Sunday, June 5, 2011

Doctor Who Story 023: The Ark


Keeping One Eye On Things...

This is the debut story of Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane), whom we met in the previous story, the now-lost The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve (or just The Massacre).  For better or worse, Dodo is one of the most reviled of Doctor Who companions, and The Ark is well, not the most liked of First Doctor stories.  I never judge something without seeing it first, and now that I have seen the four-part story collectively known as The Ark (not to be confused with the Fourth Doctor story The Ark In Space), I am in agreement with the majority on both The Ark and on Dodo. 

The Ark's first major flaw is that it really is TWO stories lumped together.  Let's start with the first two episodes (The Steel Sky and The Plague).  The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his Companions Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) and Dodo arrive in what appears to be a large nature preserve.  It's a strange one though, in that animals from various continents are living together.  While Dodo (inexplicably dressed as a medieval pageboy) believes herself to be in a London park, the Doctor soon realizes they are actually aboard a spaceship.  This ship carries all of humanity and is governed by the Guardians, with the alien Monoids as basically their servants.  The Commander of the Guardians (Eric Elliot) welcomes them, but soon he is stricken with a mysterious disease.  The mystery is soon discovered: it is Dodo's cold, to which the Guardians have no immunity from. 

Accused of trying to wipe out humanity, the travellers are taken prisoner.  Soon more and more Guardians take sick, with at least one dying.  Put on trial by Deputy Commander Zentos (Inigo Jackson), they would have been executed if not for the intervening of the Commander, ill but still in command, who instead orders the Guardians to allow the Doctor to find a cure.  He tests his treatment on Steven, who is also ill.  The cure works for him, and soon all humanity is saved.  Now humanity can find a new home (Earth having been destroyed by the Sun) on Refusis II.  They can also continue working on the statue they will place there, which will give future Guardians both something to admire and something to do while in space.  With that, the travellers wave goodbye to the Guardians and Monoids and off they go.

Now we get the second story in Episodes Three and Four (The Return and The Bomb--perhaps the most inadvertently accurate title for the series).   While it's only been a few seconds, the travellers find themselves exactly in the same place--the ship now nicknamed The Ark (thanks to Dodo's offhanded comment earlier in the story).   They realize it's been 700 years between when the left and now, so they start looking around.  They come upon the statue, and discover to their shock that has a Monoid head.  They are again captured by the Monoids, only this time they are able to speak using a voice device.  The Monoids have led a coup and have taken over the Ark, keeping humanity alive to serve THEM as slaves.  The Chief Monoid (helpfully named 'One'), has the travellers taken to the Security Kitchen.  Here, the descendants connect the myths of the Travellers to the newest members, giving them hope for a counter-revolution. 

There is little time for it though: the Ark has arrived near Refusis II.  A search party is launched to explore the planet and see if it is habitable.  ONE plots to destroy all humanity aboard the Ark and take Refusis II for the Monoids, but the Refusians (the invisible natives) don't want violent creatures here.  Assured that humans will make Refusis a more hospitable place than the Monoids, the Refusian Voice (Richard Beale) agrees to help the Doctor.  There is dissension in the Monoid ranks: FOUR believes ONE and TWO will bring about the destruction of the Monoids by actions on Refusis II, and soon they start fighting among themselves.  The Doctor and Dodo discover the Monoid plans to destroy humanity with a bomb aboard the Ark, and a desperate search begins.  Eventually they discover where the bomb is, the Monoids destroy each other, and humanity is allowed refuge on Refusis II.  The travellers leave a second time, and Dodo puts on something straight out of Carnaby Street, but now, the Doctor himself has disappeared though his voice remains...

There are so many things wrong with The Ark that it's like shooting fish in a barrel to choose where to begin.  First, let's start with the story by Paul Erikson and Leslie Scott (the latter the first woman credited with a Doctor Who story, although her then-husband Erikson has stated that it was more a deal between them to share credit and that she contributed little to nothing to the story).  As I've stated before, The Ark is really two stories connected by the appearance of the Monoids: the first two episodes dealing with the cold that Dodo has brought and that threatens humanity, and the last two dealing with the Monoids attempts to destroy humanity. 

On a personal level, I think it would have worked better if the focus had remained on the first part because the problem of Dodo's cold was resolved so quickly it wasn't worth investing any time to it.  As a side note to that, it's in retrospect bizarre to think Steven, who probably would have had greater immunity to the common cold than the Guardians, could have been just as deathly ill as the Guardians themselves.  It seems such an inconsistency that it's a wonder no one really stopped to ask how Steven was as easily affected by a cold as the Commander was (especially when he was wearing far more clothes than the Guardians, but more on that later). 

