“THE ARK” – Season 3, Serial 5, Story 23 – Written by Paul Erickson and Leslie Scott; Directed by Michael Imison – It’s New Companion Time as Dodo takes her initial trip in the TARDIS and they end up on an Ark. In space. But not the Ark in Space you’re thinking of. This one is totally different. It’s full of humans in computer banks, escaping the Earth for a better world. They’ve got alien servants called Monoids who have one eye and don’t do a whole lot. Dodo brings them a gift – the common cold. She almost kills everyone but the Doctor saves the day, and they leave, only to wind up right back on the Ark, 700 years later. Now, it’s the Monoids in charge and the humans who are slaves. Because The Tables Have Turned And Turned Tables Mean … Wait, Why Would Turned Tables Change Anything?
THE ARK is an odd little serial.
It has two distinct halves, one in which the Doctor, Dodo, and Steven arrive on a spaceship run by humans with Monoid servants, and another one in which the Doctor, Dodo, and Steven return to the same spaceship to find the Monoids as masters and the humans as slaves. It’s a brilliant swerve in the middle of two semi-decent halves. So often when watching classic Doctor Who people will comment on how they wish there were fewer episodes because of all the narrative padding, but four episodes is just right for THE ARK, although I think we would have been better served seeing a 1:3 split instead of the 2:2 we get.
Here’s why: the front half of the serial is much less involved and contains a far greater amount of standing around. The first half feels padded while the second half crackles; watching the whole serial is like watching a rock being pushed up hill for two episodes and then watching it race down the other side for the last two.
In the first half, we get a lot of the Doctor, Stephen, and Dodo standing around, trying to figure out where they are. They’re in a forest or jungle of some kind with Earthly animals. This is my favorite part of the opening two episodes, because it helps to create the dynamic between the Doctor, Stephen, and new companion, Dodo. Much of this weight falls on Stephen’s shoulders. He pokes and prods at Dodo to get reactions out of her, so we can see that she’s young but not intimidated. She’s got opinions and she’ll share them. Being both a contemporary of the audience and working class, Dodo is designed to be our “in” into this world, but I think those characters can be a little unnecessary when a show is up and running like DOCTOR WHO.
If there’s a change in the show’s dynamics, then yeah, a character like Dodo or Rose that we’re supposed to relate to can be incredibly effective as a narrative tool and instructive for the audience, but the sue of Dodo in this serial doesn’t do either of those two things. After the solid opening in the woods, she’s instantly put through the Doctor Who Companion Grinder, and she spends most of the episode following the Doctor around, neither asking interesting questions nor providing anything of value to the story.
Well, she does contribute one thing – she has a cold, and these humans that they encounter are so far in the future that they have no biological or medical defense against the common cold.
That set up is a pretty darn good sci-fi set-up. While Stephen and Dodo are busy looking around the jungle to try to figure out where they are, the Doctor looks up and notices a roof and artificial light, and then down where he hears a constant humming through the ground. A jungle inside a spaceship? That’s pretty darn awesome.
Unfortunately, the humans who inhabit this ship aren’t quite so great. They’re all that’s left of humanity and while they have conquered the common cold, they employ the Monoids as a servant/slave race. Earth is about to be destroyed by a solar flare, so they packed up the planet (taking versions of all plants and animals, hence the “Ark” nickname our intrepid explorers lay on them), reduced humans to really tiny miniature versions of themselves, and stored them in your dad’s toolbox. The humans who are walking around are called the “Guardians,” and they have very strict rules that are strongly enforced.
A little of this goes a long way, though we have to sit through anti-ousider rants and the trial and a usurpation of power as the serial exchanges science fiction for political bombast.
I do love the way the Doctor handles the situation, however; ain’t no one ever who can tug on a jacket’s lapels like William Hartnell, and the First Doctor is respectful enough to the human’s customs and laws but he does this not because he’s passive but because he’s biding his time and gathering information. There’s a confidence to the First Doctor’s actions that requires neither bluster nor bombast. You want to arrest him? Fine, but what he knows and you don’t is that you’re gonna need him, eventually, so he’ll go sit in his cell and work out what needs to be done.
We just don’t need two episodes of set-up for the back half of the story to be effective, because all that gets flipped is who is in charge. We don’t see specific instances that are followed up on or character who make the transition because there’s close to a 700 year jump between episode 2 and episode 3.
But that jump … that’s great, great stuff.
I love the idea of them getting back into the TARDIS like, “Job done. On our way.” only to have the TARDIS come right back to the same spot. When the three travelers wander outside this time, they’re surprised at what they don’t see as opposed to what they do, as there are no humans hanging out.
The big visual punch that happens, though, and what really sells the time jump is seeing the completed version of the statue the humans were creating to help pass the 700-year journey. That statue is now complete, although instead of being a statue of a human, it’s a statue of a Monoid.
The Monoids are a weird villain, as they are, on the one hand, impossible to take seriously. They look like a giant stalk of asparagus cosplaying as a Beatle. They have one eye and it’s where the mouth should be, and they talk by touching a large collar with their name/number on it. They are the kind of creature that would have been created by Sid and Marty Krofft, if Sid and Marty Krofft were half-asleep and the only color they had to work with was green.
But when you think about what the Monoids are threatening to do, they do gain a little menace to them. Lots of villains threaten to kill lots of people or destroy people, but the Monoids have all that’s left of humanity aboard the Ark and are planning to eradicate all of it by blowing up a bomb they have implanted inside the big statue. That’s pretty bad-ass for a group of bad guys who walk around telling each other their secret plans and who keep their human slaves locked up in a security kitchen.
Yes, a security kitchen.
A phrase I have never heard before watching THE ARK and will now never be able to get out of my mind.
The Ark reaches Refusis, and the Monoids go down to conquer the planet but they can’t see the Refusians because the Refusians are invisible. Given the budgetary constraints the Doctor Who offices were faced with, it’s a wonder we didn’t get lots and lots of invisible villains because it’s a brilliant idea. There’s plenty of fighting and running around on both Refusis and the Ark over the back two episodes and I quite enjoyed it. The resolution, with the invisible people of Refusis ordering the surviving Monoids and humans to work together or else they’re not welcome is pretty good, too, as it sets up a whole Christian view of the world with humans being controlled by a god-like being.
There’s a great quote by the Doctor, too, as he tells them, “You must travel with understanding as well as hope.”