ve made it no secret that I’m not the world’s hugest Tom Baker fan, but this is really great for him and it does exactly the job it needs to.

Great, great stuff.

Part 3:

If there’s a benefit to nothing happening for, say, two episodes, there’s a payoff when, finally, things start happening.

And oh boy, do they. Like oh lordie. For one thing, there are action sequences in this story that are just awesome. The use of corridors is stunning and super well done while helping to feed into the claustrophobia and feel of the space station. The running and gunning of human against Wirrn is just fantastic. All those scenes of laser blasts and action against the evil bugs is just greatness. And there’s nothing like that scene of turning around and seeing Noah mid-transformation as he struggles with the Wirrn inside of him to not fire his gun.

But beyond that there’s still the great stuff of the space station. The use of reverse-transmat beam is inspired and why The Doctor is super good…

There’s another two characters introduced, one of whom doesn’t even make it to the end of the episode. We learn more things. And it's just... so fascinating. Despite the fact that the episode opens with a message from the past, the message is no less compelling. Every time Holmes chooses to give us more information about what’s going on with the mythology of this whole situation it’s just mad compelling. Every time, mind you. Even the style in which the Wirrn flashback is told, through silent images that chain a sequence of events which The Doctor will later explain is just super well done. It's a great move for television, especially because people forget and forget so often that it's all about being a visual medium.

And still we have Tom Baker on a roll.

Seriously, how good is he in this? Really friggin good, lemme tell you. The way he gets almost-possessed by the Wirrn, the way he totally dominates every single conversation, his unique take on all the things going on with the station. And there’s the bit where he figures out how to interface with the Wirrn to see what’s going on and what’s happened with them, it’s just… yes. I love it. And him. There’s just this way he’s just one step ahead of everyone else, but not opposed to taking out the Wirrn, everything in this is just working when it comes to him. More so than even in "Robot". I’m loving it.

Also, if I can be in love with a production design, it’s the production design here. I really just… I’m in love. There’s a sense of vertical space in places, the corridors, the stark whites, the costumes, the station itself, the Wirrn… it all just works. I don’t even care that the Wirrn are made almost entirely out of green-colored bubble wrap. It’s just fantastic, and the way the Noah character struggles with his own transformation is exceptional. What makes it even cooler is because of how much he’s not ACTUALLY in this episode. We see him struggling at the beginning (which is total Doctor Who magic and acting; take for that what you will) but the rest of the episode is just about catching glimpses of his slow transformation. The horror of it, the way it’s inevitable, it’s just so terribly strong.

Even the slug Wirrn is fantastic. I don’t even care that it’s silly looking. Where else are you going to see bubble wrap aliens? It works. And the horror of the transformation is a taste of where the show is going. It’s fantastic sci-fi horror. It’s not violent. Grotesque? Perhaps? But that’s who the Wirrn are, I suppose. Let them complain.

If there’s a criticism or complaint I’m going to level at this, it’s going to be the role of Harry and Sarah Jane. For the most part, they’ve spent the time standing around or shooting Wirrn. They haven’t really been getting into much trouble or contributing in any way. Now, normally this is a problem, but I almost like that the companions are stuck in the middle of what’s going on. Not only that, but this is MUCH more a story about The Doctor than it is about them.

And I’m okay with that.

Part 4:

The Wirrn in a lot of ways remind me of The Autons in “Spearhead From Space”. There’s a way the Autons are revealed all throughout Spearhead (I talked about it in the writeup for that story) that’s really really masterful, and it’s that same context that Holmes employs here.

Structurally speaking, the Wirrn don’t even really appear in the first two episodes. We get passing glances of them. They’re little blobbies that appear and then vanish. In part three we get the transformation of Noah, prepping us for what is coming while simultaneously getting an attack by a giant blobby Wirrn. By the end of part three, we witness Noah’s final transformation into a Wirrn and part four sees full grown adult Wirrn running around the station as the battle for Nerva begins.

Despite myself, I really like the Wirrn. There’s something about them that feels… legit. Normally, I’m against bug/slug aliens, but there’s something elegant about the Wirrn that makes them work.

