Airdates: March 1966
Written by: Paul Erickson
Screen Credit to: Paul Erickson & Lesley Scott
Directed by: Michael Imison
The Story So Far: In 10 million years, humans and Monoids escape the final destruction of Earth and embark on a 700-year journey to a new planet. When the TARDIS arrives, Dodo’s head cold has a devastating effect. The Doctor finds a cure, but how will the illness affect the survivors in 700 years’ time?
Novelization by: Paul Erickson (October 1986)
We’ve just finished an exhausting run through the first three serials produced for Season 3. They have been nearly uniformly brilliant, and with 47 years’ hindsight, we can see that they form a loose story arc about the unrelenting nature of history, and how the Doctor can do very little to better mankind without great personal cost. To date, one companion has left, another has tried to leave, and two more have been killed. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes drama has forced the ouster of both the new producer and story editor, while seriously weakening William Hartnell’s position as the star of his own show.
Things calmed down in time for the production of The Ark. John Wiles, who’d submitted his resignation six weeks earlier, stayed on to produce the story in name only, while transitioning the reins to incoming producer Innes Lloyd. With the gritty Wiles/Tosh ethos of Doctor Who in the rear-view mirror, and Hartnell’s contract extended through the end of the season, surely it’s time for deep breaths, a happy story, and a fandom love-in. Right?
As Toby Hadoke wrote in Running Through Corridors, great drama comes from great actors interpreting great scripts. Having great direction certainly doesn’t hurt, either. Hence, The Massacre being insanely good. But, the Who format doesn’t require a story of Alexandre Dumas-level genius every time. Great scripts can even (sort of) survive bad direction, as in The Chase. Even little old Galaxy 4 showed that great direction can elevate a pedestrian script.
The Ark has got (mostly) great writing, and great direction. Unfortunately, even with those assets, the acting is pretty atrocious, and the story is widely seen as a clunker. It’s even been denounced as racist, colonialist garbage. Many individual scenes and moments make for great viewing, but the whole thing winds up being much less than the sum of its parts…
What The Ark seems to be best known for nowadays is Michael Imison’s direction. Over the run of the last several serials, not coincidentally beginning after Richard Martin’s last episodes, we’ve been treated to the highly visual and inventive work of Douglas Camfield, Derek Martinus and Paddy Russell. Imison manages to even raise the bar further. In filmed sequences taking place in the jungle zone of the Ark, the TARDIS crew famously interacts with a live elephant. Imison even makes liberal use of cranes to give us a high-up vantage point. Meanwhile, the main bridge set of the Ark is vast and complicated, with an enormous display screen, control panels with built-in video monitors, daises and plants; you even need to drive scenery trucks across the set just in order to reach the exit.
One of the neatest visual tricks exploits the multi-camera set-up. In those days, the show was recorded live to tape, with four or five cameras running down on the studio floor, and the director and vision mixer up the gallery deciding which camera outputs got recorded. Imison frequently moved from Character A on Set X being recorded by Camera 1, talking to to a video-screen image of Character B across the studio on Set Y being recorded by Camera 4, to a close-up of Character B’s image being recorded by Camera 1, to the “live” feed of Character B on his own set, now recorded by Camera 4. Whole conversations in the story take place this way. If you are young enough to have come of age watching 24, this information is nothing new or interesting, but for audiences watching The Ark live in March 1966, there was very little visual precedent for this. Think of this story as the infancy of blue-screen acting! Later on, moving miniatures appear in the same shot as full-sized actors, and food pills tossed into pots of water famously dissolve into entire meals. The Keys of Marinus, we’ve come a long way from.
Of course, flashy direction is all very well and good, but the underlying story still needs to hold up. And this one has a great premise. Having laid waste to Troy, murdered two companions, and allowed the Catholics to slaughter the French Huguenots, the Doctor Who production team next turned to an uplifting tale of the survival of homo sapiens – what an inventive, invincible species! – set against the destruction of Earth, widespread plague, slavery, and an atomic bomb. They’re indomitable!
