Doctor Who: The Ark Review

The First Doctor’s companion Dodo nearly wipes out the last of humanity with a runny nose in this 1965 far-future epic

In The Ark, the Doctor (William Hartnell), Steven (Peter Purves) and the newly recruited Dodo (Jackie Lane) arrive at what appears to be a zoo, but this is just a small part of where they have landed. It transpires that they are aboard a massive spherical spaceship where mankind and the rest of Earth’s creatures have been ‘stored’ in miniaturised form in order to escape their soon-to-be destroyed home planet. This ‘Ark’ does have people –the Guardians- living aboard to guide the ship and procreate so that their heirs can take their place on what is a centuries’ long journey. Joining them on this journey are the Monoids, a race of one-eyed, mop-topped menials who are apparently happy to serve the humans in return for passage to the humans’ destination, Refusis, so that they too can escape a dying planet.

Unfortunately for the Doctor’s party, Dodo has brought a cold with her which endangers the humans aboard the Ark (and the Monoids) who have no resistance to this long-extinct ailment. Obviously this causes them to be a mite unpopular to the humans, especially Zentos (Inigo Jackson) who is suspicious of them from the get-go, and so the Doctor et al must defend themselves in a trial that could see them executed, as well as find a cure for the common cold.

The Ark is an interesting adventure in many ways. It’s the only complete story of John Wiles’s short stint as producer that exists in the archives and the one that was his own personal project, and therefore the best representative of what he wanted to do with the series (It’s not his best story, however, that would be The Massacre). It also plays on the expectations of the audience in a way that could only be done in that first 3 year period where serials were not given umbrella titles, but individual episode titles. So, for the first time we see a four episode story split into two parts where, at the end of episode two the audience is led to believe that the Doctor has solved a crisis rather more quickly than usual, but in fact a Tardis quirk sets them down in the same location, hundreds of years apart. So we get to see the ramifications of the Doctor’s previous visit in episodes three and four and some disastrous unintended consequences that allow for a second adventure.

There’s a lot to praise in the first two episodes of The Ark. The production is ambitious, with panoramic shots of a spacious spaceship; real animals where one would expect stock footage and wonderful model effects, probably the best yet seen in the series. (At least as far as we know – Galaxy Four, for instance, is completely missing from the archives without any proper telesnaps to suggest what it might’ve contained, but it’s doubtful that anything there, or in any other lost serial, would come close to the excellent execution of the model work seen here). The Monoids are an ingenious creation, at least from the neck up, with an eye made from a ping-pong ball stuck in the actor’s mouth that really sold them as alien beings. Also ingenious is, because of their inability to speak, they communicate with sign language with interpreters helping the humans to convey instructions to and responses from the unique looking creatures.

But the main thrust of this first part of the story is a weakness. There’s some jeopardy, but the script is flat and uninspired and the Doctor’s ‘treatment’ for the cold is laughable today. But ultimately this part of the story is a great success for sixties viewers who would have marvelled at the sumptuous look of the piece and be completely shocked at the end of episode two, when the Doctor and co., appearing to move onto another adventure, find themselves in the same place hundreds of years in the future and discover that the half-finished human statue that was being built in the period before, had now been completed – with a Monoid head.

There are a several things to say about this development. One is that it’s a real humdinger of a cliffhanger, one of those lovely conceptual ones they rarely did, instead of the random jeopardy the audience was accustomed to (The Space Museum end of episode one is another). And two, it’s a rare instance of the time machine aspect of the Tardis being employed as more than just a magical box to place our heroes into new adventures (again, The Space Museum is another example of this rare phenomenon). A third is to point out that after these rare occurrences, like The Space Museum, the story takes a tumble into clichéd territory. But at least we get two good episodes of Who before this unfortunate dip, unlike the earlier story’s one – and not such a steep dip either.

So, what happened? Well the Monoids gain voices and become like any other generic Doctor Who monster, wanting dominion over Refusis in the same way as they now have over the people in the Ark. So generic are they, they aren’t even given names, just numbers, Monoid One (Edmund Coulter; voice-Roy Skelton) being the leader. Now, there is some sympathy to be felt for the Monoids. They were, after all, treated as second class citizens previously. The fact that John Wiles was South African is of note when mentioning this, but their treatment of the humans is obviously meant to leave no ambiguity as to their nefariousness.

