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Tardis Party: Doctor Who serial close-up ~ The Ark In Space (Season 12/ 1975)

June 2, 2013

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The (Un)Wide Awake Club: The Fourth Doctor and UNIT’s Dr Harry Sullivan discover a cryogenic chamber containing hundreds of dormant humans aboard spaceship Nerva Beacon

So, because time waits for no man (unless you’re The Doctor, for whom time can wait as long he likes it to, given he has a time machine and all that), after a couple or so weeks off, it’s back to the 50th-anniversary-year celebrations of the Brit TV sci-fi giant with this post, the latest in the (admittedly long) line of scribblings by yours truly on the best and most essential serials of Who lore.

And it’s a real doozy of a one at that, focusing as it does on the first great story of the unforgettable, unmistakable and maybe unmatchable Tom Baker era, The Ark In Space. Yes, strange, suspicious goings-on in an eerily empty (or is it?) spacestation are the order of the day for The Doc, Sarah Jane Smith and Dr Harry Sullivan. So, without further ado, let’s join them, shall we…?

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Doctor: Tom Baker (The Fourth Doctor)

Companions: Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith); Ian Marter (Dr Harry Sullivan)

Monsters/ Villains: The Wirrn; Kenton Moore (Noah – transformed into a wirrn)

Allies: Wendy Williams (Vira); Richardson Morgan (Rogin)

Writers: Robert Holmes and (uncredited) John Lucarotti

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Director: Rodney Bennett

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Season: 12 (second of five serials – four 25-minute-long episodes)

Total average viewers: 11.1 million

Original broadcast dates: January 25-February 15 1975 (weekly)

Previous serial: Robot

Next serial: The Sontaran Experiment

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Following his latest regeneration, The Doctor takes to his TARDIS for his first trip with regular companion Sarah Jane Smith and newbie Dr Harry Sullivan of UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), the latter being the one actually responsible for sending them to their destination – as he accidentally knocks a switch on the TARDIS’s console, ensuring they land inside an Earth-derived spacestation and, The Doc estimates, thousands of years into our planet’s future.

As the trio look around, they quickly discover they’re devoid of enough oxygen to breathe and Sarah, having been separated from the other two, passes out on a couch and promptly vanishes. The Doctor, though, does his stuff and repairs the ship’s air system, allowing him and Harry to search further. They quickly discover a restricted section that, Aliens (1986)-like, holds hundreds upon hundreds of cryogenically frozen humans. Just as The Doc is marvelling at the human race’s desire and capacity to venture into the unknown (and in this case journey beyond the Earth in a big way), Harry finds Sarah in a cubicle seemingly frozen – and dressed in uniform – like all the others… and then, opening a cupboard door, a giant alien insect.

Fortunately, the insect is dead – and has been for some time, The Doctor deduces. One of the frozen humans wakes and, being the crew’s medical chief, uses an electronic gadget on her forehead to ensure she does so properly with no ill effects. Warily, she introduces herself as Vira to The Doctor and Harry, whom she reasonably concludes could be dangerous interlopers, but agrees to wake Sarah with her gadget when urged by the other two to do so, as she recognises Sarah shouldn’t be on the ship either. Her crew were sent into space aboard the ship (named Nerva Beacon, but nicknamed ‘The Ark’) because it was feared solar flares would destroy Earth’s ecosystems, so five thousand years later they could return to a once more placid Earth and repopulate the planet. As she revives the crew’s commander Lazar (nicknamed ‘Noah’), The Doc informs her the crew has somehow overslept for several thousands of years more than intended – and it quickly becomes apparent why…

As soon as Noah is revived, the ship’s power cuts out, so The Doc sets off to make repairs and immediately comes face-to-face with a giant green grub in its solar collector. Following him there is the non-trusting Noah, whom suspects the three ‘new arrivals’ are responsible for the power outage and, accidentally, he comes into contact with the grub (unknown to the others) and thereafter starts to behave erratically, ordering Vira to halt the reawakening of the rest of the crew. For her part, Vira has now discovered that the crew’s chief technician is missing; The Doctor notes that the berth that had contained him in the cryogenic chamber instead holds the remains of a membrane, which he assumes must have come from an egg sac produced by the enormous insect – an insect queen, it seems.

