I use the word ‘business’ too much in my writing. Those kind of verbal crutches or tics can become very annoying. I notice them when reading other people’s work (someone in SFX magazine has a thing about ‘thing’ at the moment) so I can only apologise to people being driven insane by my own repetitious repartee. I do try and catch these things, and I promise from this moment onwards (having just submitted my review of Hide) I shan’t be using ‘business’ again… unless writing about a business.
Something else, when I write these reviews, sometimes the words seem spikier when I first concoct them. A small part of me then wonders what reaction there’ll be to my fairly robust broadside about the number of DVD reissues along the way. Then when I see it on the page, it somehow doesn’t seem so aggressive anymore. Besides, you’re always a fool if you’re assuming there’ll be a reaction…
This is from DWM #458.
Indomitable. It’s the general consensus about The Ark in Space, with both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat breaking protocol to declare it their favourite story from Doctor Who‘s original run. There’s little to top that for praise.
But there is this: When originally screened in 1975, its second episode popped in at number five in the week’s most watched TV shows. Best chart-rating ever… until the series co-opted Kylie to secure them a number two in 2007 with Voyage of the Damned. Hey, that’s what happens when you sign up the Hit Factory.
These achievements aside, the four-part adventure is also better placed than most to out-sit eternity, having first been released on video in 1989, then again in 1994, before a Laserdisc version came along in 1996 – it was only one of seven Doctor Who stories issued in this format. Ark made its way onto DVD in 2002, and now it’s back again in a remastered form, with a handful of new additional features. Each version, a capsule propelling this story on through the years. Doubtlessly, when those solar flares do come, Noah, the Wirrn and the others will be safe and awaiting rediscovery in the iCloud.
No wonder this is a story hoisted shoulder-high among its contemporaries. But while it would make sport to hurl mud at it, The Ark in Space isn’t going to be horribly messed up today.
That’s because it’s a production that’s been carefully built to exploit the parameters of a 1970s studio-only regimen, and one that pings with the unforgiving glare of VT – tape stock best reserved for the business of teatime news. Like all indoor TV of the age, everyone’s face has a pallid shine. It highlights the artificiality of the set-up, but we’re on board a space station where our characters have to worry about things like manufactured airflow and gravity. This works.
The visual grammar is stronger still in the sets. Designer Roger Murray-Leach has been much praised, but it’s still worth pointing out his genius in providing a glimpse of adjoining rooms through doorways – an effect, the release’s info text tells us, that’s all done by mirrors. The visual cue is enough to build a connection in our mind and give the place a solid sense of geography. When we later glimpse the station’s schematics, it seems to confirm what we’ve already seen. Murray-Leach also builds high – the cryogenic chambers packed on top of one another. Director Rodney Bennett (so accomplished they raised a rival school to Grange Hill in his name) enjoys the space, giving us something rarely seen in Doctor Who; indoor crane shots. Every inch of Space Station Nerva is ripe for exploration.
That’s very good news for a story that opts to spend Part One doing just that. Aside from a brief shot of grub-bait crewman Dune (which, in a structurally bold move for the programme, is a sequence revisited in Part Three), it plays as a three-hander between the Doctor, Sarah and Harry. This is the programme stepping over a threshold. Not only have the time travellers arrived in a newly plausible more meticulously built universe, they’ve also arrived in the Hinchcliffe years. Actually the two are the same.
Whereas the preceding story, Tom Baker’s debut Robot, was a last bow from the old gang (written by Terrance Dicks and produced by Barry Letts), with all the bagginess that entails, this is new producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robot Holmes – who also wrote Ark – world-building. Some of the details are quickly in place, thanks to Holmes’ gift for jargon, including the Wirrn’s “brain-pan”, the ship’s “solar stacks” and even the designation of the various compartments within the cryogenic chambers as “pallets”. Other things are going to take a bit of time, with Tom’s Doctor still dropping some Pertweeian expletives (to Harry: “You’re a clumsy ham-fisted idiot!”) and still in the habit of patronising his ‘girl’ companion (“In a minute, Sarah”). But it’s coming. And before long we find the defining characteristic for the fourth incarnation – his propensity to grin while reporting the gravest news. That smile cracks open in Part Three and will rarely drop from his face again.
