Doctor Who and The Ark in Space

‘The Ark in Space’

Written by Robert Holmes (based on ideas by John Lucarotti), directed by Rodney Bennett
Story 076
Transmitted 25 January – 15 February 1975

“Homo Sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They’ve survived floods, famine and plague. They’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They’re indomitable.”

The newly regenerated Doctor takes his traveling companion Sarah Jane Smith and Naval Officer Harry Sullivan for a jaunt in his TARDIS. Landing in the distant future, the travelers find that they have are on an interstellar version of Noah’s ark orbiting a scarred and barren Earth where the surviving human population waits for revival. But they are not the only trespassers on the Ark, there is an infestation of something very old and alien that is hatching its eggs in the bodies of the sleeping humans.

The satellite is armed to protect its precious cargo, which is bad news for the Doctor and Harry who come under fire from a ceiling-mounted laser. Sarah, meanwhile, manages to get in a series of predicaments that almost defies belief. Nearly asphyxiated, she is then teleported by computer control and put into suspension. By the time the Doctor and Harry manage to extricate themselves from their own situation, they are left to marvel at what the space station really is, a wonderful testament to the human will to survive, a massive ark.

A slimy green trail along the floor of the incubation chambers hints at a great danger. Looking for clues, the husk of a massive insect is discovered in a cupboard. The futuristic space station has a big problem, and somewhere in its innards a creature lurks waiting to strike. If this sounds familiar, you may be surprised to learn that Ridley Scott’s Alien was a few years off still.

Yes, Doctor Who ‘did it first’ again.

The Doctor performs a dissection (to Sarah’s disgust)

The Doctor meets one of the revived crew members, the beautiful and charming Vera, who provides some much-needed exposition of Space Station Nerva’s mission to preserve the human race in the aftermath of a deadly solar flare that blasted the planet surface, making it uninhabitable for generations. But they have overslept… a lot. Unsettled and confused, Vera puts her faith in her captain, Noah.

The lovely Wendy Williams as Vera

In fine tradition, Noah suspects that the Doctor and Harry are saboteurs and questions their every motive. When the Doctor theorizes that the creature must have made a nest in the station’s generator room, Noah is convinced that these strangers are up to no good. Unfortunately, when he investigates he becomes infected by the alien invader, the Wirrn, an outer space locust seeking to breed and survive.

The Wirrn!

Overwhelmed by the alien influence, Noah becomes a warped and tormented character, slowly but surely degrading into a slug then a full adult Wirrn, protecting the hive at the center of the space station. Yes, he’s also covered in green bubble wrap. Remember that this was 1975 and such products were not being used to secure packages sent by ebay sellers.

As a monster, the Wirrn are hindered by their lack to do much of anything. They can’t walk, grab things or move their mouths. The poor actor trapped inside the costume can be seen hobbling about like a child wrapped in a blanket. But as a concept, the Wirrn are pure horror gold, something that was later tapped by the BBV team and also Big Finish in a series of audio stories. Transformed into a purely auditory fiend, the visual appearance of a fragile foam prop is removed and the Wirrn become a much more effective threat.

One can only imagine what a proper CGi Wirrn would look like and given that current Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat is a self-described king of Doctor Who nerds, we may even see one some day.

Noah is overcome by the Wirrn

As an American fan of Doctor Who, I was exposed to Doctor Who via nightly public TV transmissions. For years all I saw were three-four years of the same Tom Baker stories, until Peter Davison arrived. When I became invested as a fan instead of just a viewer, I would groan every time I saw the opening credits of Robot because it meant that I’d be stuck in the 1970’s for ages. I took this era for granted, especially the 1974/5 season that introduced Tom Baker and radically changed the program’s course. Recently I had some extensive dental surgery, luckily I could watch any DVD I wanted which meant that I and my dentist saw this story several times over in one sitting.

I discovered that it is stunning TV and a grand Doctor Who story that appears positively bonkers to anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the program. The special effects that fans often moan about are more bizarre than cheap and the acting, informed by RADA-training is so other-worldly that the whole thing feels like it came from another world. I think that it was this weird factor that attracted me to Doctor Who in the first place. When I finally saw the previous three Doctors on PBS after the series’ 20th anniversary, I saw that it was far weirder than I could ever imagine.

Clip

Doctor Who in the Pertwee era was an action serial with a relatively slim level of horror. This was very different to the previous period that saw terrifying monsters creeping out of every dark space imaginable to kill anything in their path. The Pertwee stories, arranged by Dicks and Letts were moralizing intelligent tales that spoke to a more soulful and socially conscious audience.

In sharp contrast, the first three years of the Tom Baker era featured more brutal murders, acts of terror and roaring oozing critters that sought to scare even the most secure viewer into the closet. Philip Hinchcliffe had seen that the audience was growing older and more sophisticated and decided to gear his run on Doctor Who to appeal to a viewer that wanted to be scared by creepy monsters and moved by eerie stories that would be at home in any Amicus movie.

