Doctor Who: what series 8 can learn from The Ark In Space

Andrew argues that Doctor Who series 8 could do worse than look to Hinchcliffe/Holmes story The Ark in Space for inspiration...

4C or not 4C? (Yes, it’s a cryptic start, but frankly we don’t have enough production code puns on the website). Let us speculate, just for a change, about what series eight of Doctor Who holds in store.

Is Peter Capaldi’s Twelth Doctor going to be a less risky version of the Sixth? Initially unlikeable, but with the audience warming to him as he progresses?

Is Clara going to become a more rounded character, with the writers raising their game to reflect the quality of Jenna Coleman’s performance?

Will you read a comment along the lines of ‘Actually there were twenty six seasons of Doctor Who already, so I don’t see why you’re referring to it as “series eight”’?

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Maybe, maybe, and yes.

For those of us who haven’t elected to check out leaked material, we still don’t know what the new series holds in store. Yes, publicity quotes from ‘BBC Insiders’ and ‘Steven Moffat’ speak of tonal and structural change, but these are mainly to get us excited (and for the most part, this works) and we know by now that the show has to be sold (risking it being oversold). We’ve already addressed the idea that the show isn’t going to turn back into the Hinchcliffe era, but it’s worth addressing that time of the show to see what we can learn, and to whet appetites further for series eight.

1974. A storyline called Space Station is commissioned by Robert Holmes, Doctor Who‘s new script editor. It quickly becomes integral to the Fourth Doctor’s first season, with the sets being re-used, and its narrative continuing from story to story. After the Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ swansong Robot, Space Station was to be the first production under Philip Hinchcliffe. For various reasons, two writers’ drafts were rejected, resulting in Holmes finishing the scripts for the retitled Ark In Space four-parter in only eighteen days.

Without wishing to denigrate anybody’s belief system, for Doctor Who fans writing The Ark In Space in eighteen days is approaching the whole ‘creating the world in a week’ thing. Now, when viewed in the isolation of its DVD release, it’s merely brilliant. When it was broadcast in 1975 The Ark In Space was surely nothing short of astonishing.

The important thing to consider here is that the Pertwee era had just finished, and had been incredibly successful. It took the show from the brink of cancellation to a much-loved fixture, celebrating the show’s Tenth anniversary and expanding the mythology to popular acclaim. Doctor Who was doing really rather well. It wasn’t broke, and it didn’t need fixing.

So Robert Holmes broke it.

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Then he spent eighteen days gluing it back together, leaving some bits out, and putting new bits in. Episode One of The Ark In Space harkens back to The Dead Planet, the first ever Dalek story. The TARDIS crew explore a location. It’s dangerous, an unknown quantity. They don’t speak to another creature. Other life is out there, but it’s briefly glimpsed.

Unlike the first Dalek story, the first episode of The Ark In Space contains a lot of information that becomes important in the later episodes. It features only three speaking roles (and Lis Sladen is unconscious for about half of the episode), giving the new Doctor and companion (Harry Sullivan, played by Ian Marter, who also novelised the story) screen time to allow the viewers to get to know them. You would be forgiven for thinking that this approach could unsettle the audience.

Ratings for episode two increased by over four million.

Four million people people were swayed, during the week, to watch Doctor Who based on the presumably effusive declarations of their peers: ‘You’ve got to watch Doctor Who this week! Last week was amazing!’

‘What happened?’

‘They wandered around a space station for twenty minutes and then a wasp fell out of a cupboard!’

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It is a lot better than this sounds, though one wonders how well it would have gone if this had been Tom Baker’s second episode rather than second story. If, having recovered from regenerating, he’d simply headed straight off into space without trying to combat Miss Winters and her Think Tank? Would that have been too much? We had, at least, four episodes to get used to the new Doctor, but in The Ark In Space Baker is notably more aloof, serious, and alien. This reflects the tone of the show as a whole, going from a King Kong riff to what is almost a PG-rated version of Alien in the space of twenty-five minutes.

There are potential similarities in series eight. Robot featured UNIT, and familiarity. Deep Breath features the return of the Paternoster Gang. So, if we were to be going full Ark In Space today, we would look to Phil Ford’s ‘behind enemy lines’ episode as the first flurry of new Doctor free from the confines of The Big Introduction. This is putting unfair pressure on that episode, though. It’s only forty-five minutes, and there is a guest cast (quite an impressive one) confirmed. Realistically, while some members of the production team have changed, there is still an element of continuity present, so we’re unlikely to see quite as big a shift as The Ark In Space.

What this does illustrate, though, is that Doctor Who should not try to be exactly what it was before. It should use its past and format as a starting point and try to create something as distinctive and different as The Ark In Space must’ve been when it was broadcast in January 1975. That’s much, much harder to do nowadays. More ideas have been used up, stories find their way onto the internet, and the appetite for information is colossal. It’s harder to surprise.

We’ve mentioned that The Ark In Space has similarities to Alien, and this reinforces the idea that you can rework ideas into different tones, shapes and stories. Ultimately, the reason Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies have picked out The Ark In Space as a favourite is because it’s incredibly watchable. It’s a good story, well told, well acted, and well made (Even the bubble wrap monsters have a certain icky quality to them). It was different to what audiences were used to, but also, crucially, it was still great telly.

That’s the balancing act when it comes to writing Doctor Who. What can you add? Can you expand on what’s gone before while entertaining millions?

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The Ark In Space demonstrates that, yes, you can. And all you need is three actors, brilliant dialogue, and Stuart Fell sliding around in a wee green sleeping bag.

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