Friday, October 19, 2018

Doctor Who: Another Review

Episode 3

A man pulls his hand from the pocket of his uniform jacket. Tuneless music thumps in the background. He looks, shocked, at the hand. It has been completely consumed by a green, alien parasite. 

As we see his shocked face, the music cuts out, and a surreal female voice cuts in. "Halloooo....Space Station Nova!" It starts as a portentous sing-song chant; but gradually turns into generic political rhetoric. "And now, across the chasm of years, I send the prayers and hopes of the entire world."

As the voice speaks, we cut away from the man: first to an external view of a space station, then to an empty corridor, and then to an impressively large interior chamber. As the voice says "You have slept longer than the recorded history of mankind!" we see row after row of plastic, human shaped caskets.

Sarah-Jane, Harry and a uniformed woman listen: the Doctor walks slowly across the scene.

As the speech reaches its climax, we cut back to the guy with the possessed green hand. "You have been entrusted with a sacred duty, to see that human culture, human knowledge, human love and faith, shall never perish from the universe" says the speaker, invoking the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. The possessed man starts to cry, and then smashes the hand against a control console. As it finally comes to an end, the uniformed woman catches the Doctor's eye. (She is Vira, first of the humans to be defrosted.) We finish on a long close up of Tom Baker's face.

This is the opening scene of Episode 3 of The Ark in Space. It is like something out of an opera: the whole story shrunk down to one little scene. Even if we missed Episodes 1 and 2 — even if we are not sci-fi fans and have never heard the word "cryogenic" before — we understand perfectly what is going on. It is the very far future. A small number of humans have been frozen and sent into space to keep the species going. And they have been infected by an alien parasite.

It is so good — proper Mythic Level good — that I think it is the only thing most of us remember about the story. The last humans. On a spaceship. Being turned into aliens. I suppose the Doctor must have saved them in some way.

Remember C.S Lewis's comment about the ending of King Solomon's Mines? "The trap I remember forever. How they got out I have long since forgotten."

Episode 1 – 2

But we are not watching an opera. We are watching a hundred studio-bound minutes of Doctor Who, stretched out over four cold February Saturdays more than forty years ago. And this is not Episode 1 one, but Episode 3: it has taken us a fortnight to get anywhere near the beginning of the story.

Episode 1 was another initiation, an enforced wait until we get to the good stuff. The Doctor and Harry and Sarah-Jane wander around the space station trying to work out what is going on. Harry accidentally locks Sarah-Jane in an airtight room; Sarah-Jane manages to teleport herself into a cryogenic unit. The Doctor gets increasingly impatient with Harry: Ian Marter, bless him, has nothing to give and poor dear Tom has to carry the episode on his own.

"Have you pushed any buttons, Harry?"
"What, me?"
"Well, there are only two of us here, and your name is Harry."

In Very Old Who, this was a fairly standard way of starting a story: everyone would walk around the set and Ian would say "Hey, Doctor, what do you make of this?" until someone worked out what was going on. But the initial set up of, say Planet of the Giants or the Space Museum were at least a little bit puzzling. We all worked out pretty much what was going on on Space Station Nova as soon as we found out that the story was called The Ark In Space.

Episode 1 ends, right on schedule, with Harry opening another one of those Mysterious Doors and a GIANT ALIEN CRUSTACEAN emerging. It turns out, fortunately, to be a dead alien crustacean, and we get right on with the exposition. It's only at the end of the second episode that the station commander, known as Noah ("a name from myth") gets his hand scratched by a green alien caterpillar, and the story proper gets under way.

It is a mistake to judge the past by the standards of the present. We can tell that the alien caterpillar and the parasite taking over Noah's arm is made of green bubble wrap, but people in Olden Time couldn't. Most people were watching in black and white, so it was less green and more, well, bubble wrap coloured.

Episode 3

There is a limit to how long you can stand around saying "Gosh, this is incredibly mythic".  Contemplate the last humans stuck in the compromised base all you like: but sooner or later Stuff has to start happening.