Episode 1 introduces us to the Guardians of humanity, genteel men and women in robes and flip-flops, living in a generation ship ferrying the preserved remnants of humanity 700 years across the stars. Because they’ve been immune to illness for 47 “segments of time” (we never learn how long a segment is, but 47 of them must be several million years), Dodo’s cold nearly wipes them out; after narrowly surviving a trial in Episode 2, the Doctor cures the plague. Except, when the TARDIS leaves at the end of Episode 2, it quickly returns to the exactly same spot 700 years later, where we find that the Guardians’ mute servants, the Monoids, have taken over following another outbreak of plague, and enslaved humanity. This is a pretty nifty cliffhanger. Over the final two episodes, the Doctor sets things to rights so that the surviving humans and Monoids can live out a wary peace on their new planet. The script allows Hartnell to deliver lofty sentiments in both time periods, and both races learn (presumably) never to enslave each other again.
So that’s the good stuff. Now we have to talk about the two elephants in the room.
The acting in this is just about as bad as we’ve seen since we left the planet Vortis. Oh, the TARDIS crew is OK. There are some problems with Dodo as scripted, but Jackie Lane is never anything short of sprightly and eager; the camera loves her even if the audiences don’t. Peter Purves is again a rock; he’s an exasperated big brother to Dodo in Episode 1, and the steely eloquent defender of the TARDIS crew during the Episode 2 trial.
Unfortunately, William Hartnell is making a slow recovery from the abuses of the Wiles/Tosh era. “This virus is more virulent than I suspected!” he proclaims in Episode 2. While he’s no longer sidelined from the action as he was in the previous two serials — in fact, his devising a cure for the plague in Episode 2 is the first time we’ve seen him successfully resolve a crisis in months — let’s consider what co-stars he’s assigned by the script: An empty room. Studio camera 3. Jackie Lane. And an invisible alien sitting in an empty chair.
Dude just can’t catch a break, hmm? And when he’s finally given live actors to play off… they’re awful. Now, I’m going to give Michael Imison a pass on this. Back in those days, directors cast their own serials, which is how you come to have virtual repertory companies whose Who appearances are largely limited to stories made by a single director (David Maloney, Lennie Mayne and Douglas Camfield, for example). Imison was new to the show and had no such repertory. Further, in The Ark, each speaking role is limited to one or two episodes, with most of those roles confined to two or three scenes. The Who debut of Michael Sheard is, for example, confined to Episode 2. So, given this restrictive set-up, it’s hard to attract some of the big names and high-end BBC talent we’ve seen in previous weeks.
Unfortunately, even giving Imison that pass, we still have to sit through four episodes’ worth of Deep Hurting. The Ark Commander — the principal role in the first half — is less-than-ably played by Eric Elliott, an impressive-looking man with a rather weak CV. He’s playing the Guardian of 10 million years of human history, yet seems to have great difficulty uttering even simple sentences. His deputy Zentos (played by an actor whose stage name, Inigo Jackson, was the most interesting thing about his career) gives a master class in wooden shouting and painfully over-sincere emoting. Neither of these guys were ever invited back to Doctor Who.
And then there are monsters of the week. The Monoids. Now, the Monoids are cute. For the first two episodes they communicate only in sign language (note: Has anyone ever attempted to break this down? Do people at conventions cosplay as Monoids and communicate entirely in Standard Monoid Sign?) They’ve vaguely reptilian, and their costumes are essentially baggy floor-length dresses. Each Monoid has a single eye, represented by a ping-pong ball, which had to be moved by the mouth of the actor in the costume. Thus, to hide the actors’ own eyes, the costume was topped off by a Beatles-like wig mop. Adorable!
The Monoids are a mute but faintly sinister presence in the first half, and this works well. After the opening shots of a few live animals playing on the jungle floor, a Monoid walks into frame, turns to face the camera, and we get a musical sting recycled from The Daleks, Later, the TARDIS crew finds themselves surrounded by eight Monoids silently rising from the jungle undergrowth. Awesome visuals. In Episode 2, as the Doctor attempts to cure the plague, a Monoid assistant keeps handing him test tubes before he’s asked for them, prompting the Doctor to note, “You’re far more knowledgeable than most people realize, aren’t you?” Most notably, the first Monoid to die of the plague is given a minute-long funeral parade sequence; it’s another impressive visual sequence, ruined only by Dodo hearing the drumbeat march and remarking, “It sounds like savages!”
But in Episode 3, all this comes crashing down. You could forgive the costumes and wigs when the Monoids were a background presence playing out a sinister drama in the wings. Unfortunately, in the second half they’re given comedy voices by Roy Skelton (his first voice work on the series — yes, he gets much, much better after this) but still make ludicrously expansive hand gestures. The scene in Episode 4 of the Monoid “Grand Council” waddling around in their restrictive reptilian costumes, waggling their hands, and addressing each other by number instead of name (“One?” “Yes, Four?”), defies credulity.
