This story in a nutshell: Humanity is bottle away in an ark in space and it is about to get a long overdue alarm call…
Even when he is trying to desperately figure a way to bring the oxygen back on the Doctor cannot help but sniff out a mystery (‘these cables have been sheered clean through!’). It is hard not to warm to the Doctor and Harry (both new boys) when they are seen shuffling under a table together with their asses sticking in the air. The Auto Guard sequence could just be to grown men cowering under a table but Baker plays the danger so intensely that you never forget that they are in the most terrible of danger. Harry’s apparent increase in intelligence is entirely due to his influence. The difference between the third and fourth Doctor’s is never more apparent than during Baker’s ‘indomitable’ speech. The Doctor has rarely felt more alien than at that moment, revelling in humanities achievements rather than condemning them (as Pertwee’s Doctor had a knack of doing). According to Harry he is a first class boffin. When he says that he is afraid, he is not making jokes. There is a credible difference between the Doctor’s behaviour in Robot and in The Ark in Space, he is just as quirky but this situation demands far more intensity, which Baker delivers in spades. Don't get me wrong, what the Wirrn are doing is reprehensible but shifting the story in their favour for a moment they are only trying to incubate and survive in the only way they know how. What the Doctor suggests is that they find them at their weakest and most defenceless point, the pupal stage, and destroy them. That is the equivilent of saying that he will head back in time to the birth of every dictator and stab their mothers in the belly before they have the chance to bring them into the world. Nasty. He's all smiles when he reveals his plan to link his own cortex to that of the Queen's to find out what happened to lead up to her death, throwing himself into danger with a grin on his face. When he starts movie across the room towards the grub in a zombie-like fashion shouting out the Wirrn's name he feels dangerous, the safety of Pertwee's Doctor has completely vanished. He's perfectly prepared to sacrifice himself at the climax in order that his friends should survive and not become Wirrn incubators. By the end of The Ark in Space the fourth Doctor is a perfectly rounded character and one who is ready to embark on a series of gripping adventures. And that's not something I would have said at the climax of Robot where his characterisation was still to be determined. In these four episodes Holmes refines what makes this character great in his first three years.
Oh I Say: It is impossible not to have a degree of affection for Harry, and not just because he is a bumbling idiot who gets himself into trouble all the time. It is clear that he is made to exist on screen with Elizabeth Sladen and that under other circumstances these two would be shacked up in a BBC sitcom as a soon-to-be married couple (‘Call me old girl again and I’ll spit in your eye!’). Ian Marter manages to play down Harry’s excesses and make him a credible character even when he is asked to say and do the most absurd things. Holmes writes for the character extremely well, letting him speak in naval terms and giving him plenty to do. I love the fact that Harry has to spend the whole story in his socks. When humanity seems to have been reduced to something sterile and humourless, Harry is there with his anachronistic dialogue and sexist jibes to remind them of how much fun we used to be. He’s no regressive, he’s a naval officer. I love his casual 'well I'm ready to leave' when things get a bit hairy. He's so normal that I just want to hug him.
‘Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learnt to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They’ve survived flood, famine and plague. They’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts. Here they are out amongst the stars waiting to begin a new life. Ready to out sit eternity. They’re indomitable. Indomitable.’
‘But I am here…I am Dune’ – absolutely chilling.
‘You mean Dune’s knowledge…’ ‘…has been thoroughly digested, I’m afraid.’
'Besides, we can't like the Wirrn eat their way through the cryogenic sleepers as though they were a lot of...' 'Jelly babies?'
· When it comes to the special effects and this story you have two choices. You can either stick to the ‘we tried our best’ original version which features a number of washing up liquid bottles glued together and suspended against a star background precariously on the end of a wobbly wire…or you can access the new CGI version of the story which features some stunningly detailed and beautiful shots of the Ark silently spinning in space, a ripe target for the Wirrn Queen to get her mandibles on as she kicks her way through the void. I know which version I always choose to watch but some people insist on experiencing the story in its purest form.