Harry Sullivan is on hand to provide the bathos. His first reaction to hearing the Prime Minister of Earth address the last, best hope of the human race is "I say, it's a bit like a pre match pep talk." And his second reaction is that Sarah-Jane must be pleased that in the Far Future, the Prime Minister of Earth will be a woman. One of the things written on Sarah-Jane's character sheet is "Journalist"; the other is "Feminist" — what was in those days still called "women's lib". We are meant to find this a little bit funny: but primarily we are meant to think that Harry Sullivan is being an idiot. "Fancy a member of the fair sex being top of the totem pole" he says. That's what Harry's own character sheet says, unfortunately: Navy Man; Physician; Idiot.

(Episode 3 of Ark in Space went out on Feb 7th 1975. On the previous Tuesday, Conservative MPs had voted to select a new leader. The former Prime Minister Edward Heath only received the support of 119 members, and withdrew from the contest. On the 11th, one Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party.)

And so stuff starts happening again. The next two humans out of deep freeze start moaning about there having been a "snitch up" and wishing they'd been wiped out along with everybody else. The Doctor starts rigging up silly science equipment. Actors point toy guns at caterpillars without very much conviction. Some have said that it is darker and grimmer and scarier than anything which went before, and others have wondered if Ridley Scott was a fan. But from this vantage point it feels like corridors and monsters and a clever scheme to save the day: if not what Doctor Who had always been, then definitely what Doctor Who was going to become.

Some years ago the BBC repeated the classic historical drama, Elizabeth R, starring Glenda Jackson and the entire British acting profession. It was quite brilliant and impossible to take seriously, because, of course, it was the exact thing which the equally classic and much more familiar Black Adder The Second was sending up. Speech at Tilbury all you want, Glenda, we will all hear Queenie pouting that she has the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant. I feel that Douglas Adams and the Golgafrinchans may have done similar irreparable damage to the Ark In Space.

Episode 4

It's a very clever, tight little story. Bigger and more epic than the format allows for. The last act of a millennia long space-opera epic played out between basically just five people: the Doctor, the two companions, Vira and Noah.

The Ark was sent into space because the Earth was due to be wiped out by solar flares. But other human explorers had set out before the days of the Ark, and while the last humans slept, they made enemies of the Wirrrn. Robert Holmes is good at alluding to stuff outside his tale. "Andromeda - then our star pioneers succeeded!" says Vira, and that's as much as we are allowed to know. The Wirrrn have got a complicated life cycle; they take over the bodies of warm blooded mammals, turn them into green caterpillars; and finally emerge as giant talking insects. But here is the fiendish bit: they normally incubate themselves in mindless cattle; but they have discovered that if they lay their eggs in humans the adult creepy crawlie will have all the knowledge and memories of its host.

So the Doctor defeats the Wirrrn through the power of exposition, which is infinitely preferable to a Big Red Button. Their Achilles Heal turns out to be electricity; and so he runs a cable from the space shuttle to the cryogenic hall to keep them out.

This leads to the most genuinely scary scene in the entire story; because Sarah-Jane, being small and thin as well as feminist, has to crawl along an incredibly narrow access tunnel to bring the cable through. It is when he is acting against someone like Elisabeth Sladen with whom he has a genuine rapport — and who can give as good as she gets but is under no illusions about who the star of the show is — that we discover just what a fabulous actor Tom Baker is. Sarah-Jane gets stuck in the access shaft, a few feet away from saving the human race. And after trying to encourage her, the Doctor goes into full-on comp school P.E Teacher mode. Oh, you are useless! I never should have trusted you! You're a silly girl! Stop blubbing! Which makes Sarah-Jane so cross that she forces her way through the tunnel, and out into the Doctor's arms and he immediately tells her how very proud he is. Elisabeth Sladen's face brilliantly shifts between genuinely upset to cross to sharing the joke. It's a sexist scene, arguably: or at any rate, it shows the Doctor at his most patronizing, prepared to be cruel to be kind. But it is as close to Drama as this episode comes, and it is brilliant.

