Doctor Who Project: The Ark in Space

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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.

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Doctor Who Project: Robot

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There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.

Our initial outing with the Fourth Doctor shows Tom Baker clearly setting out his stall—mirthful, slapdash, haphazard, alien, and just a bit brutal. It’s a good thing he strives to differentiate himself from his predecessor, Jon Pertwee, as “Robot” (Story Production Code 4A), by longtime Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks, covers much the same ground as several Third Doctor stories. Take one part “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” one part “The Green Death,” one part “Inferno,” file off the serial numbers, and you have Dicks’ tale of a group of fascist technocrats hiding in a bunker, bent on ruling the planet with the help of technology even they can’t control.

A rude awakening

It all feels too familiar, picking up right where “Planet of the Spiders” leaves off, with the newly regenerated Doctor in the Third Doctor’s clothes on the floor of his laboratory, alongside the comforting presence of Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), a newly promoted Warrant Office Benton (John Levene), and the rest of UNIT. The Brigadier has the Doctor sent for observation in the UNIT infirmary, under the care of new arrival Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), whilst he and Sarah Jane casually discuss the recent theft of classified weapon plans and, as a completely unconnected favor to Sarah, arrange for her to be granted access to the top secret Think Tank so she can write an article. It’s there that she encounters—at the traditional first episode cliffhanger, of course—our titular menace, the Robot.

The robot from Robot, the robot K-1

It’s clumsy plotting, but four episodes leaves little time for nuance, particularly when there’s a new Doctor to introduce. Indeed, “Robot” moves with so much pace that the obligatory threat to the planet (nuclear holocaust, this time) is resolved a scant five minutes into the final installment, leaving most of an episode for UNIT to demonstrate once more its utter incompetence as a fighting force (so, again, not much different from any of the Third Doctor’s stories).

Tacked on to the end of the Season Eleven recording block, with Barry Letts still at the production helm and the Doctor dealing with yet another Earth-bound menace, there’s little reason “Robot” should have a different feel. But by the end of of the story, one can see that changes are coming. It’s hard to suggest that any prior seasons would have dressed up the Doctor as a harlequin while referencing both James Bond and King Kong…

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