Part of what makes the works of Robert Holmes so great is his incredibly diverse range as a writer. With other authors, they have certain "trademarks" that give away who the writer is even if you don't see the name (ie: the Terrance Dicks scripts oftentimes have a sort of "classic Hammer Horror film" feel to them). And although Holmes did sometimes write scripts that were very similiar to each other in certain ways (ie: "Power Of Kroll" and "Caves Of Androzani" or "The Krotons" and "Mysterious Planet"), it is almost spellbinding to view all the stories he wrote and realise they were by the same man. Just because those stories could be sometimes be so radically different from each other.
"Ark In Space" is an excellent example of a radically different Robert Holmes script. It focusses on being creepy and clausterphobic. With characters who are actually doing their best to not be colourful. There are no "double acts" either. Holmes isn't even trying to make some kind of symbolic outcry against eating meat or the British tax system. This is just pure, undiluted, fantastic storytelling. And it's Holmes just about at his very best here. Probably the only script he's written that beats this one is "Deadly Assassin". In my books, at least.
There's a lot of praise to heap on this story and it's rather difficult to know where to start. One of the things that I definitely like is that it's radically different, in tone, from the previous story. If "Robot" was to be an indication of what the new season would be like, we would be expecting a whole bunch of "leftover Perwee" stories. But, as we finish up this tale and suddenly go off to Nerva Beacon, we see that the show is definitely moving off in a different direction. A direction it hasn't gone in in a while. This hard-core space opera again - not some earthbound UNIT story with the Doctor toiling away at a scientific device that will save the day while soldiers clamour about uselessly. And I, for one, am glad this radical change was occurring. The Pertwee era is not one of my favourites.
It is interesting to note how much the Doctor suddenly seems to "settle down" for this story. In Robot, he's eccentric to the point of near-insanity. But, suddenly, he's become calmer and more reserved. This trend continues for the next few stories and throughout most of the early seasons of Baker's tenure. Only as we near the end of his travels with Leela does Doctor Four start to really go for the laughs. Although I had little problems with the funnier days of Tom Baker - I am, at least, thankful that he played the role so straightly for the first little while. It shows that he did take the role seriously. Which, admittedly, is something one is not so sure about during some of the debacles of the Key To Time or Season 17.
Anyway, enough comments about the show itself. Let's move on to the specific story.
We begin with a very nice series of opening shots showing the death of the Wirrn. Only, we haven't been told what these shots really mean yet. Thus creating a very wonderful sense of intrigue. A great way to start the story that got me interested, right away, in what this whole montage of scenes was supposed to mean.
Then the TARDIS lands. The story, admittedly, does take a bit of time to really get rolling. But, given we're the second story into a new Doctor, this works in this context. And Holmes was smart enough to inject a sufficient amount of intrigue and danger into the mix to keep us interested. In a matter of minutes, the TARDIS crew nearly suffocates, then gets attacked by an auto-defence device whilst poor Sarah gets T-matted away to a cryogenics chamber. It's a crackling pace, in some ways. Whilst, at the same time, "filling in some time" nicely until we can get to the real plot.
As we finally reach the cryogenic honeycombs, we start to really get the gist of what's going on. Earth has gone to bed to avoid a catastrophe. But, just like those "crazy Silurians and Sea Devils" all those many years before, something went wrong with the plan. They've overslept. And while they slept, a proverbial cuckoo bird has moved into the nest to push their eggs out.
Even with the limitations of budget, there's some amazingly creepy and dramatic moments that take place as the story progresses. The eye in the solar stack or Noah fighting his own transforming hand are just a few of the better examples of this. They effects look horrifically cheap, but still inspire some level of legitimate horror because of the way the actors seem to overcome the cheapness of those effects.
We also get one of the best monologues in the series history with the famous "Homo-Sapiens" speech. Colin Baker's "In all my travellings throughout the universe I have always fought against evil" speech is still my all-time favourite. But, once again, Ark In Space is ranking a very close second place.
Robert Holmes also shows off that he doesn't need to populate his stories with eccentric characters in order to make the plot interesting. Both Earthlings and Wirrn are highly functional characters that evoke both menace and pathos at various times throughout the plot. This is probably what impresses me the most about his writing style in this particular story. It's almost like he's trying to be "anti-Robert-Holmes" (which, of course, cannot exist in our universe unshielded!) and he does a very good job at this. Thus proving that he is an amazing writer by resisting all the various nuances that made him so well-liked as an author and focussing on telling a story in a style he's never tried before. And, as the story progresses along, I can only be amazed at what he's able to do even when he's writing in a completely different style.
