The Ark In SpaceBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Whilst 'Robot' succeeded in establishing the new Doctor and the relationship between him and his companions, it is in many ways a hangover from the Pertwee era. Having established the new status quo, however it leads into 'The Ark in Space', arguably the first proper Tom Baker story and a shining example of the influence of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. 

From the start, 'The Ark in Space' has the feel of a new direction. After the cosy feel of much of the Pertwee era, this story is noticeably different in feel. Almost immediately, the story creates a feeling of claustrophobia, as the Doctor, Harry and Sarah find themselves trapped in a small room rapidly running out of oxygen, and the setting remains uncomfortable throughout. The fact that it is set entirely on a space station means that there is no easy way to escape the threat of the Wirrn (given the Doctor's steadfast refusal to abandon humanity in the TARDIS), and their increasing stranglehold on the Ark gives a constant feeling that the TARDIS crew and Vira's small group are running out of places to hide. The sublimely creepy incidental music enhances this effect, as do the magnificent sets, which are some of the series' best. The use of bright white sets gives the Ark a sterile look, which contrasts beautifully with the cold expanse of space visible through the windows in the corridors, creating a cold, stark feel, but the detail inherent in the designs also avoids making the sets look drab. 

The structure of 'The Ark in Space' adds to the story's success. Episode One features just the Doctor, Harry and Sarah, and unfolds relatively slowly. However, at no point does it feel padded, because almost everything advances the plot. The scene with the autoguard could initially seem like filler, until it later becomes clear that it was this that destroyed the Wirrn Queen. The Doctor and Harry's exploration of the silent Ark adds to the eeriness of the atmosphere and further contributes to the plot, as the Doctor deduces his location and the nature of the Ark. Aside from providing information for the audience, this also makes the Doctor look rather good. Once the humans on board the Ark start to wake up, events gather pace, and the story flies by as the threat of the Wirrn grows rapidly. Even the cliffhangers advance the plot, rather than simply being dramatic moments forced into the script to provide an exciting break every twenty-five minutes; Episode One concludes with the discovery of the Wirrn Queen, answering the question of what precisely entered the Ark; Episode Two culminates the revelation that Noah is transforming, further elucidating the nature of the threat; and Episode Three ends with Noah's final transformation into an adult Wirrn, showing us the final, most deadly stage of their development, shortly after the Doctor has grimly informed us that adult Wirrn will be a thousand times more dangerous than the larvae. Even Episode Four follows this pattern, dovetailing nicely into the start of 'The Sontaran Experiment', and contributing to a linked feel to the season that harkens back to the program's early days. 

With Sarah sidelined for much of Episode One and no other characters present until Episode Two, it falls to Tom Baker and Ian Marter to carry the episode, and they do so with panache. The rapport between them, established in 'Robot', continues apace, resulting in some great moments, as the Doctor explains the nature of the Ark to a sceptical Harry. This is perhaps more effective than it would have been with Sarah, given Sarah's experience of travel within the TARDIS. Despite being rather out of his depth however, Harry soon starts to acclimatize to being thousands of years into the future and continues to prove his usefulness, despite his bumbling reputation; he is able to apply long out-dated medical skills to help Vira revive her people, and helps Rogin tackle the Wirrn larvae in Episode Three. Even his desire to escape in the TARDIS when things begin to appear hopeless in Episode Four seems more honest and realistic than cowardly. Tom Baker continues to impress as the Doctor, and gets some brilliant lines of dialogue, especially in his scenes with Harry, which are all part of Episode One's success. I love the bit where Harry guesses that the Ark is some kind of survival measure and the Doctor tells him that he is improving. Harry's rather pleased look quickly gives way to ruefulness as the Doctor adds that it is entirely due to his influence, and that Harry mustn't take any credit. Aside from being amusing, it demonstrates Marter's comic timing. The Doctor gets many other great lines, such as "My doctorate is purely honorary and Harry's only qualified to work on sailors", and "An ordinary brain. But mine is exceptional!" Despite this humour however, the story is rife with suspense throughout and whilst he demonstrates a knack for wit, Baker also imbues his Doctor with other qualities. He's convincingly portentous when describing the threat posed by the Wirrn, and for all his eccentricity he quickly gains Vira's trust, simply by generating a general air of trustworthiness. 

