Hasslein Blog: Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 023—The Ark


Hasslein Blog

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Doctor Who Retro Review: Serial 023—The Ark

By T. Scott Edwards

"The Ark" is a fascinating example of Doctor Who at its very best. Essentially a warning against taking advantage of others, and the ingrained xenophobia prevalent in much of society, it throws the audience from the relative safety of the 'known'—the Historicals—and the unknown—the sci-fi stories—by suggesting that all that we have seen has been within one particular quadrant of time, and that, instead, we are being thrown into the 57th segment of time. Whilst in the past it has been the purpose of the crew to save the Earth from destruction and invasion, here we are asked to look at a future in which the world has already been destroyed. The remaining humans are travelling through space, in the Ark of the title (as named by Dodo) and are searching for a new home upon which to settle. It is a theme which was touched upon in "Galaxy Four," and one which will be revisited in numerous stories in the future, whether with humans, in stories like "The Ark in Space," or other alien species in tales like "The Horns of Nimon." The very nature of these nomadic people throws the audience, forcing us to question exactly how we would react given the same situation.

From the opening of the serial, we are greeted by wonderful sets, designed by Barry Newbery, which create a truly magnificent sense of scale. The jungle set is wonderful, and the cutting between film and video is almost flawless. Indeed, one of the strongest things about this particular serial is the brilliant direction from newcomer Michael Imison. This is the only serial he directed, but it is difficult to see why—he has a natural flair for interesting shots, making great use of cranes and filming through sets to create a sense depth of field which is rare in early Doctor Who. Imison is also responsible for the creation of the Monoids as they appear in the finished show—it was his decision to reimagine them as one-eyed monstrosities, and it was at his suggestion that they used the ingenious concept of a ping-pong ball to create the moving eye.

What is rather intriguing about this first serial is the character of Dodo, as played with childish enthusiasm by Jackie Lane. Dodo is far and away my least favourite companion of the first Doctor, and one of my least favourite companions ever, and upon re-watching this serial, and a couple since (I'm writing through a backlog of viewed stories due to my accident last week) it is easy to see why I have such a disdain for her. In the fantastic novelisation by the serial's author, Paul Erickson, Dodo's character is granted a variety of layers—and until the DVD was released, it was the only experience I'd had of her original adventures. I'd seen her briefly in "The War Machines"—very briefly!—but neither "The Ark" nor "The Gunfighters" had been released, so I'd not had the dubious pleasure of seeing Lane in action. To some extent, I wish that were still the case. She's just so dreadfully irritating, constantly... But more on that in later blogs. This is probably her at her very best, not that that is saying much, mind.

From her very first moments, she plays the part with doey-eyed excitement, bubbling on (no longer with her non-specific accent from the week before) about being in Whipsnade. Quite why she questions the idea that the TARDIS really could travel through space and time—yet never even questioned the 'bigger-on-the-inside-ness of it all—grates on me. The fact that she has disappeared into the bowels of the ship, to get changed into that most ridiculous costume, shows that she hasn't simply stepped in and then back out again at their new destination, so some time must have passed. Incidentally, the costume is rather an odd choice too—it had been said that the idea for her character, originally at least, was to dress her up to highlight the frivolous nature of her youth, with her excited by the prospect of fancy dress. Unlike Ian, Barbara and Susan though, back in "The Reign of Terror," the costume is preposterously out of place. Purves does his very best at trying to calm her performance down, but even he struggles to restrain her.

The Monoids lurking in the undergrowth is rather creepy, and even when I am aware of their presence, the way in which they seemingly materialise is chilling. Through clever camera angles and intriguing set design, they are utterly hidden, and the sheer number of them present still sends chills down my spine. The opening scenes are actually rather wonderful—the editing between the elephant and the TARDIS crew looks utterly standard by Doctor Who conventions, but the audience are thrown by the sudden interaction with said elephant. Rather than what we have come to expect—stock footage of animals interspersed—we are instead treated to a moment of absolute pleasure as Hartnell, Purves and the irrepressible Lane get to play with a baby elephant! It's magical, and again adds to the grand scale of the production.

