Doctor Doctor Who Guide

‘The Ark in Space’ is one of those Doctor Who stories that I remember as an apex of horror from my childhood; it has been literally over a decade since I last saw it, and fans don’t need to be told that with this series in particular we must revisit childhood with caution, lest we die broken-hearted. And, indeed, there were things that did disappoint me about ‘The Ark in Space’ – the model work is especially poor – but all in all, I thought it stood up rather well. It is not quite the classic of repute, but it is a thoughtful story, and creepy enough, especially considering its budget.

The main problems I had were in the first two episodes. This is not a great Sarah Jane story - she doesn’t do much except get into trouble, and Elisabeth Sladen’s squawking approach here is a bit tedious. The pace is sluggish, and, as I said, the exterior shots of Nerva really saddened me. (The CGI replacements on the DVD are improvements, sort of, but they still jar horribly with the overall production aesthetic.) Most of the interior shots, too, looked like they’d been filmed in a high-school band room – I know the spareness of design is deliberate, but the whole thing just looks cheap, even for Doctor Who. Still, director Rodney Bennett uses the camera very effectively – he peeks around corners, and from across rooms, in such a way that we’re never quite sure whether we’re getting a monster’s-eye view or not. Quite effectively scary.

But things pick up considerably in Episode Three, and the final two episodes are very watchable indeed. The narrative moves better, Sarah gets to crawl around in a shaft, and the mature Wirrn costumes/puppets work surprisingly well (especially considering how silly the dead queen looks in the early part of the story). Harry, although initially twittering, establishes himself as one of the most likeable companions – amusing in his Wodehouseian verbal tics, but certainly no idiot, and brave and serious enough too; in other words, Harry Sullivan may *talk* like an upper-class ass, but he’s not a *comic* character. And the handling of Noah’s ultimate fate, and his continued devotion to his mate Vira, is extremely moving.

But the most interesting thing about the story is its thematic content. ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ chooses to read it in an optimistic light, indeed calling it “Robert Holmes’s most optimistic script, where he defends humanity (the instinctive Rogin) against insect-like conformity.” One can certainly make an argument for this, but such a reading seems to ignore some of the script’s obvious ironies. ‘The Ark in Space’ ends on a happy note, it is true, and does so on the strength of selflessly ‘human’ actions on the part of Rogin and Noah. And yet casting the story as a battle between the ‘instinctive’ human and ‘insect-like conformity’ is a strange interpretation – at the end of the day, the human race is still more insect-like than ever before, segmented away into individual honeycomb cocoons, and led by the stiff, unimaginative Vira (perhaps the most ‘insect-like’ of the humans we meet). In fact, the whole point of Holmes’s story seems to be that humans are fighting the very thing they are becoming – his (very funny) choice to play the High Minister’s jingoistic hymn to humanity over Noah’s horrific transformation gives us a perfect symbol for the story’s horror and essential pessimism. Even the Doctor’s celebrated (if slightly florid) “Homo sapiens!” speech, delivered in the face of the human ‘hive,’ contains bitter insights into human adaptability (and its dangers), and Baker’s sarcastic reading of the speech backs up this interpretation.

And what of the Wirrn themselves? Well, their ‘conformist’ nature remains up in the air too. Of course, it is impossible to say just how much of the Swarm Leader’s discourse is ‘his’ own thoughts and how much is Noah’s, but it cannot be denied that there is a tragedy, even a poetry, in the creature’s account of their war with the humans and the destruction of their once-peaceful society. The Wirrn are not simple monsters; true, they cannot be considered entirely sympathetic, as their actions against Earth are motivated wholly by revenge. But it must be pointed out that the desire for revenge in itself is an emotion-driven mindset (or an ‘instinct’-driven one, if you prefer) and that really doesn’t support an ‘instinctive human vs. functional insect’ reading of the story. Yes, the Doctor ultimately sides with the humans – but he does so in the context of ambiguities that lend ‘The Ark in Space’ a most satisfying adult quality. 

Ultimately, an entertaining story, and an interesting one.

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