The second full serial to feature Tom Baker in the lead, the four part storyline Doctor Who: The Ark In Space was originally aired in late January through mid-February in 1975. Directed by Rodney Bennett and written by Robert Holmes, the story begins when the TARDIS materializes inside a large space station. When the doors open, out walk the Doctor (Baker) and his companions, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Sullivan). They explore the facility and before you know it, against the Doctor's orders Harry has pushed a button, a door closes locking Sarah in a room, and she's soon without oxygen. This is fixed quickly enough but they soon realize that the auto-guard programmed to protect the place has a pretty itchy trigger finger.
Once the Doctor and Harry neutralize the defenses they're able to further explore the place and soon realize that they've essentially wandered into an 'ark' chock full of people in suspended animation chambers. Before you know it, Sarah's been put into one of the pods but soon a 'med-tech' named Vira (Wendy Williams) wakes up and explains things to Harry and the Doctor. Also revived early on is the stations leader, Noah (Kenton Moore), who is understandably suspicious as to the space stations newly arrived guests. Unfortunately for all involved, humans are not the only creatures onboard. At some point during its journey the station's integrity was compromised by the presence of some wasp like aliens called the Wirrn. Having had ample time to use the humans' onboard as hosts, there are larvae crawling around the ship causing trouble. When Noah heads into the thick of it to check things out, he becomes a host and soon starts mutating into one of the Wirrn - at which point his personality changes and he starts to use the space station's technology to let the Wirrn take over and eliminate what is left of the human race.
Picking up where the last serial, Robot, left off, The Ark In Space wastes no time getting to the good stuff. There's quite a bit of action here and some solid moments of suspense as well and we can't help but notice how Baker is quickly beginning to make the role his own. Having really only had one proper story prior to flesh out the character to suit his style, it's impressive that even this early on in the fourth Doctor's run his take is distinct and unique and not at all like the three who came before him. There's a slightly unhinged aspect to Baker's work on the series that his predecessors lacked and it's easy to see how and why he'd become, in the eyes of many fans who grew up on his incarnation, the definitive Doctor, or at the very least the actor most instantly recognized for his work on the series. Supporting efforts from the charming Elisabeth Sladen and the amusing Ian Sullivan make for some fun moments, particularly the back and forth that occurs between them and the Doctor which is often the source of this particular storyline's only real humor. Wendy Williams is great as the slightly pretentious medical technician while Kenton Moore does a pretty solid job as the space station leader, Noah (subtle, right? Let's name the guy in charge of the 'ark' Noah!).
As far as the production values go, it's a bit of a mixed bag. The set design is great, with clever use of mirrors used to coyly make the interior of the space station look far bigger than it really is. There's a very clean, sort of 2001 inspired look to the inside of the space station that works well in the serial's favor and the few exterior shots that there are work fine given the age and technology used in the show. The monster effects are a different story, the main problem being that once Kenton Moore's Noah starts turning into the Wirrn, they've obviously just wrapped parts of him in green bubble wrap. Now, the extras explain that bubble wrap was fairly new at the time and not as common as it is now, so maybe this was more effective back then, but by modern standards, yeah, that guy is obviously wrapped in green bubble wrap and that's a little hard to look past. Fans of the series won't likely take issue with this, however, as the show was, at the time at least, always made with a pretty modest effects budget. As to the fully formed Wirrn, they fare a little better, but are still obviously men wobbling around in costume, which explains why we never see them shot from the ankles down.
Overall, however, despite some questionable effects and production values, Ark In Space is a lot of fun. Baker has started to come into his own, the set design is impressive and the storyline is both exciting and enjoyable, even occasionally offering up some minor food for thought. Fans will eat this one up, and it's easy to see all these years later why it remains a very popular entry in the Baker years run.
