Title: Doctor Who: The Ark in Space: Special Edition
Director: Rodney Bennett
Starring: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter
Released: Out Now
The Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan land on the space station Nerva in the 30th century. Solar flares have ravaged the Earth and the brightest and best of humanity are now contained on the station in suspended animation. As the Doctor struggles to save Sarah from the process and the humans start waking up, it is clear that they are not the only intruders aboard as the alien Wirrn start to take over.
First released in 2002, four-part Tom Baker serial The Ark in Space is the latest story to receive a double disc spruce up. This was only Baker’s second story in the role but it heralds the beginning of not only his era, but the script editor/producer partnership of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe. While Robot may have been Baker’s first story, the tale of UNIT taking on Professor Kettlewell’s K1 robot was a hangover from the Jon Pertwee era basically, because outgoing script editor Terrance Dicks bagged himself one last job before he left.
The two stories could not be more different. Whereas Robot was a runaround with King Kong overtones, The Ark in Space was a more thoughtful story about survival. In some ways it feels like a throwback to the 1960s as the first episode is spent exploring the deserted Nerva. The threat of the Wirrn is a slow burning one too, which places it above the basic base under siege story. Everything is kept to a minimum with only the three regulars plus the passengers in the cast, which must have seemed a shock to viewers after the action packed UNIT years. The passengers however, despite strong performances from Kenton Moore and Wendy Williams as Noah and Vira, seem to be stuck on “what are your strange ways?” future human autopilot.
Of the regulars, Sarah is further from the hard nose journalist we saw in The Time Warrior and comes across as a bit whiny in this story. She manages to get herself stuck in the machine early on and her appearance in one of the pods as a sleeper is a wonderful cliffhanger to the first episode. You could view this as the companion easily getting herself in a fix (or rather because of Harry in this case) but Doctor Who has always been good at showing the troubles in exploring an unknown environment with various traps and triggers. How about Susan trying to paddle in the acid sea in The Keys of Marinus or Amy going through the wrong door at TwoStreams in The Girl Who Waited? Harry was drafted in as an Ian Chesterton for the 1970s to do all the action bits in case an older Doctor was cast. Of course this turned out to be redundant but he is still a much loved, albeit short lived character. Sometimes seen as a bit sexist, he sounds like he has just stepped out of a 1940s war film but was always keen to get stuck in and help. He shares some wonderful scenes with the Doctor in this story, especially as they get separated from Sarah for a while.
The Wirrn are another Who alien race that are quite well known, despite being used only once but, like the Axons, they have recently resurfaced on Big Finish audio. The props are well made but you can see the joins - especially with the cleaned up picture and the dodgy movement when one has a conversation with the Doctor. The second cliffhanger to the first episode features one basically falling out of a cupboard towards the camera, although to be fair it is meant to be dead. Kenton Moore sells Noah’s transformation well despite being given a mitt of bubble wrap squirted with washing up liquid to represent his changing hand. It shows up under scrutiny but is a good enough physical effect and the show has had worse. There is some marvellous model work though and the sets are well designed. The Wirrn feasting on humanity’s knowledge is a neat idea, but monster conversion has been done before. Doctor Who has always had a more pacifistic stance when it comes to aliens and, in an echo of The Quatermass Experiment, the Doctor appeals to the Wirrn Noah’s alien nature to head off into space and take the rest of his race with him.
As always with these special editions, if you already have this story and have no interest in the extras then that should be good enough. The cleaned up picture is wonderful though and there are some good extras, including a making of documentary and a look at the New Adventures book range, plus some other bits and pieces. Freed of the shiny though, this is a story that deserves a place in any Doctor Who DVD collection. Still influencing the show today, this is the first classic of the Fourth Doctor’s era and is an essential purchase.
Extras: Disc 1: Commentary with Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Philip Hinchcliffe. A New Frontier is our ‘making of’ and we also get an interview with designer Roger Murray-Leach plus optional CGI effects, original trailer, text commentary, photo gallery, TARDIS cam, 3D technical schematics, alternative title sequence and model footage.
Disc 2: Dr Forever! – Love and War explores the Doctor Who fiction book ranges following the 1989 cancellation of the show. There is a 70 minute edition of the story broadcast in 1975, Scene around Six news footage of Tom Baker’s trip to Northern Ireland, 8mm location footage from Robot, PDF material and a DVD trailer for the next release.
Continuing Adventures: The TV stories from this series all follow one another, so if you want to see what happens directly after this story then check out The Sontaran Experiment. We are then taken out of time for Genesis of the Daleks and dumped back on the Nerva at an earlier point in its timeline for Revenge of the Cybermen (all 1975). The beleaguered space station has been revisited recently for Big Finish with Destination Nerva (2012) starring the Fourth Doctor and Leela. A dead Wirrn is briefly seen in TV story The Stones of Blood (1978) but they have also returned to audio for BBV productions in Wirrn: Race Memory (2001), and for Big Finish in Wirrn Dawn (2009) with the Eighth Doctor and Lucie Miller and Wirrn Isle (2012) with the Sixth Doctor and Flip Jackson. They also featured in BBC Books’ Placebo Effect (1998) by Gary Russell with the Eighth Doctor and Sam Jones. The fate of another ship escaping the solar flares was uncovered by the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond in TV story The Beast Below (2010).
Trivia learnt from the disc: John Lucarotti was initially hired to write this story but Robert Holmes had to do a complete rewrite of his scripts. Holmes was also trying to bring back individual episode titles so Lucarotti had already named the four episodes. Inspired by flora and fauna, he called them Buttercups, Puffball, Camellias and Golfball.