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Doctor Who: The Ark

March 7, 2011

New favourite Doctor Who character: Monoid Two, the deputy of the deeply weird monster race in ‘The Ark’ (1965). Accosted by the Doctor’s companion Dodo, in a rare scene where her accent doesn’t upstage the action, about whether he and his Monoid allies are up to some secret treachery, he dithers and umms and says, “No?” in the exact manner of a child who, caught up to some naughtiness, decides to try and brazen it out. Conniving the Monoids may be; convincing in their skullduggery they are not. Shaggy-haired, baggy reptilian humanoids with one expressionless eye glaring from the lower half of the face, they are at least distinctively freakish one-off monsters: someone hit upon the wonderful gimmick that an actor in a costume could hold an eyeball in his mouth and thus play around with the humanoid face just enough to make them memorably horrible. Less thought seems to have gone into the tone of their characterisation. They don’t even seem to believe in their villainy enough themselves for us to buy it.

The Monoids start the story as mute assistants to humankind, helping pilot the Ark of the title — a vast spaceship carrying the entire human race and a bunch of animals — to a new planet after Earth’s destruction. The scale of this project is established in the first episode as the Doctor, Steven and Dodo emerge into an excellent and high-budget forest populated by a few immobile animals, a lot of sound effects and, to the astonishment of the Monkey, who was watching with me, an actual elephant — not just stock footage: the three regulars appear in the same filmed sequences as the animal. This is big-budget Who, and not just by 1965 standards: a writer hoping to jemmy a real-life elephant into a Matt Smith story these days would be sent away to redraft at the very least. It says a lot for Doctor Who‘s ambition and, by its third season, its kudos too that this could actually happen. (Also, Blue Peter‘s notorious elephant-starring live edition was still some years away at this point.) The rest of the Ark is, sadly, reduced to a couple of sets — a bridge, a prison cell, and later something inexplicably called a Security Kitchen — though the fact that characters move between these and the jungle set aboard a little toytown train gives a nice hint at the distances involved.

The first two episodes are a self-contained story, in which Dodo’s cold causes problems for the super-advanced humans who have long since lost their immunity to this ancient infection. It’s rather slow-paced, and skirts cautiously around a tremendous plot-hole: surely there are medical records detailing how the cold was originally cured, even back in ‘the first segment of time’? The dialogue tries to tackle this enigma, but we have a Star Trekky pacific, super-advanced human society here rather than a more desperate, exhausted bunch of humans at the end of their species’ tether, so it doesn’t quite ring true that all medical records would have vanished.

Fortunately, the Doctor realises the cure for the common cold resides in samples taken from two of the animals on board the Ark. He’s circumspect about which two, but fortunately we’re treated to an explanatory montage featuring the elephant and delightful footage of a Monoid fondling the static iguana prop from the first episode in a way we must presume is intrinsic to making the cure and not just some recreational petting.

A ‘game-changing’ cliffhanger at the halfway mark sees the TARDIS dematerialise from the jungle — and then return to the exact same place, seven hundred years later, when the Ark is arriving at the planet Refusis, the humans’ new home. This same-place-different-time trick is a first for Doctor Who, and must have been even more striking on first transmission, when regular viewers might justifiably have assumed that they were moving on after a complete two-part adventure. In the intervening seven hundred years of backstory, the Monoids have risen up and enslaved the remaining humans, and now intend to colonise Refusis themselves while leaving the human race to die aboard the boobytrapped Ark. It’s a neat twist, and a clever way to prolong the story, which now features some new sets, and yet another alien race: the invisible, boomingly-voiced Refusians. The humans of this second half, meantime, are as sketchy as those of the first, but more likeable. (There’s a nicely understated scene where lead female Mellium decides to stay aboard the Ark and help Steven while her boyfriend teleports down to Refusis: no-one does more than glance at Steven, but a whole story is encrypted in the look.)

By now the Monoids have learned to speak, but not to demonstrate much imagination, thus the decision to refer to one another only by numbers. These numbers are printed on the collars they now wear, with which they fiddle incessantly while speaking (the idea seems to be they have to open the microphone when they want to talk), meaning that attention is constantly drawn to one of the flimsiest props ever seen on Who, cardboard-and-sellotape contraptions forever on the verge of falling apart as clumsy latex Monoid fingers struggle with them. The Monoids are better, and more sinister, when mute, rising up from the Ark’s forests to surround the Doctor and co in the first episode, or even conducting their (confused) civil war in the last episode, silently killing off one another with their heat-prod weapons. It doesn’t help that when they do find a voice it is that of Zippy out of Rainbow (Roy Skelton provides most of the Monoid lines). Villains they are not: they’re just too loveable.

The story, barring the twist at the midpoint, is rather too neat, partly a consequence of having two essentially separate two-part halves to it. In the second half, making the Refusians invisible means that they can be called upon to show off, as it were, whatever abilities the script demands — the way the Monoid bomb aboard the Ark is dealt with is particularly convenient, relying upon the Refusians’ colossal strength despite there having been no hint at this attribute beforehand. A little of the reverse-engineering of plot evident in Episode One, when an air of significance surrounds Dodo’s snuffles and sneezes, might have dealt with this: if a Refusian had destroyed the landing craft at the end of Episode Three by strength alone, rather than with a weapon, we’d have had a hint at its physical capabilities.

Michael Imison’s direction sells much of ‘The Ark’. Crane shots add to the sense of scale in various shots, and some of the model work, especially around the giant statue of a Monoid which is an important plot point throughout, as well as a striking image, is particularly lovely. New companion Dodo is relegated to questions and exposition, and you could be charitable and suggest that Jackie Lane’s bodged accent is a brave attempt to enliven the part — more likely it seems to be down to confused direction. The Doctor Who Discontinuity Guide suggests she had rehearsed the part in a Cockney accent before being told this wasn’t appropriate after all, but that doesn’t quite explain why she lapses frequently into ‘Weatherfield Mancunian’ — an early and unsuccessful attempt to get regional accents into Doctor Who.

Not much remains of Doctor Who’s third season — ‘The Ark’ is one of only three surviving complete stories (out of ten; the remaining seven are represented in the archives by a few isolated single episodes) — which makes this story something of a curio even before its unusual structure is taken into account. What’s clear is that the show’s ambition and confidence was at a terrific high: 1965 was a time of three-month-long mega-stories, elaborate science fictions, and even a (very short) story which features none of the main cast whatsoever. Year three producer John Wiles turned the programme into a show which could do, week to week, absolutely anything it wanted. It would be forty years before Doctor Who would possess this kind of effortless confidence again.

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