“THE ARK IN SPACE” – Season 12, Serial 2, Story 76 – Written by Robert Holmes (from a story by John Lucarotti); Directed by Rodney Bennett – It’s the first TARDIS adventure for the Fourth Doctor and Harry Sullivan, which makes Sarah Jane Smith the veteran. If this was New Who (or really, any non-Third/early Fourth Who), we’d have gotten a nice scene where Sarah knows the TARDIS better than the Doctor and where Harry is completely flummoxed by the size of the TARDIS, but we don’t. Instead, in Philip Hinchcliffe’s first official outing as producer, we jump right into the adventure and it’s a doozy. They end up on Space Station Nerva, where some post-Earth colonists are in hibernation. They start waking up and wish they hadn’t. Not Because Of Harry’s Bedside Manner, But Because There’s A Wirrn Infestation Going On.
And here’s where the greatest era in DOCTOR WHO history begins: the Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Holmes, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen/Louise Jameson era that pushes the show into more adult territory, using horror as the foundation to increase the literary quality of the program.
Hinchcliffe mirrored Barry Letts during the production process of ROBOT, but THE ARK IN SPACE is his solo debut and he was lucky to have Robert Holmes rework a John Lucarotti story into a simple but highly effective four-part script.
ARK really sets the tone for this era of WHO because there’s nothing here that is, in any way, complex, but it’s beautifully told, perfectly building dramatic tension inside a sci-fi story infused with horror. It’s a very simple story of the TARDIS landing on a space station with the crew in cryogenic stasis. The crew begins to wake up, each new awakened crewman adding a new wrinkle to the drama. What’s getting everyone all out of sorts is the presence of the Wirrn, a human-sized insect race that coverts people into Wirrn when the host touches a green slime.
The key to Holmes’ script is that he keeps slowly upping the ante – which is what you do, right? I mean, this isn’t some kind of revolutionary script where Holmes reinvents the wheel. No, what he does is make the most perfect wheel he can. Here’s how Holmes executes his vision:
Step One: Set the Scene. The TARDIS lands on the space station. The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry exit and start poking their noses around. Harry does a bit of the, “I can’t believe it, where did UNIT go?” but blessedly, they move him past that stage rather quickly. Harry sees something green
Step Two: Lose Sarah Jane. While the three of them are poking their noses around, Sarah moves through an open door that closes behind her. By the time they get through, she’s gone.
Step Three: Find Sarah and a Big Bug. While Harry and the Doctor are looking for Sarah, they find a whole host of cryogenically frozen people, and Sarah is among them. While Harry is looking for some kind of resuscitation unit, he opens a closet and a massive bug as tall as he is falls on him.
Step Four: Wake Up the Crew. Before they can get Sarah awake, Vira, the station’s senior medical officer, awakes and rightly wants to know who the heck these people are. As the Doctor works his charm on Vira, the captain is awoken next, and they have to start all over trying to win over the space station crew.
Step Five: Infect the Captain. Before the Doctor can fully get the support of the Captain, he’s infected with the Wirrn goup.
Step Six: Stick it All in the Blender; Set on High; And Away We Go.
Holmes’ script is constantly moving. He makes certain to use every scene to both advance the narrative and give you a little something extra, whether it’s Harry first spotting that green slime, or the station’s automatic defenses attacking Harry and the Doctor, or Harry giving Sarah a bit of chauvinistic ribbing, or it being revealed that Vira and the Captain were slated to be mating partners.
Watching ARK IN SPACE is a bit like watching a chef who knows what he’s doing cook a big meal – you’ve got the momentum of the main course as the primary concern, but then you’ve got all of these smaller dishes that need to be handled in different ways at different times. Holmes does this beautifully, always adding something to add a little bite, and this is important because that big green bug is pretty ridiculous looking.
When a script is this tight, though, you should be willing to roll with it.
There’s lots of great character interactions here. I love how positive the Doctor is with his Companions; he’s not above giving them a bit of crap but he’s not looking to be a jerk, either. In the best scene of the serial, Sarah is wedging her way through the duct system and she starts complaining that she can’t do it. The Doctor starts chiding her for giving up and calls her useless. This rightly p*sses Sarah off and her anger gets her to the end of the shaft, where it takes her a moment to realize the Doctor was doing this to build her up and not to tear her down.
The serial builds to a proper climax where they trick the Wirrn into an escape pod, and we get one of those moments where someone makes the ultimate sacrifice so the Doctor can get away and keep living.
THE ARK IN SPACE is a fantastic serial from start to finish and truly a Tier One serial. It still feels a bit like a Pertwee episode (there are some odd dialogue moments where it seems like the Doctor has known his Companions longer than he has), but there’s a definite first step towards the Golden Era that’s coming. ARK stands alongside every other space station story in terms of overall quality.