Throughout it all, the new Doctor would shine a beacon of hope, his mad stare and toothy grin assuring the children watching that everything would work out… even though the death toll was usually high for supporting cast members.

It’s interesting to note that, while he is a TV icon today, Tom Baker in 1974 was the youngest actor to play Doctor Who (as he was commonly called in the media) and took over the role from Jon Pertwee, who played the part for five years. Pertwee ushered in an era of unparalleled success during his time as the Doctor and many viewers were reluctant to accept Baker as his replacement. The tone of the program had changed drastically as well, embracing a more Gothic feel thanks to producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor/writer Robert Holmes.

The stories of the 1974/75 series had been arranged by Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts as a kind security net for the incoming production team. Starting with a rather traditional U.N.I.T. adventure, the series also included the return of several fan favorite monsters; the Daleks, Sontarans and the Cybermen (who had not been seen in several years with the exception of a brief nod in Carnival of Monsters). Ark in Space, however, was something different.

Working off of a script by ‘Marco Polo’ author John Lucarotti, Holmes took a safe and familiar futuristic studio-bound story and transformed it into a claustrophobic grim horror show. Navigating a vast network of corridors and shafts, the TARDIS crew must match wits with a wily and aggressive creature that is just as hard-wired for survival as mankind… if not more so.

“Well there are only two of us here and your name IS Harry…”


For the first time since the 1960’s, the Doctor has two companions with him in the TARDIS, and one of them is male. Jamie McCrimmon was the last male companion of a two-part crew back in 1969. Originally intended to take the action hero role enjoyed by Third Doctor Who Jon Pertwee, Harry Sullivan is a Naval officer and all-around English gentleman, to a fault. When it became clear that the new Doctor would be played by a younger actor, Harry looked a might superfluous. But actor (and author) Ian Marter saw an opportunity here and created a charming statement on the stock English hero. Harry is well-meaning, but an archaic cultural fossil, something that liberated journalist Sarah Jane Smith reminds him of every chance she gets.

In her second year as a companion, Lis Sladen softened her part, a far cry for the self-motivated feminist that had been introduced the previous year. One of the most endearing and lovable heroines, she shudders with fright at the sight of a monster and would surely be scared rigid if not for the reassuring presence of the Doctor.

The role of the companion has traditionally been to make the Doctor appear brilliant, brave and heroic and in that regard, Sarah is an absolute triumph. If not the best companion, she is certainly in the top three.

A true eccentric, Tom Baker hit the ground running as the Doctor. More or less playing an exaggerated version of himself, he is at once a genius, fool, hero and outsider. This Doctor accepted the alien and was attracted to danger and the unknown, making him somewhat unsettling to some and appealing to others. Baker was far more comical than Pertwee and more of a well-worn traveler than the posh dandy scientific adventurer. Working off of Marter’s buffoonery and Sladen’s damsel in distress act, Baker found a welcome home in this short-lived and often forgotten TARDIS team.

Baker’s outlandishness was still understated and restrained at this point and his acting more intense than he later became. I suspect that as he encountered children in person who watched the series he became sensitive to them and decided to lighten the scary factor of the stories. Both approaches work, but I lean more toward this brooding aspect of the Fourth Doctor.

I had long associated The Ark in Space with a boring and predictable era of Doctor Who, but viewed in the right context it is not only ground breaking but invigorating as well. The first part of an overarching story that would include the Sonataran Experiment, detour into Genesis of the Daleks and conclude with Revenge of the Cybermen, this was a sci-fi epic! A post-apocalyptic setting that saw humanity reduced to food for killer insects, this story introduced viewers to the new status quot where the level of danger was heightened and so was the inventiveness of the production team.

While not on par with the sterling efforts of the Troughton years where stop motion animation, film scratches and other tricks made Cybermen tear from spherical embryos and women’s faces were melted by Quark weaponry, Ark in Space made good use of lighting and design to evoke a particular feeling of terror and helplessness.

One more unto the breach…

My teeth are fine, by the way.

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8 thoughts on “Doctor Who and The Ark in Space

