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Doctor Who - The Ark

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1966
Studio: 
2 Entertain
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Michael Imison
Cast: 
William Hartnell
Peter Purves
Jackie Lane
Movie: 
3
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4

I find there to be something particularly enchanting about the experience of re-watching these vintage episodes of Doctor Who from the 1960s. The newness, the strangeness that was at the heart of it all back then somehow still shines through incredibly strongly, particularly during the pioneering days of the William Hartnell era, instigated in 1963 by the show’s first producer Verity Lambert. The almost magical powers of the BBC’s Doctor Who restoration team helps a great deal, of course: these re-mastered episodes of “The Ark” almost certainly look ten times better than they ever did at the time of their original broadcast in March 1966. No -- it has more to do with the fact of our knowledge in retrospect that these frequently amazing shows were produced on the ever-standard tight BBC budget at a time when television itself was still relatively new, and when the BBC’s theatre-based methods of producing as-live, in-studio, video-recorded popular entertainment (methods that would remain almost unchanged for decades to come) were still being stretched and experimented with in a way that gives the series from this period a raw, nascent quality, despite our ensuing familiarity with the fundamental concept and themes underpinning the show.

Those paternalistic, Reithian principles of public service broadcasting which grounded Sidney Newman’s concept of an educational science fiction show for children -- with its quaintly Victorian view that the public should be improved by its viewing habits rather than merely entertained --  are still evident by this, William Hartnell’s third and last full series of adventures; we still have the traditional historical stories like “The Massacre” and “The Crusades”, which had by now been joined by the genre-pushing pseudo-historical whimsy of “The Time Meddler” and the farcical comedy of “The Romans” to boot. But we can also sense how the original remit has been altered and expanded by the early success of the Daleks, and a growing sense of behind-the-scenes giddiness at just how far the imagination might be able to push this simple little time traveling police box scenario: because about now the sets begin to get even more ambitious, along with the direction … and the costume designs and monsters, well?

Stories like “The Web Planet” and certain aspects of “The Keys of Marinus” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan” totter on the very precipice of absurdity, and frequently stumble on a protruding craggy ledge no-one anticipated, in their charming efforts to present the sixties viewer with creatures and landscapes and alien worlds he/she had never seen before … all on a tuppence ha’penny budget.

Frankly, many of these episodes looked weird. They still are weird, and many of their ideas were completely barmy. They also often look totally ridiculous, unintentionally farcical, hopelessly naïve, to our cynical modern eyes. But the sense of wonder and the sheer range of ideas and experimentation evident in the show during this era are undeniable despite its studio-bound nature and the traditionalism of its production methods. When one watches again stories like “The Ark”, with its bewildering juxtaposition of Wells-ian themes and hard Sci Fi concepts with its laughably guileless children’s telly-like simplicity; its gloriously cinematic aspirations crippled, but never completely thwarted, by cramped studio space and chaotic rehearsal routines (Hartnell isn’t the only one making frequent ‘billy-fluffs’ during this story) not to mention the somewhat fractious backstage relations running riot by this stage in the game, one can almost begin to see just how a crotchety, lapel-clutching old Edwardian in the sixties can become a  youthful floppy-haired geek in skinny jeans and a bow tie in the present. “The Ark” is bizarre, silly, ambitious and wildly imaginative; it’s by turns both thoroughly impressive and complicated in its execution, but also often completely embarrassing and amateurish. And yet I declare myself completely charmed by the casual absurdities of the story. It manages to cram into four short episodes such glorious unheard-of wonders as: friendly Indian elephants in space, gesticulating one-eyed aliens with unruly mop-tops who drive little lorries, invisible aliens who live in a fairy tale castle on a planet of cotton wool flowers, miniaturised humans, bowls-full of new potatoes and legs of chicken instantly derived from mixing a single white pill with some water, a kitchen that also doubles as a prison cell, and a new companion -- who starts out with cockney speech patterns pronounced with a Mancunian accent, but who learns standard BBC management-approved received  pronunciation by the end of episode four!

The story opens with marvellous atmosphere and creeping strangeness in a lush jungle setting that proves home to an incongruous collection of lizards and exotic birds from Earth … and our monsters of the week, the Monoids, one of whom is first seen here creeping through the vines and foliage, looking like something unwholesome conjured up by the imagination of an early medieval traveller. As Doctor Who monsters go, the Monoids embody the conjoined spirit of man’s roaming wanderlust love of fantasy with the urge for historical narrative represented by the kind of outlandish reports often found in medieval texts like John Mandeville’s “Travels” -- historical reportage mixed with purported tales and speculations about lands uncharted and unmapped by man, where-in lurk all manner of strange races of misshapen half-human, half-animal hybrids -- men with heads in their shoulders, giants’ feet or with dogs’ heads etc.

