Doctor Who – The Ark

I’m still reeling from the slapdash way Dodo was introduced at the end of the previous serial, The Massacre. Jackie Lane continues to be thrown in at the deep end as this story begins, but as Dodo will eventually settle down I’m prepared to cut her some slack.

The opening episode – The Steel Sky – is a pretty impressive production. There’s plenty of rapid cutting in the jungle scenes from film, to studio, then back to film, etc. This sounds straightforward enough, but since the cutting had to be done live during the studio recording, the chances of something going wrong was quite high.

Unlike film/studio cutting during the colour era, the constant changes from film stock to studio videotape isn’t so noticeable in black and white, so director Michael Imison manages to get away with it. There’s some other nice shots in these early episodes and some decent model-work, which suggests that Imison was trying to use the series’ limited technical resources to their fullest degree.

This is just as well, as the acting is, to put it kindly, a bit hit and miss. Eric Elliott as the Commander and Inigo Jackson as Zentos both manage to chew any bit of scenery they come across. Kate Newman (Mellium) is better, but she’s not given much to do. It’s good to see Michael Sheard (making his DW debut as Rhos) but if it hadn’t been Sheard playing the role I doubt anyone would spend a great deal of time talking about this character.

What’s notable about The Ark is the way it neatly splits into two two-part stories. Although at the end of the second episode (which sees the Doctor and his friends bidding the inhabitants of the Ark a fond farewell after curing them of the terrible damage inflicted by Dodo’s cold) it appears that the story has run its course.

The reveal that the TARDIS has travelled in time, but not space, dropping them back on the Ark seven hundred years later is a good twist. As is the cliff-hanger reveal that the statue of humanity (which was only partly constructed at the start of the story) has now been completed with the head of a Monoid.

Ah yes, the Monoids. They spent the first two episodes in the background as mute servants of the humans. But now they’ve gained voices and – rather ticked off about the way they were treated as second class citizens for centuries – have taken over and are giving the humans a taste of their own medicine.

That the Doctor was partly responsible for this state of affairs (Dodo’s cold led to a mutated disease which, after they left, sapped the will of the humans) is an interesting story beat. Given that the Doctor can never resist meddling in local affairs, it’s easy to imagine him leaving a trail of unintentional destruction as he goes along his merry way. It’s not surprising that the series rarely comments on this though (Planet of the Spiders being a notable exception).

The Monoids, bless them, aren’t in the top rank of Doctor Who monsters. Their wobbling walk is bad enough, but when they begin to talk in part three – The Return – things really begin to career downhill. This episode features several of the serial’s most cherished moments – the Security Kitchen, for one. Maybe this is intended to be ironic and we’re simply not getting the joke (after all, where exactly do the Monoids stuff all the food they force the Guardians to make for them?)

Dodo’s confrontation with Monoid 2 (none of them have names, only Prisoner-ish numbers) is another classic.

DODO: Yes, I bet it’ll take some time to get the whole of the population down here, so the sooner you get started, the better, I should think.
MONOID 2: Don’t worry. It may not take as long as you think.
DODO: What do you mean? Are you up to something?
MONOID 2: Er, no.
DODO: No? But you gave yourself away, didn’t you?

Dodo’s tone here is rather like a mother chastising a naughty child. It helps to dispel any lingering menace that the Monoids might have had. This is a pity as they look quite imposing in still form (see below) it’s only when they walk and talk that they have a problem …

The Ark trundles along to a conclusion, with the humans and the remaining Monoids (after the more warlike ones perish in a brief civil war) agreeing to bury the hatchet and begin a new life on Refusis along with the invisible Refusians, who are looking forward to having a bit of corporeal company at last.

Given what’s happened before though, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re at each other’s throats in a couple of decades time ….

It’s easy to be a little dismissive of the simplistic storyline and the lack of three-dimensional guest characters (all the ones we see are drawn from stock – the impulsive hot-headed human convinced that the Doctor is a menace, etc). But The Ark does have some solid science-fiction concepts – such as the generational spaceship in search of a new home – and the production design by Barry Newbery has plenty of little touches which still look good today.

Ratings-wise, I’ll give it three TARDISes out of five.