Shows - Review
Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode: The Ark in Space (Part 1)
Review by: Michael Hickerson
Without a doubt, Robert Holmes was the best writer in all of Doctor Who history. Over the course of 20 plus years, Holmes delivered some of the finest, most challenging, most entertaining and most tightly plotted scripts in the show's history. Sure he had the occasional story that didn't quite meet his standards of excellence (Power of Kroll, anyone? but I'd take the worst Holmes story over the best Pip and Jane Baker story any day.
Which is why it's not overly shocking that of the first half dozen or so BBC releases, Robert Holmes is the author of about half of them. His stories are, simply put, accepted classics of Doctor Who--from any era.
"The Ark in Space" is no exception to that rule.
On paper, it should had the odds stacked against it--new Doctor, last minute addition to the season line-up, an actor who was hurt on location while filming the next story, etc. But somehow Holmes takes all of these negatives and manages to make you forget the limitations of the story and instead concentrate on the strengths of the story as a whole. As I constantly tell Who detractors--it's not the effects that are special in Doctor Who, it's the stories.
And "The Ark in Space" is one of those special stories.
The premise itself is pretty simple--it's the isolate group of humans under siege from an outside force that was so popular in Troughton's era. But Holmes adds his own unique twist to that--this time it's the last remnants of humanity, struggling and fighting for not only their survival but also the survival of the human species. And that is an interesting dilemma for the Doctor, Sarah and Harry to step into. But it's also interesting because Holmes makes an interesting choice with his "ugly" monsters and their motivation. They wish only to survive as well--indeed, their entire method of operation is designed to ensure the survival of their race, after humanity came and pillaged their world. Yes, the Wirrin are the big ugly monster, but they're a big ugly monster with a motivation that is easy to understand and, frighteningly enough, very similar to the small band of humans that we're rooting for.
Due to a strike at ITV, "The Ark in Space" garnered huge ratings at the time and pretty much solidified Tom Baker's reign as the fourth Doctor. It was one of those happy accidents for the show, but I've got to think it was a happy accident for the viewers as well. After all, they were being treated to one of the great Who stories in what is, overall, a strong season.
The TARDIS crew has all settled into their roles. After a bit of growing into the role in "Robot," Tom Baker steps up and really inhabits the role of the Doctor. Baker does wonders in the role, both keeping the new Doctor accessible and loveable to audiences but also giving an air of alienness as well. Several scenes jump out--including the Doctor's chiding of Sarah in the ducts to speech about the indomindable power of human beings to survive. Baker has the perfect blend of humor and seriousness to give the role a great deal of weight and watching him here, it's easy to see why so many choose him as their favorite Doctor of all time. But the supporting cast are no slouches either. Kenton Moore as Noah, the leader of the Ark, who becomes infect by the Wirrin is also superb. Yes, there are times he goes over the top a bit, but he has to and he does so in convincing fashion. It's never too much or too little, but he gives the right amount. This is especially chilling when we see Noah's slowly being taken over by the Wirrin and confronting Vira. The change from raving mad man to being part of the group mind of the Wirrin is chillingly and convincingly done.
Of course, the story itself isn't without a few internal logic problems--the biggest being that when the TARDIS initially materializes on board the station and it's determined that air is at a premium, why does Sarah Jane keep burning her lamp, thus using up the oxygen that much quicker? But these are small, relatively minor things and in no way deter from the overall enjoyment of the stories.
As for the DVD release, it's up to the usual BBC standards of excellence. (Indeed, the suits over at Paramount could learn a thing or two from what the BBC is doing with each of the Who releases). First up, it looks and sounds great. Compare this to the old video releases (made especially easy by the U.S. inclusion of the DeSilva intros which have not been cleaned up) and the difference is like night and day. I imagine Who has never looked or sounded better--even the rather cheesy model shots of the Ark itself.
Which, if those make you cringe, the DVD offers you a new choice. It gives you the chance to see newly created CGI footage for some of the space sequences of the Ark. It's a pretty good alternative and, yes, it looks nice, but I have to say after seeing both I kind of like the old, cheesy models. Something about 70s Who just screams out cheesy models to me. (Again, it's all about the stories, not the special effects).
The interviews work well, though the Tom Baker interview is taken from while he was filming Revenge of the Cybermen. However, since there's a wealth of other stories I'd rather see out on DVD BEFORE we get Revenge, I'm happy to see it included here and not saved for later. The real gem interview is with the designer, Roger Murray-Leach, who discusses not only his work here but also work he did on other Who stories. His interviews are engaging and entertaining and I even managed to learn some new things about Doctor Who, which having watched the show for years and read a lot of material on the subject is always a nice surprise.
But the real extra that most of us are buying the DVDs for is-the commentary. This time around we get the Doctor himself, Tom Baker along with Liz Sladen and producer Phillip Hinchcliffe. It's not the best commentary I've heard on the series yet, but it's not the worst either. The commentary itself fully supports my contention that you should have at least one person from in front of the camera commenting as well as one person from behind the scenes-otherwise it gets to be a remembrance of "wasn't it jolly to work with so-and-so?" or into long lapses as there's not much to technically explain. Baker does a nice job, though it takes him a while to warm up what he's doing. But once he does, he takes center stage and really runs with it. Also, Sladen does well and we learn some interesting things about her time on the show and her reaction to the story itself. Again, this is not a definitive commentary, but it's still good. Watch it with the commentary text on and it will give you some great new insight into the Doctor Who as show.
As for the rest, it's there. A lot of it is-well, let's look at this once and then never see it again. I can see watching the commentary again and I might look at the trailers again if I get curious. But otherwise, the actor bios and character info isn't necessarily useful nor are the stills all the Earth shattering. Again, it's fun to explore once but not necessarily a repeat-viewing type of thing.
But that's not a bad thing, simply because Ark in Space as a story is just a pure delight. Indeed, this is one of those Who stories you can watch again and again. I may not revisit the DVD time and again for the extras, but I sure will be revisiting it for one of the true classics of the 4th Doctor's era.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
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