Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Serial 23: The Ark

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Steven, Dodo

Written by: Paul Erickson & Lesley Scott

Directed by: Michael Imerson

Editor's Note: Hey, kids! Matt here! Introducing Cassandra's discussion of "The Ark", which is awesome because it's a totally rad discussion and story. I'll be back next week with more talk, this time about Daleks and Pertwee! Whoo! But for now, Cassandra!

Background & Significance:
People generally have good things to say about "The Ark" and, as we'll find out soon, not without good reason.

This story comes at the end of the short-lived tenure of producer John Wiles, who actually resigned from the show before this story went into production, but he still gets credit for it, which is cool. He's no Verity Lambert, but if this serial is any indication of his vision of the show, I dig it.

It's also a unique one because this story is the only contribution to the show that both the writers and the director make, which is pretty fascinating to me and a total shame because I think this was pretty well-written and excellently directed. The director, Michael Imerson, apparently overspent way a lot (and it shows, I love the production design, it's so greatness. And live animals! Unheard of.), and he was the first to break the tradition of filming scenes in episode order (not as they appear during transmission, but to which episodes the scenes belonged), which was the first tiny step in changing the way Doctor Who was made.

This is also Dodo's first full adventure as companion, having been introduced briefly at the end of the previous story, "The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve."

But enough of all that. Let's take a closer look, shall we?


Part 1

This first part proves to be pretty entertaining. Going into this story, I really had virtually no idea what to expect, armed with only a few assurances that it would be good, but even then I was kind of dubious. So this episode really surprised me with its ingenuity, and I love being surprised by Doctor Who, it’s seriously one of my favorite things ever.

In this episode, there’s really never a truly dull moment. Sometimes that tends to happen in part ones, as we establish the story to play out over the course of four or more parts, and maybe the writer panics because hey, writing four episodes is pretty daunting, maybe they don’t have enough material so they hoard everything for the end and leave the first part with very little to do or go on (“The Savages”, I am looking at you). But this is not the case here. The pacing feels good, things are happening, discoveries are being made, it’s a good time with cool ideas and freaky aliens. To be entirely honest, it feels a bit fast for a part one, but I’ll touch back on that a little bit later.

I also really enjoy the production design and the camera angles in this. Aside from possibly the weirdest opening to a Doctor Who episode ever (lizard gets attacked by a toucan, allllll right!), the set looks really marvelous and kinda screams “budget!” to me (hell, they pet an elephant (which is awesome). I wonder how much they paid for all the animals and things), from the jungle to the control room to the statue to the race banks, and the shots make good use of them, showing them off. The costumes worn by the Guardians are kinda hokey but also kind of charming and so very Classic Who it’s amazing, and I like the design of the aliens, the Monoids. They’re freaky but also kinda cuddly, and I like that they’re first introduced as menacing in the opening shot, but then we find out more about them and realize that they’re quite friendly and not as scary as we thought they were… right? Ultimately, I think the design is very well done, even if it is just people in suits with crazy wigs and eyes in their mouths, and their introduction makes for some good foreshadowing for the back half of this serial as events change, as we’ll see later.

I’m not the greatest fan of the acting in this so far, however, especially with the guest cast. The Commander keeps flubbing his lines, and the prosecutor, Zentos, is just an over-the-top asshole whose life goal is to apparently start a mob after our TARDIS crew founded on little to no evidence whatsoever. But that’s mob mentality for you.

