Welcome back; it's been a while. Hopefully a few bits and pieces will be turning up here more regularly in the weeks and months to come - a lot of my time and energy has been devoted to my contributions for the relaunched Starburst Magazine and its associated website - www.starburstmagazine.com. For starters here's the uneditted verison of my review for the forthcoming 'Doctor Who - Ark in Space' special edition DVD...
Tom Baker’s second serial 'Doctor Who' , ‘The Ark in Space’, was a massive and abrupt change of pace for Doctor Who and a huge culture shock for viewers following ‘Robot’, the actor’s first serial which maintained the style and flavour of the era of his predecessor, Jon Pertwee. The show’s firebrand new producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, was keen to move the series away from the plastic maggots, dinosaurs and spiders of the previous era (although ‘Ark in Space’ has its fair share of deadly bubble wrap) and into a darker, more serious and just plain more science-fiction direction and ‘The Ark In Space’ was a hugely-successful statement of intent which sent the series’ ratings soaring and cemented Tom Baker’s position as the Doctor in the eyes of the audience.
The TARDIS lands on a deserted space station thousands of years into the future and find the remains of humanity in deep suspended animation following a solar flare cataclysm which has rendered the Earth uninhabitable. They discover that the station’s operating systems have been compromised by invading space insects called The Wirrn who plan to lay claim to the now-habitable Earth by transforming their sleeping human hosts into Wirrn before swarming across the planet.
Despite its shoestring budget ’The Ark in Space’ is a gold plated Doctor Who classic, a ‘base-under-siege’ story in the show’s grand style, with a group of humans trapped in an enclosed environment and threatened by a hostile alien force. But ‘The Ark in Space’ is a bit more realistic and urgent than those which went before; this time the threat isn’t a bunch of stuntmen in big green monster suits, the threat is much more sinister, the threat of bodily invasion and transformation always more disturbing than traditional ‘monsters from outer space’. The Wirrn themselves are space locusts and whilst their realisation might not convince a modern audience they come with all the creepy trappings of insect infestation; there’s a vicious grub on the loose and slime trails across the floor and even some Doctor Who-style body horror as the station’s revived commander, Noah, is transmogrified into a Wirrn courtesy of lots and lots of bubble wrap and a can of green paint. But it’s a taut, well-written tale - Robert Holmes at close to his best - and there’s a stifling sense of isolation and claustrophobia in Roger Murray-Leach’s brilliantly designed sets which actually manage to give a sense of scale and size to the Nerva Beacon despite the pennies available to realise them.
Freed from the show’s familiar Earth-bound trappings Tom Baker flies out from under Pertwee’s shadow and his performance here sees the fourth Doctor at his best; he’s grim and portentous, there’s a twinkling humour coming to the fore and Baker absolutely gets the balance right between the Doctor as the hero and the Doctor as the unpredictable, slightly dangerous alien. Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane and Ian Marter’s golly-gosh UNIT surgeon Harry Sullivan are comfortable foils for Baker but it’s already apparent that the new Doctor doesn’t really need a young male companion (as the production team quickly, if reluctantly, realised) as Harry doesn’t get a lot to do here except patronise Sarah Jane and get his shoes blown up.
‘The Ark in Space’ absolutely deserves its place as one of the greats in Doctor Who history and its reputation grows with the passing of time. This new DVD release is the latest in the BBC’s current run of ‘special editions’ of early releases in the range, stories revisited because developing technology can improve the image - ‘Ark in Space’ now looks pinpoint sharp - and gives the opportunity for the story to receive the ‘special feature’ treatment of more recent titles. If you‘ve already bought the previous release, this new edition of ‘The Ark in Space’ is a worthy double-dip as, in addition to the optional 2002 CGI special effects sequences, commentary and designer interview which adorned the first release, there’s plenty of new stuff here including ‘New Frontier’, a proper cast and crew ‘making of’ (but with no involvement from Tom Baker which is a shame as this is such an important story in his character’s development) and ‘Dr Forever - Love and War’ which looks at the history of the ‘new’ Doctor Who books which appeared after the series’ cancellation in 1989.
‘The Ark in Space’ was the launch pad for a whole new style of Doctor Who in the 1970s, the UNIT soldiers and rubber monsters of the previous era quickly left behind as the series, for a while at least, became proper science-fiction with slightly higher ambitions than just sending the kids scurrying behind the sofa. Every Doctor Who fan needs ‘The Ark in Space’ in their collection and this brilliant new 2-disc set finally does justice to one of the very best stories in the show’s history.
Special features: Commentary, ‘making of’ documentary, history of Doctor Who books documentary, designer interview, footage of Tom Baker visiting Northern Ireland in the 1970s, silent footage from filming of Baker’s debut ‘Robot’, trailers.
Doctor Who - The Ark in Space (Special Edition) is released on 25th February 2013 in the UK