Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (Special Edition) DVD Review: Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turnin’

The “wheel in space” was the New Frontier-era notion of what space stations of the future would look like. I fondly remember pictures of these from a book I had as a child. So there was a sense of “the future remembered” for me with the opening image of The Ark in Space. The shot is of one of those great wheels, where the TARDIS has landed.

The four-part Ark in Space was first broadcast from January 25 – February 15, 1975. This was only the second serial to feature the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker), following Robot. There are some who consider Baker to have been definitive in the role, including producer Philip Hinchcliffe. In one of the DVD extras he states, “I thought that Tom Baker was inspired casting. I think that for generations after he played the part he was Doctor Who.”

Baker is excellent, without a doubt, as are his two companions, Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith , and Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan . As the trio step out of the TARDIS, the Doctor states that the station looks to have been built sometime in the 30th century. When Harry expresses astonishment that they are in the 30th century, the Doctor tells him that they are much further along in time than that. He believes that the station has been there for several thousand years.

The interior is huge, and seemingly deserted. As they soon discover though, it is not deserted, the crew is just in cryogenic stasis. When the medical tech Vira (Wendy Williams) and leader Lazar (Kenton Moore) are awakened, they explain the situation to the trio. Lazar has been nicknamed “Noah,” which makes sense as the titular ark they are in has been designed to save mankind.

At some point in the 30th century, all life on Earth will by destroyed by solar flares. Knowing this is coming, the best and the brightest minds went to work on a survival plan. Based on a number of factors, hundreds of men and women were chosen to be cryogenically frozen. Their “ark” was sent out into space, where they would wait until it was safe to go back and repopulate Earth.

The only problem is, the ark has been contaminated. While searching the interior, the Doctor and Harry find some sort of a huge green slug thing crawling off. Inside the cryogenic chamber, they discover what appears to be a giant dead ant. Through the Doctor’s eminently logical deductions, we discover that this insect race are called the Wirrn. They are parasites and are planning to infect what remains of the human race on this ark. The giant ant in the chamber was their queen, and laid hundreds of eggs in the transport ship before dying. The slug-like thing is one of them in a pupal stage, and what’s worse, it infects Noah while he is investigating.

When it “slimes” Noah, he immediately begins the process of metamorphosis, and his arm turns into a green stick-like appendage. By doing his own version of a “mind-meld” with the dead Wirrn, the Doctor finds out that the most deadly thing for the Wirrn is electricity, and the Queen had actually been shocked by the security system. Her force of will to propagate was so strong that she managed to lay the eggs before finally succumbing.

A plan is made to electrify the station, and rid it of the Wirrn. The Noah/Wirrn has contacted the rest of the adult Wirrn, and they begin to crawl all over the transport ship. It is a terrifying scene with all of those menacing things appearing outside, and time is of the essence. They are very strong. Finally, Noah’s human side takes over long enough to figure out a solution, a suicide run. He takes off in the ship, filled inside and outside with the Wirrn, and blows it up. Freed of the deadly Wirrn, the ark is ready to return to Earth and repopulate it. The Doctor, Harry, and Sarah have saved the day, and the TARDIS is off to another adventure.

The newly released Ark in Space is a two-DVD set and contains quite a few bonus features. The most significant of these is the TV-movie version, which was broadcast in 1975. The four-part serial has a running time of 100-minutes, while the movie is only 70 minutes. I must say that the edits were well done, and the movie flows very naturally. While the times would suggest that about a quarter of the serial had been cut out, there is a fair amount of time eliminated by losing the opening and closing credit sequences. In my opinion, very little has been lost in this version.

These BBC DVDs generally include a “making of” feature, and The Ark in Space is no different. It is a 30-minute piece titled “A New Frontier.” What I enjoyed the most about “A New Frontier” was the interview with producer Hinchcliffe. Doctor Who began as a low-budget BBC children’s program. It was very nearly taken off the air in 1970, and to continue, the producers began to base many of the serials on Earth. That way, costs could be significantly cut. When Hinchcliffe came on board in 1974, he had a vision. He wanted Doctor Who to be a more “grown-up” show, to head back out into space, and go in a much stronger science-fiction direction. Although I am no expert, it seems that this was a significant turning point for the series.

The 10-minute “Roger Murray-Leach Interview” was done in 2002 with set designer Murray-Leach. I had hoped for some comment about the space wheel, but no – what Murry-Leach talks about the most is the extensive use of the then-new material we call “bubble-wrap.” We first see this when Noah’s arm begins to turn Wirrn. They wrapped his arm in bubble-wrap, coated green goop over it, and voila! The funniest thing is when he talks about the bubble-wrapped Wirrn-pupa, which when it moved made a sound like “machine-gun pops.” Bubble-wrap would become ubiquitous in the ensuing years, but as a special-effects device, it clearly has its limitations.

For fans of such things, there are some rolls of model and CGI effects footage (nine minutes), 3D Technical Schematics (one minute), a photo gallery (seven minutes), the unusual “TARDIS-cam” (one minute), and various PDF materials. There is also a minute of amateur 8mm footage from Baker’s first Doctor serial Robot.

Finally, we come to “Doctor Forever! – Love and War,” a marvelous documentary piece hosted by Ayesha Antoine. “In 1989, the Doctor left the screen, and this is the story of how Doctor Who refused to die, the story of the Doctor Who books” is her opening statement. As it turns out, Sir Richard Branson was the Doctor’s unlikely savior. Virgin Books began publishing new Doctor Who novels in 1991, and kept the public’s interest in him going in the years the show was off the air. The authors who are interviewed seemed to have most enjoyed the opportunity to explore subjects such as sex, the “dark side” of the Doctor, and other formerly taboo topics.

At the end of this 27-minute segment, Antoine says, “In 1996, something terrible happened, the BBC took back the rights to Doctor Who” Her cheeky comment is of course said on a BBC DVD, but the fact is, when they took back the rights from Virgin, the “glory days” of the books were seemingly over. Or were they? We here at Cinema Sentries are such fans that we will be reviewing a new set of Doctor Who books right here, very soon.

As for The Ark in Space, it is a classic Doctor Who serial done up right in this new double-DVD set. It is hard to believe this is only Baker’s second time as the Doctor, as he already has the character completely down. He is brilliant, as is the story. Definitely one to watch.

Greg Barbrick

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