To the accompaniment of Tristram Carey’s throbbingly discordant electronica (most of which was cribbed from the original Daleks serial – all the money went on the sets for this one), we see one of the shaggy haired, lizard-like creatures turn to camera in a Frankenstein-like reveal to present us with a faceless image displaying a single staring eye where its mouth should be. Dressed in a restrictive kind of scaly sarong, the Monoids move about with a splayed waddle on duck-like flipper feet. The creatures were designed by the director of this story, Michael Imison, in the vain hope that they would ‘catch on’ like the Daleks. The misguided nature of this notion will become fully apparent by episode three when the Monoids come into their own as one of the more spectacularly silly monster villains in the shows history. But they actually start off here as being kind of unsettlingly absurd in a positive kind of surrealistic way. With their fecund, mop-like thatches made of yak’s hair (if you only had one eye above your chin, I suppose you might well let your locks ‘grow out’ just a touch), they’ve inevitably been compared to The Beatles, but the voluminous pudding-bowl shape of their shaggy manes reminds me more of Brian Jones in his swaggering heyday. Come to think of it, the Monoids start out here all deferential and respectable like the Fab Four in the early sixties, but then go all crazy and rebellious and self- destructive seven-hundred years later like the unpredictable Rolling Stones guitarist they most resemble. One of them even threatens to break a Refusian vase at one point! 

The initial jungle setting is in fact a vast spherical space ship carrying the last remnants of the human race and a few samples of all its surviving species to their new home, the planet Refusis II -- because the Earth is about to be destroyed by the expansion of the dying Sun (see “The End of the World” from the modern series). The animals live in the vast artificial jungle eco-system in which the TARDIS initially lands, while the humans have all been shrunk to cellular size and stored away inside a huge computerised filing system. The only humans still around are a small group of scantily clad ‘Guardians’ who maintain the ship’s systems with the help of their Monoid servants -- a passive, race of speechless aliens who came to Earth long ago when they themselves were looking for a new home, and were subsequently made into a class of mute servant-slaves for the human race, driving futuristic truck-vehicles around. They’re a kind of early version of the Ood, in other words. Since the Monoids seem willingly to do all the menial work, these human Guardians spend most of their time building a giant statue of a towering human figure to commemorate their arrival on Refusis in seven-hundred years’ time, and lounging around in unisex smocks that leave quite a lot of their women folks’ knickers on display .

The first episode spends nearly all its running time introducing the details of this strange world with a lovingly crafted visual dexterity. Imison considered his assignment to “Doctor Who” to be something of a come-down at the time (although it’s the only thing he’s ever asked about now, of course), and was thus determined to make this four-episode story stand out and look like something way in advance of the cramped little TV production it actually was. He succeeded; although that didn’t stop him being handed his notice just before recording on the final episode was due to start.

Barry Newbery moves from devising sets for the show’s historical stories to creating a vast generational spaceship of the future (which inevitably looks more like a cut-price NASA Mission Control but is interesting nevertheless) with the aid of the usual stagy perspective backcloth trickery and the limited but inventive resources of BBC Riverside studios. The jungle set, shot on film at Ealing studios with help from some extras loaned out by Mary Chipperfield (notably Monica the elephant), and on video in a slightly less expansive version for the Hammersmith recording, is as mysterious and evocative as anything the series has ever produced even in the present day. Shots that seem like nothing now were hideously complex at the time, involving sophisticated co-ordination for numerous inlay sequences. Imison makes great use of a camera crane throughout the first two episodes, producing epic-looking overhead shots and leisurely tracking camera moves. This was also one of the first stories to feature extensive model work for space sequences that involve the depiction of space capsules descending to the planet Refusis and, later, the ejection of a bomb into outer space (on visible strings, of course – but it was ambitious at the time).

What’s noticeable about all this now is how matter-of-fact it all appears, though the show is achieving things by this point that it would have never have managed in its formative years. This was John Wiles’ last story as producer though, and the first for script editor Gerry Davies, coming at a time when the show seemed to be in something of a flap behind the scenes, with production crew members coming and going as frequently as the Doctor’s companions were being replaced after the initial Barbara, Ian, Susan line-up had disintegrated. Wiles and previous script-editor Donald Tosh had even drawn up plans to replace an increasingly erratic Hartnell as the Doctor, although they ended up leaving the show themselves before ill-health helped eventually force their nemesis out without their intervention being required.