The Wirrrn swarm over the space station and steal the space shuttle and fly off. But their leader used to be Noah the leader of the humans and there is just enough of his memory left that he scuttles the ship, wipes out the Wirrrn and gives the human race its chance to survive. So that's all sorted out.

Which made me wonder: couldn't this have been a story about interspecies compromise? Why, after all, would anyone go to all that trouble to preserve the human race? So that somewhere in some corner of a foreign planet there could be a species which happens to have some of the same DNA which emerged a zillion years ago on earth? Or so that human culture, human knowledge, human love and human faith — everything which is unique and irreplaceable about the species — can survive? In which case, wouldn't uploading homo sapiens minds into the minds of incredibly resilient space fleas be the best possible outcome for everybody?

Episode 1

It isn't quite true to say that the Ark in Space owes its retrospective celebrity entirely to the opening of its third act. It owes some of it to a little speech in the middle of Episode 1. The Doctor walks solemnly into the cryogenic chamber for the first time. Harry entirely fails to understand what is going on ("funny sort of place for a mortuary") but the Doctor breaks out in a full scale aria:

Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they've crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are among the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable!

And indeed, this is the moment where Tom Baker first becomes Tom Baker. You can perfectly well imagine Jon Pertwee speaking the same words. You can imagine him half sneering them out, surprised and patronising but with a twinkle in his eye. "Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species you are, Jo..." Or you could imagine him coming over all paternal and giving us a little lecture, like the one on courage in Planet of the Daleks. "Homo sapiens, my old chap? Why, what an inventive, invincible species!"

But Baker declaims it to himself or to the universe. Harry is pointedly in the other room, so this is a private moment shared between the Doctor and us. The camera is looking down on him from a height. Pertwee gained a certain cachet from occasionally reminding us that he is not really human, but his character never ceased to be that of an upper crust boffin with a funny car and retro dress sense. Baker is obviously an outsider, looking down on the earth from a cosmic perspective."Just Tom being a benevolent alien" was how he later summed up the part. He is very far from being the fetishized Lonely God of later retroactive continuity. He is only a traveler, an ancient traveler whose path happens to have crossed with ours.

Holmes pulls off a similar effect in Episode 3 when the Doctor plugs his brain into the dead alien to try to discover its Achilles heel. Any space hero from Dan Dare onward might have said "It's not just our existence that's at stake, Sarah. It's the entire human race." But only the Fourth Doctor could have grinned and said "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species".

Robot established that Tom Baker's ego was big enough to fill an entire story; but Ark in Space defines him as the visitor from outside. There are some jelly babies and a yo-yo. There are some good put-downs. But if we had been asked to describe this new Doctor, after two stories, we would have said "He is going to be the serious one, the alien one, the Shakespearian one." And for a few weeks yet, we would have been right.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

And indeed, this is the moment where Tom Baker first becomes Tom Baker. You can perfectly well imagine Jon Pertwee speaking the same words.

I think this is crucial. Many times in watching Matt Smith, I found myself mentally comparing with how David Tennant would have delivered a particular line -- as in this, from my piece on The Rebel Flesh:


The Doctor’s reaction to the killing is telling, and emblematic of the differences between the previous regime and the current one. David Tennant, in the Russell T. Davies era, would have been filled with righteous anger — he’d have gone shouty and square-mouthed and given a long speech about the uniqueness and dignity of all life. There is some of that in Smith’s reaction, for sure, but the overwhelming impression is very different: it’s of shock, horror, disappointment and plain sadness. When he shouts, it’s not because he’s declaiming from a soapbox, but because he’s taken by surprise at how terribly disappointing people can be and how catastrophic the consequences are.


One of the things that, in retrospect, was disappointing about the Capaldi era is that this never happened. I never found myself watching him in a situation and wondering how Tennant or Smith would have handled it.

I'm not sure what to make of this observation. All I'll right now is that I've yet to have one of those moments with Jodie Whittaker.