Doctor Who Reviews: The Ark

Colds: I hate them. They spring on you without warning. They leave you feeling like you’re bobbing for apples in a bowl full of green gunge, like someone’s rubbing your throat with sandpaper all day, and like someone’s constantly hitting you on the head with a stick. Thanks to the non-stop teary eyes and runny nose, they also make you look like you could outrank the world’s most compulsive onion peeler.

At least there’s a cure for them, though. Nip to the local chemist, buy some overpriced decongestant or lozenge, and bingo! Gone in a day or two. However, nobody thought to put a chemist on board the latest destination of The Doctor and his team.

Yes, The Ark, as it’s christened by newcomer Dodo, a giant space vessel that’s en route to a place called Refusis II. On board are a band of surviving humans who are escaping the dying Earth, along with a whole host of animals, flora and fauna. The humans must have a lot of patience, since the trip takes a mammoth 700 years. But at least they’ve got their slaves, sorry, servants, to keep them amused: The Monoids, a bizarre group of moptop drones with one eye. They look like Scaroth entering a PJ Proby lookalike competition.

Problem is, Dodo, the new companion, who’s just barged her way into the TARDIS, is coming down with a cold. And while the Ark-infested humans have utilised state-of-the-art technological advances such as miniaturisation, no one told them about developing an antidote to the common cold. You can only imagine what would happen if the crew discovered an outbreak of Swine Flu: There’d be more outbreaks of hysteria than the audience of Britain’s Got Talent.

Dodo, all told, doesn’t really make the best first impression. Not only does she pass the cold onto a doomed Monoid, the Ark’s Commander goes down with the virus. Even worse, the true implications of this are felt when the TARDIS crew return later in the story to find out that the Monoids are now the rulers, and the descendants of the original crew are now the servants – all thanks to Dodo’s snot.

If that’s not bad enough, Dodo, for reasons known only to herself, starts talking in an occasional Cockney accent. Gorbloymey, apples and pears, it’s the grandmother of Fearne Cotton. Or Lily Allen. Or Kate Nash (Etc. Etc.). Luckily, in future stories, Jackie Lane would use her natural accent, since apparently, the Big Cheeses at the Beeb didn’t like the Cockney caterwauling much either.

Out of all the First Doctor companions, Dodo is definitely the Ringo of the pack. The sad thing about Dodo is that she’s basically a carbon copy of Vicki. Who was a carbon copy of Susan. Unfortunately, Jackie Lane was handed the poisoned chalice of the generic, screaming companion who’s only there to ask The Doctor what’s going on. She does her best, but unfortunately, she can’t hide the fact that Dodo has very little character or identity of her own. In The Ark alone, she’s reduced to sniffling, whining and blubbing her way through events like a kid who’s just fallen into a duck pond on a school trip. Admittedly, the following story would provide better material for Dodo, but overall, a radical rethink of the companion was desperately required.

Dodo’s cold also raises the issue of how The Doctor and his party, either deliberately or through no fault of their own, influence events in the future. This tack would be taken in stories like The Face Of Evil and The End Of Time. The potential is there to explore this concept in greater detail, but sadly, it’s never developed enough in The Ark. Instead, the last two episodes concentrate more on the hackneyed power battles between the Monoids and the humans. Luckily, The Doctor brokers an agreement between both races in order to allow them to live in peace, but despite the initial scenes of the time travellers being forced to take consequence for their actions, this is never really followed up properly.

The humans are certainly distrustful of The Doctor, Steven and Dodo – in particular, Frayed Zentos, a man who eats Doom Flakes for breakfast. Zentos has a habit of making a mountain out of a molehill, so it’s just bad luck that Dodo stumbled along with her snivelling to place his race in peril. Zentos is the stock angry man, a bloke that refuses to listen to reason and instead decides on drastic solutions that actually help no one. The Doctor could have started work on an antidote far quicker if Zentos hadn’t been too busy ordering his execution. Diplomat isn’t the career for Zentos, needless to say.

The characters in The Ark are fairly unimpressive, and come across as such a load of wet fish that it’s no wonder that the Monoids manage to stage a revolution. The Commander, on the other hand, seems to be grinning like an imbecile throughout. Even Michael Sheard, making the first of his many Doctor Who contributions, fails to make much of an impression as Rhos in the second episode. Such a shame, since The Ark has some great ideas and concepts at its heart. What it desperately needed was some believable, three-dimensional characters to give the story a bit of depth. Even the underlying slavery theme is never dwelt upon in enough detail, since the Monoids develop into stock Baddies Of The Month.

The Monoids are visually memorable creatures, though, and after they have developed the power of speech, their voices are also nicely distinctive, thanks to the efforts of Doctor Who stalwart and old Zippy himself, Roy Skelton. The cliffhanger to Episode Two, when the TARDIS team returns to find the completed statue (which had only just been started when they visited the first time) with the head of a Monoid is a classic, and sets up the mystery nicely for the rest of the story.

That’s one advantage of The Ark. For the time in which it was made, it’s all perfectly realised on screen. The designs are excellent from Barry Newbery, in particular the jungle set, which even pays host to a toucan, a snake and even an elephant. Rumours that Peter Purves and the elephant would be reunited in the Blue Peter studio (when it did a great big poo in the middle of the studio) have yet to be confirmed.

With a whole load of animals that would make Johnny Morris weep with jealousy, the production of The Ark is top rate. Even the main control bridge interiors look good, and the scanner screen inlays are innovative for the time. The effects aren’t half bad either, especially the destruction of the space shuttle and the burning Earth.

Even if The Ark doesn’t quite fulfil its promise of delivering on the deeper themes at work, it’s still entertaining, and what’s more, is one of the best realised stories of the third season. Of course, this tale would be outstripped by its more popular stablemate The Ark In Space, with its similar ideas of Earthlings escaping disaster. But despite this, The Ark is a clever little tale that manages to be boosted by its presentation and (for the time) swanky production values.

* If you have a cold and need cheering up, then why not enjoy some bedtime reading with my 3 Doctor Who ebook guides?