Doctor Who Project: The Ark in Space

It might be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.

After his debut story, tacked as it was onto the end of the Season Eleven recording cycle, Tom Baker’s run as the Fourth Doctor starts in earnest with new script editor Robert Holmes’ “The Ark in Space” (Story Production Code 4C). Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe seemingly have carte blanche to send the Doctor, finally freed from his Earthly exile, off in new directions, and with the first story of the Season Twelve production bloc, they take us…right back to the Second Doctor and a “base under siege” story that Troughton could have played (and often did) in his sleep.

Oh, hello.

To be fair, there’s quite a bit new and flashy on offer here, but it becomes clear that, narratively speaking, Holmes and Hinchcliffe are hanging fresh tinsel on an old tree. In short order, the Doctor and companions accidentally arrive in an isolated locale (here, an apparently abandoned space station in Earth orbit sometime in the future), discover some trouble or other, get blamed for said trouble, then help fend off the real threat. If the formula feels fresh in “The Ark in Space,” it’s only because the Third Doctor had but a single story early on (“Inferno“) that even came close to this model over five seasons, and that one at least involved alternate dimensions.

It’s unlikely any but the most dedicated fans of Doctor Who noticed the pattern at the time, though, because the plot here remains resolutely beside the point. While Terrance Dicks threw Baker a debutante ball in “Robot,” a controlled, almost formal introduction in a comfortable setting, Holmes provides Baker with, well, a full-blown fiesta: far from demure, the Fourth Doctor bursts on the scene in all his alien glory in “The Ark in Space,” upending any lingering sense that there might be even the slightest connection between this Doctor and his forebears.

Almost as significantly, “The Ark in Space” suggests a return to small-cast (and lower budget) stories set in far-off, fantastical locales of which we actually see very little—eight sets total feature in this story, none on location and most dressed in what can only be called futuristic off-white—with a commensurate reliance on prop makers to visually convey the strangeness of the setting and on the writer to imbue the few characters with enough texture, or at least technobabble, to make the world seem fuller than it really is. Robert Holmes does well enough to hold up his end of the bargain, deftly sketching a chilling projection of a technocratic human future through well-chosen details; the prop department, on the other hand, just spray paints some bubble wrap with green paint and calls it a day.

No, I can't really say what that is.

Arriving on Space Station Nerva some time in the very far future—ten thousand years, give or take, from its thirtieth century launch date—the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, and Harry Sullivan spill out of the TARDIS into an abandoned control room, whereupon the two companions begin turning knobs and pulling levers. As a result, Sarah Jane finds herself trapped in a hidden room with dwindling oxygen, the door to which Harry inadvertently closes as he beeps random buttons. Rescuing her requires re-powering the station, leading to a mystery that the Fourth Doctor simply cannot resist exploring. He’s fascinated by this “early” space vessel, a suggestion that he’s far older, or at least more travelled, than the show has let on before, and the fact that the controls were deliberately damaged piques his curiosity.

How fascinating. That thing is trying to kill us!

This story follows close on “Robot,” with everyone still dressed the same, so Harry has obviously just had his first encounter with the TARDIS and time/space travel. However, no time is given over to Harry’s reaction to this momentous event; he just gets on with it, helping the Doctor outwit a deadly defense system by throwing a cricket ball (procured from the Doctor’s coat pocket, natch) and then his shoe to distract it. Indeed, Holmes wastes little time developing the companions at all. Ian Marter plays Harry as though he were a long-time TARDIS hand, serving as a sounding board for the Doctor’s medical and scientific observations. Far future or ancient past, there’s a job to do, and Harry, being a proper sort of long-suffering Englishman, will just do it.

Perhaps tellingly, that attitude is the same one Holmes gave Sarah Jane when he wrote her first story, “The Time Warrior.” There, Holmes had her simply ignore the extreme strangeness of her situation (time travel, ancient England, a potato-headed Sontaran, a chap in a velour jacket who goes by only one name) in favor of simply getting through it. Sadly, no such sangfroid applies here, as he makes poor use of Elisabeth Sladen’s talents throughout the story.

Just like any given Second Doctor yarn (of which Holmes wrote several), the female companion serves as the McGuffin, captured and then chased after to drive the plot along. Sarah Jane spends nearly half the story incapacitated and the rest either screaming or looking horrified. Even when she comes up with the solution that saves everyone (including the remnants of the human species), Holmes has the Doctor ignore her over and over, wringing a cheap joke out of Sarah Jane being the one with the brilliant idea that prevents everyone from being eaten. The Third Doctor was hardly a paragon of enlightenment when it came to gender relations, but the Fourth Doctor’s stories are off to a poor start.

A wasted story for Sarah Jane

In part, the problem stems from Holmes needing to split the companion duties, which over the past five seasons with the Third Doctor were parceled out to a single individual, between Sarah Jane and Harry. In this era of shorter, faster-paced stories, mostly four parters, there’s simply not enough time to feed lines to multiple companions and to tell the story on offer. Something has to give, and trying to introduce a new Doctor and a new companion here leaves the “old” companion out in the cold.