The clausterphobia of the last two episodes moves to unparelled creepy heights. Those Wirrn costumes really do look pretty unconvincing. Yet still, as they try all kinds of nasty tricks to wipe out the few conscious humans, we really find ourselves caught up in the threat of it all. And Holmes ends things in a very unique way as we see the Doctor couldn't totally save the day on his own. It took that last shred of humanity in Noah to truly resolve the conflict.
Finally we get some nice story-to-story continuity as the Doctor begins the adventure by yelling at Harry for what he did in the last minute of Robot and then gets the transmat working so that they can head off to "Sontaran Experiment". Also a nice touch that he really does grab a piece of the inspection hatch that will save his life in the next story. I love nice little touches like that. And that's what makes Ark In Space another "classic" Who tale. It's just chocked full of nice little touches. Collectively, all these "little touches" come together to present a gorgeous overall theme and storyline that truly takes one's breath away at how inventive the series can be with what could have been a bog-standard "space station/base under seige" plotline in anyone else's hands but Robert's.
Let's face it, the late Mister Holmes was just-plain amazing and Doctor Who was truly blessed to have had him write so many stories for the show. And Ark In Space is an excellent example of that blessing. Especially since it shows off just how incredible of a range this man had. I still get a bit sad that he's gone. No other writer left quite the mark that he did.
‘The Ark in Space’ is one of those Doctor Who stories that I remember as an apex of horror from my childhood; it has been literally over a decade since I last saw it, and fans don’t need to be told that with this series in particular we must revisit childhood with caution, lest we die broken-hearted. And, indeed, there were things that did disappoint me about ‘The Ark in Space’ – the model work is especially poor – but all in all, I thought it stood up rather well. It is not quite the classic of repute, but it is a thoughtful story, and creepy enough, especially considering its budget.
The main problems I had were in the first two episodes. This is not a great Sarah Jane story - she doesn’t do much except get into trouble, and Elisabeth Sladen’s squawking approach here is a bit tedious. The pace is sluggish, and, as I said, the exterior shots of Nerva really saddened me. (The CGI replacements on the DVD are improvements, sort of, but they still jar horribly with the overall production aesthetic.) Most of the interior shots, too, looked like they’d been filmed in a high-school band room – I know the spareness of design is deliberate, but the whole thing just looks cheap, even for Doctor Who. Still, director Rodney Bennett uses the camera very effectively – he peeks around corners, and from across rooms, in such a way that we’re never quite sure whether we’re getting a monster’s-eye view or not. Quite effectively scary.
But things pick up considerably in Episode Three, and the final two episodes are very watchable indeed. The narrative moves better, Sarah gets to crawl around in a shaft, and the mature Wirrn costumes/puppets work surprisingly well (especially considering how silly the dead queen looks in the early part of the story). Harry, although initially twittering, establishes himself as one of the most likeable companions – amusing in his Wodehouseian verbal tics, but certainly no idiot, and brave and serious enough too; in other words, Harry Sullivan may *talk* like an upper-class ass, but he’s not a *comic* character. And the handling of Noah’s ultimate fate, and his continued devotion to his mate Vira, is extremely moving.
But the most interesting thing about the story is its thematic content. ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ chooses to read it in an optimistic light, indeed calling it “Robert Holmes’s most optimistic script, where he defends humanity (the instinctive Rogin) against insect-like conformity.” One can certainly make an argument for this, but such a reading seems to ignore some of the script’s obvious ironies. ‘The Ark in Space’ ends on a happy note, it is true, and does so on the strength of selflessly ‘human’ actions on the part of Rogin and Noah. And yet casting the story as a battle between the ‘instinctive’ human and ‘insect-like conformity’ is a strange interpretation – at the end of the day, the human race is still more insect-like than ever before, segmented away into individual honeycomb cocoons, and led by the stiff, unimaginative Vira (perhaps the most ‘insect-like’ of the humans we meet). In fact, the whole point of Holmes’s story seems to be that humans are fighting the very thing they are becoming – his (very funny) choice to play the High Minister’s jingoistic hymn to humanity over Noah’s horrific transformation gives us a perfect symbol for the story’s horror and essential pessimism. Even the Doctor’s celebrated (if slightly florid) “Homo sapiens!” speech, delivered in the face of the human ‘hive,’ contains bitter insights into human adaptability (and its dangers), and Baker’s sarcastic reading of the speech backs up this interpretation.
