The Ark

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2011


It’s apparent from the first seconds of The Ark that we’re in for something remarkable. A clearly aggrieved hornbill is physically hurled at a monitor lizard – and you don’t see that every day. As Doctor Who openings go, it’s audacious, dramatic… and endearingly ham-fisted. In this sense, it’s also a perfect metaphor for the hundred minutes that follow.

The Tardis has landed in Whipsnade Zoo, at least according to the Doctor’s new companion Dodo. “Ah bet if ya go down dat path dare,” she ventures – her accent rocketing back and forth along the M6 – “you’ll come t’American bison an’ tea bar.” “It’s more likely to be Earth than anywhere else,” replies the Doctor, resignedly. Perhaps he’s started to notice that his travels about the universe, far from random, simply bounce him back-and-forth from our planet like a rubber ball on a short length of elastic. He’s fitted too springy a spring in that Fast Return switch of his.

What’s odd about this discussion of location – which goes on for some time – is that the viewer is already a hare’s leap ahead of our heroes’ tortoise reasoning. Immediately after the hornbill-flinging incident, the director showed us that we’re nowhere near Whipsnade, as his camera enjoyed a lascivious pan up an unlikely looking alien lurking in the shrubbery. The Doctor, Dodo and Steven finally have their true location revealed to them when prodded from the jungle and onto the flight deck of a spaceship. We are – rather marvelously – travelling with the last of humanity as they flee an expiring Earth. It is the 57th Segment of Time, when mankind finally escapes the tyranny of trousers and embraces a fruity new fashion based on those ribboned plastic curtains that divide the potato store from the fryers in provincial fish and chip shops.

Imminent Earth-death aside, this is not some gloomy future; because the relaxed ethics of the age mean that our descendants are allowed slaves. Hurrah for guilt-free exploitation! The Commander of this ‘Ark’ ship – seemingly a retired hairdresser wrenched from the last days of Gran Canaria, flip-flops and all – explains how the alien Monoids, lacking a home of their own, “offered their invaluable services in return for being allowed to come on this joyage… voyage” (his enthusiasm for the whole venture bubbling through at the end there). The key word is ‘allowed’. Was there a point when mankind considered letting the Monoids boil with the Earth had they not ‘offered’ to skivvy for us? Even the Doctor seems broadly accepting of this, the inconsistent old goat.

Ultimately, this is a story defined by its monsters. And again, you can only applaud the ambition. The Monoids are far from the weakest Hartnell-era monster, and in the specific Doctor Who phylum of ‘lizard men’, they certainly look better than the Foamasi from a decade and a half later. The problem with the Monoids is that there’s too much going on. That wandering eye; the big hair; the webbed walk; their love of random, urgent gesticulation… Taken together, your average Monoid looks like Shirley Bassey waddling downstage in a fishtail ballgown, following an enthusiastic facelift from Picasso.

The Monoids wave their arms a lot because they are mute, and treated as if they are deaf. They communicate with their masters via a system of hectic mime that could seem almost random to the untrained observer. “Oblong! Read a book! Doggy paddle!” comments one Monoid, sagely. “Open the windows! Paint the fence! Two giraffes!” sneers a human in reply. “Binoculars!” insists the Monoid. “And jazz hands to you!” It’s impossible to take seriously, but the strangest thing of all is that, later, after the Monoids learn to speak, these frenzied charades will seem the height of sophisticated debate in comparison. But until that happy hour arrives, we’ve a plot to catch up with…

A snotty Dodo has brought a cold all the way from 1966. This is a serious threat to the passengers of the Ark, who have long since rid themselves of all viruses. Well, it’s a bit of a worry when a Monoid dies from this plague, and then a serious threat after a human croaks. Despite being condemned to death by wannabe leader Zentos – a xenophobic loon – the Doctor is allowed to find a cure. This our hero achieves in three minutes, using only some “animal membranes”, a blanket, and a montage sequence. Zentos lurks in the background clearly hoping the vaccine will fail. The extinction of the human race would certainly stand as the ultimate ‘told you so’ moment. Meanwhile, the Doctor also seems to cure Dodo’s shuttlebus “By ’eck, lad, up tha’ apples and pears” accent.

