The Ark shows us a bleak vision of the future. Not for the last time we see the final moments of planet Earth, and the remaining humans are off on a journey to find a new home. After ten million years there is still enslavement, hysteria and mob rule, and everyone is wearing matching rags and sensible underpants. The elephant in the room here (no, not that one), is that The Ark can be interpreted as a racist story because it shows a race of dark-skinned slaves (the Monoids) rebelling against their white masters and then making a bodge job of it, being particularly stupid and demonstrating that they are unfit to rule, and while there is some mileage in that argument I don’t quite buy it.
Although the Monoids are reasonably well-treated, the story goes out of its way to show how enslaving a race is a mistake, however kindly or otherwise they are treated. Colonialism and racism would push the opposite message. In a racist story you would expect the message to be that only the treatment of the slaves was the problem rather than the slavery itself, and with kindness the revolt wouldn’t have happened. But this isn’t the story here. The slavery is shown to lead to the collapse of society eventually, and it makes no difference how well or badly the slaves are treated. What happens in the second half of the story is all about showing a cruel form of revenge, and how that is exactly what you should expect as a result of slavery when the pendulum swings the other way. At the end of the story there is no return to the status quo at the beginning (which would have been the outcome of the truly racist approach), but both races learn that they have to find a third way, and live in harmony. At the time this was all quite brave, and anything made in the 60s with an underlying message that the Empire was a bad approach to civilisation was always going to run the risk of being misinterpreted. Especially within the context of Doctor Who, the theme had to be achieved with some degree of subtlety, and this inevitably leaves scope for alterative interpretations.
Where I think the story is more problematical is that it is producer John Wiles’s final story in run of episodes attacking youth culture. His approach is a stark contrast with Verity Lambert’s. In The Chase we have the Doctor talking about his “favourite Beatles”, but here we have Beatle-wigged monsters causing a revolution and then behaving with cruelty and stupidity when they achieve power. Lambert’s most successful companion character was Vicki, a wonderful, intelligent character, who helped the Doctor learn how to be an anarchist genius. In The Space Museum she sparks off a revolution of about three people and it is shown to be a magnificent thing to do. John Wiles (a man who came into the job of Doctor Who’s producer from a position of strongly disliking the show) sacked her immediately, brought in another young female companion who treated the Doctor as a god and then killed her off, and now his tenure ends with the introduction of Dodo, who is a version of youth culture that is unintelligent and needs to be taught to “speak English” because she says “OK”. As originally intended, this point would have been rammed home with her Cockerney accent, and the reason that was dropped is not because it is a patronising stereotype of an airheaded London female, but because the BBC were not prepared to accept a regular companion speaking anything other than BBC English. Luckily we are heading for more enlightened times, with the departure of Wiles and the introduction of the first non-R.P. English companion (Ben).
Having said all that, I do think Dodo is underrated as a companion, and is a huge amount of fun. Jackie Lane cannot really be blamed for the inconsistent accent at this point, as she rehearsed the entire story in the Cockney accent before being told to film the whole thing without it. No wonder her head was in a spin with it all. Dodo is importantly not merely defined as being unintelligent. She is also gloriously weird. She takes travelling in the TARDIS all in her stride immediately, strolls into the TARDIS wardrobe without permission and nicks Ian’s tabard from The Crusade because she thinks it looks cool. Like all Doctor Who companions, she is magnificent in her own peculiar way.
Before The Ark we have had a run of 20 episodes where the Doctor constantly loses. It looks like this might be set to continue, with the Doctor arriving and causing a plague which destablilises the society and leads to the revolution. But by the end of the story he has made a positive difference for the first time in a while, arriving to find a society built on slavery and leaving a society that is going to have to rebuild based on cooperation. And this has happened in a story that is packed full of impressive and enjoyable moments: the amazing statue, the Eden Project in a spaceship, the bizarre aliens with ping-pong eyes who lurch around because they are wearing ankle-length skirts and can’t walk properly in them, the invisible alien race (again!), the idea of a society free from illness that is brought down by a cold, and best of all the two two-part stories set in the same place, a structure that feels genuinely clever and new and includes probably the best Doctor Who cliffhanger ending of all time. Farewell John Wiles, and welcome back Dr. Who*. RP
* not a mistake.
