Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Ark written by Paul Erickson & Lesley Scott and directed by Michael Imison

This story in a nutshell: The human race are teeny weeny and shoved in a filing cabinet, the Earth is being barbecued and the exodus to another world is under threat by the flat footed, mop top Monoids.

Gruff Granddad: The Doctor is already treating Dodo like his latest surrogate granddaughter and telling her that he will soon get her ‘off to bed!’ I loved his hilarious aside that he couldn’t get her home even if he wanted to. Nowadays this sort of instant connection would be a little suspect but it is clear that Dodo is supposed to step into Susan and Vicki's shoes without any kind of developmental stages. I hooted when it suddenly occurred to the Doctor that he might have been spreading all manner of diseases across time and space! Once this crisis is over the Doctor plans to teach Dodo some English but let's be honest he has to fix down where exactly she comes from first before he can start correcting her. He is portrayed as an intelligent scientist and a real optimist, no matter how desperate the situation looks(although he admits he is a bit of a quack), and can you think of a better example of his authority and benevolence than when he marches out to tell the Guardians that the illness is cured. Hartnell has plenty of opportunity for indignant lapel clutching during The Ark and chatting with invisible aliens is no struggle to an actor of his calbre (a ruthless person might comment that he has already had plenty of practice with a character as vacuous as Dodo).  He's still got wits, commenting that he hasn't seen anybody when the Monoids ask him if he has communicated with the Refusians. I found it quite pleasing that the Doctor condemns the human race at the end of the story for enslaving the Monoids and suggesting that perhaps they deserved a touch of their own treatment. Of all the Doctors, a scathing analysis from Hartnell seems to hit home the most (see also The Savages).

Butch Cassidy: Steven treats Dodo like a naughty child, admonishing her for jumping out of the TARDIS without any of the atmosphere checks being completed. He seems quite a nervous, twitchy sort of time traveller and suffers a bout of claustrophobia when he is locked up. When you think of his origins, being locked up by the Mechanoids for years, it makes perfect sense. The look on Peter Purves’ face when he first spies the Monoids says everything you could possibly say about their design without uttering a word. Steven is like an ambassador for the show, explaining away the TARDIS, defending his friends when they are imprisoned and refusing to be intimidated. He might be quite single minded and aggressive but he's exactly the sort I would want looking out for me if I were travelling into these hostile scenarios. Sweaty, teeth clenched and offering an angry defence, Purves lights up the screen when he is put on trial. Given that so much of his material no longer exists it is easy to forget how good he was in this role. And this is nowhere near his best story. He shows decent leadership skills once he has set the prisoner free on the Ark and paves the way for his eventual decision to leave in the Savages.

Dead as a…: I’m on the fence with Dodo’s portrayal in The Ark since for the most part she is scripted with some care (and not a little humour) but Jackie Lane is as static as a skyscraper and sabotages a lot of the effort the writers have gone to make this extremely odd stowaway work. When she first steps from the TARDIS she thinks she is in Whipsnade zoo! That still doesn't explain how she there from Wimbledon Common by walking through a door. Her dialogue delivery is appalling: ‘Earth! Earth!’ she hoots like a talking doll during a power surge. ‘Ere look at ‘im then?’ she enthuses about the Elephant suddenly slipping into cockney. At least the Doctor notices that she speaks the most irritating form of English - had he said nebulous he would have been spot on. I hate sneezing as a plot device; its such a lazy motif to point intruders out and it doesn't surprise me that a character as unfortunate as Dodo suffers from it. ‘No me nose is running!’ – I actually laughed out loud at that line. Dodo tries to sound hip on quite a few occasions but she is too posh to make it sound convincing. The series has much better luck with Polly in that regard. It’s very sweet when she grabs the Doctor’s hand as things go from bad to worse. Proving she has as much spunk as any of the Doctor Who companions Dodo screams ‘what’s it got to do with you?’ to the Monoid leader but considering they aren't the most intimidating of creations (no matter what the script says) perhaps it isn't all that brave. It strikes me that some of the least popular companions are responsible for some the planets most catastrophic disasters. Dodo causes the enslavement of humanity in this adventure by passing on her common cold which is right up there with Adric wiping out the dinosaurs. When Dodo asks why they can’t just jump on the slow Monoids it is actually a very good point! At least her style is memorable, she turns up at the conclusion in some pretty outlandish clothing.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You still fear the unknown like everyone else before you.’

