CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Ark / DVD Review

The Ark
March 1966

"Take them away to the security kitchen!"

The Ark represents something of a watershed for the series and perhaps along with Galaxy Four in the same season suggests a shift in the way Doctor Who would eventually treat the science fiction elements within its format. Looking back at the previous two seasons of the programme much of the science fiction was firmly rooted in the type of stories that wouldn't look out of place in the populist form of the genre that existed between the 1930s and 1950s.

The series was more or less echoing Flash Gordon, Dan Dare and much of the pulp material of the period in its futuristic stories where science fiction was simply regarded as the transplantation of the standard adventure story to alien environments.  The so called 'hard science fiction' ushered in by John W Campbell Jnr. at Astounding Stories or the 'New Wave' of science fiction championed by British magazine New Worlds hadn't really impacted to a large degree on Doctor Who. With The Ark we see the series attempting some form of fertilisation between the pulp and speculative fictions informing the genre.
'greatest hits of H.G. Wells' 
And yet in 1960, when the BBC's script department had explored the potential for science fiction drama, ultimately leading up to the creation of Doctor Who, its own Survey Group, while acknowledging the popularity of the pulpier forms of the genre on the big screen, were keen to propose a series in which a more highbrow SF would be presented. They were ultimately beaten to it by ABC's Dumb Martian pilot for an anthology series that would be screened as Out of This World (1962) but the BBC would, however, turn to this anthology form in the sister series Out of the Unknown (1965-1971) when the high concepts it was in search of never made it into the early seasons of Doctor Who.


The Ark also comes across as a 'greatest hits of H.G. Wells' package, as pointed out in the DVD's documentary 'All's Wells that Ends Wells', with the common cold virus, the invisible Refusians, the use of time to tell the story from two different periods and the Monoids and Guardians as a reflection of the Morlocks and Eloi all riffs from War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Time Machine. The genesis of Doctor Who itself is tied into the Wells ouevre as it made strides to accommodate its SF genre credentials with family viewing on a Saturday tea-time.


The Ark combines Wells with the harder science fiction ideas of space arks, the human population in flight from disaster, colonisation of other planets and the perils of multiculturalism that can be found in the dystopian fiction of Brunner, Christopher, Ballard and Harrison. This puts Doctor Who fairly on message with the late 1960s view of the future. By 1966, the excitement about the Space Age was being countered by a more pessimistic tone regarding over population, rampant science and technology and the failure of modernism to transform society.

This pessimism would be articulated throughout the rest of Hartnell's tenure and find its apotheosis in much of Troughton's era and the first Pertwee season. Ironically, Imison would also go on to script edit 11 episodes of the second and prepare the third season of speculative science fiction anthology Out of the Unknown in 1967 and The Ark feels like a bit of a trial run for that series's own adaptations of Asimov, Brunner, Harrison et al.
... a slicker looking serial
The Ark's more successful elements can be tied down to two things - Barry Newbery's production design and Michael Imison's direction - both of which introduce a sophistication into the series that clearly anticipates many of the visual elements that would inform Doctor Who's on screen idea of futurism. Imison clearly takes a great deal of care about many of the effects, the use of inlay and foreground miniatures, producing a slicker looking serial and he combines Newbery's expansive designs with ambitious wide shots and crane mounted camera moves.


Newbery's work on the launching bays, flight decks and space pods echo the kind of images that viewers would see in television broadcasts of launches from Cape Kennedy and anticipate the designs that science advisor Fred Ordway and production designer Harry Lange would provide for Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), already into production as The Ark was transmitted. Newbery also provides a stunning jungle set populated by live animals, including an elephant, that Imison uses to great visual effect, displacing what would be the standard use of stock footage with wide shots of the jungle, the animals, the Doctor and his companions.

One of the bigger problems here is that for all its attempts to embrace more hard science fiction concepts and visuals, it is let down by some dreadful 'space toga' costumes that clearly echo films such as Things to Come (1936) and more recent Doctor Who serials like The Daleks or The Keys of Marinus. A visual shorthand that depicts the human Guardians that occupy the space ark as a rather effete bunch, the costumes are the least successful element of the serial even if they do show off a fair amount of manly thighs and arms. Complimenting the visuals is Tristram Carey's atmospheric electronic score and while it marks another reuse of the material he composed for The Daleks it is still extremely effective in the way that it cements the series reputation for sounding completely otherworldly.


