Friday, 20 July 2018

The Ark in Space

Chapter The 94th, in which a precious thing comes with lots of bubble-wrap.

The Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive on a space station, sometime after the 80th century, where the survivors of the human race are in cryogenic sleep waiting out a catastrophe that's occurred on Earth. Before they have woken up to repopulate the planet, though, a giant parasitic insect queen of species Wirrn has broken in and laid eggs in one of the sleepers. Because of something the TARDIS team do in their investigations - or else just by a fairly big coincidence - the larvae start emerging exactly at this point after thousands of years. The sleeping humans start waking up, but their leader Noah comes into contact with a larva and that starts to convert him into a Wirrn. With help from the future humans, our heroes battle against the giant grubs. But it is Noah who saves the day; the last vestiges of his humanity winning out in a mental struggle, he leads all the hatched Wirrn off in the station's shuttle craft, and blows it up. Second-in-command Vira stays on the 'Ark' to continue awakening the surviving members of the human race, while the Doctor, Sarah and Harry transmat down to Earth to check it's fine (they never report back to Vira because they get embroiled in other machinations, but that's another story).

I bought the recent Blu-ray box-set of the five stories in Tom Baker's debut year, and as usual whenever a new Who release comes along, I mused a while on whether I should blog something from it, or whether that would be a dilution of the concept of doing stories at random. To decide whether to choose a story from the box set, and - if so - which, I introduced a chaotic element and used a four-sided die (that's just the way I roll). I've already covered two of the stories previously - Robot and Revenge of the Cybermen so 1-3 referred in transmission order to the remaining three stories; 4 would have meant I didn't blog anything at all. The 1d4 result was a 1, which meant The Ark in Space. I proceeded to watch an episode a night of this seminal tale, without the optional CGI model replacements, with only one evening's gap to watch England in a World Cup semi-final. In this, I was accompanied by the Better Half, and by my youngest two children (boy of 8, girl of 6) - for Ark in Space, I mean; the Better Half had no interest in the football.

First-time round:
I've previously written often about the excitement of the early scatter-shot days of the Doctor Who VHS range in the late 1980s, before the rate and dates stabilised and I found a regular stockist who'd have them on or near their release. It was pot luck in those days, rather as the Target novelisations had been previously: sometimes, you would walk in to a shop and be excited to find something suddenly, dizzyingly, available that you had no idea was coming out.

Something like this happened in 1989 (from memory, it was late Summer, before the broadcast of classic Doctor Who's final season on BBC1), when I walked into WH Smiths in Bognor Regis and found three new stories on video to buy (it looked like four at first, as one of the three was the first ever double tape release, which meant that it came in two almost identical VHS boxes). I probably had to beg my Dad, with whom I was staying for the holiday, for enough money to buy the lot in one go; so, the first time I would have watched The Ark in Space, which was one of the three, was at his place. That version had the middle episodes' beginning and ending credit sequences expunged, so it could be presented as a feature-length thing. The unedited version came out on a VHS re-release early in 1994. I then bought it for a third time on DVD in 2002, and again - though I'd completely forgotten about it until now - on an enhanced DVD re-release in 2013. The Blu-ray version is the fifth copy I've purchased,  and that's probably enough, I should say, as good as the story is. 

It may be a false impression, but it seemed to me watching this story quite soon after Invasion of the Dinosaurs, that Tom Baker and Liz Sladen seem to share more screen time in Ark in Space than Jon Pertwee shared with her in their whole season together the year before. Aside from episode 1 of Dinosaurs, Sarah and Three are most often working individually: maybe it's a function of the 'split the protagonists up' trope, which Doctor Who writers are very keen on, but - not just in Ark, but in the other stories on the Season 12 box set - the fourth Doctor and Sarah (plus Harry, a witty and wonderful addition) are a team, a tight unit, in the way that the UNIT team weren't, at least by the time of season 11, despite the name. It helps that there's a first episode, like in Dinosaurs, concentrating just on the main characters. In these scenes, and throughout, Tom is 100% his Doctor, and he and the new era are fully formed by this second appearance (third recorded story, mind, as The Sontaran Experiment was made before this - and that story is still somewhat embryonic - but, still, they found their feet very early).

Why is it so successful at achieving a different approach? Robot and The Ark in Space feel worlds apart, but they're made in similar studios, with similar cameras, by similar means. I think that part of it is a certain stillness. There aren't many action sequences in Ark, and there's precious little fast movement by the characters - it's controlled, and deliberative, with drama coming from committed performances and character interactions. One of the most dramatic moments, at least for this viewer, is Noah looking at his alien, transformed hand. He's stock still, and the make-up effect is by all measures rubbish, but the expression on his face and the way he is holding himself are magnetic. Then, the script plays a blinder and a completely unexpected and initially incongruous voice-over starts up - the Earth High Minister giving the awakened humans their "pre-match pep talk". Noah, with a flicker of reaction, just listens. Director Rodney Bennett then does some elegant, glacial cross-fades, as these words are heard across the Ark, and it dawns that this is not incongruous at all - this is the heart of the story: the fight for Noah's humanity versus the mind and body horror of the alien parasite consuming him.