She’s a queer one that Dodo, and no mistake. When the whole happy history of Doctor Who comes to be written, she might well be judged the least effective or affecting companion of all, the poor love. But maybe there’s more to Dodo than meets the eye? A young girl with a silly name who conveniently appears at a time of great need for the Doctor… She’s connected to his past in a strange way… She has a mysterious, unseen aunt… She’s difficult to like… Nowadays, we call this ‘Amy Pond’. So perhaps Dodo is more than just an ordinary girl from Wilmslow-upon-Wimbledon. Like Amy, she’s a complicated space-time event conjured by ineffable calculus of the universe. The Doctor just didn’t notice.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the action in time for The Ark’s moment of stone-cold brilliance. It comes at the end of part two, when the departing Tardis returns to the same spot seven centuries later. The reveal of this, and a stylish hint as to how the status quo has changed, is delivered without words. This requires a leap of understanding, and flatters the viewer. By choosing to not have Dodo say, “The statue is finished! You know, the one that would take 700 years to build! But why does it have the head of a Monoid, I wonder?” this becomes one of the very best Doctor Who cliffhangers from that special category we can label ‘WTF??!’

Sadly, it’s downhill from here. We learn that Dodo’s cold mutated into a form that “sapped the will of the humans”. Given that they were lettuce-limp to begin with, this was no advance in viral evolution. The Monoids were not affected, which implies they were secretly plotting to overthrow their masters all along. That must have been a shock to the humans when the revolution came, and they learned what the Monoids had really been saying during all those hand-waving conversations. (“Maharis, darling. I thought my Monoid just wanted to swim with giraffes! But that meant: ‘I’ll kill you, you idle bastard’. Who knew? And the ‘jazz hands’ business? That was: ‘But not until after you’ve cooked me some chicken. You total git’.”)

Food proves a key symbol of liberation for the newly dominant Monoids. They are particularly fond of potatoes, chicken thighs and red wine. (Their mouths, it turns out, are in their chests. There’s an ‘om-nom-crunch’ as one takes an apple to its breast. A human servant flinches in dismay, perhaps at the aching bathos of it all.) Now, Doctor Who fans have long chortled at the fact the Monoids keep their prisoners in a ‘Security Kitchen’, but given the creatures’ constant demands for room service, it seems an eminently sensible idea. Keep your troublemakers out of the way while also guaranteeing a supply of fast food. It’s the same gift McDonalds offers our society today.

Between meals, the clever Monoids have invented artificial voice boxes, but sadly failed to embrace the concept of names. This leads The Ark gently towards disaster. Our monsters are given terrible dialogue – like petulant infants plotting mischief in a sandpit – and because their voices are provided by other actors, from off set, it’s all then performed in a weird and unnatural way. “At last. A new planet of our own!” says Monoid One. “Yes, One,” replies Three. “But a word of warning! Four is beginning to question your leadership.” At this point, One puts a comforting hand on Three’s shoulder, then peers round with pantomime exaggeration to check he’s not overheard. “Don’t worry! We can easily get rid of him! As easily as we will get rid of this spaceship once we have left it!” It’s glorious stuff, and will stand as the most entertaining conversation between monsters until Ichtar and Scibus slowly spell out their schemes in Warriors of the Deep.

As One has noted, the Ark has arrived at its destination. It’s a planet referred to in earlier episodes as ‘Refusis Two’, but is now simply ‘Refusis’ – probably to avoid the exchange: “You will descend to Refusis Two, Two!” “Excellent, One!” Upon landfall, we discover the world to be inhabited by friendly invisible beings. These Refusians are solid enough, however, which must cause havoc on public transport.

The Doctor and friends have little impact upon proceedings in the final episode, as the Monoids conveniently blurt out their secrets before slaughtering each other in a kind of civil war. But there’s no ‘good’ Monoids, as such, in this battle, so we have no one to cheer. It’s merely a playground scrap that gets out of hand, until it just… stops. The last Monoid standing looks thoroughly despondent, then lets his gun fall to the floor. You can see he’s thinking: “Oh, what’s the bloody point?” Later, as the Doctor departs the Ark, he expresses his hope for a lasting peace between Monoid and man; for a world without masters or servants, where everyone gets off their backside and hydrates their own chicken. Whether this dream of a Big Society comes true is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the Refusians eat the lot of them. And given how selfish and intolerant both races have been, perhaps it’s no more than they deserve.