The scenes with the Guardians are rather chilling, too—the last descendants of mankind are portrayed as a bunch of dithering people, running their own form of judicial service, and waited upon hand and foot by the Monoid slaves. The trial sequence in which we see them handing out their brand of justice—miniaturisation—is unnerving, although it does raise a strange point. The ship on which these nomads travel will take 700 years to reach Refusis II, yet the punishment is to be miniaturised for 700 years. As such, the criminal Guardian being punished is being afforded a second chance; a life on the new colony. Meanwhile, those Guardians toiling on the travels will perish one by one as the ship makes its journey towards their destination, preventing them from ever seeing their future world.

Dodo's cold, a rather irritating little bit of characterisation at first, actually turns out to be a central plot device, which is rather clever. The idea that the humans from the 57th segment of time have lost their immunity to the virus is wonderful, and provides a thrilling drive for the first two episodes, which at first glimpse seem to be all there is to this story. Unnervingly, the Guardians on the ship have a rather distasteful slant on this—whilst Monoids suffer hugely, dropping like flies, it is only once one of the humans die that anything is genuinely done about it. There is a very clever moment, whilst the time travellers are locked up, that seemingly diagetic music during the beautifully choreographed Monoid funeral procession is commented upon—Dodo makes a flippant comment that it makes them sound like "savages," despite the honour evident throughout. The model shot of the corpse being ejected into space is smashing too.

What is odd about these scenes of the virus spreading is not how the humans and Monoids are affected though—it is the fate of Steven. For some reason, when one of the TARDIS crew is requested to represent them, it is he, rather than the Doctor, who steps to the plate. Whilst Purves is given a magnificent speech, spouting platitudes about xenophobia and how the humans haven't changed—"That the nature of man, even in this day and age, hasn't altered at all. You still fear the unknown like everyone else before you"—but then he too, inexplicably, succumbs to the illness working its way through the crew.

Of course, the Doctor is given the opportunity to save the day—and does, incredibly quickly. And so the group return to the TARDIS, with Hartnell looking painfully uncomfortable all the way on the electric car, back to the TARDIS and off on their next adventure...............

...............except they aren't. This is the same jungle set. We've been here before—only moments ago, in fact. The serial manages to knock the audience completely off balance with the simplest of devices, and it is marvellous. Never before have we seen the Doctor return to an exact location, and see the aftermath of his actions. Imagine him returning to the streets of Paris following The Massacre, the pavements still slick with the blood of the Huguenots. Or back to Kembel years later, surrounding by the ash of the fallen. But we still don't know why the TARDIS has decided to bring them back—until Dodo spots the statue, previously only two severed feet, which has now been completed—but with the head of a Monoid. So the Doctor and his crew rematerialise on the Ark 700 years later, and all of a sudden we realise that the Monoids weren't simply set-dressing—they were the integral part of the plot. All along, they were taken for granted by everyone—with the slight exception of the Doctor who thanks one for his service in the laboratory; and then we realise that we've taken them for granted, too.

In fact, as with Steven in "The Massacre," we realise that everything that happens is due to their interference, and they've brought about the last hopes for humanity through their meddling and spreading Dodo's common cold. It is suddenly essential that they interact, and somehow get things back on track—it is their responsibility.

The Monoids themselves work magnificently—with their single eye swivelling back and forth, and the voices provided by the ever-brilliant Roy Skelton and the able John Halstead, they embody magnificently the oppressed striving for their own rights, and becoming megalomaniacal with the power available. The very idea that the virus drained the will power of the humans is a nifty one—and through their lack of willpower, the Monoids have risen to become dictators, using the remaining Guardians as their own slaves.

Parallels between World War Two and alien races are nothing new to Doctor Who—arguably best portrayed through the Daleks and their similarities to the Nazis. Here, though, Edmund Coulter's portrayal of Monoid One, the leader of the Monoids, manages a cleverly balanced performance, reminiscent of Adolf Hitler on the stands at Nuremburg. His gestures, sweeping arm movements and decisive chopping motions, become more and more erratic as the serial continues, and there is a wonderful synergy between him and Skelton, off-screen providing the voice. It's a lovely, and utterly justifiable, acting choice—a natural progression from the sign language, seen earlier, continuing even after the creation of their voice boxes.

