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The Ark - Donald's Tosh or John's Wiles?

Video Review by Philip J. Gray

The release of The Ark on video provides an opportunity to re-examine an example of one of the more neglected, yet most innovative, production eras of Doctor Who. A time when the Doctor and his young friends could go anywhere, to any time, and when the programme's boundaries seemed without limit. And yet also a time of unprecedented death and destruction, when a companion could join the Doctor one week, and die the next...

The sequence of stories from Galaxy 4 to The War Machines encapsulates some of the most innovative, creative story-telling in Doctor Who. Consider the most dedicated viewer, catapulted in a matter of months from the Noel Coward-esque sophistication of the Trojan Myth Makers, to a galactic epic with the Daleks at their most universe-conquering and devious (“The Daleks have finally won!”), to the horrors of The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, the fantastic games played out in the Toymaker's domain, and the antics of the gun-toting Wild West... When would Doctor Who ever again showcase such a variety of locations and creative styles?

The Ark remains one of the great ‘what-ifs’ of Doctor Who. What if... Producer John Wiles and Story Editor Donald Tosh had remained in the production and creative hotseats? What if their run of stories had not been superceded by the stereotyped cliché of the ‘small group of humans in a base under attack’ format which dominated the Troughton era, with noticeably diminishing returns, and which did so much to restrict Doctor Who in the eyes of the public as a ‘science fiction’ programme?

‘Epic’ is probably the defining adjective for The Ark. The grandeur of the story's conception is matched admirably by the production. From the Commander's interminable speeches about the destiny of the human race, to the wide-ranging camera angles and the feeling of enormous space created by Barry Newbery's sets, all the elements of production conspire to convey to the viewer a feeling of something higher that the surrounding stories. The jungle set and the Guardians' control area provide a real sense of size, combined with director Michael Imison's constant attempts through innovative cinematography and direction to remind the viewer that the events really are taking place on a grand scale.

Among the regulars, Hartnell's performance is one of his more competent, but the decline has visibly begun. Although there is little obvious fluffing of lines, the proportion of ‘my dears’, sighs, and breathless delivery has increased significantly over Hartnell's first two years in the role. It's at this point in the series' history that one begins to see how much Hartnell's performance has degenerated (although it remains my contention that The Massacre would have us all re-examining our opinions of Hartnell's acting ability).

What can one say about Dodo? An ‘instant’ character, she is given relatively little opportunity to develop during the four episodes, aside from token attempts to remind the viewer that she fulfils the ‘audience identification’ function for the younger viewers. Dodo seems to be the vehicle for what appears to be a distinctly contemporary middle class, middle-aged BBC view of young people, with her penchant for ‘trendy’ clothes, her irreverent disrespect for the authority represented by the Doctor (although not, interestingly enough, by the Commander), and her ‘fab’ contemporary language. (“Hey, that's gear!”) The Doctor's attempts to insist on ‘proper“ English at several points in the story (including at the singularly inappropriate time when a vaccine for the influenza epidemic is needed) is a watered-down echo of the Reithian ethic, a dim reminder of the BBC's unresolvable struggle between education and entertainment.

Jackie Lane's somewhat theatrical performance comes across relatively well when contrasted with the performances of Inigo Jackson as Zentos (who seems to have stepped out of a John Osborne ‘Angry young man’ play of the 1950s), or Eric Elliott as the Commander (an older archetype: ‘Anyone for tennis’, forty years on: “Why, we're all friends here!”). The other characters are particularly indistinguishable, even for this period: the Commander's daughter Mellium is not strongly distinguishable from Venussa, with whom Steven spends most of the third and fourth episodes.

The Ark, also, however, has another function: bookend to a period of unprecedented destruction and uncertainty for the series. The stability of the TARDIS' crew in the first two seasons has given way to a parade of short-lived companions, none of whom the viewers would find easy to identify with. In Season Three, the Doctor and his companions are forever landing in places where death and disaster are imminent, and over which the Doctor has little control. The fiery destruction of the unnamed planet in Galaxy 4; the fall of Troy, with all the consequences familiar to viewers from legend; the unprecedented deaths in succession of not just one, but two companions; and the slaughter of the Protestants in sixteenth-century France. When compared to the ‘family adventures’ of the first two seasons (adventures with cavemen! The TARDIS crew are miniaturised! The Daleks invade London!), Doctor Who in Season Three took a decidedly apocalyptic turn.

What The Ark represents is an opportunity for the Doctor and his companions (and by extension the wider series) to redeem themselves. Initially, Dodo's cold seems certain to wipe out the remnants of humanity, continuing the pattern of catastrophe as the last remnants of humanity flee from the imminent destruction of the Earth. But this time, the Doctor is allowed to intervene, and save the day. Note the contrast with his failure to do so in The Massacre, the reaction this provokes from Steven (which leads to Dodo's joining the TARDIS crew), and how far the series has progressed from the formerly resolute ‘non-interference’ approach articulated most succinctly in The Aztecs.

The Ark is, at heart, an exciting adventure in the far future in which the Doctor and his friends assist the survivors of the human race to journey to their new home. After all the death and destruction of the previous few stories, perhaps The Ark is a form of redemption for the Doctor and his travels. A redemption soon to be accompanied by another form of transformation. Would it be going too far to speculate that the first Doctor died eventually not of old age, but to atone for the sins of his final few adventures? Perhaps.

The Ark will probably have little appeal to modern audiences. The story consists on the whole of people talking to each other in little groups, with very little action. Effects, while noticeably sophisticated for the period, will almost certainly be compared unfavourably with their modern counterparts. So why watch the story? As I've already suggested, watch it for the breadth of concept and execution. Watch it to see the beginning of a new kind of storytelling - one in which the Doctor and his friends can, and do, make a difference. Watch it see an era of Doctor Who sadly neglected in the rush for Troughton and the Seventies. Watch it for Hartnell. (Or for Dodo, if you must.) But above all, watch it - and you'll find an excellent example of when there seemed no barriers - in either time or space - to where or when the Doctor and his companions could find themselves.

And isn't that a more exciting prospect than yet another attempted alien invasion of South-East England?

This item appeared in TSV 58 (September 1999).

Index nodes: The Ark