By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
There is no doubt that this story, the second outing for Tom Baker as the fourth Doctor, is a timeless classic. It is now out again, digitally remastered and packed with extras which were missing from its earlier release several years ago.
For many this was the beginning of the golden era as Baker firmly establishes himself in the role. It is here the classic speech about the human species being indomitable as the Doctor addresses a huge chamber of sleeping humans is made which gives us a rare glimpse of how the Time Lord sees our species.
Together with Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) , the Tardis takes our heroes to the far future. There they find themselves on the space station Nerva, the Ark of the title, where the last of humanity is in slumber following the mass exodus of Earth. However something has stolen bodies and is intent on wiping out the last of the humans.
The insectoid Wirrn are one of the alien species that fans have wanted to see return for a long time and it’s easy to see why. They lay their eggs in humans allowing them to hatch while their slime can mutate a human into a Wirrn. It is the horror of this process that makes them so special.
Everything works about this story. The Nerva station would feature in the next two stories and be revisited in the Big Finish audio plays as did the Wirrn against the sixth Doctor. It is here that the famous scene where Sarah gets stuck in an air duct forcing the Doctor to goad her into fighting her way free happens. This is referenced years later by the eleventh Doctor in the Sarah Jane Adventures story the death of the Doctor.
This was truly a golden age as Harry and Sarah are the perfect foils for the Doctor. It is a pity that Harry would leave after this season as Ian Marter makes you fall in love with Harry with the slightest of facial expressions and dialogue. The sets are absolutely stunning as are the performances. What this story achieves is a heart and when Noah, the leader of the newly awakened humans and the first victim of the Wirrn mutation, sacrifices himself to save his own kind, there is a deep poignancy about it. It is the old theme of the human spirit overcoming alien threats to save the day making it the most powerful force in the universe.
You wouldn’t believe that this is only Tom Baker’s second outing in the role as he makes the role his own immediately. He, Ian and Elizabeth bounce off each other like a well oiled machine and all memory of Jon Pertwee is gone by the end of the first episode.
This is a story of simple ideas executed well. The cliffhanger to episode one is nothing more than a Wirrn falling out of a cupboard on top of Harry yet it is so effectively done that I remember it from its very first broadcast. However the horror factor is pulled back as in the scene where the Doctor confronts a mutated Noah. The original cut had his head split open as he completes the transformation into a Wirrn but it was cut for graphic purposes. Even the Wirrn themselves are well done. When trapping the Doctor in a cargo hold, the set is effectively darkened not only to heighten the horror but hide the fact the Wirrn can’t walk. But this is to its credit as the huge insects burned themselves into audience’s minds forever.
Ark in Space is the perfect Doctor Who and one that Russell T Davies cited as his favourite.
The extras add much to the story as we get behind the scenes and there are a few surprises here too.
When someone talks about magic, they are talking about the Ark in Space. Buy it.