Doctor Who: Revisiting THE ARK IN SPACE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: Revisiting THE ARK IN SPACE

Matthew Kresal is indomitable… indomitable!

When it comes to the Fourth Doctor era, few stories will excite a Classic Who fan, particularly one of a certain age, like mentioning The Ark In Space. It's everything good Doctor Who should be: spooky, adventure, and anchored by a strong performance from the actor playing the Doctor. Indeed, it's no wonder that it's considered a classic in many circles. But that it turned out how it did is all the more remarkable when one considers just how it came to be written.

1974 saw Robert Holmes became the script editor of the series that he had been contributing to for six years. One of his first duties overseeing Tom Baker's first season as the Doctor was to commission (apparently from a storyline sent in on spec) a story by Christopher Langley called Space Station. When sometime in the spring the scripts proved unworkable, Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe turned to experienced writer John Lucarotti (himself a veteran of three Hartnell-era historicals) to turn Space Station into a new set of scripts due to the same sets being used in the later story Revenge of the Cybermen. When Lucarotti’s script proved likewise unworkable, Holmes himself performed a complete re-write of the story at the instigation of his new producer, doing so in a mere eighteen days. That he did it in such record time is even more remarkable considering that what was eventually broadcast the following winter has come to be regarded as one of the best stories the series has ever produced.

In many respects, The Ark in Space is the archetypal Doctor Who story (no pun intended). Though it is indelibly etched in fans’ minds as the first space-bound adventure of the TARDIS crew of the Fourth Doctor, Harry Sullivan and Sarah Jane Smith, the story could almost feature any TARDIS crew in the show’s history. The first episode, for example, lends itself to many a Hartnell-era serial with the TARDIS arriving in a strange, new setting before an attempt to figure when and where they’ve landed. It could well be the opening minutes of a story like The Sensorites from the Hartnell era, itself an adventure that opens on an apparently abandoned spacecraft. From there, the story becomes something akin to the base-under-siege tales that filled the middle part of the Troughton era. One can see the same story being played out with the First Doctor, Ian and Barbara or with the Third Doctor, Jo Grant and Mike Yates, or with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, and Rory with very little having to be done to change it. It’s a story that takes in so much of what has made the show what it is and creates something that is, in many respects, the best of what it has to offer.

Like some of the series’ best stories it also draws from a range of influences. Perhaps the most obvious come from Nigel Kneale’s landmark Quatermass serials from the 1950s, especially The Quatermass Experiment. Like The Ark in Space, The Quatermass Experiment is a tale of alien possession and transformation, though with a more Earthbound setting after a rocket launched by the British Experimental Rocket Group crashes back to Earth with only one of its astronauts still left alive. Like Kneale’s earlier work, the Wirrn work through the assimilating and passing on of knowledge which help to further its gains. Indeed, there is echoes of it even in the dialogue with the scene in Part Two where Noah states, in a moment of confusion, “I am Dune” which echoes the scene in the second episode of Kneale’s serial where the surviving astronaut Caroon claims to be one of his fellow astronauts. Even the finale, with the transformed Noah luring the Wirrn onto the station’s space shuttle before destroying it, echoes the finale of Experiment where the titular Professor Quatermass appeals to whatever humanity remains inside the mutated creature to sacrifice itself to save the world from its infection, an ending that can be found throughout all of Kneale’s Quatermass serials.

There are additional echoes, too. In Part Three, in an attempt to discover the Wirrn’s weakness and find out what happened when the Wirrn queen first arrived, the Doctor hooks himself up to the eye membrane and relives its memories from shortly before its death. The Doctor finds the information he seeks but remains, for a moment, temporarily transformed mentally into a Wirrn by tapping into their insect-like hive mind. The sequence bears a striking resemblance to the optic-encephalogram and “the wild hunt” sequence from Kneale’s Quatermass serial, Quatermass and the Pit, where Quatermass and his team discover the truth behind a capsule found during excavations in London involving insect-like Martians and their experiments on mankind’s ancestors some five million years before. Perhaps it can be said, then, that The Ark in Space represents the combination of Kneale’s ideas taken into the far future rather than the present-day Britain of the Quatermass serials.

Yet, perhaps much like Holmes did with the 1970 adventure Spearhead From Space (which adapted elements of Kneale’s middle Quatermass serial), it takes ideas and puts a particularly Who spin on them. The story owes as much to its predecessors in the series as it does to Kneale, from the claustrophobic base-under-siege format to the juxtaposition of humans from the then present day meeting their more technologically advanced descendants and some hilarity ensuing. It’s the little moments of comedy that ensure that Holmes’ script separates itself from Kneale with moments like the TARDIS landing in Part One or the confused exchanges between the Doctor, Harry, and Vira in Part Two. There’s also the justifiably famous “indomitable” speech the Doctor gives in Part One, where the Time Lord praises humanity and gives Tom Baker’s Doctor his first great moment.

There are also other Holmes trademarks in play. In Part One Holmes give us another of his double-acts in the form of the Doctor and Harry, with both Tom Baker and Ian Marter nicely playing off each other not just there but throughout the entire story. Holmes also offers up just enough world building and explanations to both fill in the TARDIS crew (and audience) about what is happening and to leave one wishing to know more. Yet for all the business about how advanced the humans on Space Station Nerva are compared to the “regressives” that they fear the TARDIS crew to be, there’s no getting around the fact that Rogin (Richardson Morgan) talks and acts much like someone out of the then present day. While Rogin stands out like a sore thumb, Holmes’ writing of everyone else is pretty consistent and the performances from everyone involved helps with that.

For a script that was written in a little over two weeks, The Ark In Space is remarkable. In four episodes, Holmes managed to create an iconic story for the series that continues to captivate viewers more than four decades after it originally aired. More than that, Holmes also plays with elements of and tributes to one of the series’ spiritual forefathers, while also highlighting what makes his style of Doctor Who writing stand out among the dozens or so other writers who have contributed to the series. It’s no wonder, then, that this story remains a fan favorite: it’s a well written tale above all else.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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