Sunday, 24 February 2013

Doctor Who: The Ark in Space – Special Edition – DVD review

RRP: £20.42
Released by: BBC Worldwide
Release date: 25 February 2013

"When I say I'm afraid, Sarah, I'm not making jokes"

It is each Doctor’s second story which really gives us our first fully reliable look at the series’ new lead. The first adventure for each incarnation usually sees the Doctor in a state of confusion and disarray, whereas by the second, things have settled down and we can see what we can expect for the stories to come. In this sense, then, The Ark in Space is where we properly meet Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. Originally released on DVD in 2002, this Special Edition re-release adds an extra disc of content and improves upon the audio/visual quality of the episodes.

After a unique title sequence – experimentally filtered into shades of green and brown for Part One only – the beginning of the story is delightfully retro. Dudley Simpson’s music is far more electronic than I remembered, and it really does contribute to the atmosphere. The video-based model shots of the eponymous Ark don’t look anywhere near as good as their film counterparts, but they certainly have a charm to them. Just as any good Doctor Who story should, The Ark in Space sets up a mystery, as an alien point-of-view shot closes in on a doomed, motionless man. In a sequence which seems as though it’s just longing to come before the title sequence, we fade to black as the Ark drifts through space in the Earth’s orbit. And then...

Our new TARDIS team arrives in the darkness. There’s instantly a rapport between them (even though this is only the second outing for Tom Baker and also Ian Marter as Harry Sullivan), with some great exchanges of dialogue throughout this story. One of the best has to be the Doctor’s line “Well there are only two of us here and your name is Harry.” The first episode of the story is probably the best, because no-one other than the regular cast has a speaking role, allowing us to really focus in on this new dynamic between the time travellers. The opening instalment has it all: transmats, a deadly electronic auto-guard, our introduction to an amazing concept which lies at the heart of this story, and something nasty waiting in the cupboard.

The Ark in Space is among my favourite Doctor Who stories. The basic premise is that the last humans have escaped from a dying Earth and put themselves into suspended animation on the Ark, which is orbiting the planet. But something else has arrived there while the humans slept. Conceptually, it’s a wonderful story. Sadly though, the realisation of the fully grown Wirrn isn’t brilliant. It’s usually clear that they aren’t blessed with many joints, because they don't move very well at all. I expect the concept drawings looked wonderful, but there are two things the Wirrn seriously needed here.

First and foremost is more articulation. I can’t help but wonder if they might have been more effective as creatures which primarily crawl around rather than stand vertically (the young, developing Wirrn certainly do this a lot), but what we have is quite obvious as someone shuffling around inside a fibreglass shell. The second thing is more sympathetic studio lighting. The Wirrn certainly work better in the darkened solar stack set, and while the flat, sterile lighting of most of the Ark was a deliberate creative decision, it doesn’t do the Wirrn any favours at all. Whenever this story comes up in conversation, it doesn’t take long for the two words “bubble” and “wrap” to appear in hot pursuit. It’s easy to laugh at the heavy use of the now-commonplace packing material in the creation of the “grubs”, but back in 1975 it was a far less familiar material, and probably appeared more effective on-screen as a result. But quite frankly, I don’t really care about the shortcomings of the various forms of Wirrn. The story is just so good, with such strong performances. A bit of suspension of disbelief is all that’s really needed here.

Tom Baker delivers an electric performance in only his second outing, nailing the role of the Doctor. With a perfect blend of eccentricity and power, Baker really does hit the ground running. The Doctor greets danger with a wide grin and look of wild excitement, he takes a gravity reading with a yo-yo, and he isn’t concerned about a lack of oxygen. All of this considered, this new Doctor is almost scary. But beneath it all is exactly the same man, and there are two points in this story which really stand out to me. One is when the Doctor seems to make a callous remark about a deceased man, and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) tells him not to make jokes. The Doctor’s reply sees a fantastic flip from dark humour to a totally serious tone from Baker. The other is quite possibly the best scene in the story, in which Baker delivers a speech about the wonder of mankind, surrounded by the entire human species in cryogenic suspension. It’s an utterly captivating moment, and one which defines Baker’s era on the programme.