· The opening sequence is like an introduction to an entirely new phase of Doctor Who. Unlike the recent past it doesn’t feel the need to explain itself but instead to tell a picture entirely through images and music. The POV shot of the Wirrn Queen (although we don’t know that at this stage) working her way through into the Cryogenic chamber and selecting the head technician as her target is chilling (especially in hindsight when you realise she has eaten her way into his body, stolen his knowledge and laid her eggs inside him as an incubator). He sleeps as quiet as a babe as this creature approaches, about to do the most horrendous things to him. It might be one of the most intriguing and unnerving openings to any Doctor Who story.
· Sarah being trapped behind the door without any oxygen is a stifling realisation. This show suddenly feels dangerous, like stepping through a door can mean the difference between life and death. We have stepped foot on many a space station and spaceship throughout Doctor Who to this point but this is the first time the realities and dangers of space travel really hit home. Walking into a room could result in you being fried alive and lying down on a bed might whisk you away into cryogenic storage. Whilst all of these things are beautifully explained away (the oxygen was cut deliberately, the safeties were engaged and killed the Queen and the entire purpose of the station is to put people to sleep over a long period) it does feel as though the Doctor, Sarah and Harry have landed in a technological trap throughout the first episode. Drugged on tranquilisers, classical music pumping through the speakers and being reassured by the Earth High Minister that her sacrifice is for the greater good, Sarah is placed a brand new style of danger that sees her physically impotent and unable to even shout out to warn the others. There has never been anything like this in Doctor Who before, Robert Holmes pushing the boundaries of the kind of drama the show can explore.
· After producing one action adventure score after another throughout Pertwee’s tenure, Dudley Simpson is suddenly asked to try his hand at scoring something a little more challenging. He is more than up to it, producing what I consider to be his finest score since The Seeds of Death. The music is less about papering over the cracks in the logic and ensuring that the action scenes flow and much more about getting under your skin and producing an eerie, sterile atmosphere. His work in episode one is particularly memorable, the scream-like tone as Dune is selected and the creeping horror as the Doctor tries to oxygenate the room.
· Doctor Who designers should always be applauded for their ingenuity for turning a pittance of a budget into the most dazzling array of sets. With half a crown and some sticky backed plastic, they managed to whisk the audience off to exotic alien worlds and allowed us to step back into some of the richest periods of history. Their imagination was endless even if the resources weren’t. When Roger Murray-Leech was asked to conjure up a space station in the future he didn’t go green at the thought but instead rose to the challenge magnificently, using a number of techniques to transport the viewer to a cavernous, funereal Ark in space which in its own sterile and functional way is rather beautiful to look at. It feels as though Doctor Who’s resources have been increased tenfold in this adventure (compare to the cramped Skybase we visited in The Mutants) when in reality it is just Murray-Leech creatively using what he has to its fullest potential. The curved corridors suggest a concentric ring that goes on and on, the Cryogenic Chamber feels as if it stretches for miles and is packed full of sleepers on several levels, There is a real feeling of space, as though the show suddenly commands far more studio space when it is precisely the same rooms that Robot was filmed in. Highlighting the green of the Wirrn against the sterile white of the Ark only serves to make the nature of the threat more disgusting, green slime trails running along pristine floors. This is one time when an overlit set isn't just necessary, it is rather the point.
· The same process applies to Robert Holmes. With a little imagination he can twist the shows meagre resources into something truly epic in scope. Hence the Doctor and Harry stumble across the repository of knowledge which is stored on microfilm (‘the entire body of human thought’), talk of the solar flares forcing the human race into hibernation and Wirrn swarms floating through space seeking out terrestrial breeding colonies of humans to incubate in all help to paint a picture that is on a much larger canvas than the scale of this story.
· Much is said about Kenton Moore’s agonised performance as Noah (which is fantastic and really sells the psychological and physical horror of the Wirrn) but I find Wendy Williams (as Vira) gives one of the great, unsung performances in Doctor Who. She is extraordinarily good, reeling off dialogue that would have a lesser actor tongue tied, not able to display a shred of emotion and yet going on a journey from suspicion to trust with the Doctor and his friends whilst trying to keep her crew alive and under control. It is a star turn, full of nuance to the point where you take how good she is for granted because she isn’t given all the juicy material to play.
