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Show: Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode:  The Steel Sky
Review by: Michael Hickerson
Years ago, when I first started watching Who, my local TV Guide mixed up the Ark and the Ark in Space in the TV listings, thus making me think that my local station was bestowing this Tom Baker story upon us out of order and for no good reason. (I'd only just started watching Who and was eager to see Ark in Space). I have to admit to being sorely disappointed when I tuned it only to see the black and white Hartnell logos starting up on my screen and not the much-loved Tom Baker opening credits. It was pretty much all downhill after that for me with the Ark, which I quickly decided was one of the worst Who stories I'd ever seen and not one that I was in any great rush to watch again.

And so, I come back to the Ark, years later, my impressions of the story still a bit tainted by that initial disappointment. (Come on--how many of you can't tell me you wouldn't rather watch Ark in Space than this one?)

But this time around, I honestly tried to go in with an open mind. It can't be as bad as I remember, I thought. This, despite the fact that I've used my old, beat-up PBS taped copy of the story for years to help cure insomnia. (I'm not kidding on this one folks. For some reason, this story is vaguely soothing and puts me right to sleep fifteen or so minutes in, should sleep be prvoing elusive). For that alone, I should be grateful. This time around, I was determined to see the entire story--though not all in one giant gulp, mind you.

And so, with my commercially released copy, I sat down, determined to give the Ark a fresh chance and not to use it as a cheaper form of Sominex. And this time around, I'd love to say the story finally clicked and I was stunned by the depth, intelligence, wit and all-around classic status of the story.

Unfortunately, that didn't really happen.

What did happen was that the story actually went up a few points in my estimation. Oh, I'll give you that the first two episodes are slow moving at best and that the entire story moves at a rather lethargical pace, but this time around, I found some interesting ideas lurking there just beneath the surface. The most interesting was the morality of the story--namely that early on we see the Monoids as a slave race and no one bats an eye, but it's only when they've subjegated humanity that we get really enraged about the whole thing. It's an interesting concept and one that is certainly there undergirding the story. Also, the idea that a simple cold could wreak such havoc in a society and seeing the Doctor and company affect far-flung history in such a way is certainly a novel enough idea.

But it's the packaging that matters the most--and no matter how hard I tried, the packaging just doesn't hold this story together all that well. The Monoids are your typical Hartnell era man in a rubber suit and not much more. Yes, they get their chance in the sun as the evil alien race who overthrows humanity, but they are never very well realized. At first, they are mute aliens who could possibly be telepathic (a story thread that's hinted at early, but is dropped quickly) and then they're basically little more than Daleks with one big eye and heat guns. All you're missing is a catch-phrase like "Exterminate" really. Indeed, in the final two episodes when we're supposed to have two groups of Monoids fighting one another, I rapidly lose track of just who is on whose side, simply because the Monoids aren't really made distinctive enough from each other to really follow the civil unrest, or to really care that much about how it's unfolding on screen.

The final two episodes feature some lazy script-writing as well. There's too much deux-ex-machina, with the Refusians being all powerful as needed. The idea that they can push the giant statue out the airlock in the final moments seems more like a desparation of the script to wrap things up rather than actually being foreshadowed or set up early in the story. Also, the concept that the Earth people might not contact or try to contact the Refusians is just ridicious in the extreme.

You've also got to add in some rather sub-part acting by the guest cast. The entire rank and file of humanity is rather one-note and it gets old rather quickly. Part of this is the script, but part of this falls firmly at the feet of the actors, who all seem rather tired and can't really make the lines rise above and become something more. I will admit that Harntell does a pretty good job here and Peter Perves delivers another fine performance as Stephen (so much so that I am starting to think of him as a severelly underrated male companion). But Dodo is a bit grating at times. It's easy to see why the production team gave her an early exit from the series since she is rather annoying here and never really gels with the other regular cast members.

Now, I know there are those of you who will bring up the technical merits of the Ark and I've got to admit those are good. Seeing live animals on a Who set works well and the giant statue is nicely realized. That said, the rest of it bores me. There are times when it becomes intrusive, like during the trial when cut back to the Ark's leader, offering his commentary on the situation. It feels too much like the directing is trying too hard to be brilliant and not really achieving that goal.

So, despite the few good things that jumped out at me viewing the Ark this time, I've still got to say it was disappointing over all. Sure it's not the travesty that is the Web Planet or the Gunfighters. But it's still not improved enough in my estimation than to be anything more than a story I will revisit only when I'm in the mood for Hartnell and have seen most of his other better stuff or when I need that late night insomnia cure.
Last Updated: 2/13/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
1) The Celestial Toymaker (Updated: 10/25/2006)
2) The Parting of the Ways (Updated: 11/15/2006)
3) The Ultimate Foe (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
4) Colony in Space (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
5) Paradise Towers (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
6) The Web Planet (Updated: 10/25/2006)
7) The Happiness Patrol (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
8) The Hand of Fear (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
9) Vengeance on Varos (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
10) The Tenth Planet (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
11) Terror of the Vervoids (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
12) The Brain of Morbius (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
13) Time-Flight (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
14) Spearhead from Space (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
15) Caves of Androzani (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
16) The Curse of Fenric (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
17) The Gunfighters (Updated: 10/25/2006)
18) Aliens of London (Updated: 10/25/2006)
19) World War Three (Updated: 10/25/2006)
20) Dalek (Updated: 11/15/2006)
21) City of Death (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
22) The War Machines (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
23) Boom Town (Updated: 10/25/2006)
24) The Ark in Space (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
25) Mindwarp (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
26) The Massacre (Updated: 10/25/2006)
27) The Mysterious Planet (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
28) The Pyramids of Mars (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
29) The Rescue (Updated: 10/25/2006)
30) Planet of Fire (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
31) Full Circle (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
32) Mawdryn Undead (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
33) The Two Doctors (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
34) The Myth Makers (Updated: 10/25/2006)
35) Attack of the Cybermen (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
36) An Unearthly Child (Updated: 10/25/2006)
37) Underworld (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
38) Timelash (Part 1) (Updated: 10/25/2006)
39) The Steel Sky (Updated: 2/13/2006)
40) Invasion (Part 1) (Updated: 2/14/2006)
41) Delta and the Bannermen (Part 1) (Updated: 2/20/2006)
42) Tomb of the Cybermen (Part 1) (Updated: 3/1/2006)
43) The Daemons (Part 1) (Updated: 3/2/2006)
44) Terror of the Zygons (Part 1) (Updated: 3/3/2006)
45) The Day of the Daleks (Part 1) (Updated: 3/13/2006)
46) New Earth (Updated: 4/20/2006)
47) Tooth and Claw (Updated: 4/27/2006)
48) The Idiot's Lantern (Updated: 5/31/2006)
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