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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Doctor Who: The Ark

Serial Title: The Ark

Series: 3

Episodes: 4
The Steel Sky
The Plague
The Return
The Bomb

Doctor: William Hartnell

Companions: Steven Taylor (Peter Purves), Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane)

In the 57th Segment of Time, quite possibly the year 5,000,000,000 A.D. (due to story evidence that this takes place concurrently with New Who’s second episode, “End of the World”), the TARDIS lands in an indoor forest aboard the Ark, the last refuge for humans (and their allied species, the Monoids, mute alien immigrants to Earth whose planet was destroyed) as Earth itself, nearing the sun, prepares to bite the dust. Well, okay, bite the flaming thermonuclear fusion.

The Doctor and company are welcomed aboard by the toga-wearing inhabitants of the Ark- an animal, vegetable, and sentient species preserve destined for the planet Refusis (many generations away) where humanity and the Monoid’s survivors will re-settle. They see the wonders of the ship- including the foot of a giant statue of the human form, intended to be completed by the time that the Ark reaches Refusis, seven hundred years hence. (NFS: So THAT'S where J.J. Abrams got the idea of the giant statue foot from....)

Disaster strikes, however, as Dodo’s cold (already acquired when she came aboard the TARDIS) proves to be a dangerous plague among the humans of the Ark, who have long since lost their immunity to a considered-extinct disease. Like the introduction of smallpox to American Indian tribes, this makes a relatively harmless disease for the carrier into a terrible plague. Worse, the Monoids, who live in a somewhat subservient role, are hit harder- to them, the virus is lethal, and the deaths begin to pile up.

When the friendly leader of the Ark crew is taken low with the virus- now mutated and re-spread to Steven, as well- the paranoid, hostile, suspicious, Gaston-from-Massacre-like second in command Zentos takes charge and orchestrates a kangaroo court with the intention of convicting the travelers and ejecting them into space… even though we’ve seen miniaturization and suspended animation (a method of storage for living beings aboard the Ark) as a standard punishment on the Ark.

As the Earth burns to it’s final fate in the background, Steven attempts a desperate defense which has no effect on the cruel and bloodthirsty Zentos- but the ailing commander rallies enough strength to make an appearance- via intercom- and order leniency for the prisoners. The Doctor is soon able to create a vaccine and halt the spread of the virus. They depart on friendly terms from the inhabitants of the Ark, dematerializing…

…And re-materializing in the exact same spot. Exiting to explore the reason for this mystery, the group discover the statue from earlier, now complete… in the form of a Monoid! Same place, but a different time- 700 years have passed, and things have changed!

The group is quickly captured by the now-speaking, now dominant Monoids, who have gone one step further and made the human population of the Ark into slaves- exploiting a genetic weakness introduced into the humans by a second, unexpected outbreak of the plague soon after the TARDIS crew left. The now-dominant Monoids still intend to settle Refusis- but do not intend to invite any humans along for the ride.

Prisoners Dodo, The Doctor, and a human named Yendom are sent with a Monoid as guinea pigs to test the safety of the newly-arrived Refusis- finding a strange castle that seems to be unoccupied… but not abandoned.

The native Refusians are, in fact, invisible- having been rendered so by solar flares, and a healthy dose of spitting in the face of physics and common sense. (If you haven’t yet noticed, you will- Solar Flares are for Doctor Who what Radiation was for comics books- Hulk-maker, Spider-empowerer, all-around Macguffin- whatever they want it to do this week, it does.) The Refusians are powerful and benevolent. They’ve monitored the Ark’s approach, and welcome guests- but are only interested in sharing their planet with peaceful inhabitants. The Monoid demonstrates that he and his kin are not that by murdering the human prisoner Yendom and fleeing- but his pod (with him inside) is destroyed by the Refusians to prevent him from informing the Monoids of the situation on the surface.

The Monoids, loathe to trust the safety of the planet after losing an expedition, send down more pods- internal tensions among the Monoids, and the mysteriously destroyed pod, leading to a Monoid civil war. In the chaos, the Doctor, Dodo, and a Refusian commandeer one of the pods and return to the Ark.

Word of the Monoids’ plan reaches them- the Monoids intended to, upon establishing the safety of Refusis, evacuate to the planet and blow up the stranded humans aboard their Ark with a bomb- placed in the head of the giant statue. Word of this ignites a human rebellion, and the Refusians use their telekinesis (clearly granted by Solar Flares) to expel the statue into space via the pod launch bay.

The humans, having achieved their freedom through a violent uprising, alongside the few cowed-but-peaceful survivors of the violent Monoid internal conflict, are seen as desirable peaceful inhabitants by the Refusians, and allowed to stay. (Whoops, there’s that Keys of Marinus recap snark again!)

The ark is, of course, two stories- one an infuriating kangaroo court, and the other a prisoner escape/slave uprising tale. Neither distinguish themselves especially, sadly...though neither is downright awful.

The odd techno-toga ambiance of the first ark story notwithstanding, the Ark concept and its society are at least mildly entertaining for the first half. Special effects range from excellent- the shrinking, the statue completed, to poor- the destruction of the Earth. Likewise, the story varies from travelogue (the life of the Ark residents) to outbreak tale (as the virus spreads) to courtroom drama (sorta). However, the latter ruins the story, as it's the infuriating kind of nonsensical, plot-serving rhetoric of a kangaroo court that is not especially well-written or well-characterized. 

