1975’s The Ark in Space is a masterclass in Doctor Who, written by arguably the person who knew the show best, Robert Holmes. I love it. It’s probably my favourite Fourth Doctor serial – and I’m certain I’m not on my own in this assertion.
Despite it being only his second on-screen adventure, Tom Baker has said that it was his favourite serial to film; 2005-2010 showrunner, Russell T Davies stated that it’s his favourite Classic Who story; and current showrunner, Steven Moffat confessed to Doctor Who Magazine that it remains his favourite Fourth Doctor tale.
But for a storyline so well-received and so loved, it had a troublesome genesis…
Giving the Helmet Regulator Quite a Twist
The Ark in Space had three – or possibly even four – writers, though the majority of these drafts might not even be recognisable. It’s been suggested that the tale has its origins in an idea by Douglas Adams (City of Death; The Pirate Planet) entitled Ark, though it was producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, who set its tone: something noticeably more ‘adult’ than some previous adventures, ie. darker.
The synopsis of Space Station was submitted in December 1973 and just one month later, writer and Who newcomer, Christopher Langley was commissioned to script four episodes. Hinchcliffe and script editor, Holmes, decided that the space station would be a lynchpin for Season 12, using the concept of an abandoned Earth in The Sontaran Experiment and the actual station set – Nerva – again in Revenge of the Cybermen. After Tom Baker’s debut storyline, Robot, these serials, alongside Genesis of the Daleks, create a Season-long arc – quite fittingly, really!
But Langley’s scripts were deemed unsuitable, so the notion was passed on to established Who name, John Luccarotti (The Aztecs; The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve). The four-part story sounds pretty madcap, but some basic familiar elements have their origins here, notably an alien race invading an ark in which the human race are cryogenically frozen. However, Holmes told Doctor Who Magazine that Lucarotti was unable to complete rewrites:
“He was living on a boat in Corsica at the time and there was a postal dispute so the scripts came in – after I’d outlined the sort of story we wanted – a bit later than expected. When the second episode came in, we could see it was veering off the course that we wanted but it was too late to do anything about it. Then when the last bit came in, Philip [Hinchcliffe] said, ‘We can’t use this thing – we’ve eighteen days to get it right’. That was just before the director, Rodney Bennett, arrived. So I took it home and totally rewrote it.”
Holmes first wrote The Krotons (1968-69) and The Space Pirates (1969) for the Second Doctor before writing the Third Doctor’s brilliant debut tale, Spearhead from Space. Many, many scripts followed, making Holmes the most prolific 20th Century Doctor Who writer, including fan favourites like Pyramids of Mars (1975), The Time Warrior (1973-74) and The Caves of Androzani (1984).
As well as being immensely popular in retrospect, The Ark in Space even garnered great contemporary critical reception.
9.4 million people watched the first episode, solely revolving around the new TARDIS team, apart from two voiceovers and a cryogenically-frozen Technician Dune (Brian Jacobs). And an incredible 13.6 million watched part 2, making it the highest-charting serial of Classic Who as the fifth most-watched show of the week. Only 2007’s Voyage of the Damned and 2008’s Journey’s End beat this remarkable achievement, ranking as the second-highest (alongside The Stolen Earth) and number one in the charts respectively. (1979’s City of Death, however, achieved greater ratings, with over 16 million watching its final part. Oh, and then there’s The Day of the Doctor (2013), of course, which was the most watched drama of 2013.)
Viewing figures for The Ark in Space remained high – 11.2 million for part 3, and 10.2 million tuning in for the final episode – and many praise the horror elements throughout. Holmes, in 1977, commented:
“Of course it’s no longer a children’s programme. Parents would be terribly irresponsible to leave a six-year-old to watch it alone. It’s geared to the intelligent fourteen-year-old, and I wouldn’t let any child under ten see it. If a little one really enjoys peeping at it from behind the sofa, until Dad says ‘It’s all right now – it’s all over,’ that’s fine. A certain amount of fear is healthy under strict parental supervision.”
The story foreshadowed the horror-film franchise, Alien, starring the Xenomorphs, a parasitical creature whose nature resembles the Wirrn. Its second stage in their life cycles, ‘Facehuggers,’ is particularly reminiscent of the Wirrn transformation (although now parallels have been drawn with Last Christmas‘ Dream Crabs). This stage is often criticised for being realised with bubble wrap, which, although invented in 1957, wasn’t a household item when The Ark in Space was broadcast.
Despite building on the central concept of 1966’s The Ark, Holmes’ masterpiece ushered in a new era of Doctor Who, reflected in the tale’s tone, maturity, outer-space setting, and design (and its ideas are further explored in 2010’s The Beast Below). Roger Murray-Leach, designer, said in the Special Edition DVD documentary, A New Frontier:
“I saw it as a chance to get away from some of the more fantastical sets that had been around; to get away from the wobbles… The budget was the most daunting thing, but it always was on Doctor Who.”
The set is beautifully utilised by director, Rodney Bennett (The Sontaran Experiment; The Masque of Mandragora) and Nigel Wright, in charge of studio lighting, nonetheless impressive in reality as on screen. Kenton Moore, aka Noah, said:
“It felt, in essence, cathedral-like: it felt vast; it felt spacious; and those sheer white walls and the cryogenic chambers themselves, the plastic covers I thought were very, very convincing. And a bit chilling too.”
Saying Something Important
But the serial isn’t just about the scares. Like all good Who, it mixes the macabre with deeper messages, one of which is neatly summed up by the Doctor when faced with the entire human race in one room; all colours, all creeds: “all differences finally forgotten.”
And yet this idea is both expanded upon and undermined throughout.
This notion is enfeebled almost immediately after Harry asks if the room really contains the entire human race. “Well,” the Doctor replies, “its chosen descendents.” Indeed, those wakened from their sleep are all white, middle-aged Brits. In fact, Vira (Wendy Williams) was written as black, but obviously, this didn’t come to fruition.
Only the very best are selected to survive and carry on the human race, and Noah is immediately concerned that the TARDIS crew pose a threat. They’re undesirables. Vira and Noah were paired up as life partners, a symbol of a controlling society, breeding out any seemingly-negative traits.
Nonetheless, what the Doctor, Harry, Sarah, Vira and co. try to avoid is becoming anything other than human. The idea of the Wirrn works in the same way as the Cybermen; an enemy that are uniform, a hive mind with no clear singularity. This is made clear when Noah mistakes himself for Dune, having absorbed his memories, perhaps his identity. Utterly chilling stuff.
We even find out why human beings are quite the Doctor’s favourite species, in this memorable speech:
“Homo-sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They’ve survived flood, famine and plague. They’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life; ready to outsit eternity. They’re indomitable. Indomitable.”
In the end, humanity prevails, of course. That’s surely the story of Doctor Who.
It’s all down to a core concept of evolution: survival of the fittest. Only the most adapt, only the best survive. The Ark in Space will always be remembered, Doctor Who will always survive – because it is the best.