Unlike Baker and Marter, Sladen had been in the show for around a year by the time of The Ark in Space, but the major change in the other two thirds of the principal cast provides an opportunity to examine how the character of Sarah Jane Smith changes. There is a notable scene later in the story where the Doctor seemingly mocks and taunts Sarah Jane, because she is struggling to complete her vital task. Needless to say, things aren’t what they seem, but Sarah Jane’s initial reaction (and how Sladen plays it) is fascinating – it really does make it clear that from the character’s perspective, everything has changed. The man she thought she knew has transformed, and is now outwardly a new person. Perhaps the audience at the time would have been having a similar experience. These days, with our ability to dip in and out of any DVD of any story at any time, it’s easy for a whole layer of some stories to effectively be rendered invisible, but this scene in particular helps to remind us of the original context of this story, and that Doctor Who was undergoing a major regeneration of its own. The relatively new partnership of Baker and Sladen would go on to become one of the most definitive in Doctor Who’s history.

In the grand scheme of things, Marter wasn’t in the series for that long (he first appeared in the story before this, and his regular appearances on the show ceased after the first story of the following season), but he’s certainly entertaining. The bizarre thing is that on paper, Harry Sullivan is arrogant, sexist and generally quite foolish and limited. But Marter imbues the character with energy and charm, and the result is that the character on-screen is a lot more likeable than the script alone suggests. There is a spark between Marter and the other regulars, and this sense of a firm team continues all the way through the stories in which the trio appear together. The Doctor seems to take delight in ribbing Harry – “Your mind is beginning to work! It’s entirely due to my influence of course, you mustn’t take any credit” – and this is a habit which continues at various points throughout this season, with another instance in the finale, Revenge of the Cybermen.

Wendy Williams turns in a strong performance as Vira (the first guest character we see in the story, who turns up in Part Two). Williams appears to have a knack for delivering total technobabble with complete conviction, and this plays a major part in wrapping the viewer up in the drama of the situation. I didn’t even consciously think about how meaningless some of her terminology is until the commentary participants alerted me to it. As Rogin, Richardson Morgan adds a slightly comic touch to the proceedings. One of my favourite moments in the story is Rogin’s reaction to the Doctor’s idea of how to exploit an overlooked aspect of the Ark’s transmat system. The brilliant thing about Morgan’s performance is that while there are brief moments of comedy, they still completely fit in with the surrounding story – he makes Rogin’s dialogue seem entirely natural rather than forced.

But it is Kenton Moore who gives the standout guest performance, bringing the character of Noah to life wonderfully. There is a famous deleted scene (which sadly isn’t known to survive anymore) in which Noah begs the Doctor and Vira to kill him; producer Philip Hinchcliffe felt that while the scene as scripted was fine, Moore brought such a dark intensity to it that it was too strong for Doctor Who. The scene was edited down significantly, and only the first section of Noah’s dialogue is included before a cut which doesn’t quite blend in from a continuity perspective, but it was the best that could be done. The surviving part of the scene, though, sees Moore giving a very sinister performance, and a tantalising hint at what the excised material may have been like.


Ported over from the original 2002 DVD is a commentary by Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Philip Hinchcliffe. As most new commentaries these days are moderated affairs, this one feels quite different from what we are now more used to. But that said, although it is eleven years old, this commentary stands up very well – it maintains reasonable focus throughout, although as you’d expect from a commentary starring Baker, it does periodically drift off into anecdotes and stories about the other actors. Hinchcliffe’s recollections about the early days of Baker’s era are fascinating, as is his discussion of the reasoning behind cutting down the aforementioned scene with Noah. It’s lovely to revisit a commentary featuring the late Sladen, whose recollections and exchanges with Baker are enjoyable to listen to. It’s a shame that Sladen ceased her participation in the DVD commentaries later on, but that makes her presence on this one even more valuable.

Chris Chapman’s latest making-of feature is A New Frontier, new to this Special Edition DVD. Although Hinchcliffe’s contribution repeats some of what he says on the commentary, it is still insightful (particularly when he talks about the scripts that were being developed prior to Robert Holmes getting the writing gig), and there are plenty of people here who aren’t otherwise featured on the disc. Rodney Bennett discusses how directing The Ark in Space differed from his other work, and what his attitude was to how adult the show should be. To have both the producer and director in this documentary means that the behind-the-camera elements of the production are extremely well-covered. Wendy Williams reflects on her role as the “bloody superior” Vira, and it is immediately obvious that she put a great deal of thought into how to portray the character. The same is true of Kenton Moore, who had originally planned out his performance in a manner which relied upon effects more advanced than the bubble wrap which was ultimately used. The events which led up to The Ark in Space as it ultimately turned out (especially the plan to use a writer who hadn’t written for the series since William Hartnell’s era) are fascinating, and so is the production of the story itself, with the programme starting to explore a new direction. A New Frontier is a very comprehensive account of all this, and it really does feel as though it covers everything which could possibly have been covered. The standard of the DVD range’s making-of features is still sky-high.

