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Doctor Who III.26-29: The Ark

June 3rd, 2011 (12:07 am)

The Ark, recently watched by me in a finely restored form on DVD, can be viewed (from this historian's corner) as a cautionary tale about paying attention to the historical record. Humanity, despite its technological and social achievements in the fifty-seventh segment of time, has little evidence of how these achievements were won. Consequently, when Dodo brings the common cold on board the Ark, the human guardians have no idea how to deal with it, as if they are confirmed in their superiority by wilful amnesia. One of the first things the Monoids do in the second segment of the story, at the start of the third episode, 'The Return', is to demonstrate to the Doctor, Steven and Dodo that they know who the travellers are by screening a 'history scan' from seven centuries before, which happens to be a sequence from towards the close of the previous episode, 'The Plague'. They even boast that they have learned the lessons of the history of human-Monoid relations on the Ark and clearly enjoy keeping humans enslaved in the security kitchen. Where the human Guardians of the first section of the tale showed their potential for paranoia and reliance on instinct over evidence, despite their veneer of rationality, the Monoids of the second section of the story are complacent and more squalidly decadent than their former human employers.

Much of the dialogue comes across as a series of propositions in an elementary debate in moral and social philosophy, with few indications as to what the characters are like. A little time is given to help establish Dodo, who wandered into the TARDIS by mistake at the end of the previous story, The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, but despite a spirited performance by Jackie Lane, she is not served well with guidance on how she should play Dodo - Lancashire lass? Cockney waif? RP BBC young-woman-around-Riverside Studios? - changing from episode to episode. Uncertainty over Dodo spreads to the Doctor. After a jocular relationship with fellow-playmate Vicki, he now becomes a quainter, more reactionary figure, rebuking Dodo for saying "O.K." and announcing that he will have to teach her English. That being said, the Doctor's contemplation of the possibility that he and Dodo will have to stay on Refusis for ever is delivered by William Hartnell with sufficient mischief that one is led to consider the image of the two as an unlikely Adam and Eve in the new Eden, thoughtfully equipped with a 'castle' and tasteful middle-of-the-road furniture by the disembodied paternalist Refusians. Monoid Two condemns himself as a bad house-guest as well as a tyrant by smashing vases, effectively anticipating the battle between the Monoid factions in the final episode where the two sides in the landing party on Refusis wipe each other out with alacrity. It's obviously moralist and paradigmatic, but gets away with it through a lightness of touch and solidity of conviction.

The Monoid overlords seem remarkably sparse in 'The Return', and it's almost a relief to see more of them in the fourth and final episode, 'The Bomb'. They address each other by numbers, reflecting a narrow hierarchy; one non-speaking Monoid is numbered '63', though the number of Monoid costumes is probably six. Many of the voices are provided by Roy Skelton as a slower, less breathless Zippy from Rainbow. Peter Purves moves Steven from advocate for justice and reason in 'The Plague' to organiser of the enslaved humans in 'The Bomb'; the most appealing of the guest humans in the second half is Venussa, played by Eileen Helsby, who flirts with Steven as a way of inspiring the local males to show some initiative.

Given the Doctor's reminder that the Monoids must be treated as equals by humans, it's noticeable that when a Monoid drives the Doctor, Steven and Dodo back to the TARDIS at the end of part two, the Doctor and Steven both ignore their Monoid chauffeur, and only Dodo (coded as immature and badly-educated) waves goodbye to it. The Doctor, perhaps, learns a lesson too... and in the light of a more recent episode, Steven's reply to the wine-quaffing Monoid One that the TARDIS decided that they should return to the Ark can be interpreted more literally than perhaps many would have taken it at the time.

The Doctor's parting advice to the inhabitants of the Ark, delivered twice over at the ends of the second and fourth episodes, "you must travel with understanding as well as hope", echoes Sydney Newman's motto as head of BBC Drama Group, which involved not looking back in anger, but forward in awareness; it's probably going too far to see the communities under 'The Steel Sky' as allegories for different parties at Newman's court, but given that producer John Wiles, sandwiched between a hostile superior in the form of head of serials Gerald Savory, and a truculent star in William Hartnell, chose to bow out at this point it is tempting. That being said, the humans and Monoids are left somewhat infantilised at the end of the story, with the Doctor dematerialising passing on the burden of being responsible adult to the invisible Refusian emissary - almost a metaphor for Doctor Who once its co-creators had turned away, with Sydney Newman concentrating on other matters and Donald Wilson having stepped down as head of serials. The Ark is an ambitious story made at an uncertain time for Doctor Who, but it's technically more than competent - the Monoids are eerie despite their evidently ping-pong-ball-on-tongue eyes, and the substantial filming allocation is used well, with one spacecraft landing depicted in a better perspective shot than was achieved with the toy tank in Robot nine years later.


Posted by: gervase_fen (gervase_fen)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2011 10:07 am (UTC)

As you say, a beautifully restored DVD - I've only watched The Steel Sky so far but what struck the most about it was that in terms of production techniques it could easily pass muster as an episode made ten or even twenty years later.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2011 10:39 am (UTC)

There's a lot of beautiful camerawork which shows what the three-camera set-up was able to do when pushed. I find that I can concentrate on the VidFIREd editions much better than the VHS copies of the film telerecordings.

Posted by: El Staplador (el_staplador)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2011 11:10 am (UTC)

I watched this a couple of weeks ago and amused myself wondering whether it is compatible with, or retconned by, "The End of The World". I don't recall the Ninth Doctor mentioning having seen it before, but would have to rewatch both.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2011 12:42 pm (UTC)

It's just possible that Platform One is on the other side of the Earth from the Ark; but perhaps the 'fifty-seventh segment' refers to the number of 'New's that should be prefixed to 'Earth' in this case.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2011 12:58 pm (UTC)

There is a line about the inhabitants of the Earth having left in a fleet of space arks, which is clearly intended to provide some continuity.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 3rd, 2011 01:00 pm (UTC)

I'd forgotten that. Pity we didn't get to see any Monoids on Platform One, though...