The view from across the pond:
Time, it seems, doesn’t flow.
For some it’s fast, for others slow.
In what, to one race, may be no time at all,
Another race can rise and fall.
That was a “song” sung by the Minstrels; a race of whale-like beings that floated through the cosmos in the classic Electronic Arts PC game, Starflight. I’m sure I’ll come back to that one day in the future but if there’s one thing to learn from it, it’s that the human race rises and falls, as do others, through the history of the universe. And all of our currently recorded history falls into the first segment of time during which time we’ve seen a number of civilizations, even within our own world, rise and fall. That’s a long time as it is! We’re talking Aesop, Ancient Greeks, Babylonian Gardens, Christ, the Dalek Invasion of Earth… For The Ark to be traveling during the “57th segment of time”, there must have had a lot of ups and downs. (We discover they are about 10 million years in the future.) In other words, so far in the future that even time travel was given up as a tried-and-abandoned technology. But miniaturization is still in vogue! (“Good idea for a movie… terrible idea for a proctologist!”) And so is video because video is all we really need…
Davros refers to the Doctor as “the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame.” The Ark gives us a very concise look at what happens when the Doctor gets involved. He even comments to Steven that he never considered these consequences before. In many ways, this is a retelling of the H. G. Wells’ classic The First Men in the Moon where the common cold ends up being a catalyst for disaster. When it was done in War of the Worlds, it’s the invaders that succumb to the germs, but in First Men, a civilization is wiped out. With The Ark, we are given two 2-part stories to tell an overall 4-part story. In the first two parts, the Doctor has to do his medical best to cure people of the cold. The biggest question here is that, if this is the common cold and the far future inhabitants have no resistance to it, why is it that Steven becomes affected? Unless this cold that Dodo seems to be responsible for is actually a rarer strain that the Doctor unwittingly picked up from his visit to Charles Preslin, in 1572, during the previous story, The Massacre.
Through clever use of a completed statue, we realize a lot of time has gone by; 700 years actually. And then things get complicated! The first half of the story showed a humanity that uses slave labor in the form of Monoids. (More on them in a moment.) But when the tables turn, and the Monoids have taken over because the (un)common cold also saps human morale, the Doctor thinks it important to help the humans get back in power. Conveniently, through the use of the invisible Refusians, the decision is taken from the Doctor. The two warring parties are forced to find peace. But that says a lot about the Doctor. There was no indication that he was unhappy seeing the Monoids as slaves, but he isn’t happy seeing the humans treated that way. Of course, there seems a pretty distinct difference between the way the two parties handle the master/slave relationship, but gussy it up however you like, the fact is: it’s still a master/slave relationship rather than the more enlightened mutual understanding that should be the norm that far in our future! Or one hopes! (Must be the result of still using video!) But even today we know the enlightened approach is one where we work together. Working against one another, even in the case of an alien race like the Monoids, is the recipe for disaster; it disenfranchises both parties. Unity is the recipe for success!
On the subject of the Monoids… Peter Purves (Steven) thought they looked ridiculous and couldn’t take them seriously. I grew up a fan of Star Trek and one of the things you come to notice is just how many races look suspiciously human. I say, as I have many times before, kudos to Doctor Who for trying something different. A plastic eye held in the mouth of the actor and a Beatles haircut to hide the human actors’ eyes, creates a disturbing, odd, and distinctly alien appearance that frankly, I’d like to see return! Maybe with a better haircut.
Thankfully, this strange tale does exist in its entirety and holds up in many ways. It’s not perfect, but it’s an interesting story told in a very unusual way. And as both the human and Monoid races rise and fall, time seems to go by. And yet humans prevail. Indomitable, I tell you. Indomitable. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Celestial Toymaker