What can go wrong with being cryogenically frozen and shipped off through the vastness of space? Usually something worse and weirder than all of the many very probable accidents that may occur. In the famous 1975 Doctor Who serial, The Ark in Space, it’s big alien bugs.
Having watched Robot last week, I was strongly compelled to continue with Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor. All the serials in his first season are linked so it almost feels like one big serial—you could go further and really say that there’s a through-line from Three’s final serial, Planet of the Spiders, to Terror of the Zygons, the first of Four’s second season. One of the things I enjoyed most about watching through Doctor Who the first time was the inevitable sense of the time in which it was filmed and how the evolution of the show was subtly influenced by the changing culture. In some ways, to-day we’re starting to get a reprise of some of the political and social issues of the 70s, particularly in terms of feminism and ruminations on the value of radical, orchestrated social change.
These issues are clearly present in The Ark in Space and touch the current nerve in ways it didn’t when I last watched it. One of the Doctor’s companions this season, Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), is established as peculiarly old fashioned, using deliberately dated language and saying things that implied dated opinions. When a recording reveals that a woman was the leader of the human race in the future, Harry teases Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) that it must please her “female chauvinist heart”.
A woman “was the leader of the human race in the future.” There’s a confusing sentence. On the trio’s first voyage in the TARDIS together, they land in a space station thousands of years after solar flares have destroyed the Earth—or thousands of years after the stations occupants believe the Earth was destroyed, the Doctor’s lines deliberately cast some ambiguity as to the state of our planet. The first human to wake up from cybersleep is a medical officer, Vira (Wendy Williams). Following her is the leader of the expedition, known by the nickname Noah (Kenton Moore). He’s immediately more suspicious of the Doctor and his companions, possibly because his mind and body are being overcome by the alien menace, known as the Wiirn. He transfers command to Vira before he’s completely overcome and there’s a fascinating moment where everyone’s listening to the recording of Earth’s prime minister delivering an inspiring speech about the challenge of rebuilding civilisation that lay before them. A shot of Noah shows a look of profound anguish on his face.
Next to Harry’s playful remark to Sarah Jane referencing Sarah Jane’s ardent feminism (as seen in Robot and Monster of Peladon), Noah’s despair that he’s no longer able to take part in the mission, unable to fulfil his role as leader, because of his suddenly repulsive and different body evokes a poignant sense of displacement. Especially since here Noah’s physical state is as dangerous as everyone supposes, placing the viewer, for a moment, firmly in Noah’s point of view.
A contrast between new and old is also presented when the crew of the station, Nerva, refer to the Doctor and his companions as “Regressives”. This has a particularly potent political resonance as being the opposite of “Progressives”. Vira refers to Harry as a romantic when he responds to being asked whether Sarah is a person of any value by scoffing at the mere question. One would think that when the entirety of the human race has been diminished to the handfuls who escaped in spaceships that any human life would be of value. But Vira’s reluctance to step outside her role as medical officer points to a society where roles are rigorously defined. So someone like Sarah, from outside the system, might indeed not seem to have any value because she has no assigned role. The bureaucratic delineation of human worth evokes Communism, particularly Communist China. Ironically, it’s precisely this devotion to assigned roles that makes Vira reluctant to take command.
Vira is incredulous at first when the Doctor suggests something went wrong with the mission—the perfect cold storage of identically dressed human beings in sterile white couldn’t possibly be foiled. No one expects the interstellar insect menace. Life, in the form of slimy green bubble wrap, gets in when you least expect it.
Baker here, appropriately, establishes himself further as a weirder and less predictable Doctor compared to Pertwee. His grinning glee at the thought of undertaking a dangerous project of attaching his brain to a dead Wiirn’s eye in order to see things from the Wiirn’s perspective suggests this Doctor’s brand of dering-do will have something almost perverse about it. As such, he’s a perfect foil for the people of Nerva.