The Ark in Space *****

A riveting horror story in space as the last of humankind is attacked by locust-like Wirrn

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Ark in Space *****

Season 12 – Story 76

"Noah spoke of the great blackness… rushing in… He meant space. But how did he know?" - Vira

Storyline
The Tardis takes the Doctor, Sarah and Harry to space station Nerva in orbit above Earth in the far future. A human elite has been preserved in Nerva's cryogenic chambers while the Earth was bombarded by solar flares. But thousands of years have passed and Nerva is being infiltrated by Wirrn, pernicious insectile life forms who plan to feed on the human survivors…

First transmissions
Part 1 - Saturday 25 January 1975
Part 2 - Saturday 1 February 1975
Part 3 - Saturday 8 February 1975
Part 4 - Saturday 15 February 1975

Production
Studio recording: October 1974 in TC3, November 1974 in TC1

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen
Harry Sullivan - Ian Marter
Vira - Wendy Williams
Noah - Kenton Moore
Rogin - Richardson Morgan
Libri - Christopher Masters
Lycett - John Gregg
High Minister's voice - Gladys Spencer
Voices - Gladys Spencer, Peter Tuddenham
Wirrn operators - Stuart Fell, Nick Hobbs

Crew
Writer - Robert Holmes
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Roger Murray-Leach
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe
Director - Rodney Bennett

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Ah, The Ark in Space… the story that restored my faith in Doctor Who. Robot, with its lumbering titular foe and, worse, the looning fourth Doctor, had all but alienated me, my family and friends. Then along came producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes to take us into uncharted territory.

In a clean break from Earth and the lollipop comfort of Unit, here's a riveting horror story in a clinical sci-fi environment; add a dash of whimsy, and you have an appetising treat for more sophisticated viewers, even adults. The proof is in the ratings. A staggering 13.6 million tuned in for Part Two, the largest audience since 1965.

Holmes either ignored or was unaware that Who had shown humanity fleeing catastrophe before ( The Ark, 1966). And in 2010 the 11th Doctor visited similar territory in The Beast Below. But Holmes's remorseless, confident four-parter from 1975 is by miles the superior treatment.

I suppose you could snigger at the Wirrn - wriggling sleeping-bag larva or ridiculous grasshopper imago - but careful framing and editing largely hide their shortcomings. It's the "body horror" - predating Alien - that chills. The notion of sleeping humans incubating then providing a ready-made larder for the Wirrn is, as the Doctor says, "almost too horrible to think about".

You could guffaw when the Ark's commander, Noah, pulls a green bubble-wrapped glove slowly out of his pocket but actor Kenton Moore makes you believe he's seeing an infected stump where once was his hand. It's one of Who's most disturbing cliffhangers.

While the model of Nerva in orbit now looks pitiful, the interiors still impress. Roger Murray-Leach designed the curved walkway looking onto the stars as a short section that could be shot from several angles; and his hive-like, three-tiered Cryogenic Chamber, cleverly "extended" with a mirror, must have dwarfed TC3.

All this and a refreshed line-up of regulars. In 1975, I was amazed when Unit surgeon Harry joined the Doctor and Sarah's travels. At last, after six years, another male companion, although oddly, he's one of the few we never actually see inside the Tardis. Ian Marter has terrific presence, grounding everything in reality, while being gently old-fashioned with his "Jolly good try", "I say!" and annoying the hell out of Sarah with "Steady on, old girl."

Sarah is allowed to become far more feminine with her flowery blue frock and, later, a flattering white tunic. She's our link to the old era but fits in perfectly with the new. We're genuinely alarmed when she's found frozen in a cryogenic pallet. If Elisabeth Sladen looks more mannered than woozy when emerging from suspension, she more than makes up for it in Sarah's heroic crawl through Nerva's infrastructure.

"Stop whining, girl. You're useless." The Doctor goads Sarah so that, infuriated, she unjams herself from a conduit. As she pops out onto his back, clouting him, he beams, "I really am very proud of you." "What?! Conned again!" she says. "You're a brute." It's beautifully observed interplay - our first clear sign of the bond these two would form.

Despite his Harpo Marx meets Marty Feldman demeanour, Tom Baker sells the urgency of every situation. He is deliciously alien. "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species." He convincingly carries off his solo homage to "Homo sapiens… They're indomitable!"

And typifying this sentiment is Vira, the only revived human to survive to the end. Wendy Williams plays her with a lovely blend of froideur and compassion. I adore the final shot when Vira turns on her heel, smiling for the first time, having accepted a bag of jelly babies from the departing Doctor. It subtly persuades us to accept his weird new persona too.

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Radio Times archive

Billings for The Ark in Space including Frank Bellamy's artwork for the complete adventure repeat in August 1975.


[Available on BBC DVD]

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