And what of the Wirrn themselves? Well, their ‘conformist’ nature remains up in the air too. Of course, it is impossible to say just how much of the Swarm Leader’s discourse is ‘his’ own thoughts and how much is Noah’s, but it cannot be denied that there is a tragedy, even a poetry, in the creature’s account of their war with the humans and the destruction of their once-peaceful society. The Wirrn are not simple monsters; true, they cannot be considered entirely sympathetic, as their actions against Earth are motivated wholly by revenge. But it must be pointed out that the desire for revenge in itself is an emotion-driven mindset (or an ‘instinct’-driven one, if you prefer) and that really doesn’t support an ‘instinctive human vs. functional insect’ reading of the story. Yes, the Doctor ultimately sides with the humans – but he does so in the context of ambiguities that lend ‘The Ark in Space’ a most satisfying adult quality.
Ultimately, an entertaining story, and an interesting one.
Whilst 'Robot' succeeded in establishing the new Doctor and the relationship between him and his companions, it is in many ways a hangover from the Pertwee era. Having established the new status quo, however it leads into 'The Ark in Space', arguably the first proper Tom Baker story and a shining example of the influence of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes.
From the start, 'The Ark in Space' has the feel of a new direction. After the cosy feel of much of the Pertwee era, this story is noticeably different in feel. Almost immediately, the story creates a feeling of claustrophobia, as the Doctor, Harry and Sarah find themselves trapped in a small room rapidly running out of oxygen, and the setting remains uncomfortable throughout. The fact that it is set entirely on a space station means that there is no easy way to escape the threat of the Wirrn (given the Doctor's steadfast refusal to abandon humanity in the TARDIS), and their increasing stranglehold on the Ark gives a constant feeling that the TARDIS crew and Vira's small group are running out of places to hide. The sublimely creepy incidental music enhances this effect, as do the magnificent sets, which are some of the series' best. The use of bright white sets gives the Ark a sterile look, which contrasts beautifully with the cold expanse of space visible through the windows in the corridors, creating a cold, stark feel, but the detail inherent in the designs also avoids making the sets look drab.
The structure of 'The Ark in Space' adds to the story's success. Episode One features just the Doctor, Harry and Sarah, and unfolds relatively slowly. However, at no point does it feel padded, because almost everything advances the plot. The scene with the autoguard could initially seem like filler, until it later becomes clear that it was this that destroyed the Wirrn Queen. The Doctor and Harry's exploration of the silent Ark adds to the eeriness of the atmosphere and further contributes to the plot, as the Doctor deduces his location and the nature of the Ark. Aside from providing information for the audience, this also makes the Doctor look rather good. Once the humans on board the Ark start to wake up, events gather pace, and the story flies by as the threat of the Wirrn grows rapidly. Even the cliffhangers advance the plot, rather than simply being dramatic moments forced into the script to provide an exciting break every twenty-five minutes; Episode One concludes with the discovery of the Wirrn Queen, answering the question of what precisely entered the Ark; Episode Two culminates the revelation that Noah is transforming, further elucidating the nature of the threat; and Episode Three ends with Noah's final transformation into an adult Wirrn, showing us the final, most deadly stage of their development, shortly after the Doctor has grimly informed us that adult Wirrn will be a thousand times more dangerous than the larvae. Even Episode Four follows this pattern, dovetailing nicely into the start of 'The Sontaran Experiment', and contributing to a linked feel to the season that harkens back to the program's early days.
With Sarah sidelined for much of Episode One and no other characters present until Episode Two, it falls to Tom Baker and Ian Marter to carry the episode, and they do so with panache. The rapport between them, established in 'Robot', continues apace, resulting in some great moments, as the Doctor explains the nature of the Ark to a sceptical Harry. This is perhaps more effective than it would have been with Sarah, given Sarah's experience of travel within the TARDIS. Despite being rather out of his depth however, Harry soon starts to acclimatize to being thousands of years into the future and continues to prove his usefulness, despite his bumbling reputation; he is able to apply long out-dated medical skills to help Vira revive her people, and helps Rogin tackle the Wirrn larvae in Episode Three. Even his desire to escape in the TARDIS when things begin to appear hopeless in Episode Four seems more honest and realistic than cowardly. Tom Baker continues to impress as the Doctor, and gets some brilliant lines of dialogue, especially in his scenes with Harry, which are all part of Episode One's success. I love the bit where Harry guesses that the Ark is some kind of survival measure and the Doctor tells him that he is improving. Harry's rather pleased look quickly gives way to ruefulness as the Doctor adds that it is entirely due to his influence, and that Harry mustn't take any credit. Aside from being amusing, it demonstrates Marter's comic timing. The Doctor gets many other great lines, such as "My doctorate is purely honorary and Harry's only qualified to work on sailors", and "An ordinary brain. But mine is exceptional!" Despite this humour however, the story is rife with suspense throughout and whilst he demonstrates a knack for wit, Baker also imbues his Doctor with other qualities. He's convincingly portentous when describing the threat posed by the Wirrn, and for all his eccentricity he quickly gains Vira's trust, simply by generating a general air of trustworthiness.