It’s a wonderful note to strike, the levity rising along with the dramatic gravity. This clever dichotomy is also present in Holmes’ script, which combines some of his most optimistic sentiments with remarkably bleak fare. The story talks of “all colours and creeds” hibernating on board the Ark (although the BBC Club casting sadly doesn’t follow through), while Vira accuses Harry of being a romantic. “Perhaps we both are,” says the Doctor. Then there’s the epic notion of Noah and his people having slept for longer than the recorded history of mankind – and the even more epic notion that it’s a woman, as the Earth High Minister, who makes that proclamation.
But peel back the epidermis and there’s black stuff below. “Fancy a member of the fair sex being the top of the totem pole,” chirps Harry, drawing our attention to the parity between the humans’ figurehead and the Wirrn’s queen. The later revelation that Earth people swarmed into the Andromeda galaxy, driving the Wirrn into new feeding grounds, clearly casts us as the pests, colonising the homes of others. The very notion of the Wirrn – another immaculately named creation – emphasises that theme. As the Doctor points out, they’re akin to the Eumenes, wasps that impregnate butterflies. Wow, interspecies rape in Doctor Who, a concept only Virgin Books (see below) would be keen to revisit. (As a sidebar, natural historians have labelled the parasite’s lepidopteron victim as Pieris rapae. They too have a knack for nomenclature…)
The tenet here is take this children’s programme into more adult areas, but even still there are things within The Ark in Space that are just too doomy to truly get into. That’s best revealed when Vira and the Doctor escape from the partially insectoid, almost completely insane Noah. “We were pair-bonded for the new life,” says Vira to the Doctor. He just can’t address that. “Let’s go back,” he says softly.
Not everything in this story is so deftly handled. The Wirrn, while terrific in concept, continue Doctor Who‘s unhappy flirtation with insect creatures. It began with the Zarbi and would continue with the Tractators – neither of whom can flash a convincing leg. This latest infestation totter around Bennett’s floodlit studio, their full inflexible fibre glass ignominy made glaringly obvious. Concept outreaches execution in the plight of Noah too. He’s played with clear enthusiasm by Kenton Moore, but despite the real horror of his situation, his metamorphosis is written in a way that’s almost impossible to perform. The pivotal scene where Noah is literally wrestling for control with his rogue, Parcel-Forced-hand is all kinds of things – from a daft take on one of Shakespeare’s more tormented soliloquies, to the kind of ruckus Matthew Corbett would get into with Sooty – but most of all it’s just risible. And it was always going to be.
The further stages of the transformation somehow don’t feel quite so bad. Perhaps that’s because Moore is no longer actively playing off the poor physicality of the effects. When he’s two-thirds monster, what really strikes is his weirdly reasonable offer of safe passage for Vira and the rest, before the Wirrn get stuck into the sleepers. The calm train of thought behind this gesture is a much creepier indication of what vestiges of the man remain than that prior bout of hand jiving.
“The entire human race awaiting the trumpet blast!” says the Doctor. All life is here. Well, all middle-class life (does Vira put anyone else in mind of Sue Lawley?), plus Rogin, the Holmes everyman figure with a plucky catchphrase: “Be-yoo-tiful”. For the inverse-snobs among us, it’s good news this ‘regressive’ type gets to ultimately be the hero. Better still, his inevitable moment of self-sacrifice plays out as an unexpected knife in the ribs of the BBC’s rank and file, who’d refused to move a stepladder from the set of Robot until union approval had been ascertained. And so, as Rogin biffs the Doctor, and moves him away from the blast of Nerva’s space shuttle, before returning to be barbecued himself, his final words to the Time Lord are: “We don’t want trouble with the space technicians’ union”. Sure, it’s a gag, but it’s a nice way to play out the scene, particularly when it’s followed by another, more prosaically heroic moment of self-sacrifice from Noah.
