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The Ark in Space. YES, it’s still THAT good!

June 18, 2014



Sometimes I am cautious about revisiting Doctor Who stories from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, just in case they turn out to be even slightly less special than I remember them.  Be assured.  The Ark in Space is still marvellous.

The most terrifying and destructive nemesis the Doctor ever confronted, Michael Grade (along with Jonathan Powell), once commented that he now admired the “filmic” ambition of the revived series.  Grade buys into the prevailing wisdom that “filmic” is always good (and videotape is always bad).  Modern Doctor Who stories aspire to the condition of cinema, because there is nobody around defending the essentially theatrical paradigm that governed the original series.  As for me, I’d rather watch a fine television drama than a crappy movie any day of the week. Film need not be the necessary teleological imperative of everything that’s filmed.

A nice comparison might be between Spearhead from Space and Ark in Space – both highly regarded Robert Holmes stories – one entirely on film, the other all videotape.  The former makes a perfectly passable movie in its own right – if it were to be shown as a continuous edit it would stand up reasonably well alongside medium budget British films made in 1969-70.

Ark in Space is something different.  It is something very specific to the highest aspirations of 1970s television.  It is theatrical and claustrophobic.   It has its own “look”.  Just hearing the three words “Ark in Space” recalls Roger Murray Leach’s deliciously uncanny sets for the Ark.  Roger Murray Leach is one of the great geniuses of his age, able to conjure up a self contained and sustainable reality on what now looks like a shoestring budget.  There’s a kind of eerie beauty to the Ark that Roger Murray Leach accomplished, a beauty which connects with the best traditions of early 70s sci fi and which has recently been re-echoed by Duncan Jones’ Moon.  You are always aware of the proximate emptiness and desolation of the cosmos.  Indeed, I believe I could probably watch 93 minutes of cameras wandering through the Ark to the accompaniment of Dudley Simpson’s score and enjoy a satisfying ambient experience.

But wait! There’s more! There’s acting and dialogue and monsters and stuff.  The Wirrn are a genuinely scary idea.  (I tested them on my son when he was six, and they still registered as scary – so there.)  They are rather scarier in their larval stage than in their adult stage. Their malicious purpose (all the more terrifying for being provoked) is to feed and absorb the survivors of the human race.

Tom Baker is still new.   He is still playing the Doctor and not (as sometimes happened years later) playing Tom Baker playing the Doctor.  The episode contains some of his most inspiring dialogue.  The spectacle of humanity preserved and ready to reawaken is genuine moving and the Doctor is genuinely moved.  Harry “only qualified to treat sailors” Sullivan is clueless but amiably so.  His gender politics are stuck in the mid seventies but he takes his corrective medicine from Sarah Jane with good grace.  And Sarah is very special indeed.  Sarah was for me not a fantasy girlfriend but a fantasy big sister.  She was the big sister I never had and would dearly have liked.  Her heroic determination to crawl along that conduit is the most sustained exhibition of courage that the story provides.

The only slight acting caveat I have about the episode is that Vira (Wendy Williams) is the only member of the revived human race who appears to have grown up in a different and distant millenium.  She is human and alien at the same time.  Her fellow revivees on the other hand all sound like grumpy 1970s trade unionists (don’t get me wrong, I miss grumpy 1970s trade unionists and I think we need more of them).

The Ark in Space represents the start of a very special time in television as well as special part of my childhood.  Had I re-watched Ark in Space and found it disappointing, it would have been as though I had somehow got my own childhood “wrong”.  But I’m not wrong.  Watch.  And watch again.


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