I think a lot of that has to do with Holmes’s mythology behind the Wirrn. They’re a very intricately realized species and they aren’t annoying or overly disgusting. These help, but I think a lot of their success comes down to them being a really well-handled infestation. They have taken over the Nerva station and they look gross but also a bit silly but also imposing and creepy. It just… it works and is handled with class and style. I have to give them props for that.

Again, Tom Baker is on tremendous form here. Tremendous. He's nailed the first three parts of this story and he rocks the hell out of this last part. Perhaps the best of this is the bit where he taunts Sarah Jane into forcing her way out of the crawlspace, but he’s still great in all things here. You can really tell that this thing was written as a showcase for Tom Baker as The Doctor. He's very much in Holmes's vision for who The Doctor is and should be. I love his attempts to stave off the Wirrn invaders and to bargain/reason with them. It’s just really really excellent stuff. I’m almost willing to forgive the really horrid outfit he has (which looks worse when he’s coatless, which he kinda shouldn’t ever be; I mean what is that vest and tie?), but let’s not get crazy about it.

Also, I would like to mention that all that discussion of lack of action is totally not valid here. There’s really tense sequences, all of which tend to involve claustrophobia in some form or another. That sorta feel has been around since VERY early in the story, but it’s really true here. The shuttle has this weird claustrophobic glow, and the constantly closing doors and bulkheads only help to remind us that this place is actually kinda freaky and all-entrapping. I mean, the Sarah Jane in the crawlspace sequence is totally claustro- and the entire shuttle thing is nothing but trapped feeling (even with that blue light). That’s to say nothing about the cryo lab, which is fantastic in terms of vertical space (and I mean that), but it’s still all confining.

Also, The Doctor’s plan to get rid of the Wirrn is inspired. I love the improvisation he constantly undergoes to come up with a solution. The Wirrn turn on the power, what does that mean? They’re on the hull, how do we get rid of them? And his solutions are simple and elegant and fantastic.

That’s to say nothing about the guest cast, which is also fantastic. I mean, what’s-his-name did a sacrifice moment. That’s just… yes. It’s just so well done and so well written. The dialogue sings and it’s just… yes. It’s not even like it’s the greatest Doctor Who story. It’s like “Robots of Death” or “City of Death”. It just does so many things right and is so ridiculously solid that what can you REALLY say about it because how strong it was. The story takes every fork in the road and makes the right choice.

It’s not mindblowing. It’s just solid to the point of perfection.

Final Thoughts?: If there’s one reason "The Ark in Space" works, it’s because it’s INCREDIBLY simple.

There’s a propensity in science fiction (or even modern science fiction) to make a story overly complicated. Science fiction writers, it’s often found, become enamoured with their ideas. Reading sci-fi spec scripts, it’s common to find these writers more focused on the technicality of a battle suit or a mech design than creating real characters or a great story.

That, to me, is sad, and it’s a problem that has plagued Doctor Who from time to time. The most obvious example from the classic series being Baker/Martin stories, which are SO focused on plot plot plot idea idea idea that it lets all semblance of story or character fall away in favour of showing off some neat little concept. But concepts aren’t stories. They aren’t strong driving forces that carry through a narrative. No, they’re just concepts. Cool on paper, but throw an episode on screen with naught but a concept and you might as well go up and just throw out the concept standing in front of a blank screen.

But what does this have to do with "The Ark in Space"? I’ll get to that in a minute.

For this week’s podcast, my co-host Scott and I discussed the 1996 Paul McGann movie. Having watched it in preparation for the week’s show (for discussion purposes), I was struck by the sheer complexity of the story. I’ve seen that thing at least three times at this point and I honest to god couldn’t tell you what the plot of that story is. I mean, sure there’s the thing about The Doctor and The Master fighting for control of The Doctor’s lives (which is silly, but fine, I’ll go with it). But ask me what the Eye of Harmony is doing or how The Doctor saves the day or how stripping the TARDIS wiring works or what’s a temporal orbit or what’s up with time resetting so that we see midnight twice and I’m completely stymied.