Speaking of our TARDIS crew, we have a new recruit on our hands. As I mentioned before in the background, while this isn’t Dodo’s introductory story, this is her first proper adventure as a Companion, which is fun and kinda a big deal in its own way. It’s always interesting to see how someone’s going to react to traveling with the Doctor, and I think they do a good job of handling that concept here with Dodo. I like her character in theory—spunky, adventurous, curious, kind of a know-it-all, another young person eager to see the universe—but in all honesty, Jackie Lane’s performance annoys me more than anything else. Not a lot, mind you—I’m more annoyed by that douchebag Zentos—but it’s still slightly off-putting and serves to lessen my ultimate enjoyment of the story so far, even if it’s just a little bit. Though I do like her interactions with Steven when they land (and really, Steven in general. He’s no Ian, but he’s still dashing and teh greatness), how he’s so flabbergasted by her and she just keeps spouting off information like a zoo pamphlet. I like that Steven as the veteran Companion seems surprised by her, constantly trying to regain footing and be the big man on campus again, so to speak. I like the fact that he feels the need to protect her but she obviously doesn’t think she needs protecting at all, and goes off exploring on her own right off the bat. To me it just feels so older brother/little sister, and I love that their relationship is becoming something along those lines because I enjoy that dynamic and the potential that has going for it, and everyone does romance so it’d be trite in this situation (besides, Barbara and Ian did it better). Though there is a scene where Steven holds Dodo close and covers her mouth with his hand for an unnecessarily long period of time because she’s about to sneeze in a tense situation, and because of the way I’m viewing them, IT IS SO AWKWARD.

Hartnell is gloriously Hartnell here, and by that I mean equal parts of inquisitive, intelligent, pimpin’, and crotchety. I love that in the same episode he’s able to figure out that they’re on a space ship, interact quite courteously with the Guardians, and tread towards verbally abusing Dodo about her using slang and her “stupid clothes”. There’s something just so funny to me about the Doctor being annoyed by his companions as much as we are.

I think that about wraps up this episode… Except the cliffhanger. Which doesn’t merit a lot of discussion because it’s one of those sad excuses for a “cliffhanger” where the episode just kinda ends and there’s no oomph factor, nothing that makes me go “oh shit!” or “that was awesome, let’s watch more”. There isn’t even an attempt at suspense, since our TARDIS crew has already been arrested, there’s no real pressing sense of stakes, just douchebag Zentos ruminating on the fact that they’re probably all doomed because of the cold virus.

Mehhhhhh. Lame. Onward anyways.

Part 2

I rather like this story because it surprises me, as I mentioned before. And hoo boy, do the surprises keep happening. Especially in this part.

The most interesting thing about this story, I find, is that it totally comes out of left field in this part and punches you in the face with awesome by the end of it. You’re expecting a typical four-part story with the same guest cast and blah blah blah, everyone is in danger—but wait, the Doctor’s solved the problem already and has vaccinated everyone against the fever, and they’re… getting into the TARDIS? Are these episodes out of order?

No, in fact, they are not. And instead of this story taking place with the same people, the story happens in the same place, but with a massive time jump in between the two halves. Brilliant. They should do this more often.

This choice lends this story a breath of fresh air and speedier pacing than what normally happens in a typical Classic adventure. Not only do we have human beings taking a mass exodus away from the earth with the whole of the human race stored in tiny size (an idea that crops up again in a modified form in the Robert Holmes penned adventure “The Ark in Space,” so you know it’s legit), but now we’re jumping the voyage forward into the future in a huge way? Fucking yes. This is how you do Doctor Who. Seriously, fantastic idea. I like how it’s all one story but comprised of smaller mini adventures. There’s cohesion and connectedness and it’s done in such a way that we care about what happens to these people in the future, but it allows for faster pacing and acceleration over a shorter period of time.

I’m also a huge fan of the maturity with which various topics are approached and discussed, especially the point Steven brings up with the Doctor about them spreading various diseases around on their travels. And really, it’s an incredibly interesting and valid point to make. The Doctor has a time machine, able to travel anywhere in time and space, as we all know. So how does he know whether or not this sort of epidemic thing has happened before, because of the people he brings traveling with him? Or what if the reverse situation happens, and his companions are exposed to some intense alien virus against which they have no immunity? It’s a weighty subject, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been explored more, but at the same time I understand why. Doctor Who is a fun show for your family to sit down and watch at tea time, and no one particularly enjoys mass disease outbreaks. Remember “The Silurians”? Brutal. But at the same time, it’s a really interesting topic to bring up and touch on and explore, and I think it makes the Doctor realize that he’s got a lot more responsibility resting on him than he previously thought, and his reaction to this conversation (feels like guilt and “oh my god I’m so stupid” to me) is pretty organic and realistic and points out that the Doctor is still relatively young and realizing things. It forces him to think about the further implications of what he’s been doing, and not just the immediate ones that affect himself and his friends. It’s pretty Linkpowerful, and I applaud the fact that it’s brought up here.

