Doctor Who #388: The Ark in Space Part 1

"Homo sapiens. What an inventive and invincible species. It's only been a few million years since they've crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts and now here they are amongst the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable!"
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Jan.25 1975.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands on space station Nerva where the Doctor finds a veritable ark in suspended animation, one Sarah Jane is accidentally added to.

REVIEW: Robot was somehow about how easy UNIT's Earth-bound adventures were for the new Doctor. With The Ark in Space, it's immediately clear that this new chapter in his life is anything but. Within minutes of landing - at the wrong place, of course - everybody's already gasping for air, Sarah Jane is separated from the group and flash frozen, and ceiling lamps are arcing lethal electricity and destroying every shoe, hat and scarf in sight. Now, puzzles and traps are a very Robert Holmes way of padding out an episode, but it's important to see how cleverly to figure in his plot structure. Every time the Doctor solves one problem, he causes another, keeping the sense of jeopardy alive. And though there is some button-pushing (not all useful, Harry's got a bit of a naughty finger), most of them are worked out before our eyes and don't look like cheating. The first episode is all about exploring this new environment, a place with none of the security UNIT HQ afforded. Though things eventually calm down as the Doctor and Harry "tame" the world to their needs, they disover there's... something... in there with them (alien POV shot, drink!).

The danger is balanced by scenes that restore a sense of awe about outer space and the future, something that had been lost in the previous era. In Pertwee's stories, going into space was old hat. Something for working scrubs who yawned away the days until they could go home. Here, it's a life filled with peril, an impressive achievement, and the walk through those circular corridors, with windows out into space, are designed to give you a bit of vertigo (it's too bad Harry doesn't really mention it). The most striking change in attitude is the Doctor's vis-à-vis humanity. Pertwee's Doctor (or should we say Dicks') was entirely critical of humanity, but Holmes' gives a perfect little speech about our tenacity and ability for survival. It's something fans of the new series will immediately recognize as "Doctorish". Once again, the sets agree. There's real height and scope to the cryogenic section, all done practically and letting your imagination work for you.

If Nerva is a reaction to some cataclysm and humanity's answer to the threat, then the story has forgotten the program's history, namely, the events of The Ark. Not a big problem - nor do I blame the program makers of the era for not knowing a never-repeated, unmemorable Hartnell story - and guide books have found many ways to explain how, in our long history, we faced countless such cataclysms and left/started over. One doesn't make the other any less possible. All we know is that the station is a lonely object in Earth orbit, its plight scored with some haunting music. It's through Sarah Jane that we learn a little more, an info-dump cleverly masked as a recording thanking her for her "sacrifice" in becoming one of the keepers of Earth culture and biology. She's kept sedate through most of the episode, but even before this, Sarah's incredibly wet. She's never been THIS panicky before, and it's one of my few complaints. Here's hoping she finds her mojo again, and there are glimmers of it lurking, such as when she tells Brigadier-surrogate Harry Sullivan to stop calling her "old girl". Speaking of which, my only OTHER complaint is when Harry opens a cupboard and a giant grasshopper falls out. Too engaging an episode to end on such an unconvincing cliffhanger.

VERSIONS: The DVD can be watched with optional CGI model shots (see comparison above). Very pretty.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - It's all set-up, but it makes a good impression and subtly reworks and restates the program's mission for a new (re)generation.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not British, so I can only speculate how it feels to run an empire that fell from spanning the globe to nearly nothing in about 50 years. But I wonder if Pertwee and Baker are expressing something of the ambivalent attitudes about British imperialism: Pertwee is about the negatives (violence to other peoples e.g. the Silurians) while Baker is about the positives (we can do anything, including ruling the world AND making the world better for its peoples).

I don't imagine there was any deliberate intent along those lines, but if those views are rattling around inside the writers' heads somewhere, they will eventually find expression.

Siskoid said...

There was definitely a loss of empire theme in the Pertwee era, in stories like The Mutants, Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and others. Pertwee's Doctor was an Edwardian/Victorian gentleman adventurer, one you might have imagined in stories taking place at the height of the British Empire.

Tom Baker's Doctor is a bohemian in dress and spirit, and doesn't represent any kind of Imperial values to me, at least not yet. It's a return to the anarchy professed by Troughton's.

By the new series, this kind of thing will be about the British can-do spirit, surviving the World Wars, etc. and less about Empire. Not a Brit either, but that's my take on it from across the pond.

Jeff R. said...

Generally, though (once things get a bit more settled in), Baker's positives are going to involve a rebellion or revolution. ("Go and Meet with the local rebels, whether or not there was any indication that such a thing existed in episode one" becomes the standard episode two during his run.)

It makes him almost, well, American...

Siskoid said...

If we go back to one of the original revolutions, sure, but closer in time, he's forever siding with the people who put an end to the British Empire.

Boosterrific said...

Whenever I think of the Baker era, this is the serial that comes to mind first. I distinctly recall first seeing it one Saturday evening on PBS (in Atlanta, GA) and deciding that I liked this new doctor very much.

 

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