The TARDIS lands on a space station orbiting the Earth in the distant future. They find thousands of humans in cryogenic sleep, and their space station has been invaded by the Wirrn, a parasitic insect race, who threaten the future of mankind.
Despite a difficult conception, The Ark in Space is correctly regarded as a classic in terms of Doctor Who. I am going to start with what may be seen as the biggest problem with the story first, the Wirrn and their appearance.
So, the bubble wrap aliens. Despite the fact that it is clearly bubble wrap around Noah’s hand and Kenton Moore’s personal disappointment about how the transformation actually appeared on screen, the obvious cheap prosthetic effect doesn’t really bother me that much. Maybe it’s my own phobia relating to insects, but I feel that the Wirrn are potentially one of the better classic era villains, and especially one of the best ones that only appear once. Moore’s performance when he stares at his hand as the transformation begins really sells it to me, and I know from the behind the scenes documentary that he was hoping for more visual stimulation from the prosthetic, but that scene really stands out. The idea behind the parasitic Wirrn, and the fact that they devour the host and absorb their memories to a hive mind is quite a horrifying and effective idea. The adult Wirrn are also fantastically creepy and quite unsettling in how they move.
Another strong element of this episode is the dynamic between the three lead actors, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter. The episode greatly benefits from the fact that the first part of the story could be described as a three-hander, although Sarah Jane does spend most of that unconscious, so it is a good chance to see the relationship between Harry and the Doctor develop a little more. In the course of the first part, we see Harry blamed for them ending up on the Nerva Beacon and the Doctor goes from believing Harry to be an imbecile to be “improving”, although being the Doctor, of course, this is entirely due to his influence. This story does contain some really lovely moments with this TARDIS team, with scenes like the Doctor “encouraging” Sarah Jane through the ventilation shafts really highlighting this.
The use of language in this episode is really interesting, and the use of the old-fashioned Harry to highlight it is really interesting. The humans in suspended animation use much more advanced language than Harry which serves to highlight the development and evolution of the humans, and the use of Harry’s more old-fashioned sensibilities serve to highlight this. Initially, in the first drafts of the script, this was much more pronounced and is more toned down in the finished show, however, this also is used to emphasise the differences between Harry and Sarah and the Nerva Beacon humans like Vira.
I cannot review this story without talking for a moment about Roger Murray-Leach, the designer of many sets in Classic Who. Here they stand out to create a fantastic atmosphere that almost makes you believe that they are on a real space station. The sets evoke a feeling of a cold and clinical environment, which helps with the general feelings of horror, especially with the cryogenic pods giving a horrible sense of claustrophobia. The fact that the sets were obviously constructed on a shoestring budget makes this all the more effective: mirrors were used to create the impression that the cryogenic chamber was much larger than it really was, and good direction helps the corridor set to be differentiated from other areas of the spaceship.
This story really feels more like a debut for the Fourth Doctor’s era than the preceding story, Robot, with it’s smaller cast and obvious themes of possession and horror story staples, it is definitely a precursor to things to come under Philip Hinchcliffe’s time as producer. It also helps that the story leads directly into the following one, capturing the viewer’s imagination as to what the Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane will find when they return to Earth. Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor, where he is completely unpredictable from moment to moment, also helps to keep the viewer engaged and he obviously took to the role like a duck to water.
Verdict: Thanks to strong horror influences, a creepy alien and good performances from the main and guest casts, this story kicks the Fourth Doctor’s era into life. 10/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Ian Marter (Harry Sullivan), Wendy Williams (Vira), Kenton Moore (Noah), Richardson Morgan (Rogin), John Gregg (Lycett), Christopher Master (Libri), Stuart Fell and Nick Hobbs (The Wirrn), Gladys Spencer (High Minister’s Voice) Peter Tuddenham (Voices on Nerva)
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Rodney Bennett
Behind the Scenes
- This story had a difficult conception – the idea of a story being set on a space station was given to both Christopher Langley and John Lucarotti. Langley had never written for the show before, and Lucarotti hadn’t written for the show since William Hartnell’s era. His original drafts contained episode titles, a practice that had stopped after The Gunfighters. Langley’s premise was rejected.
- Lucarotti was living on a boat in the Meditteranean at the time and the Corsican postal service was on strike, making it infeasible for script editor Robert Holmes to work with him to get the story to the screen. Holmes conducted a page one rewrite, incorporating some elements from Lucarotti’s draft (the ark, the humans oversleeping and the station being infiltrated while they slept), and whilst Holmes was credited as the sole writer, Lucarotti was paid for his work.
- This is a well regarded story by those who went on to work on Doctor Who. Showrunners Russell T Davies have both sung its praises, with Davies labelling it the best story of the ‘classic’ era and Moffat stating that it is his favourite story of Tom Baker’s time on the show. Peter Capaldi lists it among his favourite stories from his childhood and Dalek operator Barnaby Edwards said that he was “petrified of the Wirrn”. Tom Baker also states it to be his favourite story.
- Part Two was the fifth most viewed programme in the week it was broadcast, the highest charting episode of Doctor Who until Voyage of the Damned, giving us the answer to the question as to whether Kylie Minogue or the Wirrn is more popular.
- The story introduces the Nerva Beacon, which would be the lynchpin of the Fourth Doctor’s first season and the sets would be reused in Revenge of the Cybermen.
- It was produced at the same time as The Sontaran Experiment, as this story was entirely set based, whilst the latter was shot on location, to save on costs.
When Noah is looking at his hand and obviously beginning to lose control of his own body at the end of Part 3. It is a really chilling scene.
Shame about the scarf. Madam Nostradamus knitted for me. Witty little knitter.The Fourth Doctor