Once the Doctor and Harry rescue Sarah (again), they discover that they are onboard an ark, filled with hundreds of cryogenic capsules containing the carefully selected final vestiges of the human species. They also discover a giant insect trapped in a cupboard. It falls out, onto Harry, at the end of the first episode, the traditional spot for the revelation of the story’s monster. It’s nicely impudent when it turns out to be dead and no (immediate) threat at all.

I bet you thought it was alive!

Fixing the station’s controls has the side effect of starting the long-overdue revivification process, with the lead MedTech, Vira, automatically thawed first. Though appropriately apprehensive at waking up to three strangers, she fills in our travellers (and the viewers) on the fate of the Earth as she sets about reviving the station’s command and technical staff. Solar flares were predicted to ravage the planet, so the Earth’s government built the station to house enough humans to reconstitute human civilization once the planet was again habitable, thousands of years after the cataclysm.

Awakened from a long slumber

Upon his awakening, the commander Noah (a nickname, at least, though his real name is the Nation-worthy Lazar) immediately brands the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry as “regressives” who threaten to throw off the careful balance of the planned repopulation of Earth. By this time, people are rigidly compartmentalized into jobs and statuses; assuming them to be from the less-structured colonies, Noah’s first impulse is to have them killed so as to preserve the sanctity of the selected society. (Left unexplored is why, given the existence of these theoretically off-world colonies, a convoluted cryogenic space station was required to preserve the species.)

Before much narrative focus can be spent on Noah’s desire for racial purity, he rushes off to confront the Doctor, who is attempting to track down a worrying fault in the station’s power system. After stunning the Doctor, Noah goes to check the power system himself and is glooped by a green grub that bursts from a hatch.

Not part of the original crew complement

That dead giant insect, which Sarah and Harry take turns showing to everyone who is revived, was the queen of the Wirrn, a endoparasitic species that deposits eggs in living hosts. The growing larvae absorb their hosts’ knowledge as they grow to maturity. Through a convoluted life-cycle that the story never quite explains fully, there are hundreds of Wirrn about to reach maturity onboard the ship because of the queen, and they intend to plant new eggs in all of the sleeping humans to gain their skills and expertise, to enable the Wirrn to become an advanced species. Noah, infected by the grub, starts to turn into the new “swarm leader,” which involves incremental additions of green bubble wrap over his arms and face.

That's Swarm Leader Noah to you.

Again, though, the focus throughout remains fully on Tom Baker and the Doctor. Because of the Fourth Doctor’s scatterbrained approach to problems and non-logical leaps to conclusions, it’s hard to find fault with plot holes. Indeed, problems and solutions are rarely ever offered up for examination by the audience, neatly circumventing the need for coherence in the first place. As Sarah herself declaims, “He talks to himself sometimes because he’s the only one who understands what he’s talking about.” Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor might have reversed the polarity a few times, but the Fourth Doctor pulls technobabble from his mouth as readily as he pulls jelly babies from his pocket. Baker makes it work, since there’s a look of innocent wonder in his smile as he formulates outlandish solutions. He’s so certain that he’s right that it feels wrong to doubt him (or the wonky plotting and logic the writer used to get there).

Putting a theory to the test

Even when his initial efforts fail, the Doctor just redoubles them, often at risk to himself, in order to make them work. For now, the newness of this approach inclines one to give Baker (not to mention Holmes and Hinchcliffe) the benefit of the doubt. But continued hyperactive plotting and logical messiness do not bode well for the series as sophisticated entertainment—and though originally pitched as a childrens’ show, by this point the BBC was well aware that most of Doctor Who‘s audience skewed adult.

As seen in “Robot,” this glee with finding a clever technical solution often still skirts of the Doctor’s inherent pacifism, a belief growing less inherent by the week, but at least the Fourth Doctor makes it clear that he considers humanity worth saving—and worth fighting for. The stakes with the Wirrn do involve the survival of humanity itself. His main plan for defending the cybernetic capsules involves shocking the Wirrn with massive electrical jolts to keep them away, a theoretically non-lethal approach. And when, in the end, the Doctor suggests launching the station’s transport into space once all the Wirrn have followed Noah into it, he at least cannot be blamed for its explosion.

Rather, it was the remnants of Noah’s humanity, buried inside the Swarm Leader Wirrn, that cause him/it to lead the Wirrn into the trap and blow up the transport, saving humanity from being subsumed in the Wirrn hive consciousness. As the Doctor tellingly notes earlier in the story, humanity’s resilience and indomitability cannot be stopped, a characteristic that he finds most appealing, right at the moment when the Doctor seems more alien than ever.

Dressed for Adventure

There’s no stopping to analyze this triumph of the human spirit, nor Noah’s initial willingness to kill our time-traveling stowaways, nor indeed any commentary at all about humanity having driven the Wirrn off their home planet in far off Andromeda in the first place, a bit of background plot just dropped into the story and then abandoned. Rather—and again, very much like the Second Doctor—the Fourth Doctor and his companions are off and away, using the station’s teleports to pop down to the Earth to see just how it has fared, all these fallow years. Perhaps they forgot about the TARDIS in the main control room. It’s not like anyone else noticed that big blue box just sitting there for four episodes…

(Previous Story: Robot)

(Next Story: The Sontaran Experiment)

Post 79 of the Doctor Who Project

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