The Ark

Written by:
Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott
Directed by: Michael Imison
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1966
Video Availability: Try

The Ark is an innovative story divided into two halves, showing the effect of the Doctor's travels on 700 years of a populace's life. It contains a jungle set created in the studio (including an elephant!) as well as a race parable and intelligent, thoughtful direction by Michael Imison. Sounds great, doesn't it? Sadly, it fails by a long stretch, and is an unfortunate casualty of Billy's era. The answer is a simple and completely shallow one: the monsters are crap. Sure, there are other problems, like the mildly child-centred dynamic, but the real problem is that the Monoids - creatures with single eyes obviously moved by the mouth, the nose visible through the mask and Beatle wigs - are just pathetic. Steven describes them as "terrifying", but they're possibly the most laughable, ridiculous-looking monsters of the 60s. They're still leagues ahead of cack like the Tetraps or the Gell Guards, but with no credibility (you can even see the zips on their backs!) the story cannot stand as a fantasy in its own right.

Anyway, the episode opens and don't you feel sorry for that Iguana, getting its head stamped on by a Pelican? What happened to humane treatment of animals? The regulars join us, with the underrated Hartnell and Steven accompanied by the not-at-all underrated Dodo. A companion so unpopular she was written as contracting a STD in one of the novels (The Man In The Velvet Mask by Daniel O'Mahoney) she's from the same school of "posh person's idea of what being working class is" that Ace came from. Not only that, but, with all due respect to Jackie Lane, if I had to do one of this Tardis line-up I'd probably pick Steven ahead of her. Hell, with her piggy face and boyish bob cut I'd do Hartnell first. So the basic requirement of a companion (you would) is lost, and she was written out offscreen just three stories later.

Hartnell gets "Yes, we've already estabbser… established this place as illogical" to go with episode two's "Oh, don't let's… don't let that cross our minds for Heaven's sake." Generally though he's on a lot better form than usual, as his one fluff per two episodes hit rate attests. There's a hesitancy, but he is amusing, even if he doesn't seem as involved spiritually as he is in other tales. On the subject of thesping, then check out the leader of the humans, who lisps more than Pertwee. He's a man who dreads sentencing criminals to minaturisation, not because he feels morally responsible, but because he can't pronounce it. Famously Michael Sheard debuts here, a guest actor who would appear in six separate Doctor Who stories.

The backdrops for the Ark spacecraft are also fake-looking, while you can expect to see plenty of wobbly camerawork, the limitations of the age. A mention of the Daleks may seem like the series was overdosing on them at this time, but with such a wide variety of stories and styles then 13 episodes don't seem that great a chunk out of Who's longest season of 45 weeks. With even the failures, like the vastly overrated Celestial Toymaker, breaking new ground for the series, then this is hardly Doctor Who on its last legs. Even Hartnell's performance is far from deteriorating like myth would have us believe, though on a negative slant the combination of Dodo's "bunged up nose" acting and cod contemporary colloquialisms (pardon my Jagoism there) make me want to scream. "Gear" indeed! Though check out the use of CSO and overlaid credits here - the show's really trying.
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Tristram Cary's like a one-trick pony, trotting out his greatest hit for us all to hear. The incidental music for The Ark is far too infrequent to cover the story's flaws, but when it is there it rocks big time. Yeah, it's the same thing he's used in The Daleks and The Rescue (and would go on to do for The Power of the Daleks) but here's Tristram and his "doom" theme again - and it's brilliant! Possibly my favourite piece of music from Doctor Who, EVER.