As well as the transmitted four-part version of the story, a movie version is included as an extra. Originally broadcast in 1975, this omnibus edit merges all four episodes into one long feature which is seventy minutes in length. I watched the whole thing in order to review it here, but never again. There isn’t much point in watching a version of the story with around half an hour of material missing when the whole thing is available. The omnibus even excises the Doctor’s superb “homo sapiens” speech, which ought to be a criminal offence. As a curiosity and document of history, though, its inclusion is worthwhile – after all, this was broadcast in the seventies, so there’s ultimately no harm in releasing the occasional example of these contemporary omnibus compilations (there’s also one on the Planet of the Spiders DVD). But aside from this, I can only describe the movie version as terrible.

This DVD includes the first instalment of a new documentary series from James Goss. Dr Forever! – Love and War looks at the Doctor Who novels produced by BBC Books and Virgin during the ‘wilderness years’ of 1989-2005 – and it is, I have to say, brilliant. It includes Russell T Davies, Doctor Who’s executive producer and head writer from 2005-2010 and writer of fiction for The New Adventures book range, writers Paul Cornell, Gary Russell and Mark Gatiss, and a whole host of people who were involved with the books at some point. In retrospect, the most striking thing about this period is that although Doctor Who was off-air, it was about as far from dead as you could get, and this was due in no small part to the new fiction and adaptations of television stories provided by the book ranges. What’s also interesting is how many different avenues the books explored; some of them were very adult in nature (with strong language and sex) which was totally different to the television series. No matter what your opinion is about this, it can’t be denied that the makers of the books were very brave in this respect, and as Davies says, it would never happen today. I didn’t know much about the books from this time before I watched this, and it was still hugely interesting and enjoyable to watch, so I imagine that someone who’s much more into the books will utterly adore it. The only negative thing I have to say is that the linking sections from presenter Ayesha Antoine are bizarre. They are very brief, so I have to wonder if it was really necessary for an in-vision presenter at all. This isn’t helped by the fact that Antoine herself isn’t great. Many of the links feel awkward, especially when Antoine states the question that was put to the interviewees at the beginning of each section of the documentary – these parts feel rushed and unnecessary. But this aside, Dr Forever! – Love and War is one of the best documentaries ever to come out of the classic DVD range.

Two sets of contemporary film footage are included. Neither of them have any specific connection to The Ark in Space, but are included as a ‘mopping up exercise’ in a similar fashion to last year’s Vengeance on Varos Special Edition. Footage from Scene Around Six sees Tom Baker visiting Northern Ireland, and there is also some 8mm location footage from the location recording of Baker’s debut story Robot. I found the latter considerably more interesting, but the Northern Ireland news footage is nevertheless fun to watch.

This DVD features optional CGI effects. These are almost the same as on the 2002 release, although they have been re-graded. CGI is always improving, so I went into this expecting the sequences to show their age. But with the exception of an explosion towards the end (although the original effect looks weird anyway), they stand up quite well. In fact, they are rather beautiful. The Ark itself is gloriously rendered, and while I usually prefer to watch a story with its original effects rather than CGI replacements, this is one case where the newer effects are so good that I might actually be tempted to watch them again. (Possibly.) Earlier DVDs in the range which included CGI effects had an option to watch them in isolation rather than sitting through the whole story just to see them, and while this was dropped later on to free up the disc space for other things, the option is still on this Special Edition as per the original DVD.

A BBC trailer for the story’s original 1975 transmission is included. There’s not really much to say about it, other than that it reminded me how much I miss the (formerly semi-regular) trailer/continuity compilations, which seem to have vanished from the DVDs. Another item taken from the 2002 DVD is an interview with designer Roger Murray-Leach, which covers all of his work on Doctor Who. It’s very enjoyable and comprehensive, looking at the challenges he had to face and the innovations in some of his set designs as a result. He comes across as a very interesting and amusing man to talk to – his parting comment is brilliantly funny.

