Doctor Who: The Ark in Space Review

First broadcast in January/February 1975, The Ark in Space was the second story of Tom Baker’s seven years as the Fourth Doctor. The previous story, the lacklustre Robot, was reminiscent of much of the Pertwee era, with its near-future Earth setting, UNIT, and the rest. The Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (the late Ian Marter) arrive in the TARDIS on a deserted space station. This is Nerva, orbiting a far-future Earth devastated by solar flares. The last of the human race is held in suspended animation. But what no-one knows is that Nerva has been infiltrated by an insectoid alien race, the Wirrn, who have laid their eggs and absorbed the technical knowledge of one of the sleeping humans…

The Ark in Space, written by Robert Holmes from an uncredited outline by John Lucarotti, marked an important change behind the scenes of Doctor Who. It was the first story produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and the second with Holmes as script editor. (Holmes had done some uncredited editing work on the previous season.) Hinchcliffe and Holmes were in place for three seasons, and pushed the series in a more adult direction, not afraid to be horrific at times. Too much so for many people, including Mary Whitehouse, who frequently complained about the level of violence and horror in a supposed children’s programme. This led to a written apology from the BBC (about a scene in the Holmes-scripted The Deadly Assassin). Hinchcliffe left after The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Holmes shortly afterwards, the series was toned down and played more for laughs, and Doctor Who was never the same again. A great pity, as for many people – myself included – the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era was a high point. I was ten when The Ark in Space was first broadcast and like many people of my generation I received my basic education in SF and horror from Doctor Who (not forgetting Star Trek).

The Ark in Space is fascinating to watch nowadays as it deals with “body horror” themes a good few years earlier than Alien or The Thing. David Cronenberg had made Shivers the previous year, but at the time he was little known outside horror/exploitation fans. The fear of your body changing from within you became even more current in the following decade, but it’s very much present, and potent, here. The BBFC have given The Ark in Space a U certificate, presumably because the special effects are so dated (as are the 70s fashions). The flesh of mutating astronaut Noah (Kenton Moore) is exactly what it looks like – bubblewrap painted green. Maybe today’s children have moved on, but if you can suspend your disbelief then parts of this story still have the power to chill the blood. Even if you aren’t hiding behind the chair, there’s still much to enjoy in a tense, well-paced adventure. Notice how Holmes and director Rodney Bennett keep up the suspense in the first episode, when only the three regulars appear on screen.

All Doctor Who stories from the Baker era onwards are preserved in the BBC archives. Even so, some restoration work had to be done on the existing videotape, mostly restoring dropouts. (For further information, see the Restoration Team website.) All of The Ark in Space was shot on video, which gives a slightly soft look to the image. But even so, there’s very little wrong with this: some aliasing, but nothing objectionable. As you might expect for a 70s TV programme, the DVD transfer is in the 4:3 ratio. As usual for a BBC DVD, it is encoded for both Regions 2 and 4.

The soundtrack is the original mono. It was designed to be heard that way, and listened to via far lower-spec sound systems than available today. It’s a professionally recorded track with all that implies: dialogue, sound and music well balanced but nothing to stretch a 5.1 system. There are the usual twenty-four chapter stops, six per episode, two of the six being the credits sequences. You have the option of watching the story in one go, or an episode at a time. Hard-of-hearing subtitles are provided for both the feature and the commentary. As with earlier Doctor Who discs, there are information subtitles (provided by Richard Molesworth), which are often very useful and sufficiently detailed to satisfy the most ardent trivia fan, though long lists of people’s credits do become tiresome.

The main extra is a commentary by Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Philip Hinchcliffe. This is one of the better commentaries on a Doctor Who disc. Baker, after a slow start, is entertaining to listen to, and Sladen’s contributions are worthwhile. Hinchcliffe goes into some detail about the behind the scenes work.

Inevitably the special effects look less convincing nowadays: obvious models betray the usual low BBC budget, not to mention a quarter-century of advances in the craft. On this disc are 1:31 of CGI effects as an extra, each recreating the original shots with today’s technology. You have the option of watching the feature with these shots instead of the original ones. Whether you would want to do this is another matter: the wonky effects are part of the programme’s charm – and you do have to recognise the effects departments ingenuity in the face of severe time and budget pressures. I found that the CGI effects sat uneasily with the obviously real and constructed interiors. Those sets, one of the highpoints of The Ark in Space was the work of production designer Roger Murray-Leach. In an interview (running 10:25) Murray-Leach talks about his experiences on this and other Doctor Who stories. As the production designer is someone who tends to be overlooked on TV and film, it’s nice to see one being showcased here. Murray-Leach is an engaging interviewee, and this is one extra I could easily rewatch. I expressed some surprise above about this DVD being given a U certificate. The BBFC have evidently overlooked one profanity from Murray-Leach at the end of his interview.

The other extras include a stills gallery, and space station schematics (1:08), which is an extra that’s a bit too anoraky for my liking. There is also 16mm film of model effects (7:09), an unused title sequence (0:42), and a BBC trailer for Episode One (0:50), all of which I doubt you’ll watch more than once. “Tardis-Cam” is a brand-new CGI sequence made by BBC Interactive. It lasts 1:23 and, unlike the rest of this DVD’s contents, is in 16:9 anamorphic. Finally, there’s an interview by a BBC local news crew with Tom Baker, on location at Wookey Hole for the same season’s Revenge of the Cybermen, which was broadcast before Baker had appeared on screen as the Doctor. Highlight the logo on the Episode menu for an Easter Egg: the onscreen countdown to the studio recording of Part Two.

There are two other Easter Eggs, both short advertisements featuring Tom Baker for the Doctor Who Exhibition in Blackpool. One of them appears after the end of Part Four. For the other, click left from the Tom Baker interview in the extra’s menu, and a Doctor Who logo should appear.

The Ark in Space is one of the strongest stories of Tom Baker’s era. It began a three-year run which for many people was never surpassed. This DVD certainly shows the programme to its best advantage, and as usual the BBC has made a well-thought out disc with some good extras.

8 out of 10
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