Aired 25 January – 15 February 1975
Just as ‘Spearhead from Space’ laid out a firm foundation for the change at hand at the beginning of the Jon Pertwee era, a format seemingly brought to a close in Tom Baker’s debut episode ‘Robot,’ ‘The Ark in Space’ very much feels like a blueprint for new producer Philip Hincliffe’s vison for the Fourth Doctor era. Instantly gone is the sense of familiarity and family that UNIT’s continued appearances over the past several years instilled in the programme as more classic science fiction and horror themes are joyously brought to the forefront.
Indeed, even with the budget reducing part of the alien Wirrn threat to moving green bubble wrap, ‘The Ark in Space’ is unquestionably one of the finest examples of body horror that Doctor Who has ever achieved, the notion of a person being a vital part of an alien’s reproductive cycle and being eaten from the inside out an instinctively frightening one. Wisely, though, the horror aspect is not included gratuitously and hints at a familiarity that pervades the universe regardless of time or location, heightening emotional investment to further solidify the drama and leading up to another wonderful moment where the Doctor must choose between humanity and the Wirrn and accept the consequences that come from his decision.
The future of Earth and, indeed, humanity in general presented here is quite grim even with the hope that any form of survival brings, and the rather colonial and prideful undertones to the Ark inhabitants’ speech creates an intriguing contrast between their ideal thoughts and the reality of their situation. The recording on the Ark stresses the necessity of these people maintaining the purity of human culture and all that it entails, and the Doctor and his companions are initially looked down upon as something wholly different than their ideals while the Wirrn are blatantly shown to be a victim of this colonialist expansion. With humans having destroyed all of the Wirrn’s breeding grounds, the insectoid race has been forced to use any means necessary to complete their life cycle, and it’s fascinating and bold that ‘The Ark in Space’ does not shy away from painting humans in a much less than ideal fashion even if the Doctor does ultimately end up siding with the humans as has come to be expected.
While Sarah Jane Smith does get some important work here, ‘The Ark in Space’ is very much about characterizing the new Doctor and new companion, Harry. Baker again immediately exudes a sort of alien charm that very much goes against the rather establishment notions of his predecessor, and the true fear he is able to inject into his performance as well as the rather manipulative means he is willing to use to achieve his goals instantly distinguish him as an altogether different presence than any that have come before him. Harry, perhaps unsurprisingly given his involvement with UNIT, seems to be much more conservative than the Doctor and seems rather happy to join in with the more militaristic stylings of the Ark inhabitants as the opportunities allow, contradicting the Doctor whenever he gets the chance. It’s an interesting dynamic that sort of blends the Third and Fourth Doctor eras somewhat even with Sarah Jane as the definitive companion, but it’s already quite clear that there won’t be enough screen time for two strong male presences aboard the TARDIS with Baker so effortlessly stepping into the titular role.
‘The Ark in Space’ clearly exemplifies the type of programme the new staff behind the scenes wanted Doctor Who to be, and it’s satisfying that the first true Tom Baker story that steps away from the traditions of old works so well. With heady science fiction with real consequences and real-world parallels that is unafraid to show some rather dark and horrific aspects, ‘The Ark in Space’ easily overcomes its budgetary constraints to create a very enjoyable experience.