ABC TV in Australia must have had some kind of commercial relationship with the BBC, because periodically BBC programmes appeared and disappeared apparently at random from TV screens in Australia, and were played in entirely different sequences than they would have been in Britain. My love for Doctor Who, for example, really grew during school holidays, when ABC would show one episode from the Patrick Troughton era every weekday afternoon for two weeks. In this way, my brother and I got to see classic stories such as ‘The Web of Fear’, ‘The Enemy of the World’ and particularly ‘The Invasion’ and the epic, game-changing ‘War Games’, at a fairly intense pace, tuning in to afternoon television each day and waiting patiently through highly obscure shows from other countries (like The King’s Outlaw, about a French version of Robin Hood, and The Beachcombers, a Canadian show about a group of misfits in Canada’s lake country) until the famous black and white titles and echoing theme music filled the room.
Then, for long periods, particularly during the Pertwee era, the programme vanished, or appeared only sporadically. Some stories, like ‘Inferno’ or ‘The Daemons’ were considered too dangerous for Australian children to watch and were never shown at all; and then it vanished altogether. It was only when I was at university in 1977 that I happened to walk past a scene in a student lounge, where two or three students were relaxing watching television before the evening meal - and I caught a glimpse of someone sneaking about in some shadows on screen, to the accompaniment of a vaguely familiar kind of incidental music. That was my first glimpse of Sarah Jane Smith, in the story ‘Planet of the Spiders’. I had soon acquired a TV of my own and structured my routine around the appearance of the next episode, seeing the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, regenerating into the Fourth, Tom Baker. The fact that that particular regeneration was ‘pushed along’ by a floating Tibetan monk seemed somehow appropriate, though I had missed the back story.
It was sad to see the Third Doctor go, but Tom Baker was magnetic to watch. In Pertwee’s last series, viewing figures in Britain had been hovering around 9 million for each story -‘Robot’, Baker’s first adventure as the Doctor, rocketed them to 10.2 million. But it was the more satisfying ‘Ark in Space’, Baker’s first excursion in the TARDIS, that pushed them even higher. That serial scored 11.1 million (the second episode rising to 13.6 million), followed by 10.8 million for ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ which followed.
‘The Ark in Space’ was clearly a classic, resonating for years afterwards as a more-or-less self-contained story which stressed the horror elements of the story but encased them in the Epic structure that was at that time also typical of the series. The TARDIS materialises on an apparently empty space station. Harry Sullivan (played perfectly by Ian Marter) and the Doctor explore, but Sarah Jane is accidentally placed into cryonic suspension by the station’s computer. It turns out that the station - Space Station Nerva - is a kind of ark, preserving what remains of the human race while the sun goes through a dangerous period of solar flares. Harry searches for a resuscitation unit with which to revive Sarah Jane, but discovers a mummified alien insect instead. In that one image, the sleeping humans and the dead insect, lie all the themes of the story. And, in the mystery of the alien’s appearance we are alerted to peril, while the deeper mystery of why it is dead gives us a shred of hope.
A medic, Vira, is revived from suspended animation and brings Sarah Jane and the Ark's leader, Lazar, nicknamed ‘Noah’, back to full consciousness. (‘Lazar’ was perhaps consciously chosen by the writer Robert Holmes as short for Lazarus, ‘one who returns from the dead’, given the rest of the story’s Biblical references.) The Doctor informs Vira that the Ark's inhabitants have overslept by several millennia, thanks to the insect visitor that sabotaged the control systems. Noah accuses the Doctor and his companions of murdering a missing crewmate, but is himself infected by an alien creature when he tries to investigate further. The Doctor realises that the alien insect Harry discovered had laid eggs inside the missing crewman, who became an alien. Discovering that the Wirrn are vulnerable to high voltage electricity, the Doctor succeeds in electrifying the cryogenic chamber. Given the option by Noah, as the Swarm Leader, to take safe passage from the Ark if they leave the sleeping crew for the Wirrn, they decline.
So far, this is the plotline of a typical horror story -embattled and entrapped human survivors battle hopelessly against terrifying alien threat - but it is the richness of the theme which helps this story to stand out. On first realising what the Ark is, before the insectoid creatures are discovered, Baker’s Doctor makes a memorable speech:
Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable.
This isn’t going to end as an Irony, with humanity consumed by insectoid aliens. Recovering some shred of humanity, and perhaps returning from the dead in another way, Lazar, becomes a kind of Noah for the aliens and leads the entire swarm onto the transport ship which Vira and the rest of the crew escape from, after setting the autopilot. The transport blasts off, taking the entire swarm with it. Noah sabotages the transport's engines and transmits one final good-bye to Vira before the ship explodes, destroying the entire Wirrn swarm.
‘The Ark in Space’ marked the point at which Philip Hinchcliffe, together with script editor Robert Holmes, began to change the tone of Doctor Who, making it darker, more adult and gothic in atmosphere, and pushing the programme towards a more literary, science fiction feel. Hinchcliffe produced more episodes to achieve over 10 million viewers than any producer in the series' history, beating even the ‘Dalekmania’ spell of the mid-Sixties. Replacing him with Graham Williams, who was specifically instructed to lighten the tone of the storylines and reduce violence after complaints, could have been the start of the decline in popularity and quality of the show which led to its eventual cancellation in 1989. With ‘The Ark in Space’ Hinchcliffe tried, successfully, to expand the show's core audience using horror, and some have pointed to its possible influence on the Alien film franchise - certainly the basic plotline is similar. Interestingly, both Russell T Davies, producer of the 21st century revival of Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat, his successor, have stated that ‘The Ark in Space’ was their favourite classic Who story. Why could that be?
The Doctor isn’t the protagonist, particularly, and that’s noteworthy: Vira takes on the female companion role, while Lazar/Noah is a kind of tragic hero, a leader doomed by his own hubris who recovers himself at the end at the cost of his own life. As in most of the best Doctor Who stories, the Doctor and his companions are catalysts, observers, participators in an adventure which was already going on, while occasionally the Doctor acts as a wise mentor figure, leaving the central tale to be told and acted out by others.
In the modern, revived series, stories have tended to become ‘Doctor-centric’, with the Doctor taking on the protagonist role, meaning that he has had to have a personal void or motivation of some kind for the story to work. This distorts the template which Hinchcliffe made work, in which the Doctor’s role is largely that of the wise outsider.
Much can be learned from the Hinchcliffe years, and undoubtedly ‘The Ark in Space’ was an example of how to tap into the underlying successful strengths of Doctor Who, strengths which had made it attractive all those years ago in Australia, even when its appearance on screen was not reliable.