An alternative title sequence appears, but it is quite similar to the finished one – the biggest difference is a couple of silent shots at the beginning. This version of the sequence borrows more elements from that used during Jon Pertwee’s final season. A reel of model footage comprehensively uses many different takes of each shot. This does mean that it becomes quite repetitive, but there are some interesting moments and shots in there.

The 3D Technical Schematics from the original DVD are an interesting idea, but one which doesn’t really work here. The captions that appear on-screen to describe the fictional components of the Ark don’t stay on screen for long enough, and having this as a standalone menu item is a bit strange. Perhaps this feature would have worked better mixed in with the CGI effects compilation, although the problem of the captions being too brief would have remained. As always, a new Photo Gallery by Paul Shields shows a wide variety of production photos. Originally produced in 2002 for the BBC website, TARDIS-Cam No. 1 was part of a series of brief effects sequences to demonstrate what modern Doctor Who could look like. This is one of the most impressive ones – a very filmic and impressive scene showing the TARDIS on a barren and deserted quarry planet, with the head of an eighties Cyberman on the ground nearby.

This DVD’s Production Information Subtitles are written by Martin Wiggins, and cover an impossibly vast range of information: the very strange individual episode titles of the original John Lucarotti script, what other shows were recording at BBC Television Centre on the days that the four episodes of The Ark in Space went before the cameras, the intricate details of the set designs, and how Holmes’ original visions sometimes differed from what ended up on-screen.

Every classic Doctor Who DVD in recent history has included a PDF of that story’s Radio Times listings (although the original DVD of this story was one of those which didn’t, funnily enough), but on this Special Edition, three additional PDF files can be found, two of them with explanatory introductions by Richard Bignell. In 1975, Nestlé updated the wrappers of their Doctor Who chocolate bars (yes, Doctor Who chocolate bars! Why are these not made any more?) to feature six biographies of major characters, and these are reproduced here. In 1977, Crosse & Blackwell ran a Doctor Who promotion on their cans of baked beans, which enabled people to receive, among other things, an exclusive TARDIS-shaped Doctor Who colouring book. Scans of the promotional materials and the colouring book itself are included here. Finally, 1983’s The Doctor Who Technical Manual is included in its entirety, with information about many different Doctor Who creations such as the Daleks, Cybermen, K-1 Robot, Servo Robot and Davros. It’s great to see all these things pop up on this release, especially the Technical Manual – it was a pleasant surprise to see it included, some years after the Doctor Who Annuals ceased to be included on the DVDs.

Three Easter Eggs can be found somewhere on this release. Two of them relate to a seventies Doctor Who event, and the third will appeal to anyone with a particular interest in how television used to be made.

The Coming Soon trailer by Gareth Randall is for the next Doctor Who DVD release, The Aztecs Special Edition starring William Hartnell. That story has always been another favourite of mine, so I look forward to writing about it. However, the trailer does not feature any footage or mention of Air Lock, the third episode of Galaxy 4 (discovered in 2011), which is to be a part of that release. Perhaps the trailer was made before the decision was taken to include Air Lock.

(It should be noted that this release does not include the Tom Baker interview that appeared on the 2002 DVD, as that is now more appropriately located on the Revenge of the Cybermen DVD.)


As far as the audio goes, everything’s fine. Dialogue is clear, as are the music and effects.

The video also looks splendid, and has benefited from improvements in DVD encoding and restoration technology and technique since the 2002 DVD release. This time around, the episodes have been put through a device called the Transform PAL Decoder, which removes cross-colour artefacts from the picture. Besides that, the video looks generally crisper and more vivid than the original DVD, with less MPEG-2 compression artefacts. To see how the episodes looked prior to any restoration whatsoever, look at the grainier unrestored omnibus edit.


As the list of Tom Baker stories to be released on DVD is nearly exhausted (only Terror of the Zygons now remains, and that’s due to be released later this year), The Ark in Space Special Edition provides an opportunity not only to improve the quality of the story and add much-needed new extras, but also to include some other archive items which don’t necessarily relate to the story itself, but are part of the history of the series and need a home somewhere. The story is a classic of its era, and now has the full set of special features that it deserves. It marks the true beginning of Baker’s time as the Doctor, and you get the feeling from the end of the story that it doesn’t just lead into The Sontaran Experiment, but also to everything. One of the most popular and well-remembered periods in the programme’s history started here, and it promised to be fun.

8 OUT OF 10

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