(all spoilers! don’t read till you’ve seen the episode… or unless you don’t care if it’s spoiled for you. this is a love fest only — all complaints and bitching must come from a place of love / previous: “Robot”)
When I watched this again recently for the first time in probably 15 years, it suddenly struck me: Here is a bit of background for this season’s new episode “The Beast Below.” I had forgotten the setup for “The Ark in Space,” which is that somewhere in the late 29th century or early 30th, massive solar flares threatened Earth, and so here we have Space Station Nerva, filled with cryogenically frozen humans, gene banks, and libraries of knowledge that set off to wait out the flares and wait for Earth’s healing for 5,000 years. (The “Beast Below”’s huge starships obviously took some of humanity away to safety in another direction. Or else either the starships or Nerva were humanity’s version of the Golgafrinchan B Ark, an attempt to get rid of undesirables.)
Still, the most interesting thing that I’m left with after watching this story several more times in recent weeks is that I can’t help but wonder if it influenced Ridley Scott’s Alien at all. Alien, released in 1979, came only a few years later — these episodes aired in early 1975 — and while I’m certainly not implying that any kind of creative theft occurred, there are some remarkable similiarities. If this was not an influence on Alien — and it’s equally easy to conceive that it was not — that it’s even more remarkable in how it anticipated where filmed science fiction would go.
Here we have a lost colony — a lost ark, if you like — full of humans sleeping cryogenically. And they missed their wakeup call by 10,000 years because something has been mucking around in the innards of their ship and snipping wires and such. And that something is a giant alien space bug
that laid an egg inside one of the sleeping humans, an egg that then consumed that human body (and absorbed all the knowledge of the victim), broke out of the cyro chamber to be a slithering green bubble-wrap larva on the loose
which then slathered another awakened human with slime, so that now he’s transforming into a green bubble-wrap monster on the loose
which kinda doesn’t make biological sense, but whatever. It’s still pretty gross, considering that it’s just a stunt man dressed in bubble wrap:
We don’t see any of the egg-laying or body-consuming, naturally — this being a show intended for children, but holy damn, just the concepts alone would have given me nightmares if I’d seen this when I was five and a half, which I would have been in early 1975. But between the close confines of the station, the duct system playing a significant factor in the plot, the use of Nerva’s shuttle to trick the space bugs into getting off the station, and even a few random asides — how humans on a starship to Andromeda disturbed and uprooted the bugs; the Doctor’s comment about how he and Sarah are safe at one point “unless they chew through the floor” (anticipating acid-for-blood, perhaps?) and how the space bugs play around with the power keeping Nerva alive (à la Aliens’ “Whaddaya mean they cut the power?”) — it’s really sort of extraordinary to think that this was cheap-o sci-fi made to keep kids amused on a Saturday afternoon.
There are also some quite sophisticated ideas at work here. (Scriptwriter Robert Holmes was one of the very best of the old regime: his stories are the most complex, the most intriguing, the smartest and most stylish.) The people of Nerva, not understanding that the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah are only passing through, and aren’t going to stay, worry that the travelers will contaminate their carefully crafted gene pool. (Imagine trying to explain that to a kid, or just being a kid and understanding that the Nerva people are worried that the Doctor will want to make babies with them.) And merely the fact that the Nerva people call the travelers “regressives” in regards to their gene pool pretty much harkens back to Nazi-style eugenics… which would have been the stuff of fairly recent history in 1975. (For comparison’s sake, it’s less of a difference between now and “The Ark in Space”’s original air date. If you remember, say, Duran Duran as a new band, then a you of a similar age in 1975 would have remembered Nazi atrocities.)
And then there’s the whole notion of the human race being eliminated except for these relatively few people on Nerva. (The Doctor and Harry mention “hundreds,” but even if there are thousands, it’s still nothing when held up against billions.) Recorded messages from “the Earth High Minister” play back at several points during the story, and they’re quite poignant: “You have slept longer than the recorded history of mankind… You will return to an Earth purified by flame.” (That would have freaked me out, as a child of the Cold War, who pretty much assumed I would die in a nuclear war.) “You are the proud standard bearers of our entire race…” Stirring stuff, and even the Doctor recognizes it.
