Roundtable Review: Doctor Who, “The Ark in Space”

By Les Chappell, Anthony Strand, J. Walker, and Cameron White


Doctor Who
Season 12, Series 2: “The Ark in Space”
Original airdate: January 25, February 1, 8 and 15, 1975

Cameron: I’m sure I don’t have to remind my companions here at This Was TV who follow me on Twitter of this, seeing as how I never shut up about it, but for those who don’t know, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who‘s existence.

Doctor Who, The Ark In SpaceLet that sink in a moment. Doctor Who is recognized by Guinness World Records as the longest-running sci-fi television series in the world, not to mention the most successful. The show has racked up a grand total of 790 episodes, though in Classic Who days, the stories were multi-episode serials collected under a single story title. (The form is not unlike what Flash Gordon used, although the 40-year gap separating the two means the form became more utilized by this time.) Eleven men have played the iconic role of The Doctor, and countless more men and women have played lead roles as the companions (typically known in the Classic days as “associates”). It’s an essential piece of British pop culture, one of its most fascinating exports in the realm of entertainment, and time has been kind to its global image, especially in the present day under the tight reins of head writer Steven Moffat. And we shall not forget the instantly recognizable theme song, which was basically the first piece of electronic music ever produced. Like the main character, it too has been through some changes over the years, but the infectious drum beat and melodic line have remained the same.

I don’t lead with all this to scare you off; rather, I want to present an idea of the scope of the show we’re talking about today. For me particularly, being able to talk about the essence of the show is actually harder, since I’ve now seen a majority of those 790 Doctor Who episodes.

Fortunately, we’ve got a good one on our hands. I’ve waxed poetic about Tom Baker already for our Hall of Fame, but it might surprise you to know that the first episode of “The Ark in Space” was only Tom Baker’s fifth official episode in the role for viewers, and his ninth episode filming as The Doctor. (“The Ark in Space” was produced after “The Sontaran Experiment,” another fine serial; in fact, all five serials that ran in season twelve are pretty great.) Nonetheless, he’s already settling into his rhythms—and his outfit, probably the most iconic of the character’s outfits. And in between what is undeniably a dark story, his disarming sense of humor shines through, whether it’s his offer of Jelly Babies to the distressed, or his smart-yet-whimsical efforts to flip a switch without being seen by a destructive defense laser, the bug-eyed Tom Baker that came to be in the later years of his run as the Fourth Doctor is alive and well even so close to his first episode.

Kenton Moore as Noah, Doctor Who, "The Ark in Space"Someone else settling comfortably into a role: Robert Holmes, who became the script editor the same time Tom Baker became the Doctor. He’s the writer of “The Ark in Space,” and contained within its plot is the blueprint for the Robert Holmes era of the show. Under Holmes, the show began experimenting with Gothic horror; indeed, he frequently recycled classic Gothic literature and gave them a fresh jolt using Doctor Who’s time-travel conceit. In “The Ark in Space,” for example, we have Noah, the leader of the Ark, transforming into the insect-like monsters at the heart of the story, the Wirrn. It’s grotesque in both appearance and implication, and it’s only with his redemptive act that we’re reminded this is a kids’ show first, though it was exactly this kind of storytelling that Holmes intended to use to keep adults hooked as well as kids.

“The Ark in Space” also features an important companion: Sarah Jane Smith, played by the inimitable Elisabeth Sladen. The character’s origin lives in the rise of second-wave feminism; most feminist arguments against Doctor Who came from its use of the associates as “bait,” damsels and… uh, male damsels in distress who stumble into problems so the Doctor can swoop in and save them. Sarah Jane doesn’t get a proper invitation to the TARDIS; instead, she sneaks aboard in her first appearance (the Third Doctor episode “The Time Warrior”), the Doctor discovers her, and the rest is history. Sarah Jane is well-represented here—sometimes she’s put out by the horror of what’s happening, sometimes she can show familiarity with the Doctor’s oddness as a nod to their long-standing companionship (Sarah Jane was one of the lucky companions who actually got to see the Doctor regenerate), and sometimes she’s crawling through a hole in the wall with a big-ass cable, motivated to get through by the Doctor’s cajoling, only to find out later that he was just pushing her buttons to motivate her in the first place. An ardent feminist, an inquisitive reporter, a fierce thinker—it’s no small wonder Elisabeth Sladen’s death in 2011, barely two weeks before the revival’s sixth season was set to begin, landed so hard for so many. She’s one of the greats.

