Off to a Helluva Start

Review of The Ark in Space: SE (#76)
DVD Release Date: 12 Mar 13
Original Air Date: 25 Jan - 15 Feb 1975
Doctor/Companion: Four, Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan
Stars: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter
Preceding Story: Robot (Four, Sarah Jane)
Succeeding Story: The Sontaran Experiment (Four, Sarah Jane, Harry)

For someone who didn't grow up with Doctor Who, especially when watching out of sequence or without paying specific attention to such details, it can be hard to remember that Ark in Space was so incredibly early in Tom Baker's tenure (only his second story to be broadcast). He has already so thoroughly settled into the role, and the whole TARDIS crew - Harry only just having joined in the final moments of the preceding serial - has such a wonderful rapport, it feels like they've been together forever.

The only thing that doesn't feel quite right is the holdovers from Pertwee's characterization when Sarah Jane tries to tell the Doctor something, and gets thoroughly shushed: "Doctor, look!" "Not now, Sarah." or "Doctor, will you listen?" "Sarah, we're trying to make a plan." Clearly even a writer as skilled as Robert Holmes didn't yet know how to write for this new Doctor.

In retrospect, this story is an odd combination of the wonderfully timeless and the terribly dated. The general plot, the horror of a man's body and mind being taken over while he is powerless to stop it, the brilliant set and lighting design, and the unbeatable characterizations and acting all fall in the former category. Some of the effects (most notably the bubble wrap) and the choice of "microfilm" for the storage of the sum of knowledge from human history are among the latter. To give it its due, though, the green painted bubble wrap would have worked well at the time, as hardly anyone in the general public knew what it was yet. It simply makes for an unfortunate effect decades on. (One has to wonder how bad Tennant's episodes will look to viewers in the 2040's.)

I have to say, the character interactions really make Ark for me. Kenton Moore, who played Noah, did a stellar job depicting a man going mad in the most frightening way. Despite a sad, bubble wrap limb, he gave that performance his all, and I salute him for it. I'm only sorry that one of the key moments for Noah had to be cut for fear of crossing a line and being too disturbing for the audience. Now that I know it was there (thanks to the making of documentary), it's obvious, and quite sad.

Then there's Baker's Four. He so clearly is putting everyone else first. When he's just woken up from being shot with a stun gun but is ready to rush off, Harry asks, "Are you sure you're all right?" to which he replies, "Never mind about me, Harry.  There's a man in danger!" Later, when he undertakes a wonderfully wonky s.f. experiment that is a risk to his own life, he brushes off that risk with the explanation that "it may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species."

Harry, for his part, is initially taken aback by the whole "we've moved" experience in the TARDIS (bless), but is nevertheless a clearly competent hero figure, his medical background making him especially useful. (Too bad he didn't stay long, as Four didn't need an Ian-analog young action sidekick as One had.) He takes good care of Sarah Jane, too.

But of course, Sarah Jane is my favorite. Even when she's scared stiff, she still does what needs to be done. That's why the Doctor's apparently cruel comments work; she's not useless, stupid, or foolish - any of those hurtful things he says to her. So she gets mad and gets through, and then forgives him nearly instantly ("What? Conned again. You're a brute.") because she recognizes that it was a ploy, and it served its purpose. It's not for nothing Four later called her his best friend.

DVD Extras (highlights)
A New Frontier
At the beginning of a new era (the Hinchcliffian), there's an entirely new direction for Our Show: get off Earth, and add more science fiction elements. In this making of documentary, we hear from the man himself about how this particular script was commissioned, why a key scene (see above) was cut, and what aspects of the production were necessitated by the usual minuscule budget. Interviews with Kenton Moore (Noah) and Wendy Williams (Vira) round out the piece, adding another perspective to the issues surrounding the production.

Doctor Forever! - Love and War
The installment of the new "Doctor Forever!" series of extras on The Aztecs covered Doctor Who toys, but this one gets to an even more important piece of franchise history: books. During the Hiatus, licensed books were the only way for the Doctor's story to continue. Here we learn about the Virgin lines published and the changes to the rights and resultant ranges after The Movie aired in 1996. We also hear from several authors for these ranges who went on to write scripts for the post-Hiatus show.

While Robot introduced us to the new Doctor, The Ark in Space really begins his era. I can see why so many kids got on board with the Fourth Doctor right away, since he starts off so well here. If you've never had the opportunity to visit the Ark, I highly recommend that you do; it certainly stands the test of time.

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