These episodes are not totally without merit. Episode three is worth a watch for the Monoid One line “Take them away to the Security Kitchen” alone, which is as surreal as anything in The Prisoner (who is also just a number), and the daftest detention location in all science fiction. Dafter still is that no-one seems to have escaped the Kitchen, what with the many knives, pans of boiling water et cetera. It’s also interesting that the Doctor’s cure partway aided the Monoids in securing their new position. The Doctor has been responsible for disasters before (and since), but these were usually accidents of the script and never commented upon.

There’s still some excellent model work too, particularly the reconnaissance launcher sequnces. Interest is maintained when the Ark actually reaches Refusis, but the Refusians themselves are invisible, all powerful beings, so their ability to deal with the dangerous Monoid statue is as close to a literal Deus Ex Machina as it is possible to get. The invisiblity effects are a marvel, though.

In that Monoid statue we get the hoary old bomb standby, suggesting that experienced screen writer Paul Erickson saw Doctor Who as beneath him, and went straight to the standard clichés and H.G. Wells in particular. But what of his co-credited wife Lesley Scott? Should she not shoulder some of the blame? Well, all evidence points to her having no involvement in the script at all, though it gained her the distinction of having the first female writer’s credit on the programme.

So it’s a game of two halves, one pretty decent the other hopelessly derivative, though it doesn’t outstay its welcome due to its short length, making the story as a whole more than the sum of its parts. For a sixties serial it’s got a lot in it, a lot that would have impressed at the time, which is the only fair way to judge it. However, in general the audience was dwindling and Producer Wiles was getting out because of his difficult working relationship with the show’s star. Hartnell was growing increasingly tetchy as a result of his medical condition, arteriosclerosis and his proprietorial nature about the show, which he saw as his, resulted in friction Wiles couldn’t abide. Hartnell’s time on the show was fast running out and plans to replace him would be approved once Innes Lloyd was installed as producer from the next story.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this was a story created in a bad atmosphere compounded further by director Michael Imison being handed his cards just as he started the project, and frankly the result is a damned sight better than it had any right to be. So one should be more forgiving that the end result isn’t perfect.


This 2Entertain release is 1 disc encoded for Region 2

On inserting the disc, before the Main Menu, an Audio Navigation Menu is offered. The story and all extras apart from the commentary are subtitled. With the Video the Restoration Team have done their usual bang-up job, which on some of these older shows does them no favours with visible wires and boom shadows et cetera that would never have been noticed on first broadcast. Considering the source’s 45 year-old origin, the picture is bright and clear. The Audio is the original mono and fine piece of work.

Now the Extras

The Commentary
A fine track helped along by Toby Hadoke’s fan knowledge and Peter Purves’s presenting skills. Michael Imison was a good choice as the most important man on this story – the Director.

All’s Wells That Ends Well (13.16) An all too brief main extra that’s in place of -along with the following doc – a making-of, but absorbing stuff nonetheless. It’s an account of how H.G.Wells influenced the show in general and The Ark in particular. Kim Newman is always a welcome sight in any documentary.

One Hit Wonders (4.36) can be seen as a kind of light-hearted, Monoid-centric adjunct to the main Wells extra. The same people (Newman again nailing, as he always does, my feelings on the subject) appear and it’s all very jolly and amusing. Too short though. The comparison to the New Series’ Ood is exactly what I was thinking while watching The Ark again.

The Riverside Story (20.20) This is nice. A tribute to Riverside studios, home to many an early Who story, presented by Matthew Sweet. A bit of televisual history and some welcome heft – with Peter Perves explaining frankly the behind-the-scenes troubles of William Hartnell – to an otherwise extras-lite release.

And finally, the obligatory features – Coming Soon (Mara Tales), Photo Gallery(3.31), Production Subtitles (provided this time by Jim Smith) but sadly again, it appears there’s no Easter Egg.


An above average release from 2Entertain, but a proper making of documentary could really have put the show’s problems in better context
David Anthony

Updated: Feb 21, 2011

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