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Review #3139: Classic Doctor Who: “The Ark in Space”

Posted on the 17 November 2011 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: John Keegan

Written by Robert Holmes and John Lucarotti
Directed by Rodney Bennett

While “Robot” was technically the first serial for the Fourth Doctor, it’s readily apparent from the start that this is the true beginning of the new era. For one thing, the trappings of the Third Doctor era are now all but gone. If anything, this harkens back to some of the standards of the First and Second Doctor stories, beginning with an episode that is all about the TARDIS crew exploring unfamiliar surroundings and evolving into a “base under siege” tale.

Review #3139: Classic Doctor Who: “The Ark in Space”

It’s also not a Third Doctor “invasion of Earth” tale, because quite simply, at this point in the overall timeline, there is no Earth, per se. At least, from the perspective of the inhabitants of the Nerva Beacon, the titular “ark in space”. The supposed “best and brightest” of humanity have been cryogenically frozen in anticipation of a deadly solar flare, about to wipe out the human race. (This is apparently very long after Earth’s rise and participation in the Federation as per the Peladon stories and such.)

Unfortunately, by this point in human history, we’ve expanded throughout the galaxy and beyond, and our settlers were less than polite. In the Andromeda Galaxy, humans encountered a species called the Wirrn, and engaged in a conflict with them that spanned more than 1000 years. The end result is that the Wirrn rather enjoy the idea of wiping out humanity wherever they find it.

The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry end up on Nerva Beacon at just the right time: they trigger some of the frozen humans to awaken, as Wirrn larva prepare to infest the station. That sounds like a typical invasion story, except the Wirrn reproduce inside human beings, taking their bodies and minds over as they take control. To say that this feels like a bit of an inspiration to “Alien” is putting it lightly.

As I set out on this grand education of Classic Who, I was warned specifically of this serial and its “bubble wrap” effects. Sure enough, the body modification horror that the story is meant to invoke is mitigated by the terrible costuming. Even so, the point is more than sufficiently made, as the series shifts from a “James Bond/John Steed vs. aliens” to a more horror-inspired formula. I’ve mentioned before that body horror gets under my skin (no pun intended), so while it’s not exactly scary in execution, it’s a bit unsettling in concept.

Beyond the mixture of some of the oldest Who staples with a bit of horror, there is a nice bit of commentary tossed in for fun. Though the alien menace in this serial is insect-like in nature, the humans start off with similar traits: they are emotionless creatures that emerge from their hive and initially prepare to expel the “regressive” invaders. It’s only over the course of the story that their humanity is restored, giving hope that those tasked with the restoration of the species will not fail.

One thing that must be mentioned is the enormous chemistry between the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry. It’s amazing to think that this is only the second time they worked together on a serial, and really, the first time they did so as a team. The Doctor and Harry make for a wonderful double act, and Sarah still retains much of her core personality from her time with the Third Doctor. But most importantly, it just works; if I hadn’t known any better, I might have assumed that this was a few years after the team was established.

Another benefit is that the Doctor is toned down considerably from his portrayal in “Robot”. There’s still plenty of goofiness inherent to Tom Baker’s take on the character, but it’s moderated here by a seriousness that was often elusive in the previous story. I’m glad to see it, because the Doctor in “Robot” was rather annoying, and I’m not sure I would have enjoyed watching that for several more seasons. This Doctor, on the other hand, particularly in combination with a solid duo for Companions, feels far more natural.

As the first introduction to the “real” Fourth Doctor status quo, this was a solid outing. It was certainly better than much of the latter seasons of the Pertwee era, which was a period marked by a slow but steady degradation of concept. This feels a lot more fresh as a result, and I look forward to seeing how it evolves from this beginning.

Writing: 2/2
Acting: 2/2
Direction: 1/2
Style: 2/4

Final Rating: 7/10

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