Doctor Who: The Ark In Space arrives on DVD in its original fullframe aspect ratio. There are moments where the picture is muddy looking and fairly murky and detail is generally below average throughout playback as the transfer is sourced from the master tape - but this is probably as good as it's ever going to get and those accustomed to other releases of Who material from the same era will more or less know what to expect. It's all watchable enough and scenes shot inside tend to look cleaner and clearer than those shot outdoors (probably due to better lighting and the fact that in this particular series a lot of the outdoor shots use miniatures and effects work), but this isn't really a great transfer even if it's obvious that the powers that be have done their best with the material that they had available. The disc is well authored in that there are no problems with compression artifacts and as soft as it all is, at least it's clean in that there aren't any nasty issues with print damage. Again, for what it is, this looks fine and those accustomed to earlier DVD releases from this era of the show will know what to expect and have no problems - but those expecting pristine quality will be disappointed.
The sole audio option on this release is an English language Dolby Digital Mono track that comes with optional subtitles available in English only. The quality of the track is fine in that it's always easy to understand and there are no problems to report in terms of hiss or distortion. There isn't a whole lot of range - this is an older mono mix after all - but the levels are well balanced and the feature sounds just fine.
Extras start off with a commentary track that comes courtesy of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and actors Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. It's a lively look back at the making of this storyline, an early one in Baker's run and one in which the actor has much to discuss. This is an older track, recorded for the original release ten years ago, so Baker isn't exactly at his warmest here, he's a bit persnickety at times, but his memory is pretty sharp. They talk about the effects, the character development and the sets as well as some of the challenges that arose during the production and some of the changes that the story went through. It's a fine talk that covers what you would expect are all the major bases here.
Up next is a thirty minute minute retrospective featurette entitled A New Frontier which lets Hincliffe discuss how when he came onboard as producer how he intended to take the show in more interesting directions than it had been in the past. They also discuss the bubble wrap monsters with input from director Rodney Bennett, designer Roger Murray-Leach and actor Kenton Moore, also noting what was done to make the sets look bigger than they were. Actress Wendy Williams also pops up here to talk about her character and how in retrospect she played it very holier than though style. A very interesting and well put together look back at the making of this particular four part series and quit an enjoyable watch.
Roger Murray-Leach flies solo for a ten minute look back at his work on this storyline and a few others. He starts off by stating outright that he does not want to talk about Blake's 7 before going on to share some fun stories about what he did to create various bit and pieces of the Doctor Who universe. Much of the focus is on dealing with the budgetary restraints that were always an issue on the show but he also shares some interesting memories of befriending Tom Baker and a few other fun anecdotes. This is complimented nicely by a quick Model And CGI Effects Footage which is nine minutes or so.
Doctor Forever! Love & War is the first of five mini documentaries that examine the Doctor Who universe outside of the TV shows. Here we spend twenty-seven minutes or so strolling through the novelizations that Virgin Publishing was pumping out during the nineties, the time when the series was off the air. It's an interesting piece that sheds some light on an aspect of the series that doesn't really get talked about or discussed as much as the TV series does but which still manages to do some interesting things with the characters. Scene Around Six is some footage that was shot of Baker on a trip to Ireland where he's basically mobbed by fans as he makes the rounds and does different media appearances. It's fun to see him pop up at a school to see some obviously very amused kids and serves as a reminder of just how popular the series was in the UK when Baker was in the role. Also worth checking out is some 8mm Location Footage that Baker shot on the set of Robot. It's short and shot without sound but presented in color and interesting enough to see even if it's only a quick minute in length.
This set also includes the seventy minute TV Movie Version that was shown in 1975. It tights up the pacing a little bit here and there but mostly tells the same story - interesting for completists but you'll probably want to opt for the full version when you watch the story. Rounding out the extras is another one of the really interesting text based Production Notes subtitle stream, a one minute clip of 3D Technical Schematics, a seven minute long still gallery of production and promotional photographs, a one minute trailer for The Ark In Space, an Alternate Title Sequence, a one minute Tardis Cam quickie, PDF materials made up of various radio listings and promotional materials, animated menus and chapter selection.
Doctor Who: The Ark In Space is pretty great stuff. The story is interesting and well told and it moves at a fast pace, making it easy to overlook the fact that the effects budget was obviously on the low side. There's a lot of creativity on display here and Baker does some great things with the character, always a plus. The BBC's presentation looks about as good as it realistically can given the format that it was shot on and the two disc set is loaded with extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.