Harry, on the other hand, can react to this only by ragging on Sarah after they hear one of these recordings, which come ladened with the additional awesomeness of the Earth High Minister being a woman: “I bet that did your female chauvanist heart a power of good… Fancy a member of the fair sex being top of the totem pole.” (I wonder how Harry felt a few years later, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister…)
Ah, yes: Harry. The Doctor gets quite tetchy when there’s another man on the TARDIS. Long before Mickey “The Idiot” Smith, he was calling Harry Sullivan, British naval lieutenant and medical doctor, “a clumsy, hamfisted idiot,” which he does as Episode 1 here opens. (Harry messed about with the “helmic regulator,” which is how they ended up here instead just taking a quick jaunt to the Moon for their first outing.) And later, when Harry makes a deduction that is actually quite clever, the Doctor is incapable of complimenting him straight up. “You’re improving, Harry,” the Doctor tells him. “Your mind is begining to work. It’s entirely due to my influence, of course — you mustn’t take any credit.”
Someone get a ruler…
Random thoughts on “The Ark in Space”:
• Gotta love that classic 30th-century design:
• Can’t. Help. Must. Poke. Fun.:
Looks like the model is made from a syringe, some plastic tampon applicators, and a tube of model glue.
You know what’s really cool, though? When the tube-of-model-glue shuttle blasts off in the last episode, there’s no accompanying sound FX as we witness this from outside in the vacuum of space. That’s awesome. Rare even for Doctor Who, but awesome.
• Hey, the Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver here to actually unscrew a screw:
• “If only I had a cricket ball,” Harry says… and the Doctor produces one:
Harbinger of a Doctor to come…
• There’s something about Harry losing his shoes (they’re blasted to unwearable bits by a security robot) here
that is quite poignant. It’s akin to Arthur Dent being forced to roam the galaxy in his pajamas: it’s simply undignified.
• What is it about the man this is so attractive?
He’s simply weird looking. But Tom Baker so effortlessly exuded alien allure that he makes the Doctor irresistible. This would have been the second Doctor Who story I ever saw. It’s been said that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12, and I believe that, because I would have been 12 or 13 when I saw this, and it has warped me forever. Not only for what I like in science fiction, but for what I like in men. If a guy’s not strange and brilliant, he’s gonna have a hard time getting my attention.
• Tom Baker’s Doctor was the last one till New Who who was able to dress in anything that looked like normal clothes, if oddly thrown together:
And even that would only last until John Nathan-Turner took over as producer, and forced him to wear those dreaded question marks on his shirt collar.
• Great quotes:
“Oh, I say… I’ve gone mad.” –Harry, upon discovering the TARDIS has moved
“That’s how I felt the first time.” –Sarah
“Pity about the scarf. Madame Nostradamus made it for me. Witchy little knitter…” –the Doctor, after his scarf receives some burns in the line of duty
“A drop of brandy would be the thing now.” –Harry, to the Doctor, to aid Sarah, recovering from oxygen deprivation
“There’s some in the TARDIS.” –the Doctor (I knew it!)
“My doctorate is purely honorary.” –the Doctor, when he and Harry are mistaken for “med techs” (though perhaps he’s joking, because he continues with “Harry here is only qualified to work on sailors,” which is of course ridiculous)
“Noah… it is a name from mythology.” –Vira (heh; take that, Old Testament)
“He talks to himself sometimes because he’s the only one who understands what he’s talking about.” –Sarah, about the Doctor
“It may be irrational of me, but humans are quite my favorite species.” –the Doctor
“Blinding headache. I hate stun guns.” –the Doctor, after he’s been shot with a stun gun
(next: “The Sontaran Experiment”)