The Ark

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DVD PAL
Region 2
VHS Video
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PAL
(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.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program.
To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


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 shot, which flows smoothly from a variety of animals to a freaky one-eyed alien to a panoramic motion shot of the jungle set to a satisfying and well-executed TARDIS materialization to yet more motion as we follow Dodo's happy-go-lucky exploration of the surroundings. 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. Although the scripting of his characters' resolution is too quick and unbelievable at the end, it is only here that the actor actually seems comfortable in the role, when he can be a reasonable good-guy. If only the physical age difference weren'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 scientific/medical conflict and also a conflict of trust, 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, but worse is the decision amongst the time-travellers to let Steven represent them, as Steven's only plan is to shout at the Guardians to show them how stupid they are. What kind of a method is that for earning trust? The Doctor is a much better diplomat and negotiator, and he has nothing to do in finding a cure BEFORE the trust question is settled, so why does he let Mr. Aggressive Buffoon speak for his party at this point? At least the script remains believable in that Steven's tactics get them nowhere, but this is quite boring to watch until his developing illness restores some relevant drama to the proceedings. In the end, the Doctor has to take over the negotiating anyway, and he makes a MUCH better appeal to the Guardians' sense of reason.

What is really needed is for the screen-time of Steven's sledge-hammer tactics to be used instead to provide substantial foundation for Xentos's fears about the unknown Refusians, with something similar to Barbara's discovery of the scientist's theories about the Tempo of Destruction back in "The Screaming Jungle" (episode three of story no. 5, "The Keys of Marinus"), something written by Earth visitors to Refusis around about the 42nd segment of time or so, something ignored by those who decided to send the Ark there in favour of more recent data from unmanned probes. This would make the trust conflict seem less artificial and hopefully help to provide some anticipation for the truth to be revealed at the conclusion of the Ark's voyage.

At any rate, the botched trust-conflict stage does not waste too much time, and we quickly move on to the medical challenge which engages William Hartnell's Doctor superbly in a heroic fashion. Nice one! We also get a fine example of TARDIS time travel, sparing no expense on effects, leading up to one of the finest cliffhangers in the Hartnell era. The "next episode" caption should really have waited until after the final fade to black for it to work best though - it's not hard to imagine how the powerful final shot would likely be butchered for the movie-length compilation version of this story in order to have the caption removed.
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

Seven hundred years later, a total guest cast change has occurred, not to mention some significant changes in circumstance as well. The Monoids now come to the forefront of the story, and for this stage in the development of Doctor Who productions, they come off quite well as interesting alien creatures. 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.

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. Perhaps what the human guest characters need is a more commanding representative amongst them. Neither Dassuk nor Vanessa seem to be great leader / lead-character material, too often taking their cues from others, and not having any obvious central personal issues to work through either (unlike Xentos).

The Ark arrives at Refusis, and thankfully the Doctor is allowed to join the exploration with the first expedition, and he gets to meet and interact with the Refusians, offering a prime example of good first-contact etiquette. He also has an instrumental and somewhat risky, even though limited, role to play in helping the humans conquer the Monoid bomb. The invisibility of the Refusians is very believably and satisfactorily done - the invisible character has motivation for each display of effects that he causes. This is much better than the CSO antics of "Planet of the Daleks" (story no. 68) many years later, which seem to merely display the spectacle of invisibility in an unmotivated way. We also get a well-directed bit of Monoid 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. Our time travellers are all stuffed into the kitchens in early episode three (from the writer's point of view, to learn about the situation there, no doubt), but this easily creates the sinking feeling that the Doctor and his friends will simply be spending the whole episode there in a near repeat of their episode two antics. We don't know that we're going to get a cool exploration of Refusis until it happens, thus many viewers did not stay tuned in. The conflict between humans and Monoids seems quite one-dimensional at first as well. Only AFTER it is all over, in the wrap-up, does the Doctor make it clear to all that the Monoids quietly suffered injustice in the first two episodes, although at least a hint of this came out in his episode two scene where he praised a Monoid for being more knowledgeable than the Guardians seemed to realize. Not enough to hold viewers though. (In retrospect, perhaps a patronizing, slightly irritating commander Guardian was an appropriate casting decision, but unfortunately this ONLY works in hindsight.) The difference of opinion amongst the Monoids themselves is also a good source of dramatic conflict in the final episode, but you can't see it 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 the audience can bring along its 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, not just in our view of other species, but 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.
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Celestial Toymaker"



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