The Ark

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 23, starring William Hartnell)
  • written by Paul Erickson & Leslie Scott
  • directed by Michael Imison
  • produced by John Wiles
  • music from "The Daleks" by Tristram Cary
  • 4 episodes @ 25 minutes each:
    1. The Steel Sky
    2. The Plague
    3. The Return
    4. The Bomb
Story: Taking her first trip in the TARDIS, Dorothea "Dodo" Chaplet accompanies the Doctor and Steven Taylor into the far future and onto a large spacecraft carrying a variety of creatures from Earth and beyond, who plan to colonize the planet Refusis. But all is not going well. Is the ship's commanding Guardian being too smug about the tensions rising amongst the personnel? Are the Monoids really content to play subservient roles? Has the Doctor's visit inadvertently triggered the collapse of this society? Or will they all encounter the greatest challenge yet when they finally come face to face with the unknowns and denied truths on the new planet?

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by actor Peter Purves (Steven Taylor), director Michael Imison, and moderator Toby Hadoke.
  • "Riverside Story" featurette (20 min.) on the larger studio in which "The Ark" and many other season three stories were recorded,
    with Peter Purves and Michael Imison.
  • "All's Wells That Ends Wells" featurette (13 min.) on H.G. Wells' influence on Doctor Who
  • "One Hit Wonder" featurette (4 min.) on why some creatures only feature once on Doctor Who
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery (3 min.)

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

It could be argued that this story delivers enough great stuff that it doesn't deserve to be included in what I call "the dregs" of season three - that run of four stories from "The Massacre" (story no. 22) to "The Gunfighters" (story no. 25) that couldn't inspire many viewers to stay tuned in. However, "The Ark" really is an interesting opposite to most of the stories of late season two, having heaps of qualities that season two lacked, but not having that key ingredient that gave season two its successful ratings: the ability to trigger anticipation in the audience that the story is going somewhere interesting.

Seeing as how this story is neatly split down the middle, it's best to do like Noah and count the episodes two by two.....

Episode One - The Steel Sky
Episode Two - The Plague

Michael Imison proves what a great and innovative technical director he is with his masterful opening tracking shot. Although the camera does pause during the trick dissolve, this is all done so gracefully that the shot is a better example of the TARDIS materializing in a motion shot than the much more advertised example in 1980's "The Leisure Hive" (story no. 110), or for that matter, during the Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant years with all their computer effects sophistications. Well done! Let the competition eat their hearts out!

Considering the "missing in action" status of surviving footage of Dodo's series entrance in episode four of "The Massacre" (story no. 22), "The Steel Sky" is not a bad introduction of her character at all, as Steven and the Doctor continue to lay down the rules of TARDIS travel on her, and she makes her background fairly obvious through her upcoming dialogue. Also, the Doctor's preference for calling her "Dorothea", followed by her adamant correction, helps to excuse her ridiculous name at the outset. If she prefers the constant near-insult to her intelligence, who are we to argue?

Imison's technical love for interesting effects shots continues throughout all four episodes. Not all effects work as well as others, but the Doctor Who program is at last providing some decent eye-candy while dealing with a thematically-oriented sci-fi story. The program enjoys a bit of an up-swing during these four episodes (although sadly short-lived I fear).

Acting becomes a bit of a sore point, as the two main guest characters don't come off too well. The commanding Guardian is scripted to be a helpful, understanding character that the audience should empathize with, yet the elderly actor playing the part seems to be over-the-top, full of himself, and often displays a creepy, insincere smile that sends shivers of patronization up my spine. Xentos, the young antagonist of the piece, is clearly uncomfortable with all the shouting and pig-headedness that he has to display. If only the physical age difference wasn't so obvious, I might suggest that the actors playing Xentos and the commander swap roles with each other!

Thankfully the actress playing Mellium puts in a solid, believable performance, and most of the other minor parts are done okay. Episode Two is also fortunate enough to feature Michael Sheard's first appearance as a Doctor Who guest character. Here he plays a physician, as he would later also do in "The Mind of Evil" (story no. 56), and Sheard brings the character to life as a caring man wrestling with one of the most difficult challenges his profession can hurl him into.

