Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Doctor Who: The Ark in Space Special Edition DVD review

“The Reign of Terror” was an ideal DVD release to kick off the 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who – a tale unseen by many a fan, finally available on a platform for mass consumption. (By the way, the Morgue “Reign” DVD review has been updated with some new info, so you might want to peek at that entry again.) While the release schedule isn’t exactly slowing down, it won’t be until June that we get a DVD of a previously unreleased story (Jon Pertwee’s “The Mind of Evil”). Such stories are dwindling as we near the end of the DVD range, but that had to happen sooner or later. Though it might not seem like it sometimes, there actually is a finite amount of classic Who in the world.

So until June you can either save some money, or you can double-dip, and there’s no better place to start that double-dipping than with the special edition of “The Ark in Space,” the revolutionary second story of Tom Baker’s tenure that firmly declared a new direction for the series. One of the unexpected results of these special editions is that they occasionally force me to reconsider tales that weren’t among my favorites in the first place. Not that I’ve ever had a beef with “The Ark in Space,” but in the past it’s often felt dwarfed by so much of what came after. A new DVD brings a new attitude, and here I found myself really rather in love with the whole affair.

The Doctor (Baker), Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) have left the present behind and are now travelling a cosmos of the distant future. The TARDIS takes them to a seemingly dead space station – however, the “ark” holds the final remnants of the human race, in stasis, ready to reclaim the Earth and begin again. The humans begin to awaken. Leaders Vira (Wendy Williams) and Noah (Kenton Moore) are first, and both are baffled by the station’s system failures. While the humans have slept, an alien nasty called the Wirrn (pronounced “we’re in”) has infiltrated the ark, intent on piggybacking upon millions of years of human progress, at the cost of the future of the human race.

Make no mistake, “Robot” was great fun, and a worthy enough jumping-off point for the new Doctor, but it clearly had one foot in the previous Pertwee/Letts era, with its Earthbound, UNIT-driven setting. Elements of its plot even harken back to the previous season’s tales “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” and “Planet of the Spiders.” Baker’s Doctor felt as though he was itching to leave all that familiarity behind, and go out in search of the unknown, which is precisely what happens in “Ark,” and why thematically it is the real beginning of the Fourth Doctor’s era.

“The Ark in Space” has frequently been compared to Ridley Scott’s Alien. This is clearly a somewhat dodgy proposition, and if one wants to look for similarities, expectations must be kept thoroughly in check for first time viewers. Alien is, after all, the granddaddy of modern sci-fi horror, and “The Ark in Space” is a 1975 BBC TV serial produced on a shoestring budget. That being said, the parallels are there, and when “Ark” was unveiled, it had been some years since Doctor Who had aimed to scare the piss out of the little ones. The serial went even further, by attempting to chill adult viewers as well. Look beyond the green colored bubble wrap and the static look of the Wirrn, and there is indeed something horrific going on, provided you use just a little bit of imagination, as this is also a tale of Cronenbergian body horror done for a family audience.

One of the tale’s obvious triumphs is the rather marvelous set design of the space station by Roger Murray-Leach. The sets were in fact so elaborate (by Who standards, anyway) that they were used twice in the season; later on “Revenge of the Cybermen” portrayed the same station, only set in a much different time period.  On this viewing, however, I was particularly taken by the sound design of “The Ark in Space.” Theres a heavy, all-encompassing eerie, moody vibe (the hum of the station immediately sets the tone), much of which is no doubt the work of Dick Mills, but due credit must also be given to Dudley Simpson’s exceptional score. This is a serial that’s as much fun to hear as it is to watch.

Though the performances are pretty tight across the board, it’s worth finishing up with a little talk of Baker’s work here specifically. Never before had the series presented a Doctor who was so thoroughly alien. Baker’s got a bizarre sense of hard wonder about him here. His is a totally original performance, and not always entirely likable. His Doctor would of course soften over time, but right here at the beginning, what Baker’s doing is a particularly unusual sight to behold. After five years of the far more comforting Jon Pertwee, what must regular viewers have thought of this rogue space traveler upon viewing this serial in ’75? He wasn’t a grandfather you could look up to and believe in, but more of a mad uncle with a wild stare - a visage that keeps you up at night when the lights are out. Baker’s Doctor at this stage was very possibly as unsettling as the creatures he battled. Yes, Doctor Who was in for some changes, and “The Ark in Space” was only the beginning.

"Homo sapiens! What an inventive, invincible species! It's only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless 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."

DVD Extras: A few items have not made the crossover from the original release of “The Ark in Space.” The “Who’s Who” feature is missing, as it always is on the special editions, so not a big problem there. Also gone is a location report from Wookey Hole, featuring an interview with Tom Baker during production of “Revenge of the Cybermen.” This has since been presented on the “Revenge” DVD (which is really where it belongs), so again, not a massive omission. Gone for good, however, are the Howard Da Silva intros. If you’re a fan of these – and some of you are – then you’ll likely want to hang onto your old DVD. The commentary track with Baker, Sladen, and producer Philip Hinchcliffe has of course been ported over, along with everything else from the original disc, including the alternate CGI sequences, though in order to activate these, you must go to the second screen of the Disc One main menu.

New to Disc One of this two-disc special edition is a fine 30-minute talking heads and clips making of doc entitled “A New Frontier,” which includes gab from Hinchcliffe, director Rodney Bennett, Murray-Leach, and guest stars Williams and Moore, as well as Nicholas Briggs, who talks about the excited shock of watching the serial as a kid. There’s also a new and improved photo gallery.

Disc Two, which features the bulk of the material new to the set, offers up a 70-minute movie version of the serial, also broadcast in ’75. This is the sort of thing that’s possibly of interest to someone who viewed it upon broadcast, but when the complete version exists a mere disc away, it’s unlikely to be something one will get much use out of (your mileage, of course, may vary). Another great documentary entitled “Doctor Forever! Love and War” is an absorbing look back at the Doctor Who book ranges that emerged during the period the show was off the air. Including perspective from Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, and Paul Cornell among others, this is a delightful piece, sure to entertain and inform those who read those books, and even those mostly oblivious to their existence. “Scene Around Six” is some lovely footage of Tom Baker surrounded by fans of various ages that runs around seven and a half minutes. Additionally, there’s a minute of 8mm location footage from “Robot,” and a trailer for the special edition of “The Aztecs.” Finally, there’s a bit of a PDF bonanza: Not only do we get the usual Radio Times listings, but there are materials for two different crossover ad campaigns – one for Nestle’s chocolate and another for Crosse and Blackwell baked beans(!). As if that’s not enough, the entirety of the Doctor Who Technical Manual is presented here. If you’re sort of old like me, then that’s sort of exciting.