The Ark In Space - DVD Special

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: Rodney Bennett
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1975
Video Availability: Try

The Ark in Space is, in almost every important respect, the first Tom Baker Doctor Who story. A rare straight script from Robert Holmes, it's well acted, well directed, well produced, well written… and I've never been terribly keen on it to tell you the truth.

I've never known why this is, but if someone asked me to name a classic Tom Baker story from season 12 set on a space station I'd say the laugh riot of Revenge. I admit I don't much care for the residents of the Nerva Beacon, and over-enthusiastic fans who like to pretend Ridley Scott watched this before making Alien are getting a tad carried away. But I think what really stops me proclaiming love for this story is that it's oddly clinical. It's as if Holmes constructed all the hallmarks of what makes a "great" Doctor Who story and left out the heart, a criticism that could be levelled at much of his work. Don't get me wrong - objectively, I can see that this is, if not brilliant, then a very good piece of television. But subjectively I'd much rather put on Nightmare of Eden and have a good giggle.

This is the first time I've seen the story with the new CGI effect sequences, and, while I do have serious misgivings about CGI, they don't look half bad. This is especially notable when you watch the originals, which look like they were made by someone with the DTs. It's an optional extra so there's no complaints there, though if you're going to go to that trouble then isn't it wasted when we get to the feeble Wirrn space walk?

You can tell that a classic period of Who is about to unfold here, though the somewhat kid-friendly dynamic and Sladen's overacting (which she admits to on the commentary) do work against it all. I'm getting sick of hearing myself bitch about Dudley Simpson, but I do feel sure that if he'd had a Casio keyboard we'd be calling him Keff McCulloch these days. No, actually what I think really jars is not the shallow subtext or bright lighting, but the fact that the set looks like the set from Chock-A-Block. And would residents of the 30th century really have such an old-fashioned air ventilation system?

This is a solid, albeit unnaturally slow first episode, with mystery, an unseen monster and unanswered questions. In fairness I have to give it a fairly high score… yet it doesn't engage me on any emotional level…
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I think another problem with this story is the innate silliness of the Wirrn. When Doctor Who was being a glorified kid's show from seasons 8-11 it may have been unsatisfying on an intellectual level but at least it was doing something of which it was capable. Here Who trues to up the ante and doesn't quite make it, because the monsters are slightly less credible than Alpha Centuri.

There's an odd subtext to this one, with the residents of the Ark selected as an elite. In episode one, the Doctor talks of all creeds and colours (though naturally, being 70s Who, we don't see them), but there still appears to be a class/intelligence requirement. The story will end with the Doctor siding with the humans ("quite my favourite species"), even though two stories later he will work against the "master race". As for the Biblical subtext, it's spelt out too heavily and has no real meaning beyond an affectation.

This is a better episode actually, one that warrants its rating on an emotional level as well as a qualitative one. With the Ark inhabitants so cold, it makes the Tardis crew warm again, even if Sladen is chronically overacting. There's also some meaning to get your teeth into here, giving it richer rewards. Holmes's writing is also immensely sharp on the nature of the creatures, even if a hamming Kenton Moore does look like an even camper Eric Idle.
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The opening minutes of this one are taken up by an excruciating voice over by Gladys Spencer, which is at least made funny by Harry's chauvinist response.

I think Moore's "insane" acting borders on embarrassing in this one, far inferior to Simon Rouse in Kinda. One downside of this being a non-camp Holmes story is that it means he can't subvert expectations of episode threes. This is better stuff than I remembered though, a solidly constructed script, even if the realisation lets it down. You might bitch that 12'15m in there's some cracking boom mike action, but if this was done with the budget of Alien it would be extremely good. As it stands, then it's still very strong, though not the classic some like to claim.
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Some interminable exposition at the start of this one, and just how does Sarah know humans have never persecuted the Wirrn? This is thousands of years after she lived, the presumptuous bint.

Look out early on (3'29m in, anorak fans!) for a Tom favourite - where he makes an obvious show of finding his mark. Okay, Tom does it on purpose, but talking of crap acting, how wooden is Richardson Morgan as Rogin? And why is Sarah much more annoying in this story? Maybe it's Tom encouraging her. Say what you like about Pertwee, at least he didn't let her get out of hand. And the Wirrn squeak like Gordon the Gopher. Thanks to the Doctor's electric cables, they get their very own version of Going Live.

Is it just me or do the Wirrn's bodies look a bit like a turd? This is a rare Who story that actually has the line "resistance is useless" in it, and the Wirrn in space scene is laughable. This isn't a great last episode by any means, and there's a [can't remember the word for the life of me, bit tired tonight, begins with "c", not a really long word or anything, akin to wanting to wrap it up with speed] feel to it. But it's functional and does what it's there for - much like the story itself.

Oh - one last thing. Why the cheesy stereotype "guest cast member looks shocked as the Tardis crew disappear" when Vira clearly already knew about the transmat?
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Marginally better than I recalled, The Ark in Space is a strong work and bodes well for the first (transmitted) production of Philip Hinchcliffe. However, you may find it's a story you admire rather than love.
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The picture is as good as always, though I noticed some light dipping in the last two episodes, which was probably on the original production anyway. Talking of the last two episodes, then the info text is interesting as first, but it becomes clear that by the second half of the story it's ran out of things to say.

So, the commentary. Mmmm, yah. It's not that highly regarded by fans apparently, but I really quite liked it. There are large gaps of silence, but that's not because the commentators - Tom, Lis and Hinchcliffe - can't think of anything to say, but because they're watching the story with us. Like spending time in the company of three old friends, they join in with the story as and when the mood takes them, and spend the rest of the time discussing Who as a whole. Hinchcliffe seems a little too keen on monologues, but what he has to say is interesting and there's a likeable rapport between the three, with all having a lot more intelligent things to say than, say, Barry Letts and Katy Manning.

There's around half an hour's worth of extras on this disc, well worth the price of a DVD. In order they are…

CGI Model Sequences (01'31) - you get to watch the whole lot in one batch. Will they reuse 'em if they release Revenge?

Unused Title Sequence (0'42) - a primitive version of the titles, interesting to see.

Original Model Effects (7'09m) - Original model effects, complete with clapperboards. The ideal extra in a way - you'll never bother to watch it, but it makes the set feel comprehensive. Oddly hypnotic this one, though, like whale music therapy for SF buffs.

Trailer for Episode One (0'49) - As with The Five Faces of Doctor Who ad on the Seeds DVD, this extra reminds you just how formless and laborious TV trailers used to be. Interesting.

Tom Baker Interview (5'54m) - Very interesting to see a Tom before his fabricated personality took over. No mention of wanting to be adored, though you feel you'll never see Tom totally candid.

Photo Gallery - Unlike later releases, this isn't a moving sequence, but a series of 31 nice stills you have to personally navigate.

Space Station Schematics (1'07m) - Anal but fun, this is a 3-D scan of the CGIed station, with clear debts to the TV version of Hitch-Hiker's.

Roger Murray-Leech Interview (10'26m) - Starting with a jolly "I do not want to talk about Blake's 7", this is an interesting (third time I've said "interesting", sorry about that) interview, with some stories that I've never heard before. I'd never even noticed that huge pile of manure in Talons before, but now I'll never be able to miss it.

Tardis-Cam (1'23) - The very first Tardis Cam, and actually decent, albeit completely pointless. Just why did they get so poor?

Also as hidden extras are a small treat after the episode four end credits, plus two hidden extra eggs. Often the Easter eggs have been a bit worthless (something admitted by a member of the RT team) but these two are pretty good, I liked 'em! .

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