If there is one idea science fiction has taught us, it is that huge colony ships crewed by generations of humans are generally a bad idea, prone to all kinds of sociological weirdness. Or in the case of this story, employing an another alien race as your servant class is bound to come back to bite you.
Earth is about to fall into the Sun, so the survivors of the human race have set out in a gigantic colony ship to live on the planet Refusis II. Alongside them for the journey are an alien race called the Monoids, who appear to be happy to work as humanity’s servants. When the Doctor (William Hartnell), Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) arrive, they accidentally infect the crew with the common cold, a virus that future humanity no longer has any immunity to. Soon it looks as if the whole population will be wiped out. Whilst the Doctor races to find an antidote, he is unaware that his presence will shortly have even more significant and unforeseen effect on the future of the human race.
The Ark is a unique story within the history of the programme, with a twist that must have been a real shock back in 1966. It uses the time travel element of the show in a way that few other stories have, at least until Steven Moffat took over as showrunner. For once it addresses the consequences of the Doctor’s travels and encounters with strange new worlds. Unfortunately aside from that concept, this is a story I enjoyed more for its unintentional humour than its dramatic qualities. A lot of the comedy comes from the monster of the month – the Monoids. They resemble a man sized lizard with a Beatles mop top and a single eyeball in its mouth. Its initial appearance is striking but as soon as they start waddling about it is hard to take them seriously. They’re just as funny when they learn to speak and have a charming way of discussing their evil plans out loud, then being surprised when humans hear them. Their leader, simply known as Number One, comes out with one of the show’s most infamous lines, “Take them to the Security Kitchen!”
The humans aren’t much better in their skimpy togas and wooden acting. Of special note is their Commander (Eric Elliot) who delivers every line with a fruity Shakespearian flourish and has more than a passing resemblance to the ineffectual commander of the B-Ark in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The pace is slow too, even by the standards of the time. Once or twice the cast just literally stands there waiting whilst what looks like an airport truck rolls in slowly and parks.
According to Peter Purves who played Steven, Hartnell was becoming increasingly difficult to work with as a long term illness began to affect his memory. There’s the odd stumble in his lines but generally for the viewer he is still the Doctor on good form, sometimes imperious and other times quite twinkly. Peter Purves himself is great. Steven is an underrated companion in the series, bringing a welcome energy to the series with a character who was headstrong and principled. This is a good story for him, where he gets to be heroic and take charge in the Doctor’s absence. Meanwhile this was the first full story for Dodo (Jackie Lane) after having arrived at the end of the last story when she mistook the TARDIS for a real police box. She’s quite likeable and makes a good team with Steven, with a pronounced Northern accent, one that swiftly fades over the course of the four weeks it took to make this story. It’s a shame that most of her stories have been junked.
Despite seeing the flaws I do admire the ambition of the serial, creating a vast spaceship with a jungle inside it, the surface of an alien planet, massive statues and shuttlecraft flying through space, all created in a small studio on a budget that wouldn’t pay for one set in the current series.
As is often the way with Hartnell stories, sadly most of the key players are no longer with us to be interviewed. However Peter Purves who played the companion Steven and director Michael Imison are very much alive and join stand-up comedian and fan Toby Hadoke for an affectionate but honest commentary. There are three major DVD extras: “All’s Wells That Ends Wells” is a documentary on H G Wells’ influence on Doctor Who. It’s a nice little piece, although the links with “The Ark” are tenuous. “One Hit Wonder” is a light-hearted feature that celebrates the Monoids and asks why some monsters only appear once in the programme. “Riverside Story” is partially a reminisce about how television drama was made at the BBC’s Riverside studios and also a look at the making of “The Ark”. All three of these features are ably presented by cultural historian Matthew Sweet. In addition there are the essential photo gallery, info text and Radio Times PDF files.
I did enjoy this story but as a fan who loves the series including its foibles. A more casual viewer might be less forgiving. So this is a DVD for the fans of Sixties Doctor Who.
Photo copyright Radio Times