Robert Holmes's The Ark in Space marked the beginning of a new, more mature era for Doctor Who that included the jettisoning of the 'UNIT family' adventures that producer Barry Letts had developed as part of the Doctor's exile to Earth during the Pertwee era. Now that the exile was ended in narrative terms, Letts and his script editor considered their jobs done and, reflecting on Jon Pertwee's own departure from the series, they handed the programme over to a new team.
Tom Baker had been announced as Pertwee's replacement in February 1974 and Holmes had trailed Dicks as prospective script editor since Autumn 1973. Joining them in March 1974, and trailing producer Letts through the final recording blocks of the last Pertwee season, was young producer and writer Philip Hinchcliffe.
29-year old Hinchcliffe, a former teacher, had previously worked at ATV, initially in the story department reading unsolicited scripts and then producing and scripting on a number of shows, including Crossroads (1964-2003), General Hospital (1972-79), The Jensen Code (1973) and The Kids from 47A (1973-75). As he explains in the DVD documentary, he wanted to extend the audience for Doctor Who and make it appeal to more adults by bringing in tougher science fiction concepts and developing the dramatic potential of realistic suspense and jeopardy.
He and Robert Holmes shared this view and a penchant for high adventure science fiction-gothic stories with a basis in reality and touches of dark wit, with Hinchcliffe recalling: "We immediately felt we wanted to make the series more exciting, and what we did with The Ark in Space was to take it into the realms of real science-fiction. That point of view we then carried over into our treatment of other stories, including the ones that had been commissioned already." However, the journey to commissioning the four-part story The Ark in Space was fraught with problems.
"pop gothic TV auteurs"Holmes had discussed initial ideas for a story, then titled Space Station, with writer Christopher Langley in December 1973 and towards the end of January 1974 had commissioned him to write the scripts. However, the scripts were deemed unsuitable and Holmes turned to a seasoned television writer, John Lucarotti, to develop the Space Station concept further. Lucarotti had also contributed some exceptional stories for the first three seasons of Doctor Who between 1964 and 1966, including Marco Polo, The Aztecs and The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve.
Departing script editor Terrance Dicks had apparently bumped into him at the offices of Universal-Tandem during a meeting about Target novelisations of the series in 1973, then commissioned him to write two episodes of Moonbase 3 (the science fiction drama Letts and Dicks made between Seasons Ten and Eleven of Doctor Who) and finally recommended him to Holmes, the in-coming script editor. Holmes and Letts then briefed Lucarotti about the need for a six-part story set on a space station housing the cryogenically-frozen remnants of humanity.
Commissioned in June 1974, Lucarotti devised the concept of the ark, a space station that housed a huge plot of countryside the size of Kent - a sort of Home Counties in space. His six-part story concerned the invasion of the ark by a species called the Delc, a spore like fungus comprised of separate heads and bodies. When the draft scripts arrived from his home in Corsica, Holmes and Hinchcliffe felt they were far too ambitious and complicated to realise on the programme's budget and Lucarotti had over-conceptualised the story.
Postal strikes had also delayed the receipt of the scripts and keeping in touch with the writer was quite problematic. Therefore, in August 1974, it was felt any attempt by him to extensively rewrite his scripts should be abandoned and Lucarotti was paid in full for his work. Reading between the lines, there is also the suggestion that Lucarotti may well have interpreted Holmes's remit for the series from the perspective of writing the show in the mid-1960s, delivering a series of scripts that simply didn't fit the current drive towards realism.
At this point, Hinchcliffe believed it would be more resourceful if two productions could share the same sets, where eventually The Ark in Space and Season Twelve's finale Revenge of the Cybermen would be set on the same Nerva space station location. He also wanted the former as an all-studio based, less expensive production in contrast to its all-location based coda The Sontaran Experiment. Not convinced of the ongoing viability of six-part stories, Holmes agreed and then completed an entire four-part re-write in eighteen days, seeking special dispensation in retrospect during October to write The Ark in Space. This was one required by the BBC when, under difficult production circumstances, a script editor wanted or needed to write for his own series.
While director Rodney Bennett recorded The Sontaran Experiment on location in Dartmoor at the end of September 1974, amendments to the scripts for The Ark in Space were undertaken through to mid-October and model filming of the Wirrn crawling along the outside of the ark, the transport ship's launch and destruction was completed by visual effects man Tony Oxley at the BBC Television Centre Puppet Theatre on 16 October. On the same day a recording session saw Gladys Spencer and Peter Tuddenham providing voices for the High Minister and various computers.
