Review: Doctor Who – The Ark In Space (Special Edition) / Cert: PG / Director: Rodney Bennett / Screenplay: Robert Holmes / Starring: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter / Release Date: February 18th
Tom Baker’s second serial was an abrupt change of pace for Doctor Who and a huge culture shock for viewers following Robot, which maintained the style and flavour of his predecessor, Jon Pertwee. The show’s new firebrand producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, was keen to move the series away from the plastic maggots, dinosaurs and spiders of yore into a darker, more serious direction, and The Ark In Space was the hugely successful result.
The TARDIS lands on a deserted space station thousands of years into the future, where the Doctor finds the remains of humanity in deep suspended animation following a solar flare cataclysm which has rendered the Earth uninhabitable. He discovers that the station’s operating systems have been compromised by invading space insects called the Wirrn who plan to lay claim to the now-habitable Earth by transforming their sleeping human hosts into bugs like themselves.
Despite its shoestring budget, The Ark in Space is a gold-plated Doctor Who classic, a base-under-siege story in the show’s grand style, with a group of humans trapped in an enclosed environment and threatened by a hostile alien force, but more realistic and urgent than any that went before. This time, the threat isn’t a bunch of stuntmen in big green monster suits. The Wirrn are space locusts and they come with all the creepy trappings of insect infestation; a vicious grub on the loose, slime trails across the floor and even some Doctor Who-style body horror as the station’s revived commander, Noah, is transmogrified into a Wirrn courtesy of lots and lots of bubble wrap and a can of green paint. It’s a taut, well-written tale – Robert Holmes at close to his best – and there’s a stifling sense of isolation and claustrophobia in Roger Murray-Leach’s brilliantly designed sets which actually manage to give a sense of scale and size to the Nerva Beacon despite the mere pennies available to realise them. Freed from the show’s Earth-bound storylines, Tom Baker flies out from under Pertwee’s shadow and his performance here sees him getting the balance absolutely right between the Doctor as the hero and the Doctor as the unpredictable, slightly dangerous alien.
The Ark in Space was the launchpad for a whole new style of Doctor Who in the '70s, the UNIT soldiers and rubber monsters of the previous era quickly left behind as the series, for a while at least, became proper science fiction with slightly higher ambitions than just sending the kids scurrying behind the sofa. This brilliant new 2-disc set – the latest in the BBC’s current run of special editions – finally does justice to one of the very best stories in the show’s history.
Extras: Audio Commentary/ ‘Making of’ documentary/ History of Doctor Who books documentary / Interview with the set designer / Footage of Tom Baker visiting Northern Ireland in the 1970s / Silent footage from filming of Baker’s debut ‘Robot’ / Trailers