Most interestingly of all in my opinion is the Doctor's motivation for getting involved, which is established by his famous speech about humanity's achievements in Episode One, and is summed up later by his line "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species". 'The Ark in Space' is a story in which the Doctor and his companions have the option of fleeing in the TARDIS, but the Doctor refuses to do so because people need his help. This reflects his attitude back in 'The Tomb of the Cybermen' when he remained on Telos to help Parry's expedition members survive the results of their folly, despite his ability to leave whenever he wished, and it really sums up his character. Indeed, his commitment to helping humanity is such that he is prepared to sacrifice himself in Episode Four. Perhaps more interesting still, is the side he chooses; the Wirrn, the script informs us, have been gravely wronged by humanity in the past and are striving to survive. The Wirrn ultimately have as much right to survive as humanity, but the Doctor sides against them. This is probably largely due to his tendency to side with the underdog in any circumstances, given that the Wirrn are so dangerous, but the fact that he actually acknowledges favoritism towards humans is an intriguing insight into his character. This is doubly interesting because of Holmes' script, which initially shows us an almost fascist society of the future, where people are valued solely by their abilities (as suggested by Vira's casual questioning of Sarah's value). Prior to being infected by the Wirrn, Noah is callous and ruthless, prepared to destroy the Doctor and his friends rather than risk contamination of the gene pool. This raises all manner of implications about eugenics and elitism in the society preserved on board the Ark. Humanity's general state is further suggested by the attitudes of Libri, Lycett and Vira, all of whom are reluctant to take on responsibilities outside of their allotted roles. However, having established this rather pessimistic template of humanity's future, Holmes immediately sets out to thwart it; despite his ruthlessness, Noah ultimately saves the humans on board the Ark, as his underlying humanity allows him to lead the Wirrn into space, and to destruction. Rogin, in stark contrast to Lycett, is an instantly recognizable character type, emerging from cryogenic suspension cynical, sarcastic and resolutely individual. He's a marvellous character, played perfectly by Richardson Morgan, and represents humanity's finer aspects just as much as Noah's sacrifice. He too sacrifice's himself, saving both the Doctor and his people in the process.
Whilst the Doctor and Harry carry Episode One, Sarah too gets some good moments during 'The Ark in Space', mainly in Episode Four, when she reminds the Doctor about the shuttlecraft and of course takes the cable through the ducting. Sladen's acting is as good as ever, and she conveys Sarah's increasing panic as she keeps getting stuck in the tunnels very well. The guest cast is also very good, with the unfortunate exception of Christopher Masters as the wooden Libri. Wendy Williams is very good as the cold, aloof Vira, who gradually become more human as she comes to trust the Doctor and struggles to save her people. Kenton Moore's tortured performance as Noah is crucial to the success of the story, as he struggles against the influence of the Wirrn in his mind. It is quite remarkable that in Episode Three he acts so well with a bubble plastic glove that the scene is genuinely disturbing.
Finally of course, there are the Wirrn. In both forms they are startlingly effective; the larvae are obviously made of bubble plastic, but the story is so well directed that somehow they remain convincing. The actual Wirrn look pretty good, but the limitations of the costumes become obvious when they move; nevertheless, they still manage to look great. Although recognizably insects, they also look suitably alien. From a story point of view, they are an awesome menace, difficult to destroy, about to swarm on mass, and totally hostile. Even with Noah's influence, the Wirrn cannot be negotiated with; their existence is anathema to that of human kind. Their ability to absorb and assimilate humans is effective and disturbing, (Noah's "I am Dune" in Episode Two is surprisingly chilling), and they have an unstoppable, terrifying feel throughout. Even the Doctor is hard pressed to defeat them; at best he only reaches a kind of stalemate when he electrifies the cryogenic chamber, and ultimately it falls takes the last vestiges of Noah's humanity to destroy them from within.
In summary, 'The Ark in Space' is a triumph and superb start for the new producer.