A story from the first Doctor's tenure, The Ark is a four-part adventure that has it all: The Earth dies, there's a deadly plague, cruel aliens, space ships, time travel, heat rays, a fusion bomb, a giant statue, invisible beings of pure energy and even a real live elephant. Given all of that, it's a little surprising that this story isn't a fan favorite, but it is generally ill regarded due to a rather silly main monster and some clunky dialog and scripting. Even so, this DVD release may breathe new life into the old tale, which generally has more things working in its favor than against it.
The TARDIS lands in a jungle area and the newest occupant, a young girl named Dodo (Jackie Lane) steps out, not really believing that the vehicle has traveled through time or space. She and Steven (Peter Purves) look around and find an amazing variety of flora and fauna, including an Indian elephant. When The Doctor (William Hartnel) joins them he notices that there is no sky, just a metal ceiling, and quickly deduces that they're on a space craft. He's right, of course, and the trio are soon discovered by the occupants of the ship, the last surviving humans, who call themselves the Guardians, and an alien race, the Monoids, so named for the singly eye that they have in the center of their skull. The Monoids gave humans the technology to build a craft capable of spanning the great empty spaces between stars, but are now they are subjugated by the humans, being little more than servants who perform the manual labor that the ship needs to continue on its journey.
The Guardians and their Monoid servants are transporting the entire human race, shrunk down to microscopic size and in suspended animation, to a new world, Refusis II, since the Earth is going to soon be destroyed when the Sun turns into a Red Giant.
Needless to say the Guardians are suspicious of The Doctor and his companions and when a cold that Dodo has spread to the Monoids and the Guardians, things go from bad to worse. The Guardians have not had a disease in centuries, and the lack of a natural immune system makes them easy prey for the illness. The Doctor is sure he can sure everyone, humans and Monoids, given a bit of time and access to a lab, but instead they lock him, Steven, and Dodo up and put them on trial.
After the Doctor comes up with a cure, he and his companions leave the ark, only to have the TARDIS rematierialize in the same spot, but a few hundred years later. Now the ship is near Refusis II, but something has happened in the intervening centuries and now the Monoids are in control. They now use the humans as slave labor, and when they get to their destination they plan on killing all of the Guardians and taking Refusis II for their own.
The first half of this adventure is a bit slow... it's talky, with a lot of time taken up by the trial and various members of the Guardians arguing about whether or not they should trust The Doctor and his companions. Starting with the cliffhanger to episode tow however, the show shifts into gear and becomes quickly interesting. The revolt against the Monoids is done well, with Steven getting to play his tough guy role and the Doctor is put to good use figuring out just what is happening down on the surface of Refusis II.
One of the reasons that this particular tale is often scorned by fans is because of the monster of the week, the Monoids. The idea was actually quite clever, a humanoid race that looks very different because of a single large eye in the center of their faces. The effect was achieved by simply putting a ping pong ball in the mouths of the Monoid actors, and covering their real eyes with a wig featuring long front bangs. The result is actually not too bad, though the early Beatles haircuts look a little ridiculous, the creatures do look sufficiently alien in nature. Much better than a lot of Who monsters over the years.
The writers freely admit that they were trying to come up with another hit monster like The Daleks (wasn't everyone who wrote for Doctor Who in the 60's and 70's?) but the creatures themselves had no personalities. They couldn't talk since their mouths had ping pong balls in them so they used a ridiculous sign language in the first half and electronic voices (ala the Daleks) in the second. They also melted into the background in the beginning episodes, but once they had their moment in the sun in the story's later half they weren't menacing at all. When one of them attempts to destroy a house they find on the surface of the planet, his most destructive act is to pick up a bouquet of flowers out of a vase and throw them to the ground. Not really the sort thing that leads to young kids hiding behind the couch.
Still, even with the talky first half and the meek villains in the second, this is a fun adventure that has some good moments, and manages to give The Doctor and each of his companions the spotlight for a time over these four episodes.
This show comes with the original mono soundtrack that fits the show just fine. The dynamic range is nothing to write home about, but the dialog is generally crisp and clear and there is no background noise, tape hiss, distortion or dropouts. There are optional subtitles in English.
The full frame B&W image is very good, impressive even. The Restoration Team did their usual fine job and these stories, really making the most of what they had to work with (which wasn't a lot.) The image is nicely balanced and the definition and level of detail is very good. The contrast has been adjusted too to create a very pleasing image.
This disc has some great extras included, as is the standard for Doctor Who releases. There is a commentary track for all of the episodes with Peter Purves (Steven) and director Michael Imison, along with Who critic/fan/moderator Toby Hadoke. Like most of the Doctor Who commentary tracks for these early episodes, the memories have faded a little, but there's still a lot of interesting information about the filming of the story.
Other featurettes include All's Wells that Ends Wells (13 minutes) a look at the connections between the works of writer H. G. Wells and Doctor Who. Ya see, Wells wrote a book, The Time Machine, and The Doctor travels in a time machine! Wells wrote SF books that sometimes had strange creatures in them and Doctor Who is a SF show that sometimes has strange creatures too! Okay, this is a bit of a stretch. Besides those tenuous threads, there's no real evidence that Doctor Who was inspired by the works of Wells, anymore than any other SF show, but they've had a lot of featurettes on these discs and they're running out of things to discuss. Riverside Story (20 minutes) is a short tour of the studio where the last seasons of the Hartnel era were filmed, and One Hit Wonder (4 minutes) discusses why the Monoids were never seen again.
In addition there is a pop-up informational text option which is very informative as always. It does give some dry statistics, like how many people viewed each episode, but there are also some interesting notes such as script changes that were made and background information on the supporting characters. The extras are rounded off with, a couple of photo galleries, and the listings from the Radio Times in .pdf format.
A solid adventure that has the first Doctor and his companions saving the human race not once, but twice. (Okay, so they did cause the event the put the humans in jeapordy the first time, but still...) With an alien race that has a lot going for it, but still manages to come across as hokey, and some nice action scenes, this adventure is much better than the fan reaction would lead you to believe. Recommended.