Overall, the first portion of the story is being irritating whenever it's not being dull. (Which is also an excellent description of the new companion, Dodo, in her first silly full-episode appearance here.) (NFS: A. I think it's totally a Doctor Who thing to have infuriating "court" scenes that would be better suited to the world of Lewis Carol, and B. Dodo is totally the most annoying companion we've had YET! Agreed.)

The second half is a more straight-up sci-fi. The cliffhanger reveal that leads into it is actually fairly cool, and I, at least, didn't see it coming- a very early precursor to the Statue of Liberty scene in Planet of the Apes. Or the nonsensical Gorilla-Abe-Lincoln ending in the remake, even though it was clearly established that the Apes' world was a different planet this time around, with multiple moons, thus rendering the shock ending simply shocking for shocking's sake with no meaning or rationale-


The Ark.

Sorry, where was I? (NFS: P.S. A chimp Abe Lincoln actually makes no sense whatsoever; why wouldn't they just make their own statue? Or are you saying it was a statue of a chimp in Abe's place? Cause if it was literally a chimp wearing the suit and hat then....that's just dumb.)

This second story is a slave revolt/taking control of the ship/invisible aliens tale that is decent, if not sterling. The Refusians are an interestingly characterized, mild-mannered non-corporeal bunch that added life into the story. The notion of the Doctor believing he's fixed things when he's actually worsened them is revisited (or hearkens back to, for those introduced to the show by the modern series) the New Who 'The Long Game/Bad Wolf' story arc. (New Who fans can also imagine that the Earth streaking across the sky trailing smoke was simply a more primitive effects rendition of the events in End of the World, and that even as the Ark watches from afar, Platform One is sitting back in orbit, observing, as Lady Cassandra does in the Moxx of Balhoon and Jabe fails to use her liana from a distance or any heavy object and the doctor fails to use his time-meditation powers that he uses just a minute later in a dramatic conspiracy to kill of the first of many one-time companions.)

The only real story issue in the second half are the Monoids- they come across as (politically incorrect statement upcoming!) a whiny minority who is not being treated unfairly but has a complex about it simply because they are a minority. (NFS: Do they? I thought they were being treated like servants?)

The Monoids- at least when we saw them- were not slaves, or even servants near as I could tell (NFS: Oh never-mind, I guess I don't remember as well as I thought that I did.), and the humans went out of their way to praise the Monoids' skills on several occasions. So, this uprising and enslavement of their humans companions would seem to be rather unprovoked by the Monoids- unless the decimation of their population led to a change in social structure in-between the two stories.
Speaking of the Monoids, they are certainly an interesting
and memorable design (achieved by a painted ping-pong ball in the actors' mouths) that would probably be far easier to take seriously without the ragged mop of Beatles hair. (NFS: And really WAS a Beatles wig...)

The Doctor once again shows his skill as a physician in this episode, as in *shudder* The Sensorites, devising a plague cure... in actuality, the plot felt rather derivative in that respect. (And anything that derives from the Sensorites is TROUBLE!)

Steven is the most passionate and active in this serial, though he is largely useless and ineffective for much of the story- and unfortunately, his trial defense is rather pathetic. But at least he tries. He does the most, but accomplishes the least.

Well, not the least. That honor goes to the appropriately-named Dodo (how many times has that joke been made by Who fans since 1966, I wonder?) who is just kind of a moron in this one- neither interesting in her reactions to suddenly being flung from modern-day Earth into time and space travel (because she has none) nor useful in dealing with the issue using some forgotten 20th century technology or moral, nor amusing in her utterly pointless insistence that the Ark is a zoo she's familiar with, or even interesting/dramatic in some form of guilt about being the cause of the spreading plague (which, though unfair, would at least have been interesting to watch)- in other companions, each of these might have been explored to the benefit of the episode. Susan or Barbara might have
agonized about bringing about the plague deaths, Ian would have actively worked on some bit of forgotten cure knowledge, Vicki might well have been a humorous source of supposed knowledge about the location proved to be wrong, and New Who companion Rose already explored the psychological ramifications of being introduced to the much larger world(s) of time and space travel in the aforementioned End of the World, which may theoretically be happening parallel to these events (at least thematically, with Earth's destruction by the sun, if nothing else.) Dodo did none of these, simply using up space and running time as an uninteresting nonentity. One can only hope her role will improve in future. (NFS: I wouldn't hold my breath...or yours. Although I am unfairly writing from the future in which I KNOW for a fact Dodo does not all.)

Other than that, not much comes to mind- this story is neither excellent nor ghastly, simply adequate. And while mediocrity may serve as a condemnation in some cases, in this season, it is merely an indicator that, while not reaching the highs of it's predecessors, it is still good enough to avoid falling into the traps of some of it's rubbish companions.

Like Galaxy 4.

(NFS: I actually liked this episode, or at least I remember liking it (I didn't fall that automatically means I must have liked it). I think I thought the drama of the story was interesting and the relationships between the different factions. I also remember thinking that the court scenes were mildly amusing if not totally aggravating...if it's possible to be both? :) )

Great moments:
That first shot of the completed Monoid statue was pretty cool!

2.5 out of 5 Time Destructors for the Ark. (Or, if broken up into it's separate storylines, 1.5 out of 5 Chumblies for the miserable plague story, and a solid 3 out of 5 Time Destructors for the much-improved latter half.)

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