I have to admit to some small confusion over the title of this story, given that there already has been a story titled "The Ark" in Doctor Who history and it was also set in space. So why does this one get "in space" while the other does not? A quibbling point, but it is something I like to poke a little fun at now and again whenever the opportunity arises. Please, do not begrudge me a harmless, petty amusement such as this.
The Ark In Space continues where Robot left off, with the new Doctor taking Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan for a trip in the TARDIS. The three of them arrive aboard a seemingly abandoned space station of the future, only to realise that it is in fact anything but. The humans that inhabit this station are merely in hibernation as part of a project to ensure humanity survives a disaster due to strike the Earth, with the intention that they wake up when the planet is habitable again and set about repopulating the planet. But something has gone rather badly wrong, and the humans have had their alarm clocks malfunction. They've overslept quite badly, but that's the least of their worries. There are intruders aboard the Ark other than the TARDIS crew, and their intentions are far less benevolant.
One of my main complaints about Robot is that it was really a Jon Pertwee story in disguise, largely thanks to the presence of UNIT. No such concerns with THe Ark in Space. This is the first "real" Fourth Doctor story in that it is the first serial that actually feels like one. The early portion of Tom Baker's time with the show is known largely for its emphasis on horror and that is something that we definitely get here.
The costumes and the sets are rather laughably bad at times, but it ultimately matters very little because the performances do a rather brilliant job of masking these limitations. Rather than focusing on the fact that his arm is just wrapped up in several layers of green painted bubble wrap, most people would be drawn in by Kenton Moore's performance as he tries in vain to resist the alien influence slowly taking over his body. His appearance multiple times throughout the story serve as a constant grim reminder of what fate awaits the sleeping humans if the alien menace is not stopped, and each time he does appear after his "infection" he becomes less and less human. Well, up until his final appearance when he becomes more human than he's ever been...
So the monster this week is terrifying. What of the regulars? Well, take everything I said about Tom Baker last week, and imagine him topping himself. I don't know how he did it, but he does. Completely, manic, witty, charming and alien. The Ark in Space even gives him a rather well known piece of dialogue that helps us understand just how much The Doctor has changed in his time since encountering two teachers in a junkyard so very long ago.
DOCTOR: Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they've crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are amongst the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable!
Humans are no longer a mere curiosity, a people to be saved, or thought low of. He actually thinks rather highly of us at this point, as a species. His opinion on individuals will inevitably vary. I doubt that it's the ingenuity that impresses him, or the level of technology. I think what is really impressing him is our will to survive.
And then there are the companions. Harry Sullivan is a character I feel a little bad for, in some ways. The original thinking was that they might cast an older Doctor and let Harry do all the physical activities... Tom Baker was cast instead, meaning The Doctor could do that sort of thing anyway. This left Harry a little out in the cold. HIs original purpose was now quite unnecessary. Even so, he has his uses in the plot. He is actually qualified in medicine, being a member of UNIT's medical staff. He has an old fashioned air about him, and attempts to be polite but does so in an accidentally condescending manner - particularly to Sarah Jane, who asks him to stop doing it. Sarah Jane Smith always surprises me with how much of a well rounded companion she is. Sometimes, she is strong and determined. Other times, she's scared out of her mind. This creates the impression that she's not just an archtype, she's a real person reacting to the situation she's in the same way a real person might react to it.
The Ark in Space is a story about humanity and what it means to be human. It is a horror story with a tremendous amount of hope. While the visual effects are a bit ropey, the performances and the dialogue carry it through making it into a timelessly enjoyable serial. This is the first really great Fourth Doctor story, and there's still better to come. Heartily recommended.
Tags: Relative Dimensions