The Good Stuff: This is being assembled by a director who is thinking big from the off. The opening is lavish and exotic, panning through a dense mist swathed forest packed with exotic wildlife (everything from a chameleon to a toucan to a snake dripping from a tree). The Monoids talking in sign is typical of the unusual approach to the telling of this story. The designers during the sixties did not let the fact that they were working in cramped studios hold back their ambition and I think the steel sky backdrop is one of the most impressive of its kind - it genuinely makes the set look vast and unending. The idea of miniaturising the prisoners seems a pretty cold and bloodless way to do things, you are effectively shoving these people in prison and tucking them away so nobody else has to bother dealing with them. I thought the effect was pretty nifty too, this is the sort of thing I would expect sixties television to cut away from rather than attempting to realise. I would go as far as to say that despite lacking the clinical believability of the cryogenic chamber, The Ark creates a more successful visual representation of humanity heading out for the stars in a massive conservation project than The Ark in Space. The waltz through the on board jungle reveals an African Elephant. A jungle without a sky once again sees season three telling stories bursting with imagination and enterprise  a city-sized spaceship with a jungle at its heart is reused many years later in Flesh and Stone but as usual the sixties got their first. The Earth is being threatened by the sun and the exodus to a new planet will take a stonking 700 years, thus the majority of the population has been miniaturised – this story is not afraid to play about with some substantial ideas. Whilst it is clear that the giant foot that Dodo attempts to scratch is all the designers could afford the build it is enough to sell the idea of the giant statue which the model work successfully takes over from. There is some good, dramatic mileage in the idea that the common cold could wreck havoc amongst a society that no longer has any immunity to germs - it allows us to look at these adventures into the future in a fresh, dramatic way. The Commander might need a few more attempts to make his deathbed speech sound convincing but he is such a lovable old get he gets a pass anyway. I like how the second episode takes a serious turn into courtroom territory, suddenly it feels as though our heroes are the victims of a witch hunt. If you squint you can just about see Platform One in the background as the Earth goes up in smoke! The Ark never stops telling its science fiction tale in unusual ways. It disguises itself as a two part story with the Doctor and chums saving the day and heading off into time and space only for them to return 700 years later. It is a unique approach and it results in one of the finest cliffhangers of the era when the statue is revealed in its entirety, crowned by a Monoid mop top. I could do with some instant potatoes and chicken, the sooner this innovation is brought to life the better off we'll all be. The Monoids might look ludicrous but they sure pack away some impressive weaponry (I'd love one of those smoke guns). We've met a fair number of benevolent aliens in the Hartnell era (the Thals, the Sensorites, the Menoptera) but this is the first time they have been quite as generous as building an entire custom made city for humanity to live in.  Weeee…I love those little corks flying towards the planet (its especially nice that the story doesn’t shy away from attempting to visualise its grand concepts). The statue tipping from the airlock and exploding in space is a grandiose ending to a grandiose story. The show loved hooking the viewer in with a cliffhanger ending at the climax to every story and the Doctor vanishing into thin air much to the bemusement of his companions certainly had me intrigued.

The Bad Stuff: The Monoid costumes are…memorable to say the least. It looks as though Paul McCartney has been mutated with a flipper footed Voord which has attempted to breed with a cyclops. Whilst the direction is generally excellent, the execution is occasionally stilted in a way that most sixties television suffers. Check out the scene where the Doctor starts explaining about his travels…the camera shifts onto two guardians and then swings back to Hartnell saying ‘and the Daleks!’ as though he has been talking all along (when he audibly hasn’t). Future tales seem to bring out the ham in most actors and some of the performances are seriously stagy - something about the science fiction tales seems to encourage the actors of the day to jettison believability and embrace the superficial. The Gunfighters might be cursed with some dodgy American accents but the performances are far more relaxed and authentic than this bunch. This story redefines comedy campery when the Monoids finally manage to speak and for some bizarre reason they start to gesture even more emphatically than when they were mute! ‘Are you up to something?’ ‘Errrrmmm….no!’ – this exchange between Dodo and Monoid Two must be one of the most priceless moments in Doctor Who history.  The appearance (or not) of invisible aliens leads me to wonder if the budget has been sapped by the expensive looking first half. Like the Ood it would appear that the budget will only stretch to one Monoid having malleable features and as such he overcompensates for the others with his extreme psychotic swiveling eye. Spoiling the illusion, the steel sky cloth flutters wildly in episode four. The Monoid civil war will hardly go down as one of the more memorable revolutions in the show, it is about as dynamic as you can imagine for a race of creatures that can't even walk in a straight line. You'll have trouble telling them apart as they hide amongst the trees and waddle about like militant penguins.

The Shallow Bit: Why are future fashions so gauche? I've decided that I might give the future a miss if the fashions are anything to go by. Nappies are sported in The Dominators, spray on plastic in The Ice Warriors, boiler suits are all the rage in Ressurection of the Daleks and tinfoil is the material of choice in The Twin Dilemma! The togas on display in The Ark leave very little to the imagination which is especially disturbing when they barely covering the apparatus of wrinkly old men.

Result: Featuring some real avant-garde scene setting, The Ark is one of the most enterprising Hartnell tales (and that is against some stiff competition) and to give the director some credit he manages to go some way towards realising the serials ambitious ideas. It all starts promisingly with a startlingly innovative first episode but as the story progresses each successive installment starts to bleed away imagination and go for more tradition ideas (alien invasion, invisible aliens). On screen and given a more impressive budget this would blow you away with its aspiring ideas but forced into a tiny studio with the resources of the BBC to hand it comes across as being far more stagy than it should. Which is shame because the script is pacy, the visuals are generally quite imaginative and the regulars all get plenty to do. Irritatingly the Monoids go from being an intriguing slave race offering a potentially unattractive peek at humanity of the future to an embarrassing and incompetent race of conquerors. Their design is never fantastic but it is weird how much more you expect from the designers when the aliens they are creating are supposed to be scary (for example, docile Alpha Centuri gets a pass where the villanous Nucleus of the Swarm doesn't). There are plenty of great moments for Hartnell and Purves and whilst Jackie Lane was never going to be the worlds most gifted actress she at least approaches the part with some enthusiasm, even if Dodo is made out of pure cardboard. The Ark isn’t perfect but it really tries and succeeds as a technically accomplished if overly earnest slice of hard SF. It's trying, and that's good enough for me: 7/10

1 comment:

Anthony Pirtle said...

The biggest problem I have with The Ark is that the humans and the Monoids both seem pretty terrible. Quite apart from having treated the Monoids as second class (though there's almost no evidence of this), the humans are portrayed as quite keen on taking another species' homeworld against their will. Meanwhile, the Monoids are just cartoonishly evil. They might as well have mustaches to twirl. Honestly, I really couldn't be bothered to worry about the ultimate fate of either people.