How good the transformation make up is ceases to matter (and, to be fair, all the other phases are pretty good, as is the larval mass behind the glass in the solar stack - it's only Noah's hand and the grub that don't quite work); all that matters is the story of Noah... and Vira. The Better Half clued me in to a subtle re-reading of this story, which might be obvious to everyone else, but has only occurred to me on this my millionth watch of Ark in Space, when she asked me during the last episode why Noah is offering the TARDIS team and the few awakened humans safe passage off the Ark. He doesn't need to, he doesn't even need to lie about it: the Wirrn are in a far superior position, and could just wait the humans out. He. Wants. To. Save. Vira. How could I not see this before? He wants to save his pair-bonded mate from his old life. The dialogue bears this out: Wirrn Noah only wants to speak to Vira, says her name over and over. The only way he can save her and conform to the pressure from the hive mind, to take over the Ark and devour the sleepers, is to get her away. When she won't leave, love wins in his internal battle, and he destroys the Wirrn instead. I've been watching a love story all this time. Wow! But, if you want to, you can ignore all of that and see this, as I previously have, as just as a triumph of Noah's humanity.

That central kernel - the everyday tragic love triangle between a man, a woman, and an alien parasitic gestalt - is surrounded by gold standard material at every level. The regulars input to the story is only really in the subplots, but it still works as they are so good. Dudley Simpson's tense metronomic score is excellent. The drama plays out against the backdrop of probably the best sets ever constructed for a classic Doctor Who: whether the decision to reuse them in another later serial afforded a bit more budget or not, there's high-level ingenuity from designer Roger Murray-Leach everywhere: not just in the big showy cryogenic chamber, check out the set for the launch pad of the shuttle, for example; this is only in a couple of scenes, and could have been a flimsy knocked-up thing, but it feels solid and real. The concepts too - the same inspiration from nature that Alien called upon a few years later in the cinema; and, considering it's a rush job page-one rewrite, Robert Holmes's script is top touch stuff with wonderful black comedy dialogue ("I'm no regressive, I'm a naval officer!").

Both contain a scene where Sarah Jane Smith is woken up to be told she's been through a cryogenic process on a craft in deep space. It's a lie in Invasion of the Dinsosaurs, of course, but here it's true.

Deeper Thoughts:
All the years are Tom Baker years. The picture quality is probably a bit better than DVD, and there's lots of new extras, but I don't really care: I only bought the Season 12 Blu-Ray box set upon which The Ark in Space features because it also has The Tom Baker Years on it. Why did it mean so much to me to see this curio again? For the uninitiated, a number of 'Years' tapes were created by 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner in the early 1990s as part of the burgeoning Doctor Who VHS range. There were tapes for each of the first three actors to play the Doctor, one for the Cybermen, one for the Daleks, each acting as a showcase for otherwise orphaned episodes and clips. The concept was already getting stretched by Jon Pertwee's one, though, as every episode featured there would be released with the rest of its complete story only three years after his Years tape came out. For the Tom Baker one, a new idea would be needed - there was nothing even slightly orphaned about any of his episodes, and every one of his stories would be released sooner or later.

Part of the reason why it's intriguing to see it again is the gimmick they chanced upon in 1992 to solve this problem, which was way ahead of its time: the Gogglebox factor. Tom would be filmed reacting to a selection of clips from his stories, and would comment on the action shown. It was both a rehearsal for DVD cast commentaries, which were still a few years away from being a reality when the Years tapes were being made, and a prototype for the award-winning C4 show which watches the viewers watching the programmes. In fact, it is echoed in a new extra that also appears on the Season 12 set called Behind the Sofa, which rips off Gogglebox shamelessly, but perhaps in the knowledge that BBC Video got there first. The main point that The Tom Baker Years got wrong, though, was it didn't have anyone else on the sofa for Tom to react with or play off. Still, if anyone could carry something like this solo, it would be Tom Baker you'd want to have a crack at it.

I haven't had, or even seen, a VCR in such a long time, and I disposed of all my video tapes a few years back (keeping the sleeves in clear wallets in a ring binder and - for want to any other destination for them - sending the cassettes themselves to the landfill). I could have kept or tried to flog The Tom Baker Years, it being one of the few tapes to contain material not available on another more up-to-date format, but I didn't. Had the memory cheated? Had I mis-remembered all its idiosyncrasies? Not really. Baker does watch the clips on TV from a chair next to a night-watchman's brazier for no reason. He does regularly fail to remember names of stories, names of actors, or that he ever performed in the particular thing put before him. He does rhapsody on various wonderful drinking sessions during location shoots over the years, including some rather obscure sounding tipples (rum and shrub, anyone?).

And he does deliver wonderful, memorable material, still etched in my mind today: his reaction to the most violent scene in The Deadly Assassin where he essentially sides with Mary Whitehouse, his summary of Margaret Thatcher's spell as prime minister, the story of getting attacked by a dog ("I'll have to play smiling parts for the rest of my career"), recalling his jealousy at Beatrix Lehmann's favouritism towards John Leeson, and - at the end - the lovely haunted cautionary tale about fleeting fame, when he recounts a visit to the hairdressers. It has a certain special something, even though it's not exactly a probing interview. If that's what you're looking for, 2018 Tom is elsewhere on the disc in conversation with Matthew Sweet, and gosh it's good as well. This is the first of what might be seven Blu-ray box sets covering Tom's tenure: is there really enough material about him to fill the remaining six? Well, if anyone could carry something like that solo, it would be Tom Baker you'd want to have a crack at it. Long may his years continue.

In Summary:
It's indomitable. Indomitable!

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