  1. Now this – *THIS* is the stuff! I’m afraid I’m likely going to have quite a lot to say about The Ark In Space, buckle up. But first I hope that orthodontal awfulness wasn’t too bad, buddy.
    I was for a long time familiar with the Fifth to Seventh Doctors who I grew up with and later the Second and Third incarnations while the First was less known. I got to know them all from novelisations, books, and Doctor Who Magazine but even when the only Fourth Doctor story I’d actually *seen* was Logopolis it was the Fourth who had a strange pull, novelisations such as Doctor Who and the Loch Ness Monster (Terror Of The Zygons), Genesis of the Daleks, and The Sun Makers were among my favourites (several later Fourth Doctor stories such as Sun Makers and Destiny work much better in Dicks’s functional prose) while the first Doctor Who video I bought myself was City of Death which I knew nothing about other than that there was a one-eyed green fellow named Scaroth in it so it was a great thrill when it turned out to be excellent and I fell absolutely in love with Romana! The magazine articles that enthralled me the most were often about the likes of Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock so when I finally got to *see them* and the much of the rest of Tom Baker’s serials on dvd after some years of only rarely reading or watching Doctor Who and related materials – I did see the great Pyramids of Mars when it was reshown on BBC2 – it was a relief to find that the best matched expectation. Although I like quite a bit of the post-Hinchcliffe Fourth Doctor period and what came after (not to mention a lot of what came before obviously) my favourite era, bar none, is the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. It’s here that Tom Baker is at his magisterial best, it’s here that I find the greatest wit and most memorable stories, it’s here we find two of the greatest ever companions (add the Romanas and you’ll find all my favourite Doctor ladies aside from Vicki, Peri and maybe Zoe, add Jamie and there are all the finest companions too!) Cont’d

  2. And it’s here that Doctor Who had it’s greatest justified confidence. It’s the one era that even the weaker stories (Revenge of the Cybermen, The Android Invasion, Hand of Fear) tend to really draw me in not just for the moments of quality among the flaws but also for the hilarious “what the…?” elements (camp Cybermen, wonky plots, shouting Eldrads. Yet it’s the greatness that truly compels and makes this, for me, the Golden Age of Doctor Who; other eras may aim for more conceptual SF and greater “relevance” but *no era* provides as many compelling stories with as much sophisticated wit (and plain Tomfoolery), scariness, and such a multifarious, *believable*, strange, funny, inimitable Doctor. And where does this era begin? *The Ark in Space*. It’s as important to Who as The Unearthly Child, Power of the Daleks, Spearhead from Space, Remembrance of the Daleks and (ack) Rose in redefining the series, and I’d argue that it’s the best of those stories too. Amazing when one considers that, apart from the setting and the vaguest of concepts, Robert Holmes dumped John Lucarotti’s unworkable scripts and started from scratch. *THAT* is the reason that Holmes is Doctor Who’s greatest writer, no one else could pull it off, and that’s why despite the likes of Power of Kroll and Trial of a Time Lord Parts 1-4 he deserves every scrap of praise and why he ranks more highly than some supposed “geniuses”. More later today, I warn you. Lovely Lis Sladen, Wendy Williams, Ian Marter’s Harry, Tom Baker IS The Doctor, and Why Ark in Space Matters – Coming Soon!

  3. After Barry Letts’s Terrance Dicks-penned swan song Robot with its somewhat tired fag-end of an era feel and kids’ tv style Ark was a breath of fresh air, or at least a breath of *terrifying* air! Holmes and Hinchcliffe’s era is often remembered for its horror content but Ark is also proper SF in a way that had been rarely seen for some years and *never* precisely in this way. Letts and Dicks had been careful not to feature possibly controversial material since Terror of the Autons but H & H go for the jugular straight away! Some may criticize the effects, the ideas and the *implications* are truly scary, it lacks the visceral qualities of Alien but Noah’s bodily mutation and mental takeover is queasy and unsettling, while the pink underside of the Wirrn grub is positively *disgusting*. Typical of the early Fourth Doctor era is the way the Doctor is briefly possessed by the Wirrn-mind himself, something was definitely lost when the Fourth Doctor became inviolable in the Williams era as Tom Baker’s conception of the character – and the writers’ – went slightly awry and skewed toward the childish. Yet in Ark Tom Baker is truly beginning to define the Doctor; mercurial, witty, sarcastic, ever-curious, brilliant, anti-authority, anti-cant, alien, inspired, this is the Doctor in excelsis. Good though (some of) the others are Tom Baker’s Fourth incarnation early on is the *definitive article*. Lis Sladen’s Sarah immediately strikes a sparky rapport rapport with the Doctor and it’s great, Ian Marter’s underrated Harry is a fine likeable silly ass hero, and the delectable Wendy Williams’s Vira slowly thaws out and discovers her humanity as Noah loses his. The Ark in Space is where a New Doctor Who was born. Wonderful.

  4. If I’d seen it as a child I would have been both scared and enthralled. It’s great. Robert Holmes was fantastic. I read something imbecilic in Doctor Who Magazine today, it likened Moffat’s Who storylines to the complexity and stated that his writing had the combined wit of Sorkin and Whedon! No mention of the ludicrous convoluted plots with damp squib denouments. What was that writer smoking?! We’ve really gone through the looking glass now… Holmes plots may be simpler but they tend to be better, the writing is *much* wittier, and he never used the dumb phrase “timey wimey”. Robert wins I think.

  5. A truly superb review. I really enjoyed reading this.
    I like the idea of you watching this DVD whilst having dental surgery. That, in itself, is a fascinating concept. I really hope that you have recovered from the ordeal of having so much dental surgery. Teeth can be a real nuisance. to be honest.
    Best of luck from a reader in the U.K.

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