Doctor Who: The Ark In Space - Special Edition review

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Review Andrew Blair 18 Feb 2013 - 06:57

A classic, Alien-like Doctor Who story gets another DVD release. Here's Andrew's review of The Ark In Space - Special Edition...

The Ark In Space was originally released on DVD in 2002, near the start of the Doctor Who DVD range, and has now been spruced up, remastered, and given new bonus features. So, for those of us who already own a copy, what does this new edition offer to make it worth buying?

If you like that sort of thing, the picture quality is distinctly improved: crisp, colourful, enhancing little moments such as laser flashes, skin texture and sideburns.

As a story, The Ark In Space has similarities with Alien, but Doctor Who has a very different approach; it's body horror and sci-fi for a Universal-certificate. What it demonstrates, though, is that 'Modern Who' has been around for ages. It's a story about humanity, where love saves the day, set on a space station near Earth (that would turn up later that series), with monsters based on a real creature.

The first episode of a new production team (the legendary Hinchcliffe and Holmes producer/script editor regime), it bares comparison to The Eleventh Hour in terms of bold statements of intent. This is how the show is going to be now, it says, and proceeds to highlight this by having its new Doctor and companion (Harry Sullivan - "I'm not a regressive, I'm a naval officer") explore a seemingly empty space station while Sarah is apparently euthanised, with Baker's Fourth Doctor markedly more alien than his predecessor. It's sombre, morosely comic, and attracted another four million viewers for its second episode. You can see why.

Plotwise, it's quite straightforward, but enhanced with lots of lovely little world-building details. The Earth has been devastated by solar flares, and humanity has escaped into space. The Ark's elite have not been reawoken from cryogenic suspension at the right time, because of an infestation of wasp-like alien parasites - the Wirrn. Rest assured various horrible deaths and infections await the crew.

Despite gripes about the monsters being made from bubble wrap, there's some very effective horror elements played out with the Wirrn grubs (the scene where one rears up from laser blasts in particular), along with the creatures' way of gleaning knowledge from their prey (Noah's line, "But I am here..." still freaks me out a little). While it isn't exactly Bad Wolf Bay, there are plenty of distressing scenes involving lost humanity that are quite affecting.

It isn't perfect - there's the occasional bout of dodgy acting - but fortunately, lots of characters are killed, so it isn't a lasting problem (although in one case, even the death scene is unintentionally comical).

Now Tom Baker's first season is available on DVD in its entirety, you can witness the shift in tone from Robot through to Revenge Of The Cybermen yourself, and consider just how ludicrously exciting it must've been to witness this in 1975.

Extras

The new Making Of feature (New Frontiers) explores the new direction of the show under Philip Hinchcliffe, and the changes made to stories commissioned by the previous regime. Director Rodney Bennett - whose unsung contributions to the story are documented in the production subtitles - and actors Wendy Williams and Kenton Moore all make enjoyable contributions to the feature. Bennett admits he was not an expert on the technical side of things (he and Hinchcliffe express different opinions regarding lighting, but both agree that the Wirrn could have been slimier - the whole reissue is worth it just to hear Philip Hinchcliffe pronounce the word "lubricated"), and so a focus on the acting ensues. Williams' explanation of her choices is a good one, as is her reaction to watching the story nearly 40 years later.

On top of the original release's conversation with designer Roger Murray-Leach, five minutes are devoted to the construction of the Ark's cryogenic chamber set, described by Hinchcliffe as "feature film set design on a shoestring." Talking of shoestring, guess how Noah's mutated hand was made? Nope. Even cheaper than that.

Finally, Nick Briggs pops up for a few seconds to confirm that, yes, it was ludicrously exciting to be a Doctor Who fan in 1975.

We also have new production subtitles. These are so thorough, informative and entertaining that you wonder why more DVDs don't make use of them (but then, other DVD ranges probably don't inspire the level of dedication in their contributors).

There is also a 70-minute version of The Ark In Space, made for a repeat in 1975. It's the kind of thing you wish they'd broadcast on bank holidays nowadays, and it's a depressing fact that the repeat edits made 40 years ago are always better than the abridged versions of stories made for DVD in the 21st century.

News footage of Tom Baker in Northern Ireland - turning on Christmas lights in Derry, wandering through an adoring crowd with a massive grin on his face - is brilliant. Baker is famed for being in character throughout his interactions with children, but for many these clips will be the first time they've seen it happen. Silent film footage of location film from Robot rounds the features off.

Also included are the now standard PDF materials and coming soon trailer. Not immediately relating to The Ark In Space, we also have Dr. Forever! This documentary concerns itself with the show's survival in book form, and the change of tone in the New Adventures. Happily, the writers involved don't all agree, and an enjoyable discussion about the relative merits and faults ensues. For fans, it's an honest and informative account of the book ranges, and for those new to the series it's an excellent introduction that might encourage people to seek these titles out on eBook or eBay.

These are on top of the already existing features: an entertaining commentary with Philip Hinchcliffe, Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker; an interview with Roger Murray-Leach, with an in-depth discussion of designing Doctor Who on a budget; a compilation of the model effects and optional CGI effects (which, being from 2002, now looking understandably dated); 3D technical schematics of the Ark; a BBC 1 trailer for the story from 1975; an alternative title sequence similar to the one that featured in the 1974 season; TARDIS-Cam #1, one of a series of model sequences back from the days when BBCi was still a thing (short, and better than it sounds); and a photo gallery. All in all, it's a worthwhile reissue.

Also, I know it's a bit late in the range to mention this, but a 'Play All' button for the extras would be nice.

The Ark In Space - Special Edition DVD is out on the 25th February.

4

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