Monster acting, aspirational directing and The Ark (1966)

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Let’s put ourselves, for a moment, in the flappy latex flippers of the actors who played The Ark’s resident aliens, the mop haired Monoids.

Imagine climbing into that costume for the first time and realising the limitations being imposed on your performance. Firstly, your vision’s severely impeded by the formidable fringe of a mighty, mushroomed shaped wig. Then, in a strong challenge to personal hygiene, you have to manipulate the costume’s only eye with your tongue.

At this point, you might have been forgiven for tearing up your equity card and pursuing a career in something more rewarding like animal husbandry. But only once you try to walk do you realise that even this simple movement is restricted by the costume’s mermaid-like monoleg, and you’ll have to be content with an urgent shuffle. Running’s right out. That’s why they drive buggies, I suppose.

And that’s just in The Ark’s first two episodes, when the action for our alien friends is rather sedate. In the story’s second half, the Monoids have become the dominant species on the Ark. Which is all well and good, but in the 700 years between those two halves there have been a number of innovations which make the actors’ lives not easier, but harder.

For one thing, they have developed speech. Which is fine if you’re the one delivering the dialogue, but as your tongue’s occupied making a fake eye swivel, someone across the other side of the studio’s doing the actual talking. And you have to move your arms in declamatory gestures to indicate that you’re speaking. AND you have to place a hand on your newly acquired collars to further indicate that you’re speaking. AND, as the Monoids are now armed, you also have to carry and unfeasibly long cattle prod device.

I feel particularly sorry for whichever poor sod had to inhabit Monoid One’s sweaty rubber outfit. As chief bad guy, his gestures have to be particularly aggressive: hands raised in command, arms sweeping aside imaginary enemies like chess pieces. All this, plus touching your collar, holding a prod, waggling your tongue, walking with your legs tied together and doing it all with next to no eyesight. No one ever mentioned this at RADA, I’ll bet.

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Pity also director Michael Imison. As he explains in the ‘making of’ documentary on The Ark DVD, while making this story his contract was coming to an end. He reasoned that if he made a brilliant job of this story, they might be convinced to renew it. And I bet that when he started talking about the production team it sounded like the sort of story that might have scope for some directorial grandstanding: a spaceship the size of a city, the destruction of the Earth, a story pivoting moment with the Monoid-headed statue, a new companion and a promising new race of monsters.

All those big ideas are great. But The Ark‘s big ideas aren’t matched by its execution. Its characters are one-note. The supporting cast’s performances are uninspiring. Production standards are high in the first episode (look! An elephant!) but gradually diminish until the final episode is set on a bargain basement alien planet furnished with invisible aliens and an assortment of tables, chairs and buffets dragged out from stock. The Monoids costumes we’ve canvassed, but the Guardians’ costumes – ribbony togas over sensible underwear – are also unedifying. And the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Particularly when the wicked Monoids find their voices and start to starkly say whatever’s on their minds, just so the audience can understand their plans.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s difficult to see how The Ark – brilliant in conception, but tacky in realisation – was ever going to save Imison’s BBC career. Just before starting recording on the final episode, Imison got the axe. That he didn’t walk off the production then and there speaks to a level  of professionalism, but all the same, he must have been kicking himself that he wasn’t assigned to The Massacre.

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Then there’s new companion Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane). Producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh had had several attempts to break the mold of the female companion with a number of high concept creations. When they sacked Maureen O’Brien for being a bit uppity about the scripts, they tried in quick succession a Trojan handmaiden and a spage age security agent before flirting with the idea of Anne Chaplet, a Hugenot serving girl. The introduction of Dodo, a typical teenager girl ala Susan and Vicki, seems to be an admission of defeat.

Dodo’s the very picture of teenage enthusiasm. She runs out of the TARDIS, eager to start her adventuring and her first instinct when she sees the partially completed giant statue is to climb it. She’s also a Londoner from the 1960s (and she’s at pains to say that things are ‘fab’ and ‘gear’), the first contemporary companion since Ian and Barbara left; an earthly child, so to speak. She dresses playfully, having raided the TARDIS wardrobe to indulge in some historical cosplay. She’s a clear signal that the show is getting an element of fun.

She doesn’t last, of course, because producer Innes Lloyd took over, and his famously ruthless attitude to recasting would eventually lead to a complete change in the series leads, including the Doctor. And even during her brief tenure, Dodo is toned down, her accent modified, her perkiness blunted. That’s a shame because it gives the sense of Doctor Who being unable to incorporate difference, forcing its more radical elements to conform to an accepted idea of what the show should be. Homogenization is what happens to Dodo and that’s surely what eventually leads to her departure from the show. When you take an idiosyncratic character and make her just like any other girl, then why not change her when you get bored?

Though apparently years later, Jackie Lane became an agent and got to turn down Innes Lloyd for a job. Which must have been just a little bit satisfying. The poorly treated employee had become the boss! Hmm, sounds a bit like The Ark.

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The Ark mini-quiz! Answers in the comments, if you please.

  1. Why is there a cave painting of a two headed Zebra on the Ark?
  2. Why does Steven – from a far less distant future than the Guardians – nearly die from Dodo’s cold?
  3. Why does the Commander refer to the TARDIS as a black box?
  4. Why does Guardian fashion not change at all in 700 years?

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: In the second episode, “the Doctor and his friends” becomes “the Doctor and his fiends”. Change one letter and change the meaning of the word!

LINK to Inferno: both show the destruction of Earth.

NEXT TIME… We visit the eight-legs on the Planet of the Spiders. All praise to the great one!

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7 thoughts on “Monster acting, aspirational directing and The Ark (1966)”

  1. 1. Painted by a Monoid missing the fauna of his home world.
    2. Manflu.
    3. The paintwork got scorched in the forest fire on Kembel for a while.
    4. All the fashion designers were put with the telephone sanitisers on the C Ark.

  2. For question #3, the latest Doctor Who Magazine (as of mid May, 2017) suggests that maybe the video display on the Ark is black and white.

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