PAUL ERICKSON &
'THE ARK' DVD (BBCDVD2957) RELEASED IN FEBRUARY 2011.
In the final days of Earth, the TARDIS lands on a massive spaceship carrying the last members of the human race to a new home beyond the solar system. The humans are not out of danger, however, as a deadly plague emerges from the most unlikely of sources: the common cold carried by the Doctor’s companion, Dodo.
Put on trial for their lives, the TARDIS crew must find a way to repair the damage they have unwittingly caused – and face up to the devastating consequences...
5TH MARCH 1966 - 26TH MARCH 1966
1. THE STEEL SKY 2. THE PLAGUE
3. THE RETURN 4. THE BOMB
If John Wiles could have picked one serial to survive as a monument to his tenure as Doctor Who’s producer, then surely The Ark would have been it. In a time of diminishing ratings and critical responses to match, this bold four-parter was the ideal illustration of the series’ pioneering spirit; reckless ambition; and good old-fashioned fearlessness. It’s not faultless, of course, but even today it’s still rather remarkable.
The Ark stands out from its peers for a number of reasons, but not all of them are favourable. Any story charged with giving Dodo her first televised outing has my sympathy, particularly when she suddenly decides that she’s not a brash northern lass but a callow, RP-spouting youth, but fortunately a number of other notable firsts take the sting out of her disastrous full debut. Supporting artists Michael Sheard and Roy Skeleton, both of whom would return time and again, each make their respective Doctor Who debuts, and – though it’s arguable that she actually wrote a word of the script – Lesley Scott’s credit as a co-writer sees the series net its first female author. Most notably of all though, The Ark is the first Doctor Who story to be comprised of two discrete two-parters, each with its own cast and (largely) self-contained story.
Paul Erickson’s two-fold script is a wonderfully clever and daring one. It’s ten million years in the future, and planet Earth is about to plunge into the sun. Its surviving life forms are housed aboard a colossal Ark, which is making a generational journey to a new home world, Refusis II. The first two episodes of the serial see the TARDIS crew encounter a morally-ambiguous group of human “Guardians” and their shaggy, monocular alien slaves - the Monoids - whom they unwittingly infect with a common cold that, after ten million years of evolution, they have no immunity to. After some suitably scientific shenanigans, matters are ultimately set right and the TARDIS departs – only to rematerialise on board the Ark again (though not in the same space, despite what the Doctor opines; the Ark has moved) around seven centuries later. The Ark has finally reached its destination, but the balance of power has shifted – the Monoids are no longer the oppressed, but the oppressors…
It’s a little plagiaristic, perhaps, but striking stuff nonetheless. And, say what you will about the Monoids, but I like ‘em. How many other alien races have a “security kitchen?” How many other races can waddle about splay-footed with eyes where their mouths should be and Beatles wigs, and still have the audacity to perpetuate themselves in huge, Tolkien-esque statues? The cliffhanger ending to Part 2 harbours one of the most enduring images of the series’ monochrome era, and that image just happens to be the pan up to the gargantuan stone head of the Monoid statue.
The serial also boasts some fine performances. Though visibly reeling from the death of the beloved Aunt who raised him, William Hartnell puts in one of his most endearing turns as the Doctor. Barely a line of dialogue that he utters here was in the script, but this only serves to improve the characterisation; to make it more first Doctorish. Peter Purves is also imposing, albeit in far more traditional ‘learn the script’ sort of way. Steven enjoys a gentle romance here, whilst finally laying the ghost of his pig-headed disbelief in The Time Meddler to rest by coming full circle and trying to convince the new companion that the TARDIS can really travel through time and space. Jackie Lane’s Dodo lets the side down a bit, sadly; it’s not Lane as such, just her irredeemably irritating character. Dodo is thick, opinionated, wears the most preposterous outfits and, best of all, nearly wipes out humanity in her first televised appearance. That’s got to be a record.
The bonus material on offer here is equal to the serial it complements. Range regular Toby Hadoke moderates an informative commentary track featuring Peter Purves and Michael Imison, the story’s director, both of whom have much to say about this story - particularly the latter, whose directorial career it ended!
The traditional ‘making of’ feature is veiled as Riverside Story, which purports to look at all the Doctor Who serials shot inside the eponymous elephant-filled studio’s (aptly) question mark-shaped frame. Inevitably though, the bulk of the run time focuses on the production of The Ark, which notably was the first Doctor Who serial ever to be recorded on a set-by-set basis, with the scenes being assembled into the correct order only at the editing stage. The format of the documentary is also something of a departure from the norm, with popular Big Finish writer Matthew Sweet conducting an open interview with Peter Purves, rather than the usual ‘show responses only’ method. Personally I welcome such an approach, particularly where there are only have a handful of contributors, as is the case here.
Sweet then heads a quorum of critics in the thirteen-minute All’s Well That Ends Wells. This fascinating featurette posits that Timelash had it the wrong way round – the Doctor didn’t inspire the works of HG Wells; the works of HG Wells inspired Doctor Who. The likes of Kim Newman (author of the Telos novella Time and Relative), literary editor Graham Sleight and Anthony Keen of the Open University discuss, one by one, each of the elements in Doctor Who and particularly The Ark that seem to have been inspired by Wells’ seminal scribblings. This was of tremendous interest to me as, whilst the influences of The War of the Worlds and especially The Time Machine have always seemed manifest, the more subtle nods to The Invisible Man and The Sleeper Awakes had passed me by. Even the Doctor’s anonymity being inspired by The Time Machine’s protagonist had somehow always eluded me.
Above: Sweet and Purves discuss the making of The Ark in Riverside Story
The disc’s final feature is the short and sweet One Hit Wonder, featuring prolific novelist and audio scriptwriter Jacqueline Rayner. This five-minute feature sees Rayner critique the Ark’s often-mocked villains, the Monoids, whom she resurrected many years later for the Bernice Summerfield audio drama Kingdom of the Blind. It’s a fun little frolic that does an admirable job of looking at why the Monoids were “meant to terrify you, but never quite did.”
Overall then, The Ark is a stimulating story that still stands out today. It’s not always for the right reasons, I’ll grant you, but when it works, it works brilliantly. Its DVD does a sterling job of summing up such sentiments, whilst also offering rare insight into a production that, even in its day, was something out of the ordinary.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2011
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work
Set ten million years in Dodo’s future, this story sees the Earth hurtling towards the Sun, trailing smoke as it goes. This pre-dates its destruction as depicted in The End of the World countless billions of years later – an incongruity that the series has yet to resolve.
Some posit that the Earth isn’t destroyed in this story – it is saved before it collides with the Sun (Journey’s End has shown us just how easy it is to drag planets all over the cosmos. All you need is a TARDIS and the inclination, and we all know who’s got both) – whereas others take the view that the cataclysmic Last Great Time War overwrote certain key historical events, the destruction of Earth (and thus the future of the human race from 10,001,965 onwards) amongst them. Another possibility is that the people of the Ark were duped, and that the images seen on the screen were nothing more than an illusion. A third is that this Earth goes on to become “Ravalox” - the scorched, runaway Earth featured in The Mysterious Planet episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord - which is then later restored by the Time Lords and put back in our solar system.
Given that a date of around 10001965 seems far too soon for Earth to meet its doom, and that the appealing Ravalox theory isn’t easily reconciled with the 2000000 date suggested on screen for The Mysterious Planet (which, admittedly, isn’t concrete, given the general unreliability of Old Sixy’s grandiloquent bluster), a last minute reprieve for the planet or some form of trickery seem the most plausible explanations for this foul-up (albeit the least satisfying).
Thanks to Chris McKeon
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