The TARDIS lands on a space station orbiting Earth in the distant future. It’s seemingly deserted, but the Doctor, Sarah and Harry soon discover that they are not alone.
Thousands of humans are in cryogenic sleep, and while they’ve slept their Ark has been invaded. A parasitic insect race – the Wirrn – have taken control and threaten the very future of mankind…
Tom Baker is the Doctor in The Ark in Space.
X X X X X
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Harry Sullivan – Ian Marter
Vira – Wendy Williams
Noah – Kenton Moore
Rogin – Richardson Morgan
Lycett – John Gregg
Libri – Christopher Master
The Wirrn – Stuart Fell, Nick Hobbs
High Minister’s Voice – Gladys Spencer
Voices on Nerva – Peter Tuddenham
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Rodney Bennett
Original Broadcast: 25 January 1975 – 15 February 1975
X X X X X
Think about some of the standard space horror conventions. A ship in deep space is a closed circle with little to no hope of escape should something go wrong. If a vital piece of machinery breaks down, a space station could soon become deprived of power or oxygen. And above all, there are things in space, horrible, unfathomable beings who may see humanity as a threat…as prey…or even worse, as incubators. With limited supplies and nowhere to run, humans often find themselves at the mercy of these strange creatures as technology fails and biology takes control…
Many people will read the above paragraph and immediately think of the 1979 classic horror movie Alien. But almost five years before the release of that film, one that would become part of the foundation of science fiction, Doctor Who put its own spin on the concept…
The Ark in Space is the true beginning of the Fourth Doctor era as Doctor Who began its shift from the action-oriented Third Doctor era towards the horror-based adventures of Tom Baker’s run. Making use of a claustrophobic setting, steady directing, and solid acting, The Ark in Space overcomes its legacy of poor special effects through the emphasis of body horror, providing what is easily one of the best Fourth Doctor serials.
All it took was for poor Harry to accidentally bump the wrong switch to send the TARDIS off-course. The Doctor, Harry, and Sarah Jane materialize inside a deserted but still functioning space station. From the moment the trio step out of the TARDIS things begin to go wrong. The oxygen pumps are on the fritz, the alarm wires have been cut, the defense systems are still active, and Sarah Jane is separated from her friends. From there, things get worse. The inhabitants of Nerva Beacon are beginning to wake up; the last remnants of humanity who have survived for over five thousand years in cryogenic storage waiting for the Earth to be once again habitable for their kind, and a race of space-wasps known as the Wirnn who see the frozen inhabitants of Nerva Beacon as hosts for a new generation…
New producer Philip Hinchcliffe and new Script Editor Robert Holmes wanted to move Doctor Who away from the relatively light-hearted Third Doctor era, with its car chases and Venusian aikido, towards a more mature feel based on the literary aspect of science fiction. Many of the adventures during Hinchcliffe’s time as producer inspired comparisons to the gothic horror films of Hammer Studios, which in turn led to the moral outrage of one Mary Whitehouse, whose crusade against the episode The Deadly Assassin led to the BBC removing Hinchcliffe from the show after his third season. Hinchcliffe would go on to have a long and fruitful career as television producer, working on shows like Taggart and The Charmer, and his time on the show is considered by many to be the nadir of the “classic” era. There’s no denying the level of quality that Hinchcliffe brought to Doctor Who as several episodes under his tenure where pull over 10 million viewers, an incredible feat for 1970’s Britain. In fact, Part 2 of The Ark in Space was the highest rated episode of the original series, as 13.60 million viewers tuned in to see what would become of Harry Sullivan as a large bug fell on top of him.
(As an added bonus, the most watched episode of the original series, and of the entire show to date, is Part 4 of City of Death. When I get to that story, you’ll see why!)