A real point of trivia is that there's a wobbly dark hair on the print for the whole of this episode (bottom left hand corner) after 75 seconds in, which will make mountains of work for the Restoration Team if they release it onto DVD. You know though, even though The Ark isn't great, it's sort of good in a cacky kind of way. Seeing blokes in rubber zip suits and sandy wigs driving those old removal carts over 10 million years in the future is lame, but there's a certain kind of earnestness and genuine hunger that makes it worthwhile. It's crap but commendable, and Imison's largely aerial direction divides us from the full horror of the costumes. Having said that, past experience of the story reminds me that the second half is where it really begins to fall…
* * * ½

That second episode cliffhanger really is a killer, particularly as it was made two years before Planet of the Apes. Sadly though, it also presages a two-part conclusion that is, well… naff. Or "not fab" as Dodo would have it. Here we see the revolt of the Mondoids, creatures that can take over the humans, despite their legs being joined together. Note how suddenly the companions (even Steven) have become "what is it, Doctor?" ciphers, while the Monoids developing Zippy voices takes it down from experimental daring to kiddie's corner. (Incidentally, I feel I should explain to any non-UK readers, because that's not the only time I'll mention Zippy on this site. Basically, the same Roy Skelton who did the voices of the Monoids and occasionally the Daleks also did the voice of Zippy, a character from a children's programme called Rainbow. While a hyperactive puppet with a zipper for a mouth still might not mean much to US readers, then try to imagine the man behind the voice of Barney as a Who monster, but not bothering to alter the voice to any real degree. Do you now see how distracting it is?)

The drop in quality between the two halves of this story is in fact so marked that you suspect Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott wrote bits separately… and that Lesley Scott was a pseudonym for Terry Nation. (Don't the poor sod get the blame for everything on this site? Ah, he deserves it). Who but Terry could write lines like "How in space could you do it?" The Monoids are so thick they call each other by numbers, a direct conflict with their freedom motif. Does 6 say "I'm not a number, I'm a free Monoid"? Not only that, but their sadistic nature when free is at odds with the slavery theme - what is the story trying to say, that freed from slavery black people will rise up and physically abuse white people? But such distractions aside, what started as a relatively intelligent story has now become so cartoon-like that the chief Monoid ("One", no less) says "listen" and gets the rest of his gang to huddle together as he discusses his plan while the camera cuts to another scene. There's a halfway decent space shot for the time, but also an invisible monster (pure Nation) and Monoid No.3, the Monoid who was clearly left guarding the fridge freezer.

"It's a sort of a castle" says Dodo while looking at a cardboard cut-out, though at least the BBC executives forcing her to drop the accent midway through the story makes her more bearable. Also try not to crack up 16'25m in when a Monoid trips over walking down some steps. This is bad, though, from the Monoids that discuss their plans in front of a video camera to Billy having to emote opposite an empty chair. Empty except for the reams of exposition, that is. Even Cary's music seems out of place, because it's too pensive and sombre for such a silly story. Just stepping into an empty room does not justify the "doom" tune, and it cheapens both sound and image by placing them together in such a way. On reflection, maybe The Ark was a time when we really needed Keff McCulloch.
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With this being one of the last three stories to use individual episode titles then "The Bomb" suddenly becomes a highly appropriate name for the fourth instalment. Richard Beale seems to think that by shouting his lines it will compensate for his character being invisible, while people stand around talking plot at each other. It's a sad decline from what started out as an enjoyable tale, and you feel that it had so much more potential.

Fans of genuine trivia should know that Paul Erickson didn't actually have a hand in the scripts despite his credit, though other questions puzzle me: like how do the Monoids speak without mouths? And why are their bodies so smooth when they have so much hair on their heads? Do they wax their bikini lines? And it's a shame that for a story with decent special effects (for the time, and in black and white) we suddenly get rockets on obvious wires. Is there a bomb in this episode though? I couldn't be sure, they never mentioned it. Listen to the speeches about the human race, too - it's all a dirge, really.

The invisible Refusian turns out to be so strong he can lift a fifty foot statue by himself, while Hartnell looks faintly embarrassed as he has to make the peace and understanding speech at the end. At least they justify the slave theme, but somehow it's not enough.
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If every flop Doctor Who made was as good as this then I'd be a very happy man. Hugely flawed, and with an intellect and ambition that almost plummets through the floor for the final two episodes, there's still much to be proud of here, even if it all seems alarmingly naïve and irrelevant 37 years later.
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