Whenever I’m asked by new Who fans for a good starting point to watch classic Doctor Who, I don’t point to “An Unearthly Child” but instead to Robert Holmes’ classic fourth Doctor serial, “The Ark In Space.”
Not only does the story kick off a great run of stories, but it comes from an era this is (arguably) the most consistent and best in the entire fifty plus year run of the show — classic or otherwise.
The story includes a minor call back or two to the previous installment, but for the most part it’s a self-contained horror story set in the near future. Promising Harry a quick trip to the moon to prove the TARDIS is what the Doctor says it is, our trio instead ends up in the far future thanks to Harry’s twisting the helmic regulator a bit too much. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive on a future space station that is home to the final remnants of humanity in suspended animation waiting their chance to awaken and begin the conquering the Earth again. But something has gone wrong and humanity has overslept.
What’s gone wrong is the Wirrin, an insect race that can survive in deep space and has journeyed to the ark seeking our humanity. The Wirrin are also driven to survive and are looking for a new home — and the ark and the Earth look like just the right place to get started.
If you didn’t know that Holmes had to hastily create a new script using the already created sets for space station because another script feel through, odds are you wouldn’t notice during the four episodes of this story. Ian Marter’s novelization of the story is one of his most straight-forward, following Holmes’ original script and storyline faithfully. There are some embellishments for the printed page, such as the additional r in the name of the Wirrrin and some of the descriptions of the Wirrrin taking over their human hosts are bit more graphic than the show could have got away with at the time (or, quite frankly, could get away with today).
Marter drops a few lines that were possibly ad-libbed on the set or that don’t present his character of Harry in the best of lights. He also makes the Wirrin a bit more horrifying than they are on our screens — and that’s saying a bit since the concept of the Wirrin is pretty chilling when you stop to think about it.
It all adds up to one of the better entries from the Target lines of Doctor Who adaptations. A lot of the Target novels make me want to go back and review the original story again. “The Ark in Space” is one that almost demands that you immediately watch the story again.
The audiobook is read by Jon Culshaw, who made quite a name for himself imitating the fourth Doctor as part of the “Dead Ringers” crew in the UK. (If you haven’t heard some of those bits, I recommend them. As a Doctor Who fans, I enjoyed them immensely) Culshaw uses his fourth Doctor imitation in the audio novel and the first time I heard it, it felt like they’d sampled Tom Baker’s lines from the original serial and dropped them in here.
Culshaw’s reading of the story is spot-on, adding to the atmosphere of the novel. Marter expanded on the sequence of Sarah crawling through the duct work of the station and Culshaw really runs with it here. It’s one of the most suspenseful and riveting parts of this audiobook. I tend to listen to these audiobooks while jogging and I wouldn’t be shocked if my speed picked up a bit during this portion of the story (even knowing the outcome already).
When the Doctor Who audiobook line returned earlier this year, I was thrilled at the selection of stories that were coming our way. “The Ark in Space” is yet another superb entry from that line. It’s a great combination of a great original story by Robert Holmes, a superlative adaptation by Ian Marter and a great performance by Jon Cullshaw.