Another technician is revived, Libri, whom the others convince must go after Noah, as The Doc now believes he may turn into a green grub and eventually into a fully formed insect (he accounts for the missing chief technician by explaining the queen had laid eggs in his body before she died and as they hatched they absorbed him and his technical knowledge of the ship). Libri finds Noah, whom draws his laser gun, but the young technician can’t force himself to kill his superior; Noah has no such qualms and shoots him dead, before discovering his left hand and lower arm has horrifically metamorphosed into green grub – clearly he won’t be human for much longer.

“Madame Nostradamus made it for me – a witty little knitter. Never get another one like it” ~ The Doctor on the origin of his trademark scarf

Contacting Vira, a now half-transformed Noah hands over control of the crew and its mission to her, claiming she must revive all the humans and ‘transmat’ them (effectively beam them down) to the Earth below as fast as possible before he and all the other grubs quickly transform into adult insects – or, to give the species their proper name (which he does), the Wirrn – and kill the humans. The Doctor tells her she must delay, though, while he works out a way to fight the Wirrn. He quickly settles on the risky manoeuvre of linking his mind to the dead queen’s neural cortex, so he might learn more about the aliens.

Having gleaned little from this dangerous exercise apart from how the queen died, the fact her arrival ensured the ship’s humans overslept and that every grub/ growing insect shares the same ingrained knowledge about the ship’s inner workings, he, Sarah, Harry, Vira and two more revived crew members fight off a grub from their part of the ship, during which one of the two crew members is killed before the other (named Rogin) and Harry see it off with laser guns. The power fails once more, so The Doctor travels down to the solar collector, having decided the only way to destroy the Wirrn and save the humans on the ship is to electrocute the swarm.

Encountering and escaping from a now nearly fully metamorphosed Noah, he learns from him the Wirrn’s aim – to absorb all the humans and their accumulated knowledge, thus becoming a technologically advanced race. This is only fair, the Wirrn-Noah argues, as the space-borne insect race was displaced from its original homeworld by human pioneers thousands of years before, hence why the queen ended up entering The Ark. He adds that as a compromise he’ll let The Doctor and his friends escape.

The Doc rejects the proposal and concocts a plan to try and electrocute the Wirrn swarm, which is hellbent on getting to the rest of the humans in the cryogenic chamber. Having by now fled from there, Sarah bravely takes an electric cord from the ship’s shuttle (which still has power) through a conduit pipe to the chamber. The plan works to some extent, but only one or two Wirrn are killed. The Doctor then tries to appeal to any vestiges of humanity remaining in Noah and reasons he should lead the swarm into space where it belongs, but the swarm is now heading for the shuttle and the humans therein. Before they escape the shuttle, Vira triggers its automatic take-off, so it will take the Wirrn with it out into space, while Rogin sacrifices himself by manually unlocking the shuttle’s exhausts. The Doc wonders whether Noah led his fellow swarm to the shuttle on purpose and his suspicions are proved right when the latter explodes the shuttle seconds later – in the end, Noah’s humanity somehow won out over his barbaric, sadistic Wirrn side of his consciousness.

Without the shuttle, though, Vira will now have to ‘transmat’ the rest of the ship’s revived-to-be humans down to Earth, so The Doctor, Sarah and Harry volunteer to check the system is functioning all right, the Time Lord throwing Vira a bag of jelly babies before he and his companions vanish, bound for Earth below…

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Tom Baker would, of course, quickly become (certainly pre-‘NuWho’) the most popular and most iconic Doctor. And to say he hit the ground running in The Ark In Space, just his second serial, is putting it mildly. This story has everything any self-respecting Who story should – and it has it in spades. An engaging but taut plot with suspense and action (director Rodney Bennett deserves much credit for its realisation); strong, believable characterisation (the lead trio, Vira and Noah); great dialogue that’s both crisp, witty and memorable; an interesting and memorable setting (‘The Ark’ looks great, both futuristic and light yet claustrophobic); a truly disagreeable, rather horrible monster (the Wirrn);  and a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Fair dues, it’s not exactly Alien (1979), but at times it’s getting there. In a witty way with a protagonist wearing a ludicrously long scarf, that is.

And, significantly, the presence and fast blossoming of Baker as Gallifrey’s most notorious son isn’t the only marker of a changing of the guard this serial sets down. As they would be quite brilliantly for the rest of this series and the next two (the 13th and 14th), the hands of both young, ambitious new show producer Philip Hinchcliffe and seasoned, masterful but new script editor Robert Holmes are all over Ark.

