CRRRaSh! 327 Doctor Who: The Ark in Space

By Roy Mathur, on 2020-08-12, at 23:00:00--23:38:33 BST, for Captain Roy's Rocket Radio Show, Listen

The State of the Rewatch

I woke up recently to the sound of a panel beaters convention session downstairs. I rushed down to witness my mother wielding a rubber mallet; exactly the same type as the one David Tennant used to adjust the TARDIS's control panel. She was hammering in a loose corner joint of her sofa. This was, admittedly, slightly less awful than my father's recent attempt to fix the plumbing, which ended in a flood, and let's not mention the blinds. (Blokes, let's admit that some of us were never destined for DIY greatness---it doesn't make you any less manly---and move on). After my mother successfully beat the sofa into submission, a spider scurried out from between what one would assume was the perfect arachnid habitat; the many boxes containing my parent's household since their move back to England piled high everywhere. It made straight for my bare feet only protected by sandals. Only with the big spider, half the size of my hand, safely evacuated to the garden did I start the process of preparing this pod. Oh, and the microwave blew up too, I didn't mention that, but all these mishaps are strangely relevant, as you will come to see in the first What Happens item.

We are getting to the point when I remember watching these serials the first time around. This means it is truly starting to feel like a rewatch. In fact, I remember already having rewatched this serial a few years ago on repeat, on the UK's Horror Channel perhaps? And not that much time after I watched the very first broadcast, I remember owning a hardback copy of the novelisation. The only other Doctor Who TV novelisation I owned, another hardback, was The Masque of the Mandragora. Both were in great condition, both have sadly departed in my move from Canada.

Cast and Production Notes

Fourth Doctor: Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith: Elisabeth Sladen
Harry Sullivan: Ian Marter
Director: Rodney Bennett
Writer: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Serial 2 of season 12, following Robot covered in 324, 4 x 25 minutes, first broadcast from 25 January 1975 to 15 February 1975.

On this Day in the UK

Bugger all happened on that day, in the UK and further afield, except that Chinatown (1974) starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Roman Polanski scooped up a lot of Golden Globes. It's a great neo-noir film and you should see it.

What Happens

The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry stumble out of the TARDIS. The Doctor berates Harry for fiddling with the TARDIS's helmic control and sending them careering who knows where. Who knows where is actually an ark holding the remnants of Earth's humanity, cast into the depths of space to sleep through a solar flare rendering the surface of the Earth uninhabitable.

The Wirrn, a parasitic alien insectoid species, have infiltrated the ark and are munching through the wiring---greatly extending the ark's time in space---and have infected Noah, the leader of the crew. They wish an end to humankind and to take over the healed Earth in vengeance for a previous genocidal human expedition that destroyed their home world.

Noah's partner, Vira takes over. With the help of a couple of revived crew, the Doctor and his companions manage to power up the ark using an energy cable carried through a tiny duct by Sarah and plugged into the escape shuttle's engines. At the last moment, an engineer baits the Wirrn into the ship, whereupon it departs and is blown up by insectoid Noah, who still retains a last vestige of his humanity.

What I Thought

Philip Hinchcliffe taking over as producer from Barry Letts marked a new era of a grown up Doctor Who with the horror quotient ramped up. I remember it making Doctor Who a lot scarier, and angering Mary Whitehouse, though by 1977 I would come to look back on that era and appreciate the increase in drama and sense of peril.

Why 1977? 1977 was the end of the Hinchcliffe era, so it was now safe to come out from behind the sofa. That sounds like cliche, but I would literally hide behind the sofa if I saw something too scary on Doctor Who, like The Brain of Morbius in 1976. Jaws also came out in 1975 and that was the last film to really frighten me. In short, thanks to Hinchcliffe and Spielberg, by '77 it was as if I'd survived horror boot camp. For the sake of enjoying the full visceral fear of Alien (1979), I wish my soul had hardened a few years later.

I'm not sure why Hinchcliffe changed the tone of the show, because he had mainly worked on kid-friendly material before. One suspects ratings was an issue and perhaps he just had a different creative vision. Whatever the case, the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who was certainly one of the most memorable.

Back to this particularly serial; the slow movement of the space station in the bleakness of space, the suspenseful music, the cold execution of recorded dialogue in the cryo tube; all increase our dread. Then there's the key iconic moment of the story, with the reveal of Noah's knobbly metamorphosing hand. In retrospect, the green bubble wrap makeup is laughable, but actor Kenton Moore really sells the scene and makes us believe something terrible is happening. It scared the pants off me when I first saw it.

Harry Sullivan is now a companion. When I first saw this serial in 1975, I quite liked him because I was a boy and Harry was easy to relate to because he was brave and reliable. Today, on the rewatch, while he's not objectionable, I find him dull and, less forgivably, annoyingly chauvinistic. In any case, the view I hold nowadays is that one companion is enough. I also more closely identify with Sarah Jane Smith because she is a reporter.

The insectoid aliens are called the Wirrn; a name I had to look up because it's an odd name and I couldn't hear what the cast were saying.

Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) seems to take a lot from both the plot and design of The Ark in Space. The sleep chambers, the basic plot of being stalked by deadly parasitic aliens, Sarah's claustrophobic crawl through the ducting, the use of the escape ship... I could go on, but Doctor Who steals from all over the place. I mean those Wirrn are basically the sentient Martian locusts from Quatermass and the Pit (1959 TV series and 1967 Hammer Films remake).


Ian Marter, the actor who plays Harry, was prolific in writing Doctor Who novelisations including this one. He also originally auditioned for Captain Yates and played that tosspot British officer in Carnival of Monsters (1973) (covered in 287). Unfortunately, his life was cut short from diabetes complications and he died on his 42nd birthday.

The voices of Orac and other Blakes 7's computers were played by Peter Tuddenham, who also does some voice acting in this serial and The Masque of Mandragora (1976).

Making a rare change, I watched the special edition extras. There was an interview with designer Roger Murray-Leach recollecting the shoestring budgets, a set dressing that included covering an anachronistic Porsche with manure to hide it, and his friendship with Baker after being sent to keep an eye on the actor in hospital when he broke his collarbone on Dartmoor filming of The Sontaran Experiment. There's another interview with Tom Baker, a positive and glowing Baker at the start of his career playing the Doctor. He is charming and erudite, and even offers the interviewer a jelly baby. Oh, that's the way it always starts.

Next Time

Next time we have The Sontaran Experiment to look forward to.