Bennett assembled his cast for rehearsals, including a number of guest actors he had worked with before such as Wendy Williams and Kenton Moore, and the production moved into TC3 for two days recording on 28 and 29 October. Tony Oxley also supervised some of the Nerva model effects shot on video, using three cameras to build the completed shot of the ark in Earth orbit, and Bernard Lodge provided a newly tinted version of the title sequence - both of which were recorded in the same studio session. This block covered the taping of parts one and two and some inserts for part three. The final recording block took place in TC1 in November, again over two days, for parts three and four. John Friedlander created the adult Wirrn costumes using bamboo frame, fibreglass and moulded latex and the larvae creatures from what was then the relatively new plastic bubble packing, finished with latex and paint.
Various edits were made to a number of scenes as the four episodes took shape but when Hinchcliffe saw the encounter between Vira and a metamorphosing Noah in part three, where he pleads with her to kill him, he referred the scene to Head of Serials, Bill Slater and both deemed it too disturbing for the younger members of the audience. Despite Kenton Moore's disappointment, reflected in the documentary on the DVD, at John Friedlander's low-budget bubble wrap effects, his performance transcended scenes where they threatened to undermine the realism of the story's nightmarish scenario.
Slater and Hinchcliffe's concern at the management of this new realism foreshadowed what the new team would face in the next three years, particularly in the form of criticism about violence and horror in the series from Mary Whitehouse. The Ark in Space is therefore an embryonic first attempt by Hinchcliffe and Holmes, as "pop gothic TV auteurs", to marry high concept ideas with striking design, visual effects and make-up, signifying images of monstrosity within genre borrowing and "condensing image and narrative together into memorable, clear and significantly pre-sold products." (1)
... body horror and Old Testament apocalypse
This commentary has its roots in the alien possession and body horror themes of such ur texts as Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Experiment (BBC, 1953 and Hammer's film of 1955) and shares the giddy B film satisfaction of It - The Terror From Beyond Space (1958). Both were science fiction commentaries on 1950s concerns such as political corruption by outside forces, bodily possession, ambivalence about a future mapped out by technology and science and the rejection of the alien Other in pursuit of a distinct human self-hood.
The Ark in Space also emerged in a period where cinema was again, through horror and science fiction tropes, exploring the essential qualities of being human and using "social allegories which articulate class and social group fears, yearnings and hopes" to reflect the general anxieties about contemporary life in the mid-1970s. (2)
The Exorcist had enjoyed phenomenal success since its Christmas 1973 release and, together with director William Friedkin's harnessing of documentary realism techniques, it inaugurated another wave of films that articulated specific fears about ageing, dying and the corruption and disintegration of the body. In the troubled 1970s, the audiences watching demonic possessions in The Exorcist or the rampant viruses in Cronenberg's Shivers (1975) were "provided with experiences and ideas that helped them cope with economic crisis, political turmoil and cultural malaise." (3)
It comes as no surprise then that the body horror in The Ark in Space - what Matt Hills refers to as "the human body’s intense problematisation and abject breaching by an alien Other" - is also seen as a precursor to a further flowering, at the end of the decade, of this wave of science fiction and horror. (4) The likes of 1979's Alien and the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers - where sleeping humanity awakens to the invasion of an alien parasite - are analogous to Nerva's tragedy and reflect the caustic capitalism and dehumanisation of post-1960s Reaganomics that Gerald Ford was already criticising in 1976.
Holmes possession themes would become a dominant driver of high concept narratives during his incumbency as script editor. The Ark in Space, with the alien Wirrn burrowing into a human society in aspic, disrupting their technologically determined family units (Vira and Noah are "pair bonded for the new life") and causing chaos with class distinctions not only touched on physical and mental alterations but also saw the story flirt with issues of race, class and national identity.
Leader Noah undergoes a nervous breakdown, an Old Testament 'father' who loses patriarchal control and surrenders the rigidity of the World Executive for a more alien and instinctual existence. Not only is he the graphic representation of physical possession and corruption, shifting from self to Other, but he also represents a 1970s anxiety, played out in many genre and non-genre films, of the patriarch losing control of his family, losing his job and losing his home to rapacious primitive monsters and alien ideologies that, in The Ark in Space, seek repossession and ownership of Nerva and ultimately, the Earth.