 For now, Jackie Lane was the latest new recruit, joining Peter Purves’ astronaut of the future Steven Taylor as a flighty London schoolgirl called Dodo Chaplet. Never has a character been so aptly named, clocking up only five stories and nineteen episodes before Lane was unceremoniously ‘let go’ upon her return from her holidays. The ill-fated Dodo actually looks to have had a great deal of potential judging from the first few episodes of this particular story; but interference from BBC management apparently forced the producers to amend their original plan for a northern, working class foil for the Doctor, who would have a similar granddaughter relationship with him but would also be a bit more mischievous than the rather prim and proper Susan and Vickie who had both preceded her in that role. There was to be a running theme in which Hartnell’s fuddy-duddy Doctor was constantly to get irritated with Dodo’s incorrect pronunciation and her propensity for describing everything using then contemporary sixties slang. Hench the achingly obvious way she tends to describe everything as either being ‘fab’ or ‘gear’ in the first few episodes of “The Ark”, much to the annoyance of the Doctor.

Jackie Lane does a good job most of the time of being sparky and mercurial; there is some doubt, though, even at the beginning of her short tenure as a companion, about her accent, which seems to drift from scene to scene. Her natural Mancunian drawl would have been the best choice but she was apparently intended to be a cockney! In any case, by episode three she is talking in the standard RP accent of all Doctor Who female companions. (For some reason, it wasn’t deemed such a big deal for male companions to have robust accents, with both Ben and Jamie allowed their regional tones, probably because it denoted gritty authenticity for males, back then.) There is some evidence that the relationship between the Doctor and Dodo could have been a bit more interesting than usual if it had been allowed to develop, particularly during a scene when, fed-up with her cold and her constantly running nose while the trio are being held prisoner by the Guardians, Dodo starts crying, and the Doctor is completely nonplussed about how to deal with this sudden outburst of emotion, eventually turning to Steven, looking for him to handle the situation and to comfort the girl instead, while he retreats nervously to the background.

Dodo is at the heart of the plot here, though. She’s suffering from a common cold when she first boards the TARDIS, and, pretty soon Monoid and Guardian alike are dropping like flies (if there still are any flies on-board the Ark), since the common cold had long-ago been eradicated on Earth and humans in particular no longer have any immunity to it.

After the Doctor thinks he has found a cure, the travellers take their leave at the end of episode two (audiences would have assumed the story was a rather slight two-parter at this point) only for the TARDIS to return them to the exact same spot seven-hundred years later, as the ship is about to come into orbit at Refusus II. Dodo hurries out to have a look at the Guardians’ now completed statue, only to find it now represents a Monoid figure, not a human being as originally planned! It’s one of the most effective and unexpected cliff-hangers of the period. Weakened by Dodo’s cold all those hundreds of years ago, the human race apparently lost its will to survive, and succumbed to a Monoid revolution. The Doctor and his companions return to find that human beings have now been reduced to servitude and the Monoids have taken over instead.

This is where the ambition of the whole production begins to get the better of it. We learn the Monoids have developed voice boxes and now talk in a thin, nasal drawl rather than with hand signals, and they keep all the humans in what they like to call a ‘security kitchen’. They like to be waited on hand and foot (or hand and flipper) apparently -- or so we’re told! – so, in a weird way it makes sense to have your slaves imprisoned in a kitchen I suppose … what with all those knives about and everything?!

The story now concerns itself with the Monoids seeking to colonise Refusis and settle the planet for themselves only, leaving their former human masters to perish on board the ship in an explosion caused by a bomb planted in the head of the Monoid monument. The trouble with these last two episodes comes down to the strange childlike simplicity of their exposition and the thinness of character motivation. The sets and direction and special effects are still pushing at the boundaries of the show’s limited capabilities, but the Monoids are the most unintentionally comedic pantomime villains ever. Now that they’ve gained the ability to talk, they never seem to want to shut up. They talk and talk and talk, blabbing their ‘secret’ plans to all and sundry in front of their opponents, so that when one of them gets caught out in a lie by Dodo, who defiantly accuses him of skulduggery when claiming, ‘you’re up to something, aren’t you!’-- all he can think to do is mumble to himself and feebly say in return, ‘errr … n-n … no.’

The Monoid method of individualising themselves goes no farther than  assigning each other numbers (written on the collars of their voice boxes in standard sixties-style space-age lettering) and the leader of the Monoids (number 1) has installed a throne in the control room by the time the Doctor and his companions turn up, seven-hundred years later. The creatures are characterised in a way that makes them seem childishly insecure, almost pathologically so, wishing to eradicate any reference to their former history as slaves once they start their new life on Refusis, by killing all the human reminders of it before they leave their craft.

