Aired 5 March – 26 March 1966
‘The Ark’ is an intriguing Doctor Who story, both in terms of structure and theme as the story is split into two distinct halves with the Doctor and his companions joining the action in one place during two very different time periods. This is a relatively high-brow concept for Doctor Who at this point, a show that until now has been wary of confronting the possibility of its heroes’ actions altering future events, and these consequences are made all the more powerful after the Doctor’s dramatic dialogue insisting on non-intervention at the end of the preceding serial.
Essentially two two-part stories, ‘The Ark’ begins like a very traditional story, channeling events of ‘The Sensorites’ as the Doctor again searches for a cure for an ailing population. The civilization in peril here, though, is humanity itself, its remaining members embarking on an ark in hopes of finding survival. Although the humans are expecting to find resistance on the planet they have chosen, it’s intriguing to note how xenophobic their situation has caused them to become, accusing the TARDIS travelers of being spies sent to infect them with a deadly pathogen. They freely admit that they know nothing about the Refusian race on their intended planet, and they concoct several scenarios that show how paranoid and close-minded they have become, even wildly suggesting without any reason that the Refusians may have a way of inhabiting human bodies.
In the background upon the ark are the Monoids, a monocular race that communicates through sign language while doing the humans’ manual labour. They apparently landed on Earth several years previously as they fled from their own dying planet, offering to help the humans with their labour in exchange for being allowed to join them upon the ark. The Doctor and his companions note that the Monoids are not being treated particularly fairly, the implications of forced labour bubbling under the surface, and he pleads that humans travel with a sense of open-mindedness, understanding, and hope for all involved. Typically, the Doctor imparting vital lessons such as the immorality of slavery and the irrationality of fearing the unknown would be a logical ending point for a story, but this occurs at only the halfway point of ‘The Ark.’ The TARDIS quickly takes its travelers to the same place at a future point in time, allowing them to see what has become of the society with which they have just been interacting, a twist that only the serialized nature of this serial really allows to come to fruition.
Until now, the Doctor’s actions have always been perceived as being good and beneficial, but ‘The Ark’ shows that this is not always the case. After appearing out of nowhere and setting into motion some quite major social changes, the standard aboard the ark underwent a massive shift. Unfortunately, the changes shown give credence to some of the very worst aspect of this future human race. As it turns out, the humans were completely justified in becoming xenophobes, incorrectly fearing the Refusians instead of the trusted Monoids. In between the Doctor’s appearances, the Monoids have become tyrannical slavemasters, unafraid to discuss the genocide of the human race that welcomed them aboard the ship regardless of the circumstances. This works well as an act of fiction, but it is a little uncomfortable when remembering that this story aired at a time of extreme racial tension in Britain. It’s not difficult to extend the xenophobic notions of the story to Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, one of the few times where political fears and undercurrents- in this case of opportunistic foreigners who are much cleverer than they may appear- so directly enters the realm of Doctor Who.
This is also the first full episode for Jackie Lane as Dodo, certainly a product of the sixties and certainly the most ‘modern’ companion the Doctor has had so far. She brings the exuberant and wide-eyed energy of youth to proceedings, not yet fully aware of what the world is like and what her role in it is. In some ways, she is treated as a bit of a child, the Doctor promising to teach her proper English and Steven chastising her for not taking enough precautions before heading out of the TARDIS. It may not exactly be a showcase for the new companion, but it certainly is an intriguing new dynamic that hasn’t really existed aboard the TARDIS before.
‘The Ark’ deserves full marks for doing something radically different with its format than any of its preceding episodes; whether intended or not, the end result is very much Doctor Who at its most conservative, cynically defending the existing state of affairs and rejecting the notion that good intentions and ideas can lead to meaningful change.