Cited by modern Doctor Who showrunners, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat as the best story of the classic era, “The Ark in Space” is also a great entry point for fans who want to see what all the fuss classic Who is about.
Robert Holmes had just taken on the reigns as script-editor when he had to do a full page-one rewrite of a script by John Lucarotti. Holmes kept the setting of a space station because the sets were already under construction (a cost-cutting measure for the first fourth Doctor season had the sets used here and later in “Revenge of the Cybermen.”) In place of the original story, Holmes gave us a four-part serial with an utterly chilling monster and a high stakes as the Doctor and a group of humans fight for the survival of humanity.
In many ways, this is Holmes taking the base-under-siege stories of the Patrick Troughton era and upping the stakes dramatically. Yes, we’re concerned with the fate of the group of newly revived humans as they battle the Wirrin. But also at stake is the future of humanity and whether or not humanity will survive or become Wirrin food.
The Wirrin and the implications of them are utterly chilling. Long before the Borg were assimilating people, the Wirrin was there to do it. But unlike being converted to a human cyborg, robbed of your humanity, the Wirrin instead consumed you, apparently body and soul. Your body allowed them to grow and propagate, while your memories were incorporated into the hive-mind of the insect creatures. Holmes’ use of giant insects only helps underscore the body-horror of this era as we watch Noah transform on-screen. The final implication that Noah was somehow still in there and aware of the horror taking place makes it all the more chilling.
This is also one that you can easily see where a scene was cut. In episode three, Vira and the Doctor meet the slowly transforming Noah, who begs them to kill him rather than allow his transformation to continue. Producer Phillip Hinchcliffe felt that scene went a bit too far and took the show too dark and cut it. It’s easy to see where it was because of a closed door. While filmed, the scene is apparently lost to the ravages of time since it’s on neither the DVD nor Blu-Ray release.
And yet, as you start this serial, it feels like a bit of a throwback to the earlier days of Doctor Who.
Episode one consists mostly of the TARDIS team explore a space station, moving from room to room and situation to situation with ever-escalating drama. It all culminates in one of the most memorable scenes featuring the fourth Doctor as he pontificates about and praises humanity.
While “Robot” introduces us to the fourth Doctor, it’s “The Ark in Space” that really establishes the fourth Doctor. It feels like Tom Baker and the production team are really finding themselves with this one — whether it’s the clever banter with Sarah and Harry or the previously mentioned speech. Baker clearly settles into the role, making his Doctor suitably alien. There’s a well-done scene when the Doctor chastizes Sarah for apparently failing to get through the ductwork and help save humanity that is one of the best of its era. Add in some memorable quips and it’s easy to see Baker struck such a chord with viewers — and continues to do so forty-plus years later.
This serial also emphasizes how good a restrained Tom Baker can be in the role. It’s easy to imagine him overplaying the scene where the Doctor connects to the Wrrin’s hive-mind later in his tenure. Baker’s reactions as he experiences the queen’s final moments are superbly done, as is the question of whether or not he’s been taken over and Vira will have to kill him to save his mind from being consumed by the Wirrin.
This is one of three of the highest-rated serials of the classic Who run — and it’s easy to feel like audiences were discovering the show going to the next level in terms of quality.
Simply put, this is a masterpiece of Doctor Who. And it’s a damn fine entry point to the show — new or classic.
I think someone at the BBC agrees with me because every time a new medium is available to commercially release Doctor Who, “The Ark in Space” is one of the first stories released.