Most interestingly of all in my opinion is the Doctor's motivation for getting involved, which is established by his famous speech about humanity's achievements in Episode One, and is summed up later by his line "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species". 'The Ark in Space' is a story in which the Doctor and his companions have the option of fleeing in the TARDIS, but the Doctor refuses to do so because people need his help. This reflects his attitude back in 'The Tomb of the Cybermen' when he remained on Telos to help Parry's expedition members survive the results of their folly, despite his ability to leave whenever he wished, and it really sums up his character. Indeed, his commitment to helping humanity is such that he is prepared to sacrifice himself in Episode Four. Perhaps more interesting still, is the side he chooses; the Wirrn, the script informs us, have been gravely wronged by humanity in the past and are striving to survive. The Wirrn ultimately have as much right to survive as humanity, but the Doctor sides against them. This is probably largely due to his tendency to side with the underdog in any circumstances, given that the Wirrn are so dangerous, but the fact that he actually acknowledges favoritism towards humans is an intriguing insight into his character. This is doubly interesting because of Holmes' script, which initially shows us an almost fascist society of the future, where people are valued solely by their abilities (as suggested by Vira's casual questioning of Sarah's value). Prior to being infected by the Wirrn, Noah is callous and ruthless, prepared to destroy the Doctor and his friends rather than risk contamination of the gene pool. This raises all manner of implications about eugenics and elitism in the society preserved on board the Ark. Humanity's general state is further suggested by the attitudes of Libri, Lycett and Vira, all of whom are reluctant to take on responsibilities outside of their allotted roles. However, having established this rather pessimistic template of humanity's future, Holmes immediately sets out to thwart it; despite his ruthlessness, Noah ultimately saves the humans on board the Ark, as his underlying humanity allows him to lead the Wirrn into space, and to destruction. Rogin, in stark contrast to Lycett, is an instantly recognizable character type, emerging from cryogenic suspension cynical, sarcastic and resolutely individual. He's a marvellous character, played perfectly by Richardson Morgan, and represents humanity's finer aspects just as much as Noah's sacrifice. He too sacrifice's himself, saving both the Doctor and his people in the process. 

Whilst the Doctor and Harry carry Episode One, Sarah too gets some good moments during 'The Ark in Space', mainly in Episode Four, when she reminds the Doctor about the shuttlecraft and of course takes the cable through the ducting. Sladen's acting is as good as ever, and she conveys Sarah's increasing panic as she keeps getting stuck in the tunnels very well. The guest cast is also very good, with the unfortunate exception of Christopher Masters as the wooden Libri. Wendy Williams is very good as the cold, aloof Vira, who gradually become more human as she comes to trust the Doctor and struggles to save her people. Kenton Moore's tortured performance as Noah is crucial to the success of the story, as he struggles against the influence of the Wirrn in his mind. It is quite remarkable that in Episode Three he acts so well with a bubble plastic glove that the scene is genuinely disturbing. 

Finally of course, there are the Wirrn. In both forms they are startlingly effective; the larvae are obviously made of bubble plastic, but the story is so well directed that somehow they remain convincing. The actual Wirrn look pretty good, but the limitations of the costumes become obvious when they move; nevertheless, they still manage to look great. Although recognizably insects, they also look suitably alien. From a story point of view, they are an awesome menace, difficult to destroy, about to swarm on mass, and totally hostile. Even with Noah's influence, the Wirrn cannot be negotiated with; their existence is anathema to that of human kind. Their ability to absorb and assimilate humans is effective and disturbing, (Noah's "I am Dune" in Episode Two is surprisingly chilling), and they have an unstoppable, terrifying feel throughout. Even the Doctor is hard pressed to defeat them; at best he only reaches a kind of stalemate when he electrifies the cryogenic chamber, and ultimately it falls takes the last vestiges of Noah's humanity to destroy them from within.

In summary, 'The Ark in Space' is a triumph and superb start for the new producer.