At which point we’re at the end of the story. Although, not quite, because The Ark in Space rolls nonchalantly into next week’s serial, The Sontaran Experiment. It even sends the cast offstage to make their necessary costume changes. That things are interconnected, and that there’s a real essence of cause and effect, are what mark out this emerging era of Doctor Who. Despite the production limitations, there’s a depth of thought that’s new in the show and still convinces today.
Michael Dinsdale’s title sequence is the breakout star of the first part of the Dr Forever! series in which he has a bubble bath TARDIS twirl over a bedroom diorama of defunct Doctor Who merchandise. Captured on a faux Super 8 stock to ensure all the nostalgic switches are thrown, it’s contrived, but brilliantly so.
Actress Ayesha Antoine hosts with the air of someone practising a second language, but it doesn’t dent proceedings. This is a perky piece. The business at hand is a look at Doctor Who in other media, and that’s very often the most interesting and cheerful Doctor Who there is. In focus this time are the original novels published by Virgin and BBC Books, and of the former the key word bandied around is ‘dark’.
For the current wave of super-fans who steer the show’s destiny, the 1990s were their fan adolescence, and with adolescence comes a propensity to equate cynicism to sophistication. Overseeing the Virgin ‘New Adventures’ range with a calm benevolence was one of Doctor Who‘s many triple-initialled heroes, Peter Darvill-Evans. “We didn’t go out of our way to fill the books with sex and violence or, indeed, drugs,” says the sagacious PD-E. “But, certainly, I had no objection.” As author and self-aware Luddite Gary Russell reveals, the Virgin approach for him meant a tick-box of requirements: Ace having sex, the Doctor being moody, Bernice getting drunk and then Bernice having sex… with an Ice Warrior. That’s a mighty sweet piece of Mars. A cold phwoar, if you will. And as sexed up as the modern day series is, it’s doubtful it will get into that when the pincer-pawed nasties return later this year. Although the man from the Daily Star will most likely still ask that question at the press launch.
Deflowering Doctor Who in this fashion took a property that had already declined into a niche even further towards the fringes. However, it also creatively liberated the range’s young authors. It was “a very wise leap” reckons Russell T Davies, because “it wasn’t the easy option”. Paul Cornell, meanwhile, generously credits the anything-goes ethos as being the making of his career. Against this there’s Mark Gatiss, who remains our greatest ambassador for the sweet joys of Doctor Who. He recalls that when he was commissioned to write Nightshade it was “the happiest I’ve ever been.”
He’s similarly clear-sighted about BBC Books subsequently grabbing the franchise – and authors – away from Virgin. “To this day it’s an absolute scandal… I don’t care who hears this.” Poor Steve Cole, who edited the new range, knows he looks like a bagman. “I felt quite bad,” he says, before going on to explain how the writers’ barely tempered creativity became positively onanistic, pitching the BBC line into the recursive obscurity of horribly conceived and unattractively named guff like the Faction Paradox. “I think they’re Time Lords who enjoy paradoxes,” ventures Cornell. When Justin Richards succeeded Cole as editor, the only way he could see through the muddle was to erase it all, and the Doctor’s memory of it.
However, as Richards relates, the book line was in steep decline, with unsold stock being shipped to Eastern European orphanages, where The Burning et al fuelled Latvian furnaces. Even still, he admits that when 2005 rolled along “the expectation was the new series would be a flash in the pan, then we’d continue with the Ninth Doctor”. That history proved him wrong is a happy twist, not least for Christopher Eccleston who can remain untroubled by knowledge of Iris Wildthyme. If only we were so lucky.
If ever your belief wavered in Tom Baker as the greatest ever Doctor, the Scene Around Six footage of the man’s visit to Northern Ireland in 1978 will make you feel born again. These narrative-free sequences shot on lovely grainy, dotty film are joyous. He’s like some kind of UNICEF ambassador, who arrives to the delight of thousands of needy kids. “I like to be received like this,” he deadpans deep within a throng of sherbet-happy fans. A subsequent vignette sees him arriving at Mersey Street primary school, and marching into the classroom with yet another funny line: “Why are you all smiling?”
