FROM A STORY BY
'THE ARK IN SPACE' SPECIAL EDITION DVD (BBCDVD3672) RELEASED IN FEBRUARY 2013.
The TARDIS lands on a space station orbiting the earth in the distant future. It’s seemingly deserted, but the Doctor, Sarah and Harry soon discover that they are not alone. Thousands of humans – the only survivors of the human race - are in cryogenic sleep, and while they’ve slept their Ark has been invaded. A parasitic insect race – the Wirrn – have taken control and threaten the very future of mankind…
The Ark in Space
25TH JANUARY 1975 - 15TH FEBRUARY 1975
As 2 | entertain’s supply of Doctor Who stories as yet unreleased on DVD has dwindled, the frequency of their revisitations has increased, meaning that it was only a matter of time before The Ark in Space was afforded the ‘special edition’ treatment that it so clearly deserves. Whilst this highly-regarded serial’s original 2002 release was duly impressive for its time, even boasting an alternative version of the remastered episodes in which the rickety model shots of the eponymous Ark were replaced by CGI, its dearth of substantive bonus material now appears woeful given the flood of fantastic features and dazzling documentaries that accompany even most middle-of-the-road stories these days - and The Ark in Space is certainly a cut above “middle-of-the-road”; some even view it as one of the greatest stories of the Tom Baker era, if not all time, despite the scarf-wrapped Bohemian having only six episodes under his belt when he shot it.
Above: The washed-out Wirrn of television versus an ill-lit Wirrn - which is scarier?
My own view on The Ark in Space is somewhat less soaring than most’s; whilst I appreciate its floodlit claustrophobia, its razor-sharp Robert Holmes dialogue, and even its grim and compelling subject matter (Noah’s horrifying dehumanisation especially), I’ve always felt that the serial is let down by poor pacing and (even when compared to its peers) poor production standards. Fair enough, it’s easy to knock the notorious bubble-wrapped, Fairy-drenched hand and Zarbi-league Wirrn – but then again, it would have been just as easy to reduce the lighting throughout the story, in one fell swoop heightening the fear factor and glossing over any cosmetic shortcomings in the props. Fortunately the serial’s flaws are ably made up by the new TARDIS’s crew electric rapport – the Doctor’s near-bullying of Harry is a particular joy to behold – and the sheer gravitas of Tom Baker’s performance, typified in his famous “Homo sapiens…” soliloquy, which still gives me a chill.
Above: The model Ark of 1975 versus the CG Ark of 2002
The special edition release includes all four episodes of the serial as they were transmitted back in January 1975, duly remastered, as well as the popular 2002 CG-enhanced edition and a previously-unreleased seventy-minute omnibus edition of the story, originally broadcast on 20th August 1975. As I was still a nipper when the classic series met its end, I saw most Doctor Who serials for the first time when they were broadcast on Sunday mornings on UK Gold in a similar format, and I still enjoy watching them this way when the opportunity presents itself, particularly when a lot of the fat is trimmed as it is here (the Genesis of the Daleks soundtrack is one of the most intense eighty minutes of Who out there, even by today’s sprinting Davies / Moffat standards). However, I get the impression that this repeat compilation was thrown into the mix fairly late in the day as it is presented here unrestored, and boy does it show. With viewers given the option of not only a stunning remaster but one that boasts CGI too, I fear that this little archive treasure is destined to be skipped over by the majority of viewers.
The most notable addition to the story’s existing assemblage of special features though is the retrospective documentary, A New Frontier, which charts the making and reception of the story through a medley of pleasingly-woven interviews and clips. Sadly, as with many DVDs that represent this era, Tom Baker himself doesn’t contribute to the programme, and, even sadder still, neither Lis Sladen nor Ian Marter could. This is compensated for though through the musings of those such as esteemed Dalek voice artist and Big Finish everything Nicholas Briggs, who was just a child when The Ark in Space first aired. I find that it’s often more stimulating to see modern Doctor Who writers dissect the stories that influenced them than it is to hear tales of ten o’clock tension on the studio floor recounted, decades after the event.