Together, they’d take Who in an exciting, darker, never-more-watched direction, with stories feeling monster-of-the-week-horror-film-esque, their storylines often inspired by and usually very effective pastiches of classic literature and film. The whole thing would really catch fire later (arguably in two serials’ time with Genesis Of The Daleks), but after this season’s first – and still very Barry Letts/ Terrance Dicks, UNIT-focused – serial Robot (and ostensibly the first story for which Hinchcliffe and Holmes were responsible), it definitely all started here with its second.

Another reason for me – really an affectation – why Ark is so damn good is the Nerva Beacon crew outfits (see image below). Never have spacestation staff looked smarter or cooler than in those all white togs with their modernist collars-cum-zips ending in piped upward curves at the chest, slightly flared trousers and coloured bars on the shoulders (which presumably denote rank). And arguably never sexier has Sarah Jane Smith looked than when she’s sports one from the end of the first episode onwards. Indeed, no prizes for guessing why the spaceship crew in ‘NuWho’ festive special A Christmas Carol (2010) are fitted-out in very similar outfits – answer: they look bloody brilliant in them.

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Although Holmes is credited as the serial’s only writer, previous scribe for Who and The Avengers (1961-69) John Lucarotti came up with the original storyline and the script’s first draft. Unfortunately, because at this time Lucarotti lived on a boat anchored in the Mediterranean (decades before today’s era of mobile phones and emails), a postal strike in Corsica ensured it was practically impossible for script editor Holmes to contact him for rewrites, thus Holmes had to take on all rewriting duties himself. Lucarotti was paid in full for his efforts, mind.

The character of Vira was intended to be played by a black actress, ideally a Haitian, presumably to give Ark a multiracial air and reflect the fact Nerva Beacon’s crew had been drawn from the best of the entire human race. No doubt due to the makers being unable to find an appropriate actress, Crossroads (1964-88) thesp Wendy Williams won the part. Far more intentionally, Ark is the first story in which Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan can be said to be a bona fide companion (as it’s his first trip in the TARDIS).

He’d continue in that role for the rest of Season 12 and until the end of Terror Of The Zygons (1975), Season 13’s opener – his final appearance came as an android copy of himself in that season’s fourth story The Android Invasion (also 1975), which also saw the final appearance of Jon Levene’s much liked UNIT soldier Sergeant Benton. Marter’s association with Who would continue beyond the series, though, as in the late ’70s and early ’80s he penned nine official Target novelisations based on series serials. He died from a heart attack in 1986, aged just 42.

Ark fits near the beginning of a long, unbroken story arc (detailing Sullivan’s travels with The Doc and Sarah Jane) running right from the beginning of Season 12 opener Robot – or even Season 11 closer Planet Of The Spiders (1974), as that one’s final few seconds sees Jon Pertwee’s Doc regenerate into Baker’s, which is repeated as Robot opens – through to the end of Terror Of The Zygons. Indeed, so tight an arc is it that Nerva Beacon itself is the setting again for Season 12’s final serial Revenge Of The Cybermen (1975), which sees The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry return to the spacestation after encountering a Sontaran (The Sontaran Experiment) and Daleks (Genesis Of The Daleks), but accidentally thousands of years before the craft’s human occupants have woken up in the earlier story.

So revered in fan circles is Ark that its biggest enthusiasts aren’t merely among the great unwashed Whovians, but among the most famous and important of them – the first showrunner of ‘NuWho’ Russel T Davies once claimed it’s his favourite serial of the original series, while present showrunner Steven Moffat has said it’s the best story made during the Tom Baker era. And what of Baker himself? Well, he apparently cites that of all the serials he filmed (that’s a staggering 41 in total) it was his favourite too. High praise for the Wirrn-toting wonder story, indeed.

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Next time: Genesis Of The Daleks (Season 12/ 1975)

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Previous close-ups/ reviews:

The Dæmons (Season 8/ 1971/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

Inferno (Season 7/ 1970/ Doctor: Jon Pertwee)

The War Games (Season 6/ 1969/ Doctor: Patrick Troughton)

An Unearthly Child (Season 1/ 1963/ Doctor: William Hartnell)

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