Doctor Who complete reviews: The Ark In Space
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Tom Baker's second outing as The Doctor puts us all firmly behind the sofa...
Bubble wrap. The biggest stress-buster in the whole world. If you’ve had a tough day, bubble wrap therapy takes some beating. Dig out the latest breakable item packaging that you bought and get popping. In a matter of minutes, stress goes away as you take out your troubles on a sheet of bubbly plastic. They should teach about this sort of thing in school.
Bubble wrap’s also pretty handy when you want to create a Doctor Who alien. Take the Wirrn in The Ark In Space - in their embryonic form, Wirrn matter bears an uncanny resemblance to bubble wrap sprayed green. It’s only a matter of time before it moves on to become a man in a green sleeping bag shuffling around the studio like a blind Houdini.
Now if you haven’t seen The Ark In Space, that doesn’t sound like a particularly enticing preview of the second Tom Baker story. Which is true in a way. Steven Moffat, the current man at the top, has apparently said that watching The Ark In Space with the sound turned down is a considerably different experience to watching it with sound. Which basically amounts to: Doctor lands on plastic spaceship populated by about half a dozen 70s throwbacks with groovy flares and platforms. Green Bubble Wrap thing takes over bulgy eyed man who wrestles with a green bubble wrap glove puppet - a bit like a scary version of Sooty And Sweep. Man turns into half man/half bogey before turning into a rather dubious looking creature, which, along with other dubious looking creatures, try to invade the spaceship. Man/Bogey/Dubious then blows ship up. Doctor, Harry and Sarah vamoose in a Star Trek teleport system. The End.
"Admittedly, The Ark In Space has some rather ropey effects, but it becomes a dramatic tour-de-force that’s the first proper story to scare kids with psychological horror"
Try viewing it with sound, and it’s a different affair altogether. Admittedly, The Ark In Space has some rather ropey effects, but it becomes a dramatic tour-de-force that’s the first proper story to scare kids with psychological horror. After the last few years of entertaining UNIT tales, it was time for a change of tack. After Barry Letts’ successful helming of the show, newcomer Philip Hinchcliffe was brought in to oversee the show. Hinchcliffe had a direct vision for the show - to tell good, dramatic stories with more of what he called a “Ballsy” attitude. By lucky coincidence, script editor Robert Holmes’ plans for the show were perfectly in tune with this remit. The Ark In Space is the first product of this brand new direction, and it certainly sets the stall out well for what’s to come in the next two-and-a-bit years.
It’s a different proposition from the later Pertwee stories, right from the opening moments of part one. It’s difficult to put a finger on what’s so different - it’s nothing new: alien invades a space craft, but it’s done with a greater emphasis on chills and working up an atmosphere. And that opening sequence is brilliant. The model of the Ark may not wholly convince, but the slow, ominous zoom-in effectively gives way to an unseen something creeping up on a man in a protection hatch - and all to the sounds of a marvellously creepy score from Dudley Simpson. Like the visuals, the music starts off quietly and gradually builds up to an eerie crescendo of synthesiser, woodwind and drum. Everything about this sequence suggests that we’re not in for a four episodes of light-hearted hi-jinks.
Going back to Moffat’s admiration for the story, I’m surprised that he hasn’t used such an effective template for the new series. Excellent though the 2010 series was, it was slightly let down by the lack of scares. If Ark was remade today, you wouldn’t see anyone get killed. There certainly wouldn’t be scenes like the one in which Noah struggles with his human and Wirrn selves. You can imagine the more genteel kids checking out the old DVDs thinking that they’ll be tamer than the current series, only to get a shock at the uncompromising scenes that pepper a lot of the older tales.
"Ark makes the most of its budgetary limitations to produce a tale that’s full of claustrophobia and terror"
Admittedly, The Ark In Space may make today’s kids laugh with the ropey effects. But what Ark does is to make a virtue of its small budget. It makes the most of its budgetary limitations to produce a tale that’s full of claustrophobia and terror. It’s all a result of everyone putting in the best that they can. The script. The acting. The direction. The set design from Roger Murray Leach. It all comes together to transcend any such worries that it won’t stand up in the future.
The first episode alone is a real masterpiece. It’s basically a three-hander between the new Doctor, Sarah and Harry, who are exploring the deserted Ark. Already, there’s a real rapport between the three, and Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Ian Marter deliver brilliant performances. In particular, Baker and Marter make a great double act, throwing shoes into the air, examining mysterious green substances and extolling the virtues of dust extraction. Already, Marter’s Harry has settled down very well into the show, and Ark is one of his best stories. Despite the old-school charm and impeccable manners, he’s still perfectly capable of handling himself, protecting his two friends and standing up to the pomposity of the Ark inhabitants (“Come off it, we’re not contaminating anyone!”). Sladen too gets a good showing, in particular, her scenes in the ventilator shaft - you can almost sense her fear as she gets stuck in the shaft with an angry Wirrn outside for company. And it’s nice to see Sarah build up her friendship with the new Doctor - there’s that rather sweet scene in which The Doctor tricks Sarah into making it out of the shaft in one piece by angrily goading her. And even though Sarah’s angry at first, she quickly recognises that the new Doctor was only helping her out (“Conned again! You’re a brute!”).
