Monday, August 31, 2015

"The Ark in Space"

Aired Jan 25 - Feb 15, 1975

4 Episodes

Story 76

Written by: Robert Holmes

Directed by: Rodney Bennett


After Harry gives the TARDIS' Helmic Regulator an accidental twist, the Doctor and his friends arrive in the far future aboard a seemingly deserted space station in orbit around Earth. After examining the station, they discover it contains the last survivors of humanity, held for thousands of years in suspended animation after the Earth was evacuated following destructive solar flares devastating the surface and making the planet uninhabitable. 

The Doctor discovers that during the hibernation period, the station (called the Nerva Beacon) was visited by a space-faring insect form of life called the Wirrn. The Doctor causes the humans to begin the revival process, and they meet Vira, the chief medical officer, and Noah, the commander of the mission. Unfortunately, the Wirrn has laid its eggs in the station's solar stacks, and Noah is infected by one of the larvae and begins to be taken over by the Wirrn. 

While the Doctor, Sarah and Harry try to gain the trust of Vira and the other humans, Noah is quickly taken over and transformed into a Wirrn. He is now the spearhead of an invasion of Earth by the alien insects. Apparently, human space explorers who left Earth thousands of years ago were responsible for the destruction of the Wirrn breeding planet, and now the insects are bent on seizing Earth and wiping out the humans in revenge. 

The Doctor manages to come up with a plan to lure the Wirrn into a shuttle craft on board the station, launch it into space. The plan succeeds, partially due to the transformed Noah rediscovering his humanity and turning off the shuttle's stabilizers, resulting in the shuttle's explosion.

The Doctor, Sarah and Harry offer to transmat down to the deserted Earth and ensure the transmat devices are properly calibrated to begin humanity's return to their home...


Even though Robert Holmes began shadowing Terrance Dicks in Season Eleven in preparation for taking over the script editor duties, the scripts commissioned for Season Twelve were largely chosen by Dicks and Barry Letts, as was customary due to the lead time needed to set up a season. But while he didn't choose the authors or select their remits entirely on his own, Holmes did have to edit the scripts once they began coming in. 

Initially, John Lucarotti was supposed to write this story, set aboard a space station. Lucarotti had been one of the best writers of the Hartnell era, providing top notch scripts for classics like Marco Polo and The Aztecs. But the scripts he provided here were not suitable for a variety of reasons, and Lucarotti's unavailability forced Holmes to do a page one re-write.

And thank heavens for that, because it's hard to believe Lucarotti would have come up with the flawless and brilliant script that is The Ark in Space. Holmes and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe had already began to discuss their aim of bringing a darker, more sophisticated, slightly scarier version of Doctor Who to the screen, and it's easy to see this story as a bold and masterful declaration of the new direction in which the series was heading.

One of the smartest moves is the opening episode, in which the viewer explores the new setting through the eyes of the Doctor and his companions, who don't know where they are, what's going on, or if they're in any danger. Holmes wisely allows our three leads a huge amount of time to explore, interact (two out of three of them are basically new characters after all, and this moment of character development is welcome), and grow ever more tense at the situation they're in. When you take this amount of time to ratchet up the tension and the atmosphere, it greatly benefits in establishing the stakes and the horror of the story.

And the threat itself is also new. In the more recent Doctor Who stories, the threats had been scary, but more as rampaging monsters. The show was a creature feature in many ways, and it was a brilliant one. But The Ark in Space's horror comes from an existential place. It isn't that the Wirrn are monsters coming to conquer or kill, but they are coming to subsume us. They are coming to overwrite our humanity with something alien and incomprehensible, brilliantly depicted in Noah's plight.

Holmes manages to create a script that is witty and blackly funny, one of the bleakest the series had ever seen to this point. There's an incredible moment where the Doctor persuades Vira to halt the revivification process using the argument that if she awakens the survivors and they can't stop the Wirrn, then thousands will die in pain and fear, but if they leave them sleeping and still lose, only these six people will ever know it happened. That's dark as hell, and yet it's delivered with such charm by Tom Baker. Indeed, the story never feels oppressively bleak, because at it's core it's hugely optimistic. This is of course typified by Baker's justly lauded speech about humanity's resilience, but it's reinforced throughout; by Vira's compassion, by Rogin's sacrifice, and by Noah's redemption. And the cast as whole rises to the script's level completely, all of them handing in great performances without exception.

The direction by Bennett is superb throughout, utilizing a fast pace, judicious use of close-ups and effective lighting to keep things moving and interesting. The set design by Roger Murray-Leach is rightly praised, arguably the best the classic series ever had, and just looks gorgeous and open and logical. Even the use of bubble-wrap, which of course now seems silly, is fantastic. It gives Noah's transformation a nauseatingly organic component, that reinforces the existential dread inherent in the idea of an alien slowly consuming you body and soul.

The Ark in Space is a trumpet-blast signalling the new direction of the series, and it will be hard to beat as one of the best of the Fourth Doctor's era.


  1. "He is now the spearhead of an invasion by the insects of Earth."

    Do you mean the insects of Earth are invading the spaceship, or that the insects are the spearhead of the invasion of Earth?"

    (I know what you mean, but the wording is ambiguous, says the leader of the Invasion of the Space Grammar Nazis.)

    1. Well spotted! I appreciate it, because I hate making that kind of mistake. Thanks! (Nice to know people actually read the pieces, too!)