For all the greatness that this episode is, however, it’s not without its weaknesses. I’m not entirely sure why Classic stories like to feature the Doctor doing Science!, but there you go. When the Doctor is busy making the vaccine with his Monoid helper, it seemed like a precursor to the Pertwee days. All the test tubes and talk about vaccines and animal membranes and Science! (yes, it must always be capitalized and followed by an exclamation point). And while I guess that’s interesting, and it’s so very quintessentially Classic… I dunno. Not really a fan. Science! is interesting, but it’s not exciting, and he we are mucking about in space with a chance to explore new worlds and we’re playing with test tubes.

One of my favorite parts about the fact that we’re jumped ahead 700 years at the end of this episode (so freaking cool!) is that we get a brand new set of characters to meet and interact with and root for. Which is excellent, because oh my god, this guest cast is pretty mediocre. I hate Zentos. Seriously, what an ass hat. His character is a total incendiary dick, and the actor playing him is ridiculous and over the top and it’s just ugh. So bad. So annoying. Good riddance, ya loony.

In all seriousness, I know I keep talking about it, but oh my god, I love this ending. What a ballsy, ballsy, sucker punch to the gut move. It’s marvelous. And I love the eeriness of panning up to the completed statue and instead of seeing a human head, it’s a big ol’ ominous Monoid. Glorious. You know how I was talking about foreshadowing in the previous part? This is what I’m talking about. It’s a really great move and it just makes you wonder what happened in those 700 years and leaves you wanting to see more. It’s a great reveal, and a great game-changing move.

Part 3

The thing about this story up to this point, is that it’s somewhat of an atypical adventure for the Doctor, even though it’s still totally Classic in a lot of ways. But with the advent of this part, we start to head back into the more traditional Doctor Who story, which is totally fine, because it still has a lot going for it.

The most interesting part of this for me is the way the Doctor and his companions have essentially turned into legends for these people onboard this massive space ship. It reminds me a lot of the beginning of the most recent series’ episode “A Good Man Goes to War” where you have the first 20 minutes that’s basically people just talking about the Doctor and what he’s done, and yet you still feel his presence and influence. The major difference between the scenario at Demon’s Run and the one here on The Ark, however, is that the Doctor has turned into a legend unwittingly in this serial, and gone cultivated that persona with his Eleventh incarnation. But even unwittingly, his presence and influence has reached down through the centuries amongst this group of people, and I think that’s really cool.

This back half actually reminds me a lot of “The Savages”, only, you know…. way better. Two groups of people, one subjugated, the Doctor known-about and kind of a legend, the Doctor has to help reconcile the two groups somehow, or at least liberate the oppressed. Oh, and the reigning group has heat/light guns. That’s what I mean by the story returning to a sort of standard structure, but still being interesting because it handles it way better.

I think it’s also helped along by the fact that when it hits this sort of traditional liberation/revolution style story, there’s only two episodes to work with instead of stretching it out into four like “The Savages” did. Actually, it really helps keep things interesting, especially since we’ve seen this story many times before and since. By relegating it to the back half, it gives the story a much faster pace and a sense of urgency that I doing think they could have accomplished if they’d just stretched this part of the story into its own four parter. And I like this because, even though we’ve technically just met these characters, we care about what happens to them because we’ve already spent two episodes in this same environment, but the situation has changed a bit. And now, instead of just having the goal of liberating these people for the sake of justice or whatever, because it’s technically the Doctor’s fault this happened because they landed here, we’re righting a mistake as well.