Upon their discovery wandering the deserted ship, the Doctor and his crew are swiftly bundled off to the security kitchen—yes, really!—and kept prisoner. What is lovely about this scene is that just before their arrival, we get to see two of the human slaves, Manussa and Dassuk, discussing the Doctor, and referring to him as a legend, a fairy tale to keep up the spirits of the oppressed. In hindsight, it is a wonderful nod to the importance of the character, and one which is still as relevant today; indeed, it is this very notion which is used in the rebooted series of the show which proves to be the saving grace of the world in "Last of the Time Lords" and a title which proves to nearly be his downfall in "The Pandorica Opens."

The Doctor and Dodo are forced by the Monoids to assist in a reconnaissance mission to the planet Refusis II, with Steven forced to remain on the ship as insurance. The model shots here are excellent, and again Imison does a wonderful job of creating a realistic depth of field through deep-focus shots and use of false perspective. Upon their arrival on the planet, Two and his companions from the launcher discover a seemingly deserted planet and a glimmering city. Once inside the city, Two decides to attract the attention of the Refusians by—wait for it—smashing a vase or two. Really. When the Refusians finally 'show' themselves, there is again some wonderful direction—as invisible creatures, their movements are unseen but the effect that they have on their environment is perfectly visible, and the movements of flowers and furniture is wonderfully realised without looking in the least bit staid. Likewise, the model shot of the launcher leaving the planet surface in episode four, with a Monoid left looking dumbly after it in the background, is simply stunning.

The Refusian voice is provided by Richard Beale, delivered in rich and dulcet tones creating a sense of presence and power, and as it tells of peace and tranquillity it is easy to be absorbed by the exposition—and the destruction of the launcher, with Two inside, is wonderful, as is the cliffhanger at the end of the third episode, with the Doctor and Dodo stranded on Refusis II, with no ship and no way of communicating.

The fourth episode is sadly where things really start to fall apart—whilst the direction remains clever and innovative, the plot begins to spiral, helped by the costume design of the Monoids. Whilst the faces and upper torsos are cleverly realised, looking alien and menacing, the movements of the actors are somewhat inhibited by the fact that their legs are practically bound together by the lower part of the outfit, and they end up waddling rather comically. As such, the Monoid rebellion loses the gravitas it deserves—the entire motivation for the civil rebellion is that Four argues with One, and so almost every Monoid is massacred. The resolution of the storyline involving the double-cross of the humans is wound up far too easily—the Monoids gloat about the bomb being inside the head of the statue, and so the Doctor tells Steven and the remaining Guardians, and the statue is disposed of. It all seems a little too easy. It would have been nice to have strung the resolution out a little further, particularly for the audience—had we been kept in the dark a little longer it may have maintained some of the dramatic impact.

In fact, the scenes of the bomb being removed from the Ark, carried by a Refusian, offers an interesting and puzzling thought—just how big are these things? They are able to fit into the Launcher, suggesting that they are no more than 7ft tall, and yet they have the strength so that one of them can carry the vast statue, which must way hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes, and place it into the ejection bay! (Although the movement of the statue must once again be praised—a simple effect, yet masterfully handled.)

Following the Monoid rebellion, and the removal of the bomb, we are treated to a lovely speech by Hartnell, as he reminds them that "you must travel with understanding as well as hope. You know, I once said that to one of your ancestors, a long time ago." The crew then depart, leaving the humans and the Monoids to get along, under thee always watchful gaze of the mighty Refusian.

The episode ending dovetails nicely into next week's serial, as the Doctor begins to fade in and out of existence, and there is a genuinely palpable threat as we are warned that, next week, we are entering "The Celestial Toyroom."

Oh, and Dodo's outfit, a huge improvement, is the first time a miniskirt was ever seen on television. Just for the record...

Scott Edwards is a teacher of English and Theatre Studies at Barnard Castle School in the North East of England, with a BAHons in English Literature and Film Studies. He is also a self-professed ‘ming-mong,' and in addition to timelordapprentice.blogspot.co.uk he also runs facebook.com/Classic.Doctor.Who. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TimelordTSE.

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