A new broom sweeps clean. The Pertwee-era Earthbound alien invasions and space operas are gone, and now we’re in the moody Hammer horror era of Hinchcliffe/Holmes/Baker. But it’s never quite that simple is it? Because Robot was far from being the last hurrah of the UNIT stories, with Terror of the Zygons, The Android Invasion and The Seeds of Doom still to come. And before the Hinchcliffe era really settles into the pattern we know and love we have The Ark in Space… which is a Troughton era monster-of-the-week base-under-siege. It’s fabulous, and that’s because Doctor Who is never just one thing. It might go through phases with lots of stories that follow a particular pattern or “house style”, but there is always variety, and the more it mixes and matches the better it is.
This type of story relies heavily on the quality of its set design, and this is where The Ark in Space is a cut above the rest. The corridors of the Ark are a wonderful piece of work and it is little wonder that they were considered too good to use just the once. Clever direction and design lend an impressive sense of scale to the chambers where the humans are kept in suspended animation and the model work for the exterior of the Ark is not bad for the time. Things are let down marginally by a lack of attention to detail in the directing: the extras in the individual chambers seem to be playing a game of musical chairs (or musical sarcophagi?) because they keep swapping around from one to another if you look carefully. This is not helped by the fact that one of the extras is extremely short and therefore tends to draw the eye, so it is quite noticeable when he has moved.
The first episode features only the three regulars (plus a couple of voice-overs) and this is really the highlight of the story; it is so well scripted, and made greatly enjoyable by the acting of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, surely the most talented and loveable ensemble cast ever to step aboard the TARDIS. Tom Baker revels in the perfectly written dialogue, particularly the ‘homo sapiens’ speech. I also like: ‘It may be irrational of me but human beings are quite my favourite species.’ A nice little confirmation from the Doctor of what we always knew! This story has a joy to it. But these are very early days for the Fourth Doctor and his characterisation is slightly wonky at times: ‘Nonsense Harry, trick of the light.’ Why doesn’t he want to believe that Harry saw something moving? It is unlike the Doctor to be the sceptic. He’s usually the one trying to convince the sceptics.
Which brings us to Ian Marter, who plays Harry as a hugely likeable sidekick, taking everything in his stride in a kind of affable, stoical Victorian gentleman kind of way. The dialogue between the Doctor and Harry in Part One is very witty: ‘Well, there are only two of us here and your name is Harry.’; ‘Your mind is beginning to work…it’s entirely due to my influence of course. You mustn’t take any credit.’ There is also some lovely banter between Sarah and Harry who seem to be immediate best friends, comfortable with teasing each other: ‘call me old girl again and I’ll spit in your eye!’
The guest cast are also impressive here, especially Kenton Moore as Noah, who somehow manages to make green bubble wrap look frightening. The story absolutely deserves no criticism for using bubble wrap for monster skin. It was invented to be a kind of textured wallpaper, only marketed for packaging from 1960 and initially used only by IBM, so at this point it was a relatively new invention and far from being the familiar sight it is today. If you are going to look for something to criticise with that scene, have a think about the size of pockets Noah must have. There is also a very odd moment in Part Three where Noah presumably drops his gun and runs off, but we don’t actually get to see this. We only see the reaction shots of the Doctor and Vira so it is not clear what has happened.
It is worth making brief mention of the fact that the second episode of this story achieved the highest chart position of any classic Doctor Who episode, reaching 5th for the week in the viewing figures. It was well deserved. This is a highly successful first attempt from the Hinchliffe-produced Tom Baker era at a more adult, horrific type of Doctor Who, and a taste of what was to come; the first great classic of the Tom Baker era. And how fitting that it does that by returning to another fantastic era and making a Patrick Troughton story but with Tom Baker. RP
The view from across the pond:
When I was extremely young, we were visiting my grandparents. In the TV room, there were two big, cushy rocking chairs, close enough together that as a child of maybe 6, I was able to put my hands on the arm of each and hoist myself up to swing my legs. My dad sat in one and my grandfather in the other. I paused in my swinging to see what they were watching (I say “watching” loosely; I think the TV was on and they were talking while my mother and grandmother were preparing dinner). And on the screen, a man in a white outfit was holding up a green-slime covered hand before he hit it repeatedly against a console. I was intrigued, but that was all I remembered of it until a few years later.
I was playing in my own living room one Saturday morning. My Star Wars figures had been exploring some imaginary landscape while the TV played happily in the background, when I observed a half-forgotten memory of the past: a man with a green-slime hand caught my attention, again! To the best of my memory, I stood in front of the television, enthralled the whole time (though I must have stopped to play during commercials!) After the 2 parts finished (it ran from 10-11am, covering 2 episodes a week), I asked my mom when it would be back on. She said she had no idea but probably the same time next week. I instructed her to make sure I was up by 10am the following Saturday. When I woke at 10:10 on my own, I was angry; how could she forget? (As an adult, I understand completely how she forgot! But I also realize that, for a kid of about 8 years of age to remember a week later, was a sure sign that I was becoming a fan.
The Ark in Space was, without a doubt, the defining moment for me! It took me to a place no other show was taking me. Star Trek tied, but these were the days before DVR and VCRs and we’d be lucky to find Trek on prior to midnight, and at that age, I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch it.
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry were the crew for me. No one would ever beat them. That constricted space station, the titular Ark in Space, was a sight to behold. How I wished to be on that space station. Although perhaps without that particularly nasty infestation. But even the look of the Wirrn was wonderful. Sure, as an adult I could see that one was a guy wrapped in bubble wrap playing “caterpillar”, and the other was a heavy, bulky costume that totally constricted leg movement, but it was the idea that was so brilliant. If it were a stage play, it would have been no different, except with less criticism. So considering their budget, why not accept that and enjoy it for the story rather than look for high end special effects? And tell the story, they did.
For me, the Hinchcliff era was the best season of Doctor Who but that’s not to say others haven’t been fantastic. There was an ambiance about these stories; an atmosphere that was perfect in its brooding, eerie moodiness. The first episode gives us a proper chance for the trio to get to know one another and their easy interaction was very welcoming. The dialog is often very funny. Harry is a far better companion than his reputation would lead us to believe. He’s extremely likable and willing to trust the Doctor. Lis Sladen would become that one absolute favorite for me; the best of the best. And Tom Baker was so strange, enigmatic and funny while simultaneously brilliant; how could anyone not love his Doctor’s warm, open smile? The episode offers a number of great lines, as Roger points out. We get to know why he has such a crazy scarf too. The supporting cast was great, but it was the TARDIS crew and Vera that make the episode.
And Tom would become my Doctor as I’d watch his episodes over and over again. That quick welcoming greeting, open smile and brilliant mind was infectious. And when the 50th anniversary special surprised me with his voice as it resonated out, for that’s what Tom’s voice does, I was reminded that he will forever be the one that brought me into that incredible universe. And who could argue. He was indomitable….
Read next in the Junkyard… The Sontaran Experiment