Which adds to the Doctor’s sense of responsibility I was talking about earlier. Here, instead of swanning off on a new adventure, the Doctor is forced to come face to face with the impact of his arrival and his actions. And I like that. It makes the Doctor’s investment in the events here a bit more personal.

And I kinda like that the Monoids are evil now. I mean, we’ve seen the human race subjugated by aliens hundreds and hundreds of times before, but it just kinda makes sense. Not that they were particularly slavish 700 years ago and are dying to kick ass as retribution, they all seemed to be getting along rather well with the Guardians, but maybe some ambitious Monoids down the line decided that they wanted to be in charge for a change. Maybe one of those little creepy Monoids that pop out of nowhere in the jungle in episode one decides he wants to be the leader now. (I think it’s hilarious that they’re numbered. Thing 1 and Thing 2, anyone? Names are not cool enough for Monoids, apparently.) The impending doom of the bomb hidden in the statue gives the back half of this story a sense of urgency as well as kinda underscores just exactly how ruthless the leader of the Monoids is. But surely not all of the Monoids are this genocidal? We shall see.
I also think it’s really cool that the Refusians are all invisible and incorporeal. It’s cool how they show it, moving plants and doors and things to indicate that someone is out there and moving around. Very ambitious, and I think it’s done well. I love it when Doctor Who tries (that may or may not have been a dig at the Graham Williams era).

One of the issues that I have with this part (and the previous parts too) is that the other characters are so forgettable. I know virtually no one’s name aside from the Doctor and Steven and Dodo, and those Guardian characters I do want to mention or talk about I have to look up in the credits. Maybe the Monoids are onto something; at least the numbers are effective. I want a little more character than ‘he’s the asshole, he’s the killjoy cynic, he’s the old man, she’s the girl’. Give me something to latch onto and make me care more about what happens to these characters in particular, not just what they stand for or represent as the last of their kind.

Part 4

I’m pretty sure that this part is the weakest of the lot. It doesn’t hold up as well as it should to me.

For one thing, it’s almost too black-and-white morality for my tastes. I think it could have been handled way better and subtler, even with the limited amount of time of a single episode to work with. For example, the disembodied voice of the Refusian essentially maintains that Refusis is a utopia, a land of peace and without conflict. Seems like a huge stretch to me, and it’s so… idealistically good. I’m all for idealism and optimism (it’s why I love this show so much, really), but it just… it feels forced to me. And of course the human Guardians are the good guys who are capable of living in this way. Call me a cynic, but 10 million years isn’t enough to change human nature to remove all source of conflict. I mean, look at the asshole 700 years ago, stirring up the other Guardians into a shouting mob, resulting in the Doctor and his Companions almost ejected off the ship into space. Just because they’ve been subjugated into slavery by the Monoids doesn’t mean they’re entirely absolved from doing bad things themselves, which the Doctor is quick to point out (as he should).

And this casts the Monoids in such a negative light. Sure, 1 is a complete dick, but surely not all of the Monoids are (which is true, since 4 starts that rebellion, but most of them die as a result, which totally sucks). But having 1 refer to the fission bomb he planted in the statue as “the final answer” just recalls to me the Nazis and their Final Solution, which is essentially what the Monoids are trying to do here. They want to wipe out the humans, the dissenters, everyone different from how they look and who they are and how they think. It’s just so tyrannical and I think it’s taken too far. It’s too good-or-bad, yes-or-no for me, and I think if it’d only been 1, that would have been more interesting. But most of the Monoids agreed with 1, the group of dissenters lead by 4 seemed like a minority.

And then they slaughter each other on this apparent utopia that they’ve been journeying hundreds of years to reach. What a shitty way to christen a new world.