· It is astonishing how much difference the tone of a story can make. When you compare the Giant Maggots and the Wirrn Grubs I have no doubt in my mind that the former are more convincingly realised and yet it is the latter that stick in my mind as a more credible foe because of the tenor of the story and how terrifying the idea of what they represent is. For once it doesn’t seem to matter that the effects aren’t quite up to scratch because the idea of the Wirrn is such a terrorizing one, and portrayed so convincingly by the actors. Although I have to say the grub mutating in the solar stack is really nauseating and when it cracks the glass and breaks free you get a horrible sense that the threat is about to escalate.
· A genetic pool that has been balanced, cross matched and compact evaluated sounds no fun at all if Vira and Noah are to go by. Humanity condensed down into a functional survival unit, all individuality and creativity crushed. Terrifying. A highly compartmentalised society. Holmes might allow the Doctor a moment of devotion for the human race but he paints a cold picture of our future.
· Thus begins Robert Holmes’ love affair with the theme of possession throughout the Hinchcliffe era and his first dalliance with the notion is also one of the best. It’s a double assault because the Wirrn is attacking Noah’s body as well as his mind and we get to see plenty of glimpses at his real personality being swarmed by the Wirrn poison that is coursing through him. Kenton Moore’s reaction to the Noah’s mutated hand rises the moment above the revelation of bubble wrap and green paint to something far more horrific and damaging. The way he sways back and forth from his need to protect his crew and his desire to consume them is convincingly played and an awful lot to ask of an actor. Moore barely breaks a sweat, really throwing himself into the drama of the characters possession. This is one time where holding back would really damage the integrity of the situation. When struggling against infection, Moore's anguish is so compelling it sounds as though he is throwing up at points. The halfway point between human and Wirrn looks suitably gruesome, the infection seems to be spreading into Noah's uniform itself and his arm has transformed into a pathetic green stub and the slime is spreading across his face. The Wirrn costumes themse;ves might be quite cumbersome but there is something skin crawling about the sound effect of their mandibles tearing free of their cucoons. Noah's possession is the event about which the entire story hangs; if it succeeds then he carries with him all the knowledge of the human race for the Wirrn to work their way through the rest of humanity. It creates good character drama because he was pair bonded with Vira in the new world. And it provides the solution to defeating the Wirrn as the Doctor stirs memories of his old life on the Earth in order to engage his sympathies and lead the swarm into space and destroy them. I can't think of another incident of possession that is so keyed in to a stories success (not even The Seeds of Doom).
· Having the Doctor tap into the Wirrn Queen's memory and watch her advance on the Ark is not only a clever and ghoulish idea but it also fills in a great many gaps in the plot to be able to see the events that led up to the Ark being on red alert during episode one. Robert Holmes is a clever man, this could have all been shown in episode one but by holding back the information and showing the effects after the cause I was instantly gripped as everything fell into place.
· Episode four is much more familiar base under siege territory than the three episodes preceeding it but it shows you precisely how this sort of thing should be done, bringing the lights right down, only sighting the monsters in quick shots and keeping the action tight on the reation shots of the actors. At this point the Wirrn have been built up as such a nauseating threat that their advance would have been gripping whatever their appearance. As it stands the costumes work for what is asked of them here.
The Bad: The empty caskets in the Cryogenic Chamber are immediately apparent. You would have to be blind to miss them. I’m not convinced by the end of episode one, which could have been a real jump out of your skin moment but instead just looks as though an old prop has fallen out of a cupboard. All colours, all creeds…a rousing speech but not back up by the evidence of my eyes. What a shame that bubble wrap has become such a staple of packaging because at the time Noah's infection probably looked rather special (the spread of bubbles does look somewhat like a horrific infection) at the time but now is exposed as packaging material spray painted green which almost (Moore's performance is so good) ruins the effect. Fortunately the story has built the Wirrn into a credible threat by the stage the Noah grub turns up because it is clearly a man writhing about in a bubble wrap blanket. Such a bright set exposes the boom mike shadow more obviously than normal.