The Ark in Space harkens back to the “base under siege” stories of the Patrick Troughton era. Five thousand years ago, Earth was threatened by solar flares (the same solar flares from the Eleventh Doctor story The Beast Below). As humanity descended into shelters to wait out the flares, the best and brightest of the human race were placed in cyrogenic storage on Nerva Station, along with samples of Earth’s animal and plant life as well as cultural artifacts, all to help repopulate the Earth once it recovered from the bombardment. From the very beginning our heroes are placed in a series of perils and at no point during the story are they ever truly out of danger. There’s always a threat to be faced or a problem to be solved, lending The Ark in Space a real sense of tension mixed with a little bit of “oh, what NOW?” The threats come from the station itself (a lack of oxygen and a defense system that’s still active), the inhabitants (who are incredibly supiscious of the “regressive” Doctor and Harry), and the invading Wirrn. Rodney Bennett keeps the action moving, using the same rooms and sets over and over again (a clever use of mirrors makes the cyrogenic storage room set look much bigger than it really was) to establish familiarity and a sense of claustrophobia, but even his strong direction has a hard time with the portrayal of the Wirrn.
As an alien threat, the Wirrn look…well, incredibly silly. The fully grown Wirrn look a little bit like a fiberglass piece of poo with a large green insect head placed on top.
And there’s absolutely no getting around that the Wirrn’s spreading infection that transforms a human being into a Wirrn is nothing more than green bubble wrap.
Now, these effects probably look silly to modern day viewers. But then there’s this scene…
This is THE moment from The Ark in Space that usually stays with viewers. Noah, in mid-transformation, threatening the Doctor and Vira, demanding they help him fix the solar stacks while also warning them to stay away from him. The image is the key portion, as the scene was VERY heavily edited because it was deemed too scary for children. However, to me this is one of those pivotal moments in the history of Doctor Who that proudly proclaims that low-budget special effects (and the occasional dodgy script) can easily be overcome by a talented collection of cast and crew.
In Robot, Sarah Jane Smith was a companion in peril, but she was also someone who broke the rules and did what needed to be done to not only get the story but to attempt to save the K1 Robot. As such, her portrayal in The Ark in Space is a bit of a headscratcher to me. The first two episodes see Sarah Jane placed in constant peril thanks to the mercies of Nerva Beacon’s surviving protocols. The third episode sees here as the “screaming girl” as there are several close-ups (used for editing purposes) of her simply freaking out as the crew battle off the Wirrn. It’s really the fourth episode where Sarah Jane comes into to her own as she bravely volunteers to run some cable through the cramped ductwork of Nerva Station, only to become stuck mere meters from her goal, leading to a small hysterical breakdown. Elisabeth Sladen does a wonderful job playing Sarah Jane in terms of freaking the hell out at her situation, but there were times during this story where I sat back and wondered “where is the Sarah Jane I heard so much about?” I’m willing to believe the writers wanted to focus more on developing Harry as a companion and used Sarah Jane as a means to that end, but it left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I have faith it’ll get better as the season goes along, however.
People dream of being the Doctor’s companion. Everyone wants to be Rory Williams, but in the end I believe we all end up as Harry Sullivan. Ian Marter’s Harry is a bumbler for the first episode of The Ark in Space, as it’s his fault that the TARDIS had landed on Nerva Station, and it’s his careless pushing of a button that causes Sarah Jane to get locked in the control room to almost suffocate to death. The first episode paints Harry as someone a bit unsuited for TARDIS travel, but he steps up for the rest of the serial as his medical training and Royal Navy background come in very handy, both to figure out the biology of the Wirrn and to help physical drive them off. Harry is full of old-school charm and a bit of sexism (with a reference to “the fairer sex” at one point) but he never comes off as superior or classist. He’s just a bloke who finds himself in a sticky situation, looks around, shrugs, and goes on to help out as best he can, which I think a lot of us would do if we ended up on the TARDIS, if we weren’t busy being curled up in a ball on the floor screaming a lot.
A solid supporting cast helps to keep The Ark in Space interesting. The proverbial redshirts get their moments in the sun – Libri is afraid of Noah from the get-go, suspecting something is wrong with Noah, and Rogin constantly grumbles that he should have stayed on Earth and risked death by solar flare. Vira, played by Wendy Williams, is the inhabitant of Nerva Station who finds herself thrust in charge. She’s cold not because she’s a bitch, but because she NEEDS to be in order to keep the project moving forward for humanity’s sake. Vira never loses her head and comes to trust the Doctor as the serial rolls on, showing a strong firmness in the process. But it’s all about Kenton Moore’s performance as Noah, the leader of the Beacon’s inhabitants. In a nice change from the standard cliché, as soon as Noah realizes he’s infected he does his best to warn Vira, passing command of Nerva Beacon to her and urging her to get the other humans away before stating “we shall absorb the humans.” Moore plays the slow and painful transformation in a way that not only sinks its hooks into the audience but also shows them the fate in store for the inhabitants of the Beacon. There’s always a sense of humanity remaining in Moore’s performance, even once he’s fully turned into a Wirrn, with his anger at humanity’s destruction of the Wirrn’s home planet mixed with a little bit of pride that humanity had managed to survive beyond the edge of the solar system.
