Remember your journey is very important, young man. Therefore, you must travel with understanding as well as hope.
No sooner do we see Dodo running into the TARDIS than we see her running back out, into a jungle. In a spaceship. With an elephant. Wearing medieval clothing. (Dodo, not the elephant.) All watched over by a single-eyed humanoid creature. Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott waste no time getting the narrative going in “The Ark” (Story Production Code X), cutting from a lushly realized jungle setting to a futuristic control room, where a human judge wearing flip-flops sentences an unmindful technician to the punishment of seven hundred years of miniaturization for having failed to pay attention to a gauge. And did we mention the elephant?
“The Ark” exists in full on film, and happily so. Director Michael Imison and crew put together a quite lavish studio production, with wonderful high angle shots and detailed sets. There’s a panning shot that catches a moving snake on a tree for no more than half a second—even the elephant serves as little more than a quick prop to establish the profusion of Earth wildlife contained inside the giant generation ship our travellers find themselves on. I can only imagine the effort taken to get an elephant into the studio. Careful placement of trees and doors, accentuated by weaving camera work, further provides a sense of space and dimension, allowing the setting to become a character in its own right, one arguably more interesting than the other characters we meet in this four-episode story.
The Doctor quickly realizes that they have landed in no ordinary jungle, noting the odd combination of wildlife but mostly because, as he tells Steven, “it’s a jungle with a steel sky!” He further determines that the jungle floor vibrates slightly, but before he can explore further, he and his companions are captured by the human Guardians and their servants/slaves, the mute Monoids. A brief expository interlude fills in the gaps in our knowledge: the Earth is dying, roughly ten million years in the future, and being left “for the last time,” with all of Earth’s humans and a sampling of the wildlife on board a generation ship bound for the distant planet Refusis Two (a planet name one might expect from Terry Nation). Most of the humans and Monoids have been miniaturized for the generations-long journey, due to be completed in seven hundred years.
For so advanced an era, though, much knowledge has been lost through war and general decay. Rather than using some form of automation, the few non-miniaturized humans who serve as the giant ship’s crew rely on the Monoids as servants, even though preparing food takes little more effort than dropping a pill in water. They know little about the planet they’ve set their sights on colonizing, and frankly plan on annihilating the indigenous inhabitants on landing if they put up a fuss.
Not very advanced, then—more caretakers of tradition than technology—but still, all seems well and good. The Commander of the spaceship, which Dodo christens the Ark, seems content that the Doctor and friends mean no harm, despite some misgivings by the Deputy Commander, and our intrepid adventurers about to return to the TARDIS when Dodo sneezes. And causes a plague.
“The Ark” represents the first treatment of “hard” science fiction in Doctor Who. We’ve certainly had our share of spaceships and alien cultures and fantastic, futuristic plots. But here we have a staple of hard science fiction literature, the generation ship, a slower-than-light vessel that takes hundreds or thousands of years to reach its destination, crewed by successive generations who slowly, and inevitably, change culturally during the journey. Your average Saturday tea time audience was unfamiliar with this concept. And into this hermetically sealed environment, the Doctor and companions bring an outside influence, both mental and physical. Through a nice before-and-after framing device, “The Ark” also serves as the first anthropological story on Doctor Who.
The common cold had been eradicated millennia prior, so no natural immunity exists in the Guardians (or the Monoids, for that matter). Dodo’s sneezing, far from being a silly plot device to get our travelers captured in the jungle, serves as the main narrative thread throughout the story’s two halves. On trial for the deaths of several Monoids and a human (and suspected of being Refusian spies, despite the seven hundred year distance to the planet), the Doctor and friends are about to be shoved out the airlock by the Deputy Commander when the sickened Commander orders that they be released, so that the Doctor can attempt to find a cure. Calling upon a giant, dusty book from the TARDIS, along with some poorly stoppered test tubes, the Doctor and a Monoid assistant, whose intelligence the Doctor comments upon, manage to concoct a vaccine from a combination of animal membranes, applied transdermally.
With a cure in hand, the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo are free to go, the inadvertent deaths of several Monoids and a human accepted as an accident. The Deputy Commander apologizes for overreacting, allowing the Doctor to counsel him about hope and understanding. Crisis averted, back to the TARDIS we go, after a goodbye at the base of a statue. The statue, of a human holding a globe of the Earth, is to be slowly completed over the long course of the journey as a monument of sorts to those who watched over the Ark and will never see it arrive.
But, um, there are two episodes left in the story.
It is important to remember that contemporary audiences, particularly in the early seasons, watched Doctor Who as an episodic serial, so a short adventure of two episodes was, while uncommon, not anomalous. The TARDIS dematerializes as normal, but then re-materializes in the exact same spot. The Doctor is quite puzzled, as, perhaps, was the audience. Back to the control room we go, where the statue has been completed, seven hundred years in the future. Only not quite as planned.