Beyond these ideas, the plot of The Ark is to an extent quite clever in the way that it breaks the story into two distinct halves, depicting the generational changes in the humans and their Monoid servant populations on board the ark as well as alluding to some of the issues about citizenship and Britain's role in the development of a multicultural society in the 1960s. The trouble is that the first two episodes are far more interesting than the final two. Episode two ends on that terrific cliffhanger, wrong-footing the audience into thinking that the story has already ended by bringing the TARDIS back to the ark some 700 years later and climaxing with a slow pan up the human statue that the Guardians were in the process of building to reveal a huge Monoid monument in its place. Equally, the moment where the travellers are surrounded by camouflaged Monoids is still pretty effective and arresting.
... Beatle wigs and baggy rubber suits
Something has gone terribly wrong it seems and the Monoids have usurped their former masters. The following two episodes tend to ditch the speculative fiction and futurism for lots of revolutions, counter-revolutions and arguing in space kitchens. When the Doctor and company are taken away to be held in the 'security kitchen' you half expect them to be guarded by some aggressive Tupperware. Ironically, 1960s consumerism runs rife in the security kitchen with instant potatoes and chicken wings on the menu and their magical preparation looking for all the world like an ad you'd see on the commercial channel.


The Monoids don't really work, although the eyeball in the mouth imagery is rather arresting, and they just shamble around, in a very cliched manner, wearing horrible Beatle wigs and baggy rubber suits. The idea of exploring and overturning the master/slave culture created and exploited by the Guardians and the Monoids is lost by the final episode when the Monoids simply turn into ranting monsters of the week and even the earnest Refusians, invisible inhabitants of the colony world, and their concluding speech can only vainly attempt to rescue the polemic about all races getting along. Mind you, the Guardians are a rather lame bunch too, with Zentos and the Controller flipping through a predictable 'good cop-bad cop' routine before the Doctor finds a cure for the virus that his companion Dodo has inflicted upon them.
... the cultural relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor
Characterisation tends to suffer, with the humans forced to expel an awful lot of exposition and the Monoids hilariously babbling on and on about their plans for world domination in the final two episodes, because Imison is clearly having a field day with the technical and visual challenges of the story. The borderlines between showing and telling a story are evidently imbalanced.

Hartnell is on reasonable form and the Doctor comes across as less curmudgeonly and more willing to try and help the Guardians and find the cure for the virus. Peter Purves has completely settled into the role of Steven Taylor and is actually very good in a number of scenes, particular in his anger toward the Guardians when they are all put on trial after the outbreak of the plague.

Unfortunately, poor old Jackie Lane struggles as new companion Dodo and her accent wavers between Mancunian, Cockney and BBC RP, presumably as a result of changes inflicted upon her from the production team who may have balked at the idea of such broad regional accents being centre stage in Doctor Who. However, she does improve as the story moves on and her chemistry with Hartnell and Purves properly emerges and evolves.


The Ark is something of a half-way house in the Doctor Who canon, visually striking and with ambitious ideas but let down by some poor costumes and characterisation and two final episodes that are little more than a standard runaround with the monster of the week even when it attempts to explore the cultural relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor. It remains engaging and is certainly not as bad as the reputation it seems to have within fandom.

Special Features 
The Restoration Team weave their magic and the four episodes are presented here in nicely spruced up format.

- Commentary by Michael Imison, Peter Purves and moderated by Toby Hadoke. An entertaining and amusing track with Purves his usual effusive self and Imison providing some good anecdotes. Well worth a listen.
- All's Wells that Ends Wells
An excellent little documentary that grounds the story in the hard science fiction of H.G Wells and explores its roots in a number of Wells's books with comments and opinion from a roster of experts including Kim Newman, Dominic Sandbrook and Matthew Sweet.
- One Hit Wonder
A tongue in cheek assessment of those loveable Monoids with Jacqueline Rayner, Sandbrook, Sweet and Imison.
- Riverside Story
Matthew Sweet (he's becoming a bit of a regular these days) explores the production of Doctor Who at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and is joined by Peter Purves to discuss the day-to-day production of the show at the studios. 

The usual production subtitles, photo gallery and PDF materials accompany these features.

The Ark
BBC 1966
Released 14 February 2011 / BBCDVD2852 / Region 2 / Cert PG / Duration: 85 mins

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