Doctor Who #389: The Ark in Space Part 2

"My doctorate is purely honorary, and Harry here is only qualified to work on sailors."
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Feb.1 1975.

IN THIS ONE... People on the space station start to wake up, including Vira and Commander Noah, the latter promptly infected by green bubble wrap.

REVIEW: As the story goes, Ridley Scott, then designer at the BBC, almost got the Ark in Space gig. Would it have been a darker, more industrial vision without all the SF-white walls? And did this story have anything to do with his Alien, made only a few years later, and in which a cryogenically sleeping crew comes across a slimy, completely inhuman species that lays its eggs in one's body and steals their shape? Fans of the Alien franchise owe it to themselves to see the original story, as it were, even though the alien IS made out of "space age" (and now ubiquitous) bubble wrap. You know, it was never a problem for me. In context, the bubbles looks like warts or scales, a cross between toad and lizard skin. I'd like to go back in time to the date of transmission and ask if anyone thought the Autons were somehow involved, what with that Nestene-looking thing in the solar stacks and all the plastic wrap about. Frankly, the squeaky styrofoam cryogenic alcoves jar a lot more.

This episode has its share of squeaks and creaks, and while I didn't want to mar my review of Part 1's great set-up with nitpicks (the yellowed opening sequence on the DVD, Sarah Jane's magically growing hair), I can hold my tongue no longer. I'm constantly distracted by Part 2's flaws! If Vira needs to give her heart a boost, who would have normally been on hand to give her the medkit? Why is Dune's disappearance such a mystery and surprise when there's a gross trail of slime leading away from his alcove? How can Libri "see" a monster when he lays his eyes on the infected Noah? Psychic impressions just don't seem like the sort of thing these highly logical humans should have. Not impossible in the Whoniverse, just out of keeping with the tropes established. And I'm sorry, but I can't warm to the way the 30th century humans speak. More than Spock/Data, it's like they're missing entire chunks of vocabulary (they know "amusement" but not "joke", for example). I want to praise the attempt at having the English language migrate over the centuries, and I do understand that Holmes is in a way taking shots at the bureaucratic mind, but it still leads to dull conversations as Vira, et al. waste time looking up words in their heads. Is there plan so precariously balanced that they really must destroy any other humans they meet lest their genetic pool is tainted? I mean, what if we agreed not to mate with any of them? And of course, on the other end of the emotional spectrum is Sarah Jane, once again in panic mode, afraid of everything... Where's the independent Sarah we got to know over the past season? Will we ever see her again?

In the middle of all this, two ordinary blokes playing off each other with humor and energy. Harry makes for a relatively active cabbage head, asking the right questions, but also giving some of the right answers. The Doctor isn't just dressed as a "student" (or so it's often said, today he'd be a total hipster), he and Harry are often talking like students too. Over the Pertwee years, the average age for which the show is made has risen, and here, at the the start of the Tom Baker era, it's about embracing the university student demographic. Double-entendres are part of that; the Doctor and Harry are very naughty together. The Doctor has a few other fun bits, like getting knocked out mid-sentence and finishing his thought as he wakes up, and admitting to being a romantic like Harry for thinking all human beings have value. As for the threat of the piece, plastic bugs aren't very expressive, but an infected human can be. Noah's tortured plight, transforming into a monster physically and mentally, is played against his somehow sweet programmed romance with Vira (I'm not the only one picking up on something there, right?) and makes us care. Under the surface, what we have is a mind vs. body story, in which the hyper-rational sleepers wake up to find disgusting alien bodily urges overtaking them. Again, we're not too far from Alien's themes.

The DVD includes a CGI model shot of the station, but does not replace the primitive video effects used for Noah's gun.

- The theme is worth exploring, and I can point to a number of good moments, but I can't help but be annoyed by some of the sleeper stuff.


Jayunderscorezero said...

Many years ago a friend of mine gave me a VHS copy of this story to review for his Doctor Who site and I *could not* get over nitpicking the design of it all. To this day the first thing I think of when I hear "Ark in Space" is "horribly obvious green bubble wrap." I feel such an ass, now.

Siskoid said...

Well, it's not the BEST design, is it? And it's not the bubble wrap, it's the LIGHTING. Imagine this story in darkened corridors, a lot more like Alien, and you've really got something.


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