Now, I overlook a lot of production flaws when I watch these old episodes. I do you no good if I sit here and pass judgment on 1966 simply for not having 2013’s production values. And Imison did a lot of inventive, pioneering work here. Unfortunately, the Monoids in the second half of the story are awful. Most folks would consider this bit “unwatchable”. It’s hard to re-suspend disbelief after the Monoid Grand Council bit.
The other elephant in the room is best encapsulated by Philip Sandifer’s critique of this story. “Colonialist, imperialist, and downright mean-spirited.” Granted, it’s easy for Americans born in the 1970s and ’80s to rail against British attitudes at the sunset of their Empire. And, yes, there’s a very disturbing feature to this story — the fact that the Guardians of Mankind are entirely white (a non-white actor would not have a speaking role in a Doctor Who story until the very end of the third production season). Star Trek was already in production by March 1966; there are better visions of the future than this.
The problem is, the very production of this story kind of disallows his reading. Sandifer reads The Ark as the culminating cap to John Wiles’ four-month scheme to resurrect the KKK inside Riverside Studio 1. But Wiles had checked out of the series weeks before the cameras started rolling on The Ark. He also didn’t write a single word of the script: he had asked for a story set on a ship; Donald Tosh hired Paul Erickson and those two men wrote the plot breakdown; Erickson wrote the scripts, adding his wife’s name to them; and any script-editing would have been done by Gerry Davis, Tosh’s replacement. As for the Monoid’s Beatles wigs representing “a savage condemnation of youth culture”? Well, the wigs were to prevent you from seeing the Monoid actors’ eyes. And they worked! Also, it seems unlikely that a lame-duck producer would have been micromanaging wardrobe choices. So, to paraphrase Catherine de Medici from the previous story, “Wiles had very little to do with it.”
I’m no doctor of philosophy; my doctorate is in jurisprudence, and as a lawyer by training and trade, my primary concern is with the four corners doctrine. Imison’s casting only white actors to play Guardians is a problem, as are the Monoids’ stupid voices (which, one suspects, Imison asked for solely to make Richard Beale sound that much more impressive as the Refusian ex machina who ends the Human/Monoid conflict later on). But the main figure under investigation must be Paul Erickson, the writer of the script and its four corners, not John Wiles.
Fortunately, we have a good way of determining Paul Erickson’s intent. We have his novelization, which he wrote (sans the help of Lesley Scott) 20 years later. Erickson vastly expands the scope of what we see in the Ark; fauna on display in the opening montage contains zebras, kangaroos and tortoises — calm down, Paul, we can only afford one baby elephant! We see areas of the Ark that couldn’t be shown on TV — desert scapes, remote dwellings, an icy tundra. He even describes several fanciful-sounding missing adventures, which one can be forgiven for assuming were actual proposals shot down by the incoming, and more science-oriented, Lloyd/Davis production regime…
But there’s simply no evidence here of Erickson being a colonialist pig, out to warn mid-’60s Britons against liberating their former colonies. It’s hard to have a racist text, for one thing, when the Doctor derisively quotes Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) (“I see. Equal… but different!”). When the Doctor learns that Monoids have larger brains than the Guardians, Dodo scoffs at the notion that Monoids can “do crosswords and play chess and all sorts of things!”… to which the Doctor replies,”I’ll wager that he’d beat you hands down in a straight game of cards!” (Not to mention that a Monoid is later shown to be repulsed by the game “Snakes and Ladders”,a nice little moment of relativism). Further, the rebellion of the Monoids against One is much more explicitly argued and justified in the book than it was on TV.So the Monoids’ case is argued pretty forcefully; mindless brutes fit only for subservience, simply could not have been a notion in Erickson’s head.
Even in the original script itself, the Doctor and Steven repeatedly rebuff the morality of the Guardians. The Doctor calls them “intolerant”, and Steven of course had his epic rant against Zentos:
Man, even in this day and age, hasn’t altered his basic nature at all. You still fear the unknown, like everyone else before you.
Two things, alas, Erickson did not improve in print. The Security Kitchen — that set- and budget-saving gimmick for which the TV episodes are so roundly derided — is still present in the novelization… in all its “glory”. Also the dialogue is flat and facile, and the prose is juvenile.
So yes, The Ark is, in the final verdict, nonsense. But, at least, it’s not racist imperialist nonsense.