And all told, “The Ark in Space” is a damn fine episode of Doctor Who. It’s essentially The Fly in space, with an added sense of urgency and a dash of the usual Doctor Who whimsy. Like the story pieces themselves, the show throws together a bunch of people who should not be able to work together to do anything, and yet they do. It’s a kids’ show with a dark heart, but an ultimately optimistic mindset.

Speaking of which: The Doctor gives many speeches about human beings (both their triumphs and tragic flaws) over the course of his eleven incarnations, but Tom Baker’s speech is one of the very few given in sheer awe of the, well, awesome power of humanity to survive and thrive:

Homo sapiens! What an inventive, invincible species! It’s only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They’ve survived flood, 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 out-sit eternity. They’re indomitable… indomitable.”

That’s pretty representative of Doctor Who, I think. But now I’ll turn it over to the rest of the roundtable. Most of you, I believe, are new to this daunting series, so I’m extra curious to see how you respond to it. In particular, do you think this episode represents how Craig Ferguson depicted the show in his famous “lost opening” where he made up lyrics to go with the theme song? And more importantly because I have to live vicariously through other people sometimes: does this make you want to watch more Doctor Who?

Les: You did not warn me a hat was going to be in the line of fire, Cameron. A HAT. I’d have traded all the souls on the Ark to save that battered brown chapeau of the Doctor’s.

Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor, Doctor Who, "The Ark in Space"Okay, I’ve worked through my emotional trauma, onto discussion of the serial. I’m not as new to Doctor Who as some of you might be—I’ve seen all of the first series with Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, most of the first season of David Tennant’s Tenth and scattered offerings of Matt Smith’s Eleventh—but this is my first time stepping into Who Classic (which I believe was introduced after New Who was a marketing failure). And it was certainly a good introduction to the canon, as it had many of the elements I like about the modern series—the sense that the Doctor’s just going wherever space and time takes him, and getting deeply invested in whatever he finds—without some of the angst that pervades several of the modern Doctors. Cameron already cited the Doctor’s speech to the dormant population of the Ark, and I was also quite taken with his rationale about staying to help when he could just as well flee on the TARDIS: because he considers the people on the station worth saving. “It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species,” he says with a grin that’s affectionate and mad at the same time.

It was also, I thought, a well-structured serial, with four episodes serving as very key points in the storytelling process. The first one sets the stage as the Doctor and his companions, the second provides additional exposition about the purpose of the Ark and the dangers it faces, the third raises the stakes as the Wirrn begin to multiply, and the fourth provides the resolution. Though I watched the whole thing in one sitting, I could easily see how this would become appointment TV to be people watching on a weekly basis, and I’m definitely interested to watch more of these.

Fitting into our discussion of the space opera, this episode is interesting because the concept of the Ark incorporates two opposing approaches to space. On one hand, it represents the promise of space travel being a new start, a way for the Earth’s inhabitants to escape the solar flares that have scoured the surface of their planet. But at the same time, the Ark’s purpose is always to return to Earth, rather than being cast far into space to find a new world to settle on. It’s an interesting marriage of some of the ideas we’ve discussed already, space travel simultaneously as an adventure to the unknown and a desire to return home. And I liked Wendy Williams’ Vira a good deal as the avatar of that journey, speaking with such commitment to the mission but also being quite human in moments when she spoke of losing Noah.

Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan, Doctor Who, "The Ark in Space"The other side of the story is of course the Wirrn invasion of the Ark. Cameron compared the story to The Fly, but I was reminded more of Aliens, as it’s a story centered on a group of people trapped in the void of space with an unseen threat*. There’s a definite claustrophobia to the action, from the early glimpses of the slime trails to the enclosed nature of the hallways (only escaping the Noah/Wirrn hybrid at one point by sealing the door in front of him) to Sarah Jane’s adventure through the ventilation system. It conveys the danger of space travel, pointing out that while there’s infinite worlds to explore, in between those worlds there’s still an infinite blackness where it’s very easy to become trapped.