As it turns out, Dodo’s cold did more than kill a few beings; it wrought a cultural change, and the second two episodes show the anthropological effect of the Doctor’s visit. The notion of the Doctor’s travels through time and space having effects like these are quite new to the series. Just by showing up somewhere, the Doctor changes events. The TARDIS is Schrödinger’s Box: the act of observation changes the observed. While the Doctor has made allusions to being in places before (like Dido), “The Ark” marks the first time on screen he’s returned to a specific setting after a prior visit. Here, the Doctor’s prior visit has passed into legend, while Dodo’s cold mutated and caused a weakening in the willpower of the Guardians. The Monoids, ill-used for millennia, took advantage of the human weakness and killed most of the Guardians (though only after they had helped the Monoid revolution by creating highly awkward voice boxes and hitherto unneeded weapons, ostensibly for their forthcoming invasion of Refusis). What few Guardians remained alive were relegated to living in the “security kitchen” to serve the Monoids much as the Monoids once served the Guardians.
The leader of the Monoids, One, orders the Doctor, Dodo, and a human to accompany Two to the surface of Refusis in a lander to make sure everything is safe for Monoid colonization. Once there, Dodo goads Two into revealing a plan to kill all the humans—both the living Guardians and the millions of miniaturized humans stored in trays on the ship—by destroying the Ark with a giant fission bomb hidden inside the statue. The rock of the statue is nigh indestructible, and the statue itself has incredible weight, so it’s a perfect plan. Why, you’d need a deus ex machina to get out of this one.
Enter the Refusian! Invisible, and not at all appreciative of Two destroying vases in a home built by the Refusians for inhabitants of the arriving Ark, the Refusian destroys Two in the lander before he (it?) can warn the other Monoids of the existence of the Refusians. The Doctor and the Refusian have a nice chat about how the Refusians became non-corporeal beings of immense power (because of some sort of galactic accident) who were looking forward to having corporeal beings running around the planet again, thus the houses prepared for the humans and Monoids. The Doctor then contrives to get the Refusian up to the Ark, while all the other Monoids come down to the surface. The Monoids engage in a bit of civil war (much as the Guardians in the first part of the story were nearly at odds with one another over the treatment of the Doctor), the Refusian levitates the nuclear statue out of the airlock with the power of its mind, and, after agreeing to get along, everyone lives happily ever after on the planet Refusian.
The story deserves a better ending than it gets, as the Monoids are insufficiently developed to carry out the villain role assigned to them. The Monoid manner is that of the stock villain, revealing plans to the camera and rubbing hands together in dastardly glee (or they would, except for the voice boxes that the actors in the Monoid suits fumble with every time they speak). Far too much time is wasted on internecine squabbles between Four and One to set up the handy firefight at the end, allowing the Doctor to get word back to the Ark that the bomb is in the statue. The super-powerful Refusian ties up loose ends far too nicely, squandering the potential for a more fraught ending. After the significant deaths in “The Daleks’ Master Plan” and the Doctor’s unwillingness/inability to save anyone at all in “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” perhaps it is too much to hope that “The Ark” will bring us a less-than-tidy dénouement revealing the costs of the Doctor’s travels.
Still, there is much to like in “The Ark,” not least the willingness to attempt a story that explores, however shallowly, the consequences of any intervention at all on the Doctor’s travels. Upon realizing that he has caused deaths by bringing a sick Dodo with him, the Doctor looks pained and guilty, hedging that they had always been relatively healthy on prior trips. But the weight of his responsibility is upon him. William Hartnell again turns in a solid performance, with only a very few Billy Fluffs.
New companion Dodo (Jackie Lane) makes an immediate impression, not least by killing lots of people with her twentieth century germs. Much as “The Romans” handwaves Vicki’s settling-in period off-screen, “The Ark” throws Dodo right into action without any real introduction. Her nature is at once feisty and curious. She barges off of the TARDIS as soon as it lands in the Ark, and she can’t help but clamber upon the partially-built statue when she first sees it. Her style of dress, in clothing better suited to “The Crusade,” come from rummaging through the TARDIS wardrobe, causing the Doctor to admonish her, for they might need those clothes again. And, shades of Steven calling the Doctor “Doc,” Dodo is quick to correct the Doctor when he calls her “Dorothea.” At the end of the story, Dodo settles into a uniform look, much as Barbara had her cardigan.
Steven (Peter Purves), for his part, serves as the requisite keep-the-party-apart hostage and perennial illness victim, coming down with a nasty case of Dodo’s cold himself. By now he has settled quite into the rhythms of TARDIS life, even operating the control console at the story’s end. Any lingering animosity towards the Doctor from “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve” has been resolved, though how is not addressed. Not a very Steven-centric story, this one, but after his star turn in the last story, and with a new companion to introduce, a background role isn’t amiss.
And, finally, the companions are referred to as such for the first time since second season story “The Space Museum,” when a Guardian who is defending the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo at their trial proclaims:
The Doctor and his companions have not denied that they brought the fever among us.
Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott have not written for Doctor Who prior to “The Ark,” so their use of the phrase suggests that the Doctor’s travelling party was referred to as such by the production and editorial teams.
As the TARDIS leaves the Ark for, theoretically, the last time, the Doctor starts to sneeze, and disappear. It’s not Dodo’s cold, though—it’s an attack!
(Previous Story: The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve)
(Next Story: The Celestial Toymaker)
Post 23 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project