The planet turns out also to be home to a gentle race of invisible aliens who want to share their world with embodied beings (it’s unclear if the Refusians are just invisible, as suggested by their ability to brush past jungle foliage and make an indentation on a space capsule seat for instance; or whether they are actually immaterial entities, as the leader of the Refusians seems to imply in his speech about bringing life back to the planet). It makes a change to have a race of aliens who actually want their planet to be colonised by other beings, and just to make the proposition even more attractive, the invisible Refusians have built a giant fairy tale palace-like home for their new guests to live in, furnished on the inside like a well-heeled suburban sixties home. The Monoids soon demonstrate their unsuitability for the guest coloniser slot that’s on offer though, by acting aggressively and churlishly threatening to smash up their new home (hence the egregious  vase throwing incident), leading the Refusians to favour helping the somewhat wet human survivors still on-board the Ark to usurp their childishly aggressive masters (there appear to be no female Monoids!) and settle on the planet instead of them, apparently oblivious that these so-called worthy settlers themselves enslaved the Monoids to begin with.

The Monoids truly do come across like spoiled little children rather than threatening monsters. They soon turn against each other and start blasting each other with their heat prods once they no longer have any humans to dominate. The petty jealousy and the petulant behaviour that guides their actions could perhaps be seen as something the children in the audience could easily identify with -- the monsters getting their comeuppance because of their unwillingness to share or forgive, and because of their disrespectful attitude to the home which their new hosts have kindly prepared for them. But it’s all scripted in such an obvious, pat, cutesy way (especially the god-like invisible Refusians who want to enforce their code of orderly domestic living) that the morality of the tale ends up with an old fashioned watch-with-mother, patronising quality adhering to it. There is also something potentially sinister lurking behind the politics of the story. When we think back to how there was a  push by British industry to encourage immigration from the colonies during the fifties, and relate that to the initial representation of the relationship between the Monoids and the humans  -- the human race initially encouraging the Monoid immigrants to settle on Earth so that they could do all the menial jobs – then what at first looks like a far-sighted call for immigrants not to be unthinkingly treated like second-class citizens, begins to seem a bit like racist paranoia and a warning about ‘swamping’ when the Monoid take-over is envisioned in the future. The Monoids are truly the ‘other’ and come to represent the possibility of human culture (which stands for indigenous British culture in the story) being usurped by alien immigrants, who soon prove themselves incapable of running the show themselves and descend into chaos once the enfeebled humans (i.e. the British) leave the scene!

The DVD release from 2 Entertain features three short but perfectly formed featurettes this time out. First we have “All’s Wells that Ends Wells” (13’ 14”), a scholarly study of the way in which Doctor Who has appropriated ideas from the work of H.G. Wells over the years, “The Ark” being an obvious riff on many themes in the author’s work. Kim Newman is on hand to talk authoritatively about the subject, but historians Dominic Sandbrook and Mathew Sweet also appear, along with literary editor Graham Sleight and Dr Anthony Keen from the Open University. This may be quite short in comparison with past Who documentaries but, as is becoming usual with the range these days, its cunningly structured so that you actually come away knowing a great deal more about Wells, his life, ideas and work than you may have known before, despite the film ostensibly being about Doctor Who.

“One Hit Wonder” (4’ 33”) is an amusing micro-feature in which Kim Newman, Mathew Sweet, Dominic Sandbrook and author Jacqueline Raynor consider the many unique qualities of those shaggy-haired, one-eyed rogues The Monoids, intercut with some of their ‘best moments’ in the story, to illustrate why this is their one and only outing during the Doctor’s adventures in time and space.

“Riverside Story” (20’ 17”) is perhaps the most substantial piece of Who social and cultural history included here. It features Mathew Sweet as host in a ‘Culture Show’ like item that relates the history of the programme’s brief move away from the cramped confines of Lime Grove Studios and into the comparatively spacious environs of Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios during the middle sixties. All this happened during ex Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves’ time on the show as companion Steven Taylor, so the documentary takes Purvis back to see the location as it is today and has Sweet interview him in the middle of the studio floor on which he regularly worked all those years ago (for thirty pounds an episode!). There is some fascinating stuff about William Hartnell’s deteriorating relationship with the production team and his rapidly diminishing ability to remember his lines during this period, Purves relating how the stress of the situation was beginning to make the actor into a bit of a bully on set. Purves’ memories about working on “The Ark” are also augmented with director Michael Imison’s recollections and thoughts on what he was trying to achieve with his work on the story.

Both men appear again on the DVD commentary, moderated by writer and comedian Toby Hadoke (co-author with Robert Sherman of the excellent “Running Through Corridors”). This fills in any gaps which may have been left in the story -- again, Purvis comes up with some fascinating memories about this experience of being a ‘star’ of British television during this period of the nineteen sixties. The only cause for regret is that Jackie Lane was either unwilling or unavailable to take part.

A photo gallery of production and behind-the-scenes stills (some amusing shots of the Monoids draped over the scantily glad female Guardians are a hoot) and the Radio Times listings included in PDF form round off another fascinating glimpse into the early years of Britain’s longest running, best-loved sci fi show.

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