The Doctor, Harry and Sarah arrive on a deserted space station to – – no wait, come back! It’s okay; Robert Holmes wrote this one! Anyway, the space station seems to be deserted but it turns out that the posh, clever members of the human race are in suspended animation. While the humans are revived, The Doctor and co discover that something else is living in Space Station Nerva…and it’s not too keen on humans.
“The Ark In Space” is widely seen as a bit of a classic. I must confess, I’ve always found it a little bit boring. I know, I know…please don’t judge me. So I went in expecting to piss off anyone reading this right from the start. Part of the problem is, I guess, context. Coming straight after 5 years of Pertwee, Letts and Dicks, I can imagine this might be a bit of a mindblower. Watching it now, being able to dip in and out of eras at will, it kind of feels a bit…well, for an hour and 40 minutes, it exists. It’s a base-under-siege story. There are lots of base-under-siege stories. I enjoyed it, but I can’t get overly excited about it. Does that make me a bad geek? Still, there is much to love here. So, with that in mind;
The Good; after starting with a VERY similar monster’s viewpoint shot to “Robot”, episode 1 is essentially 25 minutes of the new regulars wandering around solving puzzles. As a follow on from the cuddly soft launch for Baker T – all recurring characters, recurring tropes and fun predictability – “The Ark In Space” spends some time with just the new Doctor and his two companions talking. And it’s ace. Tom Baker is Tom Baker, Ian Marter is very likeable considering he’s playing a massively sexist prick and Liz Sladen…well, Liz Sladen is rather short-changed for the first three quarters of the story, but come episode 4 she gets to basically be awesome. In between the hysterical bits.
The dialogue absolutely sparkles. When The Doctor tells Vira of Harry’s medical skills, but that “Harry here is only qualified to work with sailors,” I very nearly spat coffee over my computer screen laughing. It’s also worth noting that Tom Baker is fabulous throughout. Second story out and he very much is The Doctor. “Robot” wasn’t a fluke. He’s particularly brilliant at turning around everything anyone says to him – for example, later in the story, a Wirrn possessed Noah threatens to take him back to the cryogenic centre. The Doctor replies immediately with “You’re absolutely right, there’s no time to lose!”, owning the situation despite being held at gunpoint. He radiates a confidence that belies the fact he’s clearly working everything out as he goes along. He manages to seem like he’s a shambolic busker and two steps ahead of everyone else simultaneously, and he does it effortlessly. It’s a joy to watch. He gives excellent seriousface/seriousvoice as well. “When I say I’m afraid, Sarah, I’m not making jokes” he says, and you believe him.
Brilliant ideas are dropped all over the place. In typical Bob Holmes style, the monsters are terrific. Giant insect bastards who infect their hosts and feed off them in order to emerge fully grown, pre-Alien? Yes please. And his conception of a human race where social mobility no longer exists is superbly depressing. Everyone has their place. Your average working class people are described by the crew of the Ark as ‘regressives’ or ‘units’. You follow orders because your commander says so. You can’t take on someone else’s job because you’ve got your job and your responsibilities. We don’t muck in together, we have our task and our task only. I get on with my thing, you get on with yours. Which is a concern that feels – in 2014 – surprisingly prescient. The crew of the Ark are proper humourless bastards too. They called their captain Noah. As “an amusement.” “A joke?” asks Harry to a confused look from Lira. Yeah, we don’t know what a joke is in the future either. This compartmentalisation of human classes also powers an important plot point later in the story, when one of the engineers sacrifices himself in place of The Doctor to rid Nerva of the Wirrn due to that ‘being my job’. It all ties up very nicely. Though I did find it amusing that a progressive observes that ‘this is a stitch up!’ Good to see that phrase has survived.
Noah’s journey from pompous space captain to possessed bad guy to ultimate saviour of the human race is terribly well done as well. From the early ‘Oh noes! Noah’s got a green monster hand hidden in his pocket!’ stages, smacking his hand on a console in frustration, to being a bag of green bubble wrap sliding along corridor floors and looking menacing in various ventilation shafts before finally going full Wirrn from episode 3 onwards, it’s all terribly well done. And then when he finally – as a Wirrn – sacrifices himself to save the world, you do genuinely feel for the character. The Wirrn even have an actual motive, one more interesting than world/universal domination: they are out for revenge due to being almost wiped out by the humans. Whoops. But this is good as it’s one of the first times early Doctor Who gives us a sympathetic monster. Yes, they’re horrific parasites, but they have just cause.
The Less Good: I just found it a bit predictable. The Doctor and friends land in an unknown environment. They stumble across a puzzle or two, giving us a cliffhanger every five minutes. They meet the inhabitants. Obviously The Doctor and co are taken for bad guys almost immediately, especially when The Doctor is caught seemingly trying to sabotage the ship. Well, we know he’s saving it, but the stupid progressives don’t get that. But, y’know, it’s a bit by-the-numbers. Sarah Jane seems to spend an awful lot of the story flaking out, screaming and getting hysterical. The same Sarah Jane who has now been dealing with this stuff for an entire series. Feminist Sarah Jane, the new strong woman. It’s a bit…patronising, maybe? We know she’s made of sterner stuff. I’ve seen it suggested elsewhere that she’s frazzled after being cryogenically frozen, but we don’t see the same sort of behaviour from any of the other characters so that doesn’t really wash with me.
And for all the dialogue triumphs, we still get the Wirrn-possessed Noah declaring that “Resistance is useless!” Le sigh.
It frustrates me that after listing out all the good about this story and then a humble three less good points that I’m still a bit nonplussed by the whole affair. I can’t work it out. When I think about the good bits, I’m genuinely impressed. But I’m not exactly sitting here desperate to watch it again. And worst of all, at no point in this review have I been able to crowbar in the line ‘Wirrn deep shit now, boys.’
As I say, I spent a lot of time watching this episode wondering why THIS is seen as a classic and, I dunno, “Robot” isn’t. Which is probably my bad. I mean, great dialogue, great performances from the regulars, great monster idea, but it’s not MASSIVELY exciting. I just find it kind of average. SORRY! For four 25 minute chunks of time it existed. “Robot” at least has the fun factor. “The Ark In Space” is just a bunch of people talking in various rooms which I would normally go for but, on this occasion, I can only give a resounding “meh”. An average 5/10.
Written and edited by Steve Horry