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.
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.
"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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.”
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.
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.
Great, great stuff.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"