Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Doctor Who - The Ark In Space

The Way We Wirrn

Doctor Who - The Ark In Space
UK Air date: January - February 1975 Four Episodes.
BBC Blu Ray Zone 0

The Ark In Space was the second of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who stories to be broadcast, following on from his debut as the character in Robot (reviewed here). Already he seems very comfortable in the role and you can kind of tell from the on-screen chemistry that he really got on well with his two co-stars at the time, the companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen, continuing on, in Robot, from her first series in the role opposite Jon Pertwee) and Harry Sullivan (who joined the two for the previous story, played with great fun by Ian Marter). In fact, Ian Marter also wrote the Target novelisation of the story which was so popular at the time.

The plot is about the TARDIS landing on Space Station Nerva, many centuries ahead of our present time, where the last traces of mankind are in suspended animation and waiting for the Earth to become inhabitable again before recolonising it.

You may perhaps suspect, as do I, that Douglas Adams kind of half cribbed this idea for the ‘Golgafrinchans’ in the sixth episode of the first series of his famous radio show, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy... being as he was somewhat associated with writing for Doctor Who himself on occasion. That and The Bible, of course. However, where the crew of Mr. Adam’s ark were all the incompetents who then accidentally end up populating the planet Earth gazillions of years in our past, the few specimens of humanity already awake in The Ark in Space are reasonably intelligent but, alas, they are stuck in a craft which has been invaded by a race of space bugs called the Wirrn. The arachnid-like creatures have laid eggs which will soon be hatching to eat and absorb the knowledge of the last humans alive, before recolonising Earth with their own kind.

Which, obviously, is a problem for everybody. Well, everybody human, I guess.

The sets are cheap, being as it’s all set in the one Space Station and, as you’ll find out in another of my reviews (later this year) the set will be reused again in this same series, with a story twist which makes excellent use of the budgetary limitations.

The special effects are also cheap, it has to be said, with a still photograph of some stars and a plastic spaceship dangled in front of it to set the scene. Start as you mean to go on, I guess... this is not unusual for this show. The Wirrn creatures are quite a nice design but somewhat too childish and lifeless to produce the desired horror effect (even when I was a seven year old, watching this when it first aired). When the ‘operators’ try to make them walk it’s not far removed from somebody bouncing them up and down on a bit of string, to be honest.

Ditto for the laughable special effects in terms of the part of the story which is somewhat ‘inspired’, I would have to say, from the original serial The Quatermass Experiment (I review the movie remake of that one here). When the captain of the ship is stung by a Wirrn larvae, he starts transforming into one himself. Did I mention the Wirrn larvae is some guy or gal wrapped in a blanket, crawling along and further bundled up in bubble wrap? So I guess, in a way, it makes sense that when the Captain reveals his hand just like Victor Caroon did, more effectively all those years ago, it should also be wrapped in green coloured bubble wrap. And not a snap, crackle or pop to be heard.

And it’s a story which is, perhaps, a little too long at four episodes for the idea (it would have made a nice extended episode for one of the more modern Doctor Who actors, I think) but, the writers do find things for the main protagonists and the small crew of Nerva to do, involving dodging and deactivating the station’s own defence mechanisms, teleport machines, shenanigans with electrical cables and an ‘oxygen crisis’. So it does move along a bit and doesn’t really have time to get dull at all. And it also has the famous scene where Sarah Jane is stuck in a ventilation shaft and the Doctor hurls male chauvinist insults at her to play on her feminist nature, ensuring she’s angry enough at him to squeeze herself through the narrow tunnel to have a go at him. It’s classic Who and one can’t help but smile as the story unfolds.

And, of course, after the Doctor saves the day, we have an unusual ending with the show going right back to the Troughton days as it leaves it on something of a... well not a cliff hanger but a lead in to the next story. Instead of departing via the TARDIS, something is needed from Earth to ensure that Nerva is able to fulfil its purpose... so The Doctor, Sarah and Harry all exit the ship by dematerialising in a teleportation chamber, leaving the TARDIS on ‘the Ark’, to fetch the required implement from Earth. And I remember this first season has some very unusual ways of getting the characters into the settings of each story so... I just need to revisit them again soon as part of this Series 12 Blu Ray box set and give my memory a joggle. If unjoggled memory serves, the next three stories in the series, which take us through to the end of the season, all have returning villains from Doctor Who history. One set of monsters who had only made their debut in the previous series (and who are still going very strong today) would be followed by two very classic monsters in the next couple of stories after that... although one of them would meet Tom Baker’s Doctor only once, not returning again before the character’s next incarnation.

So, there you are... The Ark In Space is a classic story from Tom Baker’s first season and there’s much to be recommended in it. Next stop, the two parter The Sontaran Experiment... which I don’t have many memories of at all, for some reason.

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