The undermining of a society is the fault of 'outsiders' - both the Wirrn and the figures of the Doctor, Harry and Sarah are similarly at odds with Nerva. The Doctor and his companions are almost suffocated when they arrive and then either attacked by security systems or, in Sarah's case, virtually incorporated into the "meticulously planned" Nerva society as a cryogenically frozen, ideologically conditioned and processed 'sister' in thrall to the High Minister's recorded sophistry.
In a sequence highly reminiscent of the technologically assisted death of Edward G Robinson in Richard Fleischer's film dystopia Soylent Green (1973), Sarah is praised for her sacrifice by the World Executive as, serenaded by Handel, she is processed, suggesting a chosen managerial society basing itself purely on knowledge or information or science and alienated from the notion of the Romantic self. Incidentally, as one of the great baroque composers Handel was something of a big influence on the composers of the Romantic era
This contrast, driven by precise performances from the actors, is first articulated in the moment when the Doctor enquires of his companion about the functions of the empty ark, "what's happened to the human species, Harry?", just as a door opens on cue and director Rodney Bennett frames them next to several cryogenically halted examples, mistaken for the occupants of a mortuary, and just prior to the Doctor's much admired and highly Utopian speech about "indomitable" humanity.
However, roles in this society are technologically determined - you're either a Medtec, an Engtec or if you're lucky a prime unit like Noah - and this implies class distinctions too. Vira haughtily asks of the Doctor and Harry, "you claim to be Medtecs?" and offers that the survivors in the ark are the chosen few and considers the unfortunately processed Sarah may be of little value. Harry retorts indignantly, "Is she of value? She's a human being, like yourself. What sort of question's that?"
Vira categorises them both as Romantics, a further underpinning of Holmes's script as a reflection of neo-Romantic Theodor Roszak who influenced the anti-science movement of the 1970s and saw humanity's alienation, destruction and enslavement through "machine culture". Holmes sees a form of emotional Romanticism, exemplified in the figure of the Doctor, as a response to redressing the balance during the Wirrn's infection of the Nerva technocracy.
Vira also refers to their "colony speech" having no meaning, suggesting a sociolinguistic class difference through accent, slang and vernacular. Their speech also marks them as "dawn timers" and "regressive" to which Harry retorts, "I'm no regressive, I'm a Naval officer." Ironically when Vira claims that Noah will "not permit contamination of the genetic pool" if they stay aboard, she is unaware that the Wirrn have already accomplished that by devouring technician Dune.
Also, it's worth mentioning the 'regressive tendencies' of engineer Rogin (a great performance by Richardson Morgan) who comes across as a one-man union branch to the World Executive, grumbling to Lycett about the tragic fates of Noah, Libri and Dune, "Didn't I tell you. Five thousand years ago, I said there'd be a snitch up." You can see him itching to start a demarcation dispute over the use of spare extension leads. Indeed, he warns the Doctor about "trouble with the space technicians' union" when both men face death under the blast of the ark's shuttle and with a punch he knocks the Doctor out and sacrifices himself to save the ark.
Noah initially detects a threat to Earth originating from the Doctor, Sarah and Harry and his warning, "the Earth is ours", as he holds a gun on the Doctor, foreshadows the same possessive desire of the Wirrn that will eventually absorb him. Protection of the planet is reversed for Noah, as he becomes a Wirrn, into an instinctive desire to conquer it. The revived Libri sees this difference immediately when the infected Noah approaches him and, later, Noah's painful identity crisis alerts us to the unpleasant idea, proposed by the Doctor, that he and Dune have "been thoroughly digested" into an alien group mind.
Body horror and Old Testament apocalypse define the invasion and corruption of white, middle class purity by other alien races and radical classes, with Nerva's individuals becoming uprooted, isolated, anxious and alienated when confronted by the Other. It's perfectly encapsulated in the moment when Noah painfully attempts to reject the Wirrn's physical changes and encroaching mental possession as the High Minister bleats on about how "you have been entrusted with the sacred duty to see that human culture, human knowledge, human love and faith shall never perish from the universe."
This strident speech is rather hollow when in part four, we discover the reason for the Wirrn's attack is the result of human colonial domination after human space pioneers drove the Wirrn from their breeding grounds. The insects are, it seems, a revisitation of the spectre of colonial guilt and are intent upon devouring all human knowledge to secure a new habitat. It's a race memory countered only by the Doctor's appeal to Noah's basic human compassion when he and the Nerva crew fight to save the ark and its sleepers. That spectre demonstrates "more than a vestige of human spirit" in the final outcome.
