Thursday, 17 February 2011

DVD Review: Dr Who - The Ark

"It looks like some sort of kitchen!"

Let's face it, a lot of 1960s 'Dr Who' is pretty heavy-going these days. I mean, no-one who's sat through every turgid, laboured episode of 'The Web Planet' is going to reach for the DVD if they fancy a fun night with the Doctor and his chums and I honestly can't imagine anyone sitting through 'The Space Museum' or 'The Dominators' more than once. It's not that it's bad it's just that much of it is horribly routine and formulaic and achingly 'of its time' and plain difficult to sit through. But as 'Dr Who' fans we love it, of course; we love the fact we've seen it even if it's a bit naff by today's standards. There's genuinely classic stuff out there too (and a lot more classic stuff which remains missing from the BBC Archive); 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth' remains an exciting romp and 'The War Machines' is a very clear template for what the show would become in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Stories like this month's BBC DVD release 'The Ark' fall somewhere in the middle of the essential/unwatchable divide; it's the sort of story which, in many ways, forms the bedrock of the show's reputation, being a story full of big, bold ideas way out of reach of a tiny 1960s TV budget but what the hell, they went and did it anyway.

The TARDIS travels, uncharacteristically for this time in the show's history, millions of years into the future when the human race has abandoned the dying Earth and set off in a giant space ark (never shown on screen) and heads for the planet Refusis II, a journey which will take hundreds of years. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and the puppy-dog excitable Steven (Peter Purves) and gratingly-fashionable "fab gear" Dodo (Jackie Lane) meet the human custodians of the miniaturised population of Earth and their 'slaves', the one-eyed Monoids with their reptilian skin and Beatles haircuts. Fab gear indeed... But silly Dodo's got a cold and the human race of the future has long since lost its resistance to such mundane infections and before long humans and Monoids are fevering up and dropping like flies. The Doctor, being a top scientist, fashions a cure and at the end of episode two the travellers return to the TARDIS and move on...only to reappear seconds later but hundreds of years into the future. They quickly discover that the tables have turned and Man is now the slave to the Monoids. Yikes!

A giant spaceship, exotic animals live on set, huge statues, one-eyed aliens, gun battles, space capsules bobbing along towards an alien planet, the Earth dying in a ball of flame, invisible aliens...'The Ark' is nothing if not ambitious and it's this ambition, visually at least, which marks a frankly rather mundane story out from other rather less salubrious space opera efforts of the era. Director Michael Imison, keen to hang on to his contract as an in-house BBC Director, threw everything but the (security) kitchen sink at 'The Ark' and the story is full of interesting visual flourishes and a real sense of scale which occasionally manages to belie the pocket money budget. Determined to impress the BBC with his inventive direction, Imison crafted dramatic crane shots, utilised primitive model shots, forced perspective backdrops and employey an array of rather clever working props - a shuttle which ferries the Doctor and Dodo down to the leafy surface of Refusis, the little motorised trolley device which pootles about the Ark, sparking rifles for the slightly flabby gun battles. There's always something interesting to look at in 'The Ark' even when the story itself loses its pace and the eyelids (both of them) start to droop. Imison's hard work was for nothing, incidentally, because he received notice that his BBC contract wasn't being picked up just as he was prepping the last studio session for the story. Lesser men might have walked...

So while 'The Ark' is worth a look because of its Big Ideas and the fact that it's clearly genuinely trying to push the show's visual envelope, it's bedevilled by so many of those problems which make some 1960s episodes a chore. William Hartnell, here in his third season, is struggling; his dialogue fluffs are becoming more pronounced and the actor's visibly floundering, but when he's good - the final scene when he gives the human race a rallying speech, for example - we're reminded of just how charismatic he was and how it was his interpretation of the character which laid the foundations for all those who followed (even the rubbish ones). Steven and Dodo, however, serve to remind us how good and fully-rounded Ian and Barbara were back in the first series and the guest performers playing a variety of effete shrill humans in silly skirts and smocks are so wet and dull you have to wonder if the human race was really worth saving. The Commander of the humans the travellers meet when they first arrive gurns, grins and grimaces the way only an actor who has no idea what he's saying or doing can. The serial's real misfire, though, is the Monoids, the alien slaves who become - gasp! - the masters. Imison admits that the Monoids were designed to be rivals to the Daleks and elsewhere on the disc he also admits he dreamed of untold riches from merchandising and return appearances. Fat chance; they're rubbish. Actually, to be fair, they're not a bad concept but like many ideas in 'The Ark' they don't quite come off. Their rubbery, leathery zip-up-the-back costumes look awkward and cumbersome, the slightly-modulated voices (by then-regular Dalek voice artist Roy Skelton) only draws attention to the fact they're clearly created to cash in on the Daleks, their dialogue is flat and unmemorable and, for some reason, they imprison people in a "security kitchen" which actually is, for no sane reason, a kitchen. But with their single eyeball (a painted tennis ball) and Ringo wigs they're nothing if not memorable but unfortunaely not in a a particularly good way.

'The Ark' is a light, fun little story which is easy to watch even if it does run out of steam and over-reach itself visually. The split story conceit is quite neat and well done but the ultimate impression is of a story full of ideas but without the ability ro realise them effectively. But it's a worthwhile purchase because, in many ways, the story tends to sum up the ethos of 'Dr Who' from day one - nothing's too big, nothing's too imaginative, nothing's out of reach. You'll wince at some of the prehistoric visual effects, you'll groan at the performances and you'll very probably laugh at the Monoids. But at the end of it you'll have been mostly hugely entertained and if nothing else it's a damn sight more compelling than 'Outcasts' made nearly fifty years later and with a lot more money. There's surely a lessson there somewhere...

THE DISC:Broadcaster/journalist Matthew Sweet dominates a collection of brief special features which, for an unremarkable 46 year-old story, manage to tell the viewer all they'll ever really need to know about how the episodes were made. In the best and longest feature 'Riverside Story' Sweet takes Purves back to the tiny Riverside studios in London where many early episodes were recorded. I'm a big fan of these 'Now and Then'-type location features which crop up on the DVDs of outside-filming-heavy stories and to be honest I'd like to have seen a bit more of the Studios themselves rather than the talking head bits with Purves and Imison which do, at least, serve as decent 'making of' material. 'All's Wells That Ends Wells' looks at the influence of the works of HG Wells on 'Dr Who' and is a robust piece which wheels out all the usual suspects including Kim Newman. Finally we have 'One Hit Wonder' an all-too brief piece which looks at the Monoids and why they only appeared once in the series and which draws an intriguing parallel between the Monoids as slaves tro humanity and the Ood from modern 'Dr Who'. Imison and, particularly, Purves, provide a chatty commentary and there's the usual trivia subtitles, photo gallery and a preview of the next DVD release.

There's been some right old toot from the 'Dr Who' Archives spruced up and let loose on DVD in the last few months ('Time and the Rani'??? 'Meglos'??) and many of them are real bargain bin purchases. But 'The Ark' is a pleasant, unassuming little yarn from the early pioneering days of the series and while it's silly and it's flawed it's worth your time more than many other releases from the same era.

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