Doctor Who: The Ark DVD review

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Review James Peaty 10 Feb 2011 - 05:28

A 1966 Doctor Who story is plucked out of the archive for a new DVD release. Here’s James’ review of The Ark...

By 1966, Doctor Who was a show very much in transition. A seeming revolving door policy of companions on-screen was being mirrored off screen by increasing turmoil amongst the production team, leading to the eventual resignation of producer, John Wiles, and his replacement by the incoming Innes Lloyd.

History would eventually cast its verdict and label Wiles' period in charge as little more than a footnote in the programme's broader history, while Lloyd's tenure would be lauded for the deft way that it handled the biggest test the programme would ever face: the replacement of the show's original lead, William Hartnell, with Patrick Troughton.

But before that first regeneration could take place, and prior to Innes Lloyd getting his feet firmly under the table, John Wiles had one final story left to bring to the screen.

Not to be confused with 1975's classic Robert Holmes-penned The Ark In Space, Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott's The Ark is a serial that is mainly remembered for its rather unique monsters, the Monoids.

Best described as rubber-suited, one-eyed aliens topped off with a Beatle wig, the Monoids have to be seen, and heard, to be believed. Voiced by regular Dalek voice artist, Roy Skelton (otherwise known as the voice of Zippy from Rainbow), the Monoids are saddled with a distorted monotone that only succeeds in making their banal dialogue, well, unintentionally funny.

The failure of the show's main creature to one side (although it's hard to absent such an awful creature from any assessment of the show's overall quality), how does the story stand up? To be blunt, hardly at all.

The Ark is one of those Who stories that has several really good ideas bubbling under the surface, a couple of extremely striking images and even one brilliant cliffhanger and yet, even with those definite pluses on its side, overall, The Ark never comes together as anything approaching a satisfying or coherent whole.

The strongest overall episode is the opening instalment, The Steel Sky, which finds the TARDIS landing in what appears to be a jungle, or, as new companion Dodo (Jackie Lane) surmises, Whipsnade Zoo!, before the Doctor points out that this jungle has a roof.

There are echoes of the forest-in-a-bottle-on-a-spaceship from Steven Moffat's Flesh And Stone in this sequence and, despite its rather lower budgeted leanings, the use of live animals on set helps brings this somewhat odd environment to a strange sort of life.

Sadly, the story takes something of a nosedive when we're introduced to the Guardians. A rather po-faced group of typically 'advanced' future humans, these erstwhile masters of the Monoids dress in unisex faux-Roman-style outfits that look like they've been rejected by the Star Trek wardrobe department for looking both too dull and just a bit too camp.

However, despite the inherent naffness of the Guardians and the fact that most of episode one and two are spent looking for the cure to the common cold (I kid you not!), nothing can disguise just how good the episode two cliffhanger truly is.

Along with the opening minutes of episode one, it's Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who does best, taking a familiar idea, environment or object and then flipping it on its head to open up a whole new world of story and possibility.

Unfortunately, in this case, the brilliance of the cliffhanger ends up being nothing more than a tease for a story that's a lot better and bolder than the one we eventually get. All that said, it's still a great moment.

Despite all of the issues that this story faces, the one thing that, without a shadow of a doubt, works brilliantly in this serial is the Doctor himself. He may be a somewhat more remote version of the character than we've come to know over the years, and clearly the onset of arteriosclerosis was having an effect on his ability to remember his lines. But, in spite of that, William Hartnell's Doctor is never less than a fully rounded, utterly believable and completely compelling creation.

Assisted by the robust, no nonsense and utterly stoic Steven Taylor (played very ably by Peter Purves), and with Jackie Lane's short-lived (and unfortunately named) Dodo Chaplet being an effective, quirky foil for the two male leads, it's a trio that gives off a genuine sense of warmth and balance which, since the breakup of the original triumvirate of companions back in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, hadn't always been the case. Such a shame, then, that in a few short months it would be all change yet again.

An odd adventure from a particularly turbulent period of Who history, The Ark isn't a story you could recommend to anyone other than the most ardent Whovian.

However, if you're a fan of really terrible prosthetic monsters, well, the Monoids really do take some beating!

Extras

Despite the poverty of the main feature, the extras included with The Ark are all of a very high standard.

The obligatory DVD commentary is well moderated by comedian and uber-fan, Toby Hadoke, while the details are filled in by co-star, Peter Purves, and director, Michael Imison. At once nostalgic, but at the same time brutally honest about the failings of the serial, it's an entertaining and educational listen.

Even better is the documentary, All's Wells That Ends Wells. A short, but perfectly formed piece, it features contributions from critics/writers such as Matthew Sweet, Dominic Sandbrook and Kim Newman, and explores the link between HG Wells and Doctor Who in a light, accessible and thoroughly entertaining manner.

Riverside Story is a fascinating little one-on-one between Peter Purves and Matthew Sweet, as the writer grills the former Who companion on the ins and outs of filming the show at Riverside Studios back in the mid-1960s. For anyone interested in TV production, this is probably the most interesting extra of the lot.

Finally, the mini doc, One Hit Wonder, takes a brief look at why certain monsters return in Doctor Who and why some are never seen again. Sadly for the Monoids, no one seems to be preparing a revival for the one-eyed mop tops anytime soon.

Feature: 2 starsDisc: 4 starsDoctor Who: The Ark will be released on February 14, and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.

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