Besides, the absence of Baker and Sladen from the documentary isn’t felt quite so keenly as it might have been thanks to this release’s retention of their rumpus commentary track from the 2002 edition, recorded alongside their erstwhile producer, Philip Hinchcliffe. Baker is nought short of uproarious once he gets into his stride, particularly when discussing his mooted autobiography, All Friends Betrayed, and Hinchcliffe is almost as amusing when trying to pass off bubble-wrap as something new and radical. I’m not an expert on the hows and whens of bubble-wrap’s first appearance on the UK market, but even if it wasn’t commonplace in 1975, offering a defence for the infamous bubble-wrapped hand only serves to highlight its cruel absurdity further.
Above: Kenton Moore (Noah) discusses washing-up liquid and bubble-wrap in A New Frontier
The most exciting feature by far though is Dr Forever! - Love and War, which provides a long-awaited overview of Who fiction during the show’s hiatus. As a keen follower of Who literature - good, bad and ugly -, I’ve been hoping for a programme like this ever since the Doctor’s comic strips were put under the microscope, and for the most part it doesn’t disappoint. The DVD producers really chose their contributors well, particularly those called upon to discuss the Virgin era - here you’ll find the likes of Mark Gatiss (author of the brilliantly-brooding Nightshade and the admittedly-awful St Anthony’s Fire), Paul Cornell (arguably the greatest Doctor Who novelist, book for book) and Russell T Davies (the little-known Welsh screenwriter who penned the contentious Damaged Goods, set on a council estate and featuring a family called the Tylers) not only discussing their personal experiences of writing for the New Adventures, but frankly appraising the quality (and tone) of the range from a contemporary standpoint. It seems that some still harbour a great fondness for the range and its often mature themes, whereas others breathed a sigh of relief when Virgin launched its much more traditional Missing Adventures range and they never had to try and shoehorn a gratuitous sex scene into one of their novels ever again.
Despite having to cover a lot of ground in very little time, the programme reveals all sorts of titbits that I would imagine most DVDgoers are ignorant of - me amongst them. Did you know that BBC Books wanted to reprint Damaged Goods to tie in with its author’s revival of the television series in 2005? That would have been, um, interesting, to say the least. Or that many of BBC Books’ writers had as much trouble keeping up with the paradox-riddled eighth Doctor’s story arcs as its readers did? Or that the Beeb were barely breaking even on their publishing costs by the time that the ‘Past Doctor’ range fizzled out in 2005? It’s a great shame that Love and War couldn’t have been presented a series in its own right, in the Stripped for Action mould, as there’s clearly enough fodder here to fuel a couple of hours’ worth of top-notch telly.
Above: Dr Forever, as not seen on BBC TV...
The rest of the new bonus features are far more fleeting and far less enjoyable, but are still ideal for getting oneself into the spirit. Tom Baker’s public appearances in Northern Ireland as shown on the news, and especially his in-character plug for the Blackpool Exhibition, are sure to drag those who lived through the 1970s back into them with the proficiency of a Sam Tyler road traffic collision; ditto the 8mm location footage from Robot. Combine these redolent throwaways with the unused Season 11-style title sequence, painfully-dated BBC One trailer and full-length Roger Murray-Leech interview included on the original release (the most salient points from which are rehearsed in A New Frontier), and you have one of the most exhaustive special editions released thus far. All that’s been omitted from the 2002 release is the Wookey Hole interview, which I think I remember being reallocated to the Revenge of the Cybermen DVD, where of course it sits better.
I wonder if, as he sat frantically trying to rewrite John Lucarotti’s script (which itself had been borne out of the ashes of Christopher Langley’s abandoned Space Station), Robert Holmes realised that he was writing a script that would prove so popular that it would not only be chosen as the second serial to represent the fourth Doctor’s era on DVD, but one of the first to see release twice? Whether he did or not, it’s another feather in The Ark in Space’s already burgeoning cap.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006, 2013
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