It’s moving to see how he interacts with his public – running around a playground amassing a swarm of little followers, shining his own beam upon The Troubles while one Belfast woman tells him, “We’re not all bad,” and signing an autograph for “Mrs Little! Goodbye Mrs Little!” There’s a simple currency being exchanged, a little silliness from him in return for massive smiles and memories that will never fade. “Do you want to try my hat on while I get you a badge out?” Tom asks one little blighter, recuperating in a children’s ward. Oh, yes please!
A minute of 8mm behind-the-scenes footage shot during the recording of Robot captures John ‘Benton’ Levene with a fag on the go, while the TARDIS Cam sequence, which featured on Ark‘s original release, takes us back to an unhappier time in 2002 when the BBC’s ill-fated Fiction Lab was creating pointless shorts of the police box sitting in various alien locations. It was a cruel glimpse of ‘new’ Doctor Who, but back then we were grateful for it. Actually, no, we weren’t. Even then it just seemed plain dumb.
Also from the original release, we have a short interview with Roger Murray-Leach, which, aside from the astonishingly poor sound quality, is only notable for RM-L pleading at the top of the segment, “I don’t want to talk about Blake’s 7!” Alongside that, we have Philip Hinchcliffe, Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker on the commentary track. It’s a lovely effort, and there’s an indication the three had some discussion beforehand about how to jolly it along – the audio begins with a little bon mot from each. It’s Sladen’s contribution that remains the most fascinating, as she talks about how this story unsettled her by casting Sarah Jane as a spare part. “I don’t think I knew which way I was going [in the show]… I’m over-acting terribly”. She even admits that she considered quitting. Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, foreshadows Doctor Who‘s return by lamenting that if the series were made nowadays (unthinkable in 2002) “you wouldn’t shoot it on multi-camera inside a television studio on the same budget and timetable as something like EastEnders or Coronation Street“.
The info text, provided by Martin Wiggins, is great. We learn that while the Wirrn story was in production, some geezer called Douglas Adams sent in a proposal for an adventure set on an ark full of telephone sanitizers and middle managers. It’s also interesting to note that Robert Holmes had indeed intended his vision of a multicultural future Earth to be carried into the casting, his script describing Vira as “an exotic dark-skinned woman”. The two best nuggets, though: 1) Philip Hinchcliffe called his cast out from the recording of Genesis of the Daleks to share with them the news of Ark Part Two’s ratings. 2) Frank Bough latterly confided in Sladen that he liked her in that “white cat suit” (his take on the Nerva tunics). If only the old rascal could have met some of those smashing Virgin Books companions.
Finally, we turn to A New Frontier, a brand-new making-of for this release. It’s a perfunctory talking-heads job which commits a grievous faux pas early on (WRONG FONT IN THE MOCK-UP TITLE SEQUENCES!). Nonetheless, it’s mostly saved by the unexpected passion of Kenton Moore. He’s very, very sad about the bubble-wrap hand he had to act against, and very, very excited to declare that when his grandchildren and their friends recently watched The Ark in Space they declared it “cool, man”. He also has a gem of a memory about Tom Baker, who would note down his blocking in rehearsals with a “scrubby old pencil” in a “child’s exercise” book. That seems very Tom.
The big question: Is it worth making room for The Ark in Space to appear twice in your DVD collection? This release is certainly nicely buffed up, but Tom’s visit to Belfast aside, none of the other additional features feel truly essential. In the game of Wirrn, lose or draw, this is a ‘lose’. More troubling still, over the next few months, the Doctor Who range continues to bring us more re-releases with The Aztecs, Inferno, The Green Death and The Visitation all scheduled. Granted, they’re going to town on the Hartnell story (flinging in the recently recovered episode of Galaxy 4), but there doesn’t seem to be a strong rationale behind the other three. Well, other than for BBC Worldwide to exploit dormant stock that’s already floating around out there. However, although they may be guilty of getting their mandibles into us juicy Doctor Who fans, the truth of the matter is, we’ll still buy these discs, won’t we? We must have it all! Our habits are too deeply set. We’re incorrigible… incorrigible.