*I was also intrigued by the detail that much like the Gorn from Star Trek, the Wirrn believe they’re in the right because they see themselves as a wronged party who are right to take action against the humans. Except while the Gorn were more territorial, the Wirrn seem out for REVENGE.

But for all the good things I just said about “The Ark in Space,” I do have to take it to task on one count: the special effects. Oh, good Lord, does this look cheap. Several of us complained last week about the remastered presentation of Star Trek on Netflix, and there’s certainly no danger of that complaint in the gloriously low-budget shots of the Ark from space, or those Wirrn swarm effects that make the early episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer look like they were produced by WETA Workshop. I do acknowledge that this was almost 40 years ago, but it really does take one out of the experience when your antagonist’s transformation into an alien being is conveyed by wrapping them in green bubble wrap and having them wriggle around on the floor. It’s almost as embarrassing as the iguana-as-space-dragon trick Flash Gordon tried pulling on us; though unlike Flash Gordon, there was enough strong stuff around it to save the serial as a whole.

Anthony: I’ve seen plenty of Doctor Who (all of the current series, and exactly forty-five classic serials), but this was one of my first. I started watching old DW in the summer of 2006, just after season one of the relaunch aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (as we naively called it in those days). This was my second Tom Baker story, after “Pyramids of Mars” and my fourth overall. I agree that he’s wonderful here. “My dear man, if you think we’re laying claim to Earth, you couldn’t be more mistaken. We’re here to help you” is one of the all-time great Doctor lines, and it’s largely due to Baker’s delivery, somehow simultaneously calm and intense.

Since I’d only seen the Eccleston episodes of the new series, this was my first “The Doctor finds a bunch of people and a monster on a space station” story. It wasn’t the show’s first, of course, and it was also far from the last. You guys mentioned Alien and The Fly—and I can see those comparisons—but I’ve always liked how similar the setup is to “Space Seed” from the first season of the original Star Trek. That episode finds Kirk encountering a centuries-old vessel full of people in hyper sleep. It says a lot about the difference between the two series that here, the noble captain turns into a hideous monster while there, the captain was just Khan the whole time. I love Star Trek, but its universe always felt a lot smaller than that of DW.

ITom Baker as The Fourth Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, Doctor Who, "The Ark in Space"t was fascinating to go back and watch this episode a second time, now that I’ve seen all of season 12. That was one of the most heavily-serialized years of classic DW, and this story works even better in context. It’s the first space adventure for the Fourth Doctor. He and the crew spent the rest of this season jumping from one story to the next thanks to the NERVA Beacon, finally making it back to the TARDIS three stories later. All three of those stories featured pre-existing villains (Sontarans, Daleks, and Cybermen in that order), which makes this story’s stand-alone quality even more impressive.

The story earns its reputation for terrible special effects, but I’ll say that they do have their moments. That first shot of the Wirnn—seen from afar—is actually very effective and creepy, I think. It falls apart when we see the closeup of its hand a few seconds later, but that initial moment is well-staged. Later, the scene of Noah struggling against the influence of his Wirrn hand also works tremendously well. But I freely admit that that is entirely due to Kenton Moore’s solid performance, and it has nothing at all to do with the bubble wrap around his hand.

I certainly agree with all of the compliments you guys directed towards Sarah Jane. I especially love Sladen’s reaction in the great scene where the Doctor insults Sarah Jane to motivate her. On a worse show, with a less interesting actress, that moment would have led to some kind of drama between the two of them. But the way Sarah Jane hurries out to prove him wrong, and then shrugs him off because she realize he’s kidding is wonderful. She shows so much about their relationship with that simple physical gesture. I’ll also put in a plug for The Sarah Jane Adventures, which was by far the better of the two Russell T. Davies-helmed Doctor Who spinoffs.

I’ll also be the one to stick up for Harry, who I always really liked. He was the last male companion in that Ian/Jamie/Brigadier “Man of Action” role, which was done away with when it became clear that the more physical Baker could handle those parts himself. Future male companions Adric and Turlough were younger and more like the Doctor’s children than his friends. (The “Man of Action” recently made a comeback in the unexpected form of Rory Williams.) Anyway, I always thought Ian Marter and Elisabeth Sladen had great chemistry, and their banter in this serial is a lot of fun. I have no idea why he calls Sarah Jane a “female chauvinist” though. That isn’t a real thing.

