I don’t eat fish. No seafood at all, actually. I just don’t like the taste of it. Never have. This doesn’t stop people always trying to convince me to eat fish. “It’s good for you,” they say. “It’s delicious. Here try this. You’ll like it. It hardly tastes fishy at all!” (Note to everyone: seafood always tastes fishy.)
Some people don’t like Doctor Who. I mean, not just “I don’t watch it” or “I’m indifferent to it”. I mean those who say “I can’t stand it”. But unlike my fish advocating friends, I never try to convince them to like it. What’s the point? And what would I say? “Watch Black Orchid. It’s hardly like Doctor Who at all!”
I am interested, though, in what they don’t like about it. There are those who say, “it’s so cheap” (that this is still an accusation after a decade on well funded, new series episodes says something about the potency of that tag). There are those who say, “it’s too camp”. And there are those who say, “it’s too weird. I just don’t get it”. These last lot seem to me to be the most entrenched in their views; there’s something too far out about the program which just makes it innately unappealing to them. They’ll never get it. It’s not for them. It’s their fish. Let’s call them the Doubters.
Consider now, the random clutch of stories I’ve been watching, all of which come from Doctor Who’s mid 70s heyday. Last random, Planet of the Spiders. NEXT TIME… Horror of Fang Rock. And this entry, The Ark in Space. All stories which are well regarded by fans, and each which have created memorable imagery, which cause them to linger in the public consciousness. The one with the spiders, the one in the lighthouse and the one with the bubble wrap monster.
Watched from a fan perspective, they are better than average fare. But watched from a Doubter’s perspective, I fear they are irretrievably duff. Those plasticky spiders and the tacky green screen effects. Is that a tennis ball climbing up that model lighthouse? And c’mon – that monster really is made of bubble wrap!
This makes me recall recent statements by showrunner Steven Moffat and Doctor Peter Capaldi, that the show somehow inspires creativity amongst its viewers. I think they are right, and surely the mother of creativity is imagination.
I don’t want to say that the Doubters among us lack imagination. But I’d say that to enjoy a Doctor Who story like The Ark in Space requires the viewer to use their imagination. It takes a certain type of viewing, I think. One that enables the viewer to transcend the tacky elements on screen. Doubters see an actor unconvincingly writhing with his hand encased in a bubble wrap glove, snarling hammy lines like, “the Ark is ours! It must be ours!” Those who buy in see the terrifying concept behind it, a man losing control of his body to an alien infection.
The Ark in Space marks a point in the series’ history where those underlying concepts became more confronting. In Planet of the Spiders, only two stories previous to this, but made by a different production team, the villainous spiders wrapped up their human victims in cotton wool cocoons to store in the pantry for future snacking. In The Ark in Space, the insectoid Wirrn go a good deal further. It lays its eggs in your sleeping body, and when those eggs hatch, the larvae eat you from the inside out. It’s next level gruesome.
We even see it happen, or at least the start of it. Crew Member Lycett (John Gregg) is taken alive by a Wirrn grub. Again, it’s stagey and unconvincing. Lycett has to conveniently slip to allow the grub (Stuart Fell, caterpillaring across the studio floor in bubbly sleeping bag) to pinion him against the wall. But once you start imagining it, and thinking about the implications – eggs hatching, eating you from the inside – suddenly poor old Lycett’s fate seems far more real.
The bubble wrap monsters have become our shorthand symbol of The Ark in Space‘s ability to transcend its low budget production values. But let’s face it: the whole thing’s pretty tacky. Yes, the sets are nice (although why access to the transmat bed in the control room has to be by climbing over an enormous control panel has always left me scratching my head). But the video effects are rudimentary, the Ark itself sits unsteadily on a CSO backdrop and the Wirrn totter precariously, spindly static arms sprouting out of Mr Hanky style bodies.
None of this should work. But it does because of the quality of this story’s ideas. It’s those ideas which inspired Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat; this is a favourite story for both. No doubt because it offers many examples where those big, bubble wrap transcending moments, where the human impact of events becomes piercingly clear.
My favourite is the moment when Noah (Kenton Moore), on his way to full Wirrndom, forgets which human he is. He’s succumbs to confusion while trying to give an order, and Vira (Wendy Williams) asks if it’s something about Dune, the crew member first ‘digested’ by the Wirrn. A look of sudden calm comes over Noah as he says, “But I’m here! I am Dune.” And the assembled group of onlookers are stunned, realizing something awful has happened to this man’s mind.
Ages ago, when talking about The Aztecs, I suggested that Doctor Who fans watch the show in a way which is inherently forgiving. And we might pause here to remember the recently randomed The Ark which I think involves an even greater level of forgiveness, be it for the rubbery Monoids, the dodgy acting or the lazy expediency that results in a security kitchen. Both of the show’s arks in space offer big ideas on a tiny budget. But only the later story offers a plot strong enough to fire the imagination. There’s no “I am Dune” moment in the earlier story. You forgive The Ark, but you buy in to The Ark in Space.
It’s also a story which celebrates the human spirit. In an almost sentimental way, which is very unlike the usually gloomy outlook of writer and script editor Robert Holmes. Early on, the Doctor (an early Tom Baker) offers his awestruck appreciation of humanity’s indomitability. By the time we get to Part Four, it’s not the Doctor, but Noah, now almost all Wirrn, who saves the day by luring his fellow monsters into a rocket (who knows how they got up the entry ladder) and blowing them up. His last line, a simple “Goodbye Vira” to the woman he was to be “pair bonded to for the new world”. Indomitable indeed.
It’s a thing of beauty. And it’s just for us. Don’t bother showing it to a Doubter. It won’t convince them. Which is just fine. The Ark is ours. It must be ours.
SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Noah.
LINK TO Planet of the Spiders. Sarah Jane against the insect bad guys.
Serials like The Ark in Space highlight how solid writing can make us invest in the story, even if the effects aren’t exactly up to snuff. And I do think you have a good point that we’re willing to forgive the dodgier effects when we have more invested in the story. I mean, if this were on the level of The Time Monster, would be as willing to overlook the bubble wrap?
Almost certainly not!
Yes, good writing helps obscure the bubble wrap. Still, Ark has its share of hammy dialogue and sketchy characterisation. Committed performances and smart direction help lift the writing. And that, I reckon, is how fans watch Doctor Who: we balance all those factors while we’re watching it. Whereas casual viewers don’t bother with such calibration.