13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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THE ARK IN SPACE
"Hundreds of lives at stake and you lie there blubbing!"
Start as you mean to go on, they say, and that's just what Philip Hinchcliffe does. Could this be any more different from Robot? Gone is the cosy UNIT family and the comfy Earth setting. Instead, we're in a world whose sterile whiteness makes a striking contrast to the dark horror of its themes. Cool.
And it's not just Philip Hinchcliffe. Tom Baker made quite the impact in Robot, but here, shorn of the Pertwee trappings, he's even better. All that Fourth Doctory stuff is there: the surface jocularity covering a deep seriousness of purpose, the concern for life, the joy in humans. And the alienness. He might like humans, but you couldn't by the furthest stretch of the imagination ever think he is one. And thank God, we say. Much as we like the Third Doctor, he veers a bit too much towards the human, and it's great to be reminded that he comes from Gallifrey, not Godalming.
Ark In Space's script's a good 'un, but it's not necessarily one you'd automatically pick as a Robert Holmes. It's mostly missing the Holmesian dialogue flourishes, although the odd one ("a witty little knitter", "and Harry's only qualified to work on sailors") does sneak through. Nevertheless, it's sharply written, with a powerful sense of menace and some very effective ticking clocks. It's also very economical - there's very little that's in there for no reason, and stuff we see once, like the automatic guard system, comes back again later to give the thing a nice sense of unity.
It's a very involving story. It's the second time we've seen the ark concept, but it's different enough here from the Hartnell version and it succeeds beautifully. The Wirrn, too, are a memorably scary species who are a cut above the usual evil for evil's sake villain. There's a bloody good reason for what they're doing, and this strengthens the story a lot. The bubble-wrap-a-go-go execution leaves something to be desired, of course, but nevertheless the early shots of the barely-glimpsed Wirrn slithering out of sight gave us the creeps then and they still do.
As with The Curse of Peladon, Ark In Space is a budget-driven show which ends up gaining from its studio-only location. The claustrophobia of the setting heightens the tension, and they make good use of the very pretty walkway with CSO starfields. (It's a shame it doesn't match the view of the beacon from the outside, but you can't have everything.) And the stasis room's a total knockout that sets the tone for the entire story.
As for the characterisation, the guest roles are a wee bit dull, but mostly serviceable. Rogin's probably the most interesting: we like his line about the matter transporter setting his teeth on edge and his joke about the union, delivered just before barbecuing himself. Sarah's feebler than we like to see her, but she does have her heroic duct-crawling moment, which makes up for a lot: the Doctor's rubbishing of her and her realisation she's been conned is one of the nicest scenes in all of Who. Harry's at his most irritating as far as we're concerned, what with the silly-ass stuff and the going round flicking strange switches, not to mention the line about "a member of the fair sex" that makes us want to smash his face in.
Good story, good looks, great Doctor. It's a great start to the golden years.
DVD: A serious winner. If there's a story that deserves the format's crystal clarity, it's this one. The sets look even more stunning. As for the extras, they're on the whole very cool indeed. The commentary by Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Philip Hinchcliffe's invariably entertaining and sporadically enlightening, and watch out for the spooky moment when someone on screen calls out to the Doctor and Tom responds "Hello?" from the commentary booth. He's baaaack! There's also a fascinating contribution from designer Roger Murray-Leach and a fun interview with Tom at Wookey Hole where he's effortlessly taking the piss out of the journalist. The new CGI model shots, too, are breathtakingly pretty and made us drool at the thought of what Doctor Who would look like if it were made again today. The rest of the assorted spoo's vaguely interesting too, with the dishonourable exception of a sequence of model shots that made us beg for death. Overall, though, it's pure class.
MORAL: Beware of gatecrashers.
Holmes unforgivably twice uses the hoary old "not now, Sarah" bit in this. Twice!
Interesting that while the Doctor spends the beginning of the story ripping strips off Harry for interfering with the TARDIS controls, he then says "I got us into this, Harry". Well, only by not tying Harry to the hatstand, Doctor.
THE PERILS OF SARAH JANE
When you haven't seen it before, Sarah disappearing off the matter transmitter's a genuine jaw-dropping moment. Nice. And her potential fate, marooned there for thousands of years, is horrible. (Although the Doctor and Harry seem awfully quick to conclude they can't help her, don't they?)
BUT IT'S SPECIAL FUTURISTIC MICROFILM
The idea of people in the thirtieth century still using microfilm seems like a bit of a failure of the imagination. Same with all those switches.
I WAS FRAMED
That's a very nice shot when the door opens and we see the Doctor and Harry from a distance before they walk into the stasis room for the first time - it really makes the most of the reveal.
NO RUNNING IN REQUIRED
The Doctor's speech about the indomitability of humankind is a tough one to deliver without sounding like a twit, but Tom does it perfectly. And his "my dear man" speech to Noah is so utterly Doctory, too, as is his insouciant attitude to hooking his brain up to the dead Wirrn. Bravo.