Doctor Who, The Ark In SpaceSince the three characters all work so well together—and since this was only their second story as a team—it was a great decision on Holmes’s part to let them be the only people on screen for the entire first episode. Not only is it a chance to see them all bounce off of each other, with the Doctor doing his best to rein in the humans, it also lets the show take time to develop a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. A lot of Doctor Who first episodes feel like padding, but “The Ark in Space” uses the time to make us feel like we’re on the ship with them, waiting for something to go wrong.

And then a space bug falls out of a closet. Cue the credits. Lovely. What a perfect cliffhanger.

J.: Well, I guess I’m the closest to a true “newbie” here: I’ve seen only a few episodes of the Doctor’s recent incarnation, and that’s it. Sure, I’ve picked up a lot of the essentials simply from being surrounded by geeks—TARDIS, the theme song, Daleks—but “The Ark in Space” in the first time I’ve really made an effort to watch this show, and literally the first I’ve seen of “classic” Who. And if these episodes are any indication, I should have done this a long time ago.

What fun this is! Even though the underlying concepts are pretty terrifying—from the abandoned Earth to the space bugs that lay their eggs in you while you sleep and then take over your body—the entire enterprise never stops being a blast. Part of that lies in Tom Baker, who you are all quite right to praise; and a lot of it lies with the script, which positively crackles. I could fill my entire contribution to this roundtable with nothing but great bits of dialogue. (My favorite is probably Sarah Jane’s aside regarding the Doctor: “He talks to himself sometimes because he’s the only one who knows what he’s talking about.”) The impression I get from the Doctor is a man who, despite all the danger and risk involved in his travels, never loses his spirit of adventure and joy; “The Ark in Space” captures that same spirit, beautifully.

Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, Doctor Who, "The Ark in Space"Anthony, you said you’d be “sticking up” for Harry, which leads me to think he’s not well-liked; why not? Harry seems likeable enough, with a tough, keep-calm-and-carry-on demeanor that feels quintessentially British, and he has a couple of nice “You and me, both,” asides with the Ark residents whenever the Doctor goes off on a tangent. He’s largely overshadowed, of course, by Sarah, who overcomes her early damsel-in-distress role by coming up with a solution at a critical moment (earning a delightfully insane grin from the Doctor) and then carrying out against the odds. Last week on Star Trek, we saw Uhura contribute nothing more than a terrified scream to the proceedings; so much better to see here, in both Sarah Jane and Vira, women who are not only participating in the action, but driving and it leading it.

Craig Ferguson’s description of the show always focused on its optimism, and that was my greatest takeaway here. Unlike Star Trek‘s optimism, which always hinged on Roddenberry’s odd, socialist utopia, the optimism here is not humanity will overcome our nature, but will persevere because of our nature. The Doctor’s awed speech upon learning the purpose of the Ark spells it out so very well: that our human nature is something to be celebrated, not shunned, a sentiment that’s reflected in the way Noah uses the very last scraps of his humanity to sacrifice himself to save the Ark. It’s a lesson not only for the viewers, but for Vira and the other survivors.

And then: whoosh, cue the theme music! Off to the next adventure! It would appear I have a lot of catching up to do. I look forward to it.

Tom Baker as The Fourth Doctor, Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, Doctor Who, "The Ark in Space"


As a reminder, we’ll be sampling a different series every week for the next few months:

2/14: Battlestar Galactica (original series), “The Long Patrol” (season 1, episode 7), available through Netflix Instant

2/21: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, “Space Vampire” (season 1, episode 14), available through Netflix Instant

2/28: Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Defector” (season 3, episode 10); available through Netflix Instant and Hulu

3/7: Red Dwarf, “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” (series 6, episode 3); available through Netflix Instant

3/14: Farscape, “PK Tech Girl” (season 1, episode 7): available through Hulu

3/21: Battlestar Galactica (reboot), “33″ (season 1, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant and Hulu

4 Responses to “Roundtable Review: Doctor Who, “The Ark in Space””

  1. Anthony Strand

    J. – Harry isn’t so much disliked as ignored. He was only on this one season, and isn’t remembered as fondly as the 4th Doctor’s many great female companions. Tom Baker is such an overwhelming presence that it’s easy to forget about ol’ Harry.


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