"I'm no regressive, I'm a Naval officer"
Machine and insect often overlap. The Queen progenitor, right at the beginning of part one, sees a machine world through a halo of green, hazy vision, and this 'evil eye' view is later replayed via neural cortex projectors and the Doctor's brain. Technical knowledge is absorbed and exploited too - the Wirrn reproduce in the solar stacks thanks to Dune's expertise and the Doctor discovers that electricity or aiming their weapons lower will give them a fighting chance when he links his cerebral cortex to the Wirrn's latent memories. Again, the latter owes more than a passing reference to the revelation of Martian race memory in Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (1958).
Holmes and Hinchcliffe's determination to inject more realism into the stories was aided by a number of exceptional, committed performances, Murray-Leach's raising of the bar with his impressive multi-storey sets for the cryogenic chambers and Rodney Bennett's reputation as an 'actors director' providing the story with its requisite edge and tense atmosphere.
Although Elisabeth Sladen is quite critical of her performance on the commentary and questions Sarah's motivation, she's being rather modest about what is quite a finely tuned exercise in communicating and transmitting her fear of the uncanny through her facial expressions, body and voice. This culminates in that delicious scene where the Doctor chides her for her defeatism during her panic attack as she crawls through the infrastructure. The rapport between Tom Baker and Sladen really comes into its own during that scene and the relationship between the Doctor and Sarah feels entirely believable as a result.
What is frustrating is how Harry Sullivan rapidly becomes written down as the comic foil in this season when he became surplus to requirement once Tom Baker demonstrated he could do the physical stuff. A shame because Ian Marter is wonderfully urbane and funny even if Harry is sometimes codified as something of an anachronistic, even for 1975, square jawed Navy buffoon. Harry's Wodehousian schtick tends to contradict the pragmatism, intellect and rationale a fully qualified medical expert would convey in such situations. However, he does ably demonstrate the latter in part three, reviving Nerva's occupants and performing an examination of the Wirrn corpse.
The supporting cast are excellent too. Moore, as I've mentioned, clearly grabbed the role of the doomed Noah and saw an opportunity to define something of the anguish of a human being undergoing horrific alien possession on genetic, spiritual and emotional levels. Wendy Williams offers a counterpoint to Moore's performance, essaying Vira's retrieval of her human joie de vivre from the nexus of the High Ministry's dehumanising social structures as she interacts with the Doctor, Sarah and Harry and is bequeathed command of the station from the afflicted Noah.
The Ark in Space offers a tantalising taste of what's to come under the Hinchcliffe and Holmes partnership and effectively establishes Tom Baker as the Doctor. It raises the standards for design and effects in the series and constructs a production template to enable closer creative collaboration between departments at the BBC that would bear fruit over the next two years.
(1) Matt Hills, ‘Gothic’ Body Parts in a ‘Postmodern’ Body of Work? The Hinchcliffe/Holmes Era of Doctor Who (1975-77)
(2) Douglas Kellner, Media Culture: Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and the Post-Modern
(4) Matt Hills, ‘Gothic’ Body Parts in a ‘Postmodern’ Body of Work? The Hinchcliffe/Holmes Era of Doctor Who (1975-77)
Andrew Pixley, Doctor Who Magazine 218, 26th October 1994: The Ark in Space Archive
Shannon Patrick Sullivan, The Ark in Space, A Brief History of Time Travel
Commentary with Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Philip Hinchcliffe. Recorded for the 2002 DVD and unmoderated, this begins enthusiastically with Hinchcliffe and Sladen offering details about the production and Baker discussing how as a new team they were as then unaware of the impact they would have on viewers. Sladen recalls the casting process for the new Doctor and mentions that Tommy Steele, Ron Moody, Graham Crowden and Jim Dale had been in the frame at the time. Baker relates some background to his casting via a letter to Bill Slater at the BBC and also remembers, in his inimitable way, that designer Murray-Leach "had a very beautiful wife". Hinchcliffe recalls how he attempted to pitch the programme more towards the adult audience, how it became an important part of the Saturday night schedule and the consequences of pushing the boundaries for realism and horror in the series. This is an amiable, slightly slow paced chat, often very funny courtesy of Baker's observations and with some perceptive views from Sladen of her own acting abilities and Sarah's character.