"Other Doctor actors have admittedly taken some time in finding their feet, but Big Tom hit the ground running, and by Ark, was sprinting ahead at full speed"
And of course, there’s new boy Baker, who’s already impressing with his three-dimensional alien persona. If The Doctor showed signs of his alien character in Robot, then The Ark In Space is where it really takes root. The most celebrated scene is the one in which he admires the human race for their “indomitable” stance against any calamity that comes their way. It’s actually not an easy speech to say convincingly, but Baker does it with such ease and conviction, that you totally believe in this new Doctor. He may be alien, but he’s still extremely fond of the human race, which he later points out as he prepares to link his brain in with the Wirrn Queen (“It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species!” he booms with that trademark toothy grin). Baker carries the first episode off with great panache, alternating between wry humour (“There are only two of us here and your name IS Harry”), vulnerability (“I got us into this mess”) and intense drama. And there are some great Baker scenes in the rest of the story, for example his quiet, authoritative protest to Noah (“My dear man, if you think that we’re laying claim to Earth, you couldn’t be more mistaken”). Other Doctor actors have admittedly taken some time in finding their feet, but Big Tom hit the ground running, and by Ark, was sprinting ahead at full speed.
Interestingly, Holmes’ Ark In Space is quite optimistic, given his rather cynical take on most of the people in his stories. It certainly bigs up the resilience of the human race - seen not only in their resourcefulness in putting the chosen few into cryogenic suspension (as a result of the solar flares), but also in their stand-off against the invading Wirrn. Rogin, for example, is initially portrayed as a moaning minnie who’s only out for himself, but by the end of the story, he’s prepared to sacrifice himself to allow The Doctor to live and to help defeat the Wirrn.
That said, the Chosen Few aren’t that promising. We only get to see a select five (six, including Dune), but they’re variable to say the least. Admittedly Rodney Bennett missed a trick when he cast against the original script which apparently described Vira and Noah as black (possibly Haitian) - this would have certainly tallied more with The Doctor’s references to “All colours, all creeds”. In the end, we get a rather mumsy headmistress and what looks like a cross between Tom Jones and a shocked vicar who’s just chanced upon a couple snogging in a church vestibule. That’s not to say Wendy Williams and Kenton Moore are bad though. Indeed, Williams brings a lot of frosty aloofness to the part of Vira, and it’s nice to see her mellow over the course of the story to the point where she actually smiles at the end. Moore probably steals the acting honours out of the guests though, and in particular, the aforementioned scene in which he struggles between human and Wirrn is especially chilling. Moore convincingly conveys the feeling of an alien being invading his body, punctuating his speech with guttural gasps, screams and moans. “Weee… Yoooo… Are in great danger,” he moans in agony, as if something’s trying to crawl its way up his throat. Like I said, the scene of him wrestling with his glove puppet arm looks silly without sound, but thanks to Moore’s excellent acting, it becomes rather disturbing.
"Rogin’s self-sacrifice is quite touching, but for the most part, he’s like a used car salesman who’s been forced into the I’m A Celebrity jungle"
The others I can take or leave. Rogin’s self-sacrifice is quite touching, but for the most part, he’s like a used car salesman who’s been forced into the I’m A Celebrity jungle. Lycett looks like John Denver without the specs and is only famous for being eaten by a giant green sleeping bag. Libri (or Leeeebreeee as Noah calls him) on the other hand, is one of that rare breed in Doctor Who - the useless non-entity. Seriously, what’s the point of this fey fop? Looking like he’s auditioning for the Bay City Rollers, Libri gets to do diddly squat apart from faint at a shape-shifting Noah, and then chase after him - only to get shot. And he can’t even get that right. Even though he has a gun, Libri just stands around as Noah just walks up to him and take it off his hands without a care in the world. And then he does an almighty gurn as he falls victim to a blue electronic splat before falling backwards like Worzel Gummidge at the end of his TV show. Sadly Christopher Masters’ performance isn’t much cop either - “No, no, he gave me an order” is said with about as much urgency as a man changing TV channels.
If you’re reading Ian Marter’s adaptation, then this sequence is a lot more impressive as Noah fries Libri’s corpse into a charred lump. The notorious cut scene is also more graphic in the book, as Noah’s head splits open with green acidic goo. I’m guessing that they didn’t film this, but even so, the cut scene still sounds quite strong for the kids, as a mutating Noah begs Vira to kill him. And altogether, The Ark In Space does succeed in scaring the kids. Rodney Bennett - casting decision on Vira and Noah aside - has a good grasp of what Holmes’ script requires. He really brings out the drama and the creepy claustrophobia in the story with some great camera tricks (the Wirrn POV shots and the cross fades between The Doctor and the Wirrn Queen’s memories, for example). He’s also utilised a great team to bring the story to life. Chief among these is Roger Murray Leach, whose set designs are truly fantastic. The curving corridors are very well designed, but the real piece-de-resistance is the main cryogenic chamber. It really offers a huge sense of scale, partly because of Bennett’s clever camera tricks (with mirrors and low camera angles that look up) and partly because of Murray Leach’s detailed work. Unsurprisingly, he’d be asked back on a regular basis to provide some more sterling work in the next two years. The designs of the adult Wirrn are also quite striking, although it’s funny that you never see how they scuttle along…
The Ark In Space succeeds in establishing the template for what was to come. Not only does it draw upon a famous masterwork (in this case, The Quatermass Experiment, and to a point, The Thing From Another World), it also looks at the concepts of possession and body horror. These themes would be revisited in the next few seasons with high strike rates, but Noah’s fate is the perfect first example of this. Indeed, with its themes of mutating bodies, deserted spaceships and nasty creepy crawlies, Ark pre-empts films such as Alien and the 1982 remake The Thing. A hugely successful opening bid for Hinchcliffe and Holmes, The Ark In Space showed that teatime viewing for the kids was now definitely from behind the sofa.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.