Now, this has been an unashamedly flippant review. But not every Doctor Who story can claim to carry some deeper significance, or represent some broader truth about the series as a whole. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is laugh along.

That said, if a lesson is to be learned from The Ark, it’s this: you can have the biggest, boldest idea for a Doctor Who story, and the most hard-working and imaginative director yoked to it – but the final production will only be as good as your dialogue. By part three of The Ark, writer Paul Erickson is clearly busking it, with characters burbling the first thing that’s come into his head. And while part four may have ended up as the series’ most technically complex episode to that point – shot out of order, a patchwork of film and video sequences – the words just aren’t there. However ahead of its time it may be in production terms, it’s still just 25 minutes of gentle nonsense.

With the Refusians invisible and the humans forgettable, The Ark will always be the Monoids’ story. And they save it. If approached in the right spirit, they transcend the ridiculous to become a special case of the sublime.

With a Monoid around, there’s always something to smile about.


DVD Extras

Director Michael Imison and actor Peter Purves (Steven) feature on a commentary sympathetically moderated by Toby Hadoke, who’s in like Flynn with an apt question whenever silence threatens, so the conversation stays focused and fun. Jim Smith’s ‘info text’ subtitles are more fascinating still, and open one’s eyes to the technicalities, the discipline, the essential impossibility of shooting 25 minutes of fantasy drama ‘as live’. Now there’s a thought. Doctor Who, it’s your 50th anniversary very soon… I dare you!

A further interview with Imison forms part of Riverside Stories, a spiffy documentary that takes Purves back to London’s Riverside Studios – home to the later Hartnell stories – to discuss the making of the The Ark in the context of his Doctor Who career and 60s television in general. He’s accompanied and quizzed by cultural historian Matthew Sweet, who also provides a witty and wide-ranging narration, and clearly knows his onions.

All’s Wells That Ends Wells (now that doesn’t work, does it?) takes the The Ark as a stepping off point for a look at how Doctor Who has been influenced by the stories of HG Wells. Quick answer: not by much. Some smart connections are suggested for The Ark, but most of the interviewees here agree with the fundamental truth that, while Wells’ big ideas gave birth to science fiction, Doctor Who has precious little to do with science fiction. If we’re seeking roots for our programme in the 19th century, we should look elsewhere. To this point, Matthew Sweet – speaking from a wing chair in the manner of the Keeper of Traken – suggests Doctor Who is “Wells plus Conan Doyle”. That’s sound enough, but let’s complete that sum another way: Wells + Conan Doyle = Jules Verne.

It’s a long-standing obsession with claiming the Doctor as what cliché calls “a fundamentally English hero” that squeezes Monsieur Verne from the standard list of inspirations, but there’s more of the essential spirit of Doctor Who to be found in his books than anything written by Wells. The Doctor begins his life on screen as Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – the kidnapper, the enigmatic antihero with his impossible ship. He soon softens into Professor Lidenbrock from A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and then Phileas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days. Scientists mostly, gentleman eccentrics certainly, and all are launched upon wild, episodic adventures – dark and funny by turn – that we see through the eyes of the ordinary folk who fall under their spell.

Verne is to Wells as Terry Nation is to David Whitaker, as entertainment is to education. And in the fight for the soul of Doctor Who, the winner of each of those bouts was declared a long time ago. It was at 5.40pm on the evening of 21 December 1963, to be precise. That was when Barbara Wright turned, flattened herself against a wall in terror, and screamed a scream that still echoes down to us today.

2 thoughts on “The Ark”

  1. “But maybe there’s more to Dodo than meets the eye? A young girl with a silly name who conveniently appears at a time of great need for the Doctor… She’s connected to his past in a strange way… She has a mysterious, unseen aunt… She’s difficult to like… Nowadays, we call this ‘Amy Pond’.”

    That is the single best summary of Pond Frog I have ever heard. You, sir, are a king.

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