“The Ark In Space” is literally NOT that. Not at all. At no point in this story can you be confused about it, or I guess you can but that’s if you’re not really paying attention as it’s going. I mean, if you weren’t really paying attention or watching, I guess you could get lost.

But I’m rambling. The point is this: The Nerva Space Station has been invaded/attack by Wirrn. The Wirrn want the Space Station, the humans have to defend it. The Doctor is stuck in the middle and has to stop the invading Wirrn. That, as a concept, is TREMENDOUSLY simple, but it’s PLENTY satisfying and without being a giant idea dump when this easily could have been just that. Don’t get me wrong, there’s PLENTY of info dumped over the course of the four episodes, but at the end of it, it never felt like it.

That’s one of the strengths of Robert Holmes. That’s why he’s just so good, really.

I mean, going back, the whole thing is just so well told. It’s all about the people on this space station. It’s never confusing, it’s never leaving you in the dust with what’s going on. It’s got a compelling undercurrent of character work (Vira and Noah). It’s got some pretty great horror. And the space bugs are really interesting and compelling. But it’s so specifically not about the Wirrn that… it just sings. If it was about the Wirrn, we woulda gotten a huge info dump on them in episode one or two, but no. We don’t actually see the Wirrn in full force until episode four. It’s a satisfying and well-constructed build.

And it’s still SO simple. But that doesn’t mean it’s not compelling because it is. It’s compelling from minute one. And it’s built slowly and carefully to the point that the final two episodes are a fantastic roller coaster.

Suffice to say, the story is a true, true classic. A product of its time in the best of ways, and another phenomenal Robert Holmes story to boot. That the guy could produce so consistently and at such a level… it’s really a testament to him. And in eighteen days! Not only that, but the fact that it really is just… one of the best Doctor Who stories that’s ever been done and a phenomenal kickoff to a phenomenal era. Yes. Just yes. High fives all around.

Next Time!: 2nd Doctor! Jamie! Victoria Waterfield! Cybermen! Ice! Tombs! Archaeology! A party [of archaeologists]! Cyber-Mats! And a really phenomenal speech! We continue our one-year anniversary awesome train next Tuesday with "Tomb of the Cybermen!"


  1. I must admit, Ark in Space gets less interesting every time I watch it.

    It's a good story, but it's got something missing and I am not quite sure what it is. It's basically an old-fashioned base-under siege and Doctor Who does have a fair few of those.

    I actually prefer the original The Ark with Hartnell.

  2. When the show first hit the United States (sometime in 1978 or thereabouts), it ran on the New York City area's Channel nine in weekly installments, with commercials. I was barely thirteen but I was already a massive science-fiction fan, and I had been made aware of Doctor Who by several friends who had moved to my town in Connecticut from Ascot, so they and their families had been part of the first generation to experience the series as a British cultural institution. Having heard about it from them, I checked out the show when it premiered on Channel 9 with "Robot," and I found myself rather underwhelmed. Nonetheless I trusted my friends' opinions and stuck with it, which I'm eternally glad that I did because I was immediately rewarded with "The Ark in Space."

    "The Ark in Space" is the story that made me a Doctor Who fan for life, and I was quite surprised by how genuinely scary that serial was. It was the first story I bought on DVD and I just watched it again tonight, and it has lost not one iota of what appealed to me about it all those years ago. And imagine my surprise when I saw Alien in 1979 and found myself wondering if elements from "The Ark in Space" were..."borrowed" for that now-classic sci0ce-fiction/horror film. The similarities are considerable.

  3. I re-watched this one a couple of weeks ago. It's good, there's lots of good things in it (my favourite being where Noah / Wirrn says "Goodbye Vira" just before blowing the shuttle up). BUT... it's strangely heartless. There's nothing in it for me that captures just why Who is so great.

  4. i watch this show. but what happen when they go to earth? and is there a story no 77 of the ark in space?

  5. i watch this show. but what happen when they go to earth? and is there a story no 77 of the ark in space?