And then the resolution of this story is a total deus ex machina! What the heck, you guys. An incorporeal being magically is able to lift an insanely heavy statue into the airlock so it can be jettisoned off the ship to explode in space. What the hell is that. That’s textbook deus ex machina, and while I guess it works for this, I’s so not satisfied by it. They don’t set it up at all. I mean, we know that the Refusians are invisible and don’t have a form, but how the hell does that mean they can even interact with the world at large anymore, much less lift impossibly heavy objects into the air like they’re made of tissue paper? It just comes out of nowhere and it’s an easy resolution and it feels so cheap and not earned to me. Le sigh.

This episode ultimately just goes the easy route for a lot of things. Resolution? Oh we’ll get the invisible guy to lift the statue. Conflict? Oh, the Monoids are super evil and wrong, obviously. Where’s the grey area? Where’s the earned ending?

Don’t get me wrong, I still really enjoy this serial. I said a few weeks ago while looking at “The Savages” that I wanted to see more Steven, and I think he really delivered here. The more Steven I see, the more I love him. I think it’s cool that he’s off on his own on the Ark, helping the Guardian’s break out of their kitchen prison, trying to find the hidden bomb, being a total badass. Which he being off on his own gives the Doctor and Dodo more of a chance to get to know each other. Which I’m down with. And Hartnell gives a good performance here. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s still good and decent Hartnell. And Dodo actually gets less annoying as the story goes on, which is fortunate. She’s actually okay in this part, defending the humans as she does. I like that she’s an idealist. It’s charming.

Ultimately, though, while this part delivers some good things, I find myself mostly disappointed by it. It’s still lots of fun, but not the resolution and conclusion I think this story deserves, especially considering all the originality and ingenuity in the previous parts.

Oh, and the segue to the next episode is TOTALLY badass, imo. I really want “The Celestial Toymaker” now.

Final Thoughts?: Ultimately, I really like this story a lot. It's a fun, big exciting adventure in the far, far future, touching on unexplored topics and chock-full of really great ideas and concepts.

I think it could have been stronger if the characters that the Doctor and his friends encounter on The Ark in both of the times were a bit more fleshed out and given more to go with (and if that jackass from the first two parts wasn't so annoying. Seriously) and weren't just shells and character traits. And I really think that the fourth episode just falls so flat, especially in the wake of the previous three that are so cool and clever and interesting and fun. The last episode is still fun, but it's too cut and dry, and I was looking for something more subtle, more mature, not as easy.

Despite those weaknesses, however, it's still great fun and a good time. I think Hartnell really delivers a solid performance as the Doctor, and it's nice to see him in all of the episodes. I freaking love Peter Purves as Steven. Why is Steven not talked about more? He's great. He's no Ian by any stretch of the imagination and you can tell he's supposed to be that type of character, but I like what he does with it and makes Steven stand out and unique. That's greatness. As far as Jackie Lane as Dodo...

I enjoy Dodo, I think. I like her character more as an idea than I do the actual performances. Jackie Lane kinda gets on my nerves, but not terribly so (and the Doctor seems to feel the same way, if you go by his interactions with her in this story, which humors me). Dodo is a decent companion, tolerable, and I want to like her. She's got spunk. And I really do adore the way she interacts with Steven. It's so... sibling-y. I think it's fun and an interesting choice.

Just like this serial!

Next Time!: Third Doctor! Sarah Jane! Daleks! Another plague! And aliens that look suspiciously like Sand People! Matt's back next week to take on Mad Man Terry Nation with "Death to the Daleks"!


  1. I really like this story.

    The ending is not a deus ex machina, because the Refusians were mentioned in the first episode. They are already part of the plot. I like the irony that the humans call themselves 'Guardians', but it turns out that they need guardians themselves to sort things out between themselves and the Monoids.

  2. This story is great. So interesting and so much fun to watch.

    I still hold that the Refusian is a kind of deus ex machina, though. While they are mentioned early on in the story, that doesn't necessarily make them part of the plot, as it were. It feels instead like they were trying to set something up to pay it off later but the pay off was not as pay offy as it should be. The solution basically comes out of nowhere and it's too easy, which is why I have a problem with it.