A New Frontier (29:54) *New* With a sweep of green bubble wrap Chris Chapman's documentary faithfully covers the production of The Ark In Space and producer Philip Hinchcliffe's determination to put his own stamp on Doctor Who. Designer Roger Murray-Leach certainly speaks for the audience of 13 million, one that caught on very quickly that the series was being taken "to a different place", watching as The Ark in Space marked the beginning of a new chapter for the programme. Hinchcliffe discusses his modus operandi to "explore more science fiction concepts" for the series as its incoming producer and how he shared this view with Murray-Leach and Robert Holmes. There is plenty of background about the development of the script, from Langley's Space Station concepts to John Lucarotti's ambitious ideas and finally to Holmes's eleventh hour rewrite, of Murray-Leach's versatility and inventiveness as a designer and how director Rodney Bennett tackled the material - yoyos, trollies and all. This half hour also features candid recollections from Kenton Moore, disappointed at the gulf between the high drama of the script and being reduced to acting with a "gift-wrapped" hand, and Wendy Williams on the haughty Vira as well as a discussion on just how realistically The Ark in Space was able to depict body horror on a Saturday tea time.
Roger Murray-Leach Interview (10:29)
One of the original features of the 2002 DVD release, this covers Murray-Leach's work not only on The Ark in Space but also his contributions to Planet of Evil, The Deadly Assassin and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
Model Effects Roll (7:10)
16mm model film sequences for this story showing the exterior of the ark, the shuttle taking off, and the Wirrn spacewalking.
CGI Effects Roll (1:33)
Created by BBC Resources in 2002, these new visual effects are also available as an option during viewing of the four episodes.
3D Technical Schematics (1:09)
A fly through of the Nerva station and a look at its shuttle
Original BBC Trailer (0:51)
Promotional teaser trailer for part one of The Ark in Space that aired 24 January 1975
Alternative Title Sequence (0:43)
Bernard Lodge's title sequence for the Tom Baker era developed out of this alternative version that feels more like the titles for Pertwee's last series in 1974.
Alternative CGI Effects
The option to watch with the new effects can be toggled here
TARDIS-Cam 1 (1:24)
The Fourth Moon of Fraxis, depicting the TARDIS in a barren moonscape and with a severed Cyberman head in the foreground was the first of the six short effects sequences commissioned by BBC Fictionlab
A fuller selection of colour and black and white images taken during recording and behind the scenes. Includes shots of Roger Murray-Leach's much admired sets.
Production Information Subtitles
Martin Wiggins provides a new set of subtitles and packs them full of behind the scenes material about the development of the script, casting and production. Essential reading.
Countdown Clock - Episode 2
Two Doctor Who Exhibition Promos
The Ark in Space - Movie Version (unrestored) I vividly remember watching this 70-minute repeat compilation of the story shown one mid-summer's eve in August 1975. Relive those heady days when we were treated to regular repeats of the series on BBC1. The Radio Times even pushed the boat out and plugged it with one of Frank Bellamy's gorgeous illustrations.
Dr. Forever! – Love & War (27:37) A new documentary examining the Virgin/BBC Books novelisation range produced during the 1990-2005 hiatus. Interviewees include Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, Gary Russell, former Virgin Books editor Peter Darvill-Evans and BBC Books editor Justin Richards. All discuss how the books were important as vehicles for new writers, maintained the visibility of the programme when it was off screen and took it in some unexpected directions. This also covers the period up to the TV Movie and the BBC's retention of the publishing licence in 1996, leaving Virgin attempting to keep a spin-off range going.
Scene Around Six (7:36) Christmas 1978 news footage of Tom Baker’s public appearances in Northern Ireland which astonishingly survives and gives us some idea of how popular Baker was and how his charisma demonstrably lit up the faces of kids in hospitals and schools and provided an easy charm with folks in the street.
8mm Location Footage (1:11) Mute amateur film shot during the location shooting between 28 April and 6 May 1974 for Tom Baker’s first story Robot and capturing the outside broadcast crew and Baker, Nick Courtney and John Levene relaxed and happy at work on a sunny day.
Coming Soon Trailer
Make some cocoa and declare your love for The Aztecs.
Radio Times Listings, a complete PDF of Mark Harris's Doctor Who Technical Manual from 1983, and Crosse and Blackwell and Nestle Promotional Material.
Doctor Who: The Ark in Space
BBC Worldwide / Released 25 February 2013 / BBCDVD3672
4 episodes / Broadcast: 25 January to 15 February 1975 / Colour / Running time: 98:45