But this story is all about Tom Baker. Whereas Robot was a Third Doctor story with the Fourth Doctor slowly taking over, The Ark in Space is all about the Doctor pulling out a yo-yo and using it to determine they’ve landed on a space station. Baker’s Doctor shows an instant curiosity about their situation, and of course the explorations end up getting him and his companions into trouble. But instead of the more methodical Third Doctor, Four is like a cosmic pinball, bouncing from one situation to the next and just going along for the ride. He likes humans, but he will never consider himself one of them even as he declares them “quite his favorite species.” Baker shows how alien the Doctor is, as he doesn’t care what people think of him as long as he figures out what’s going on. His cold dressing down of Sarah Jane as weak when she’s trapped in the ductwork isn’t meant to be mean, it’s meant to be motivating, and the fact that Sarah Jane is upset with him for it doesn’t mean a thing to the Fourth Doctor. It’s just how he does things. The concept of the Fourth Doctor as a galactic traveler who stumbles into a situation and fixes it was a way to move the show forward from the “Third Doctor and UNIT on Earth” fare of the Pertwee era, and Baker’s performance here goes a long way in getting that particular ball rolling.
Cyngnia – Let’s just get this out of the way now: green-tinted bubblewrap.
But when you’re just 6, 7 years old, you’re not seeing the bubblewrap. You’re seeing this sickly green pupae taking over a terrified man who has no way to stop what’s happening to him. And if you grew up in the backwoods of a backwater town in Massachusetts, you’re already freaked out by ticks and wasps and earwigs enough as it is. The last thing you want to do as a kid is go to bed and then either become a feast — or host — for a malevolent parasitic space bug.
Body horror is a primal thing. And we fear losing control. It doesn’t help that scientists have since recently discovered parasites controlling animals, basically zombifying them for their own survival and reproduction. Just imagine that happening to humans. Worse still, imagine the parasite then being as intelligent as humans (insert Congress joke here)…
So yeah, to say “The Ark in Space” creeped me out as a kid would be an understatement. I’d be very interested in seeing the Wirrn return to television, but I fear Moffat would cock them up and neuter them like he already did with the Zygons and the Nimon. And, no doubt, Evil And Stupid Humanity Would Be To Blame.
The Ark in Space is a crucial episode that it helps to establish the tone and feel of Tom Baker’s time as the Doctor. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a great place to start when introducing someone to “classic” Doctor Who in that it’s creepy, it’s brimming with tension, and it embraces the off-beat special effects and overcomes them with some terrific acting and storytelling. And most of all it’s got Tom Baker showing Britain and the world exactly what they were going to get with the Fourth Doctor.
Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They’ve survived flood, famine and plague. They’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They’re indomitable. Indomitable.
– A great first episode cliffhanger as Harry opens a supply closet and a Wirrn attacks him!
– The use of green Saran Wrap to serve as the slime trail for the pupa Wirrn
– “He (the Doctor) talks to himself because he’s the only one who can understand him!”
– DOCTOR: Nobody knows it all. Perhaps he’s forgotten that these transmats are reversible?
ROGIN: Oh ho, that’s clever.
DOCTOR: Isn’t it? And as you appreciate it, Rogin, you can go first.
Cobi’s synopsis – The Ark in Space is the perfect episode to introduce someone to Doctor Who as sets the tone for the Tom Baker era’s focus on tension and horror by channeling Alien four years early.
Next up – Transmatting from the Nerva Beacon, the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry find themselves on Earth in the far future, long since abandoned by the human race. But it soon becomes clear that they are not alone…
Tom Baker is the Doctor in…The Sontaran Experiment.