Episode One works on the basis of exploration, discovery, and spectacle, which is played to in the script. Episode Two, however, sets itself up for certain specific conflicts, and then wastes much screen time unable to come to grips with the issues at hand. Xentos's obstructions have little basis to make them interesting. Exploring good reasons for those obstructions would have been a much better use of screen time.

At any rate, the botched trust-conflict stage does not waste quite as much time as viewers are lead to anticipate, and we quickly move on to a different challenge which engages William Hartnell's Doctor superbly in a heroic fashion. Nice one! We also get a unique lead up to one of the finest cliffhangers in the Hartnell era.

Background Music in "The Ark" is primarily
re-used material from "The Daleks" (story no. 2)
by Tristram Cary which has been
made available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Devils' Planets - The Music of Tristram Cary

More info & buying options

Episode Three - The Return
Episode Four - The Bomb

Many new guest characters are introduced in the second half, and there are some significant changes in circumstance as well. I have less to complain about in terms of acting for these two episodes, but neither is there anything remarkably outstanding. Generally the acting is okay, perhaps a bit bland, but tells the story well.

The Monoids come off quite well as interesting alien creatures, at least for this stage in the development of Doctor Who productions. Their constant fiddling with their voice-box collars is somewhat distracting though - it wasn't until I read the Archive feature in Doctor Who Magazine that I understood they were trying to turn a black-dot display on and off to help indicate who was speaking. Not only does this never work to any good effect, it is totally unnecessary. Unlike the boxed-in Daleks, the Monoids have every capability of gesture and easily understood humanoid movement. The one who moves and gestures emphatically is always the one speaking. It's as plain as day without the voice-box dot.

The Doctor continues to get a lot of good things to do, including exploration of the Ark's destination, while many of the visuals continue to outdo those of later stories like "Planet of the Daleks" (story no. 68), both in terms of what we see and what motivates the characters behind it. We also get a well-directed bit of action, wisely shot and edited on film, and even after that a peaceful, moral resolution wraps things up nicely. The conclusion is satisfying and well-done all round.

How "The Ark" tripped up...

Even with all that going for it, this island of excellence within "the dregs" of season three did not manage to improve ratings. What went wrong? The scenes that we actually get are all exceptionally good, but what the story lacks is the ANTICIPATION that it will continue to be good as it unfolds. Episode one spends all its time explaining what situation exists in this era, and projects a largely slow and uneventful voyage for the Ark. There is also nothing to suggest that the Doctor will be able to show us viewers the arrival at Refusis. Not enough questions are raised about Refusis in episodes one and two to make us want to discover the place in episodes three and four, or believe that we will discover the place at all. Episode two also projects the aura that it is artificially creating conflict to fill time, even though it doesn't actually waste much time at all and does move itself forward. The next episode easily creates the sinking feeling that the Doctor and his friends will simply be spending the whole episode in one less-than-exciting spot in a near repeat of their episode two antics. We don't know that we're going to get a cool exploration of the Ark's destination until it happens, thus many viewers did not stay tuned in. One of the biggest conflicts of the story also seems quite one-dimensional at first. Only AFTER it is all over, in the wrap-up, do we get the interesting motivational details that could have drawn and kept audience interest. (In retrospect, perhaps a patronizing, slightly irritating commander Guardian was an appropriate casting decision, but unfortunately this ONLY works in hindsight.) There are significant sources of dramatic conflict in the final episode, but you really can't see them coming from watching the first three episodes.

Anticipation is the key ingredient lacking in all of the stories in "the dregs" of season three, and "The Ark" highlights this well because it is so good in almost everything else.

As such, "The Ark" is actually more enjoyable with repeat viewing, when members of the audience can bring along their own sense of anticipation without relying on the narrative to do it for them. It is then that the idea of causing injustice through lack of faith in the intelligence of other beings takes on the slightly horrific twist, where we can wonder if we are doing that in any aspect of our lives now without really realizing it, in parents' view of their children, in management's view of its employees, in the media's view of its audience, in the marketers' view of the consumers, and in government's view of the people it represents.

I wouldn't call "The Ark" a great Doctor Who story, but it does deserve honourable mention.

This story has become available on DVD and VHS video.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC in North America
PAL for the U.K.

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "The Celestial Toymaker"

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