If they had wanted the Monoids in The Ark, perhaps they could have been the population on Refusis II and were attacking the humans in fear that they would destroy their world, or better yet, the Monoids wanted to take over the Ark for themselves from the get-go, rather than be the placid, mute servants of the Guardians. 

Let's now shift to Problem Two with The Ark: the Monoids themselves.  Few monsters have been as mocked and as ridiculed as the Monoids, and with good reason.   There are so many things that are just wrong with them.  First, their appearance: the Monoids are basically one-eyed beings with Beatles wigs who waddle about the place.  In Episode Four, I believe we're told that the Monoids are rushing about the ship.  The idea that these beings who can only shuffle across the floor "rushing about" anywhere is laughable--they can barely waddle, let alone run.  Even worse, their communication.  For the first two episodes, they are mute, able to communicate only with hand signals.  In Episodes Three and Four, they can no speak with the aid of voice collars, but in all those 700 years the Monoids never got around to coming up with names for themselves.  The leader was known simply as ONE, his aide was TWO, and so forth and so on.

How Erikson or Scott or director Michael Imison never thought that this come off as comedic I simply don't know.  Even worse (yes, there is an even worse to an even worse) their numbers appear on the voice collars themselves.  ONE has a 1 on his collar, TWO has a 2, and so forth and so on.  This flat-out doesn't make any sense.  Maybe the Monoids themselves couldn't tell each other apart.  This "number as name" situation leads to unintended moments of hilarity.  Take this line from Episode Four:

There is still no contact from TWO on Refusis, ONE.
As spoken by THREE, it makes it sound like the planet is called Refusis One, and for a moment there is some confusion as to where they exactly are.   I had a theory as to why ONE was the Monoid leader (besides the fact that he was ONE).  I think ONE was leader because ONE was the one who could make large hand gestures (of which ONE made more than one of...pun time now, isn't it?).  Why, one wonders (pun intended) did the Monoids never bother to gain names?  It would have made it easier to figure out which was which.  (Side note: the Daleks never had names either, but the lights always helped in distinguishing who was speaking, and they at least could move faster than the Monoids). 

Going on with the Monoids, when TWO arrives with the Doctor and Dodo on Refusis II in Episode Three (a lot of numbers there, don't you think?), first, TWO almost trips over himself in entering the empty mansion.  Then, to make matters worse, his idea of showing the Refusians who's in charge is by taking out one flower from a vase at a time and throwing it on the ground, culminating in threatening to smash said vase.  I understand Hitler used the same method when the Nazis entered Warsaw.  It all comes off as funny to the point of parody, and one can't take these monsters seriously when you're on the floor...laughing at them. 

Final point on the disaster that are the Monoids, when you've enslaved humanity, the best you can think of doing with them is putting them to work in the kitchen?  Seriously, the KITCHEN?

As a side note on the other aliens, I know Doctor Who was trying to save money on costumes and make-up by making the Refusians invisible, but for my part, I never found invisible aliens just sounds cheap (in every sense of the word).  Moreover, we just had a story that had invisible aliens (Episodes Five and Six of The Daleks' Master Plan) and I think using the same trick two stories later makes it all look repetitive. 

Now, let's go on to a problem that was not the fault of either Erikson/Scott or Imison: a birdbrain named Dodo.  There's so much wrong with her character that an entire essay could be written as to why she is one of the worst Companions in Doctor Who (both classic and revived series).  First, her accent: she's suppose to be a Cockney girl from swinging London, but her accent comes and goes throughout The Ark (sometimes within the same episode).  This may not be Lane's fault entirely: as an actress, she did as she was asked, and she was asked to add and drop it by both the director and the higher-ups at the BBC.  She cannot be held responsible for being given contradictory direction (which I imagine must have been maddening for her).  However, we might overlook her wayward East End roots if it weren't for other factors.  No one in her right mind would have allowed her to wear such a silly costume for a story like The Ark: it distracts endlessly from what is suppose to be rather serious business.  It also makes her character look incredibly stupid. 

It does not help that Dodo comes off as annoying within the first ten minutes of The Ark in her cheeriness and her accent (right down to using the word 'fab' for 'fabulous').  Moreover, there is an unpleasant shift in the relationship between the Doctor and his newest Companion.  There is an air of hostility between the Doctor and Dodo, as if he just doesn't like her and is unhappy to have her around.  Unlike his relationships with other young, female companions (his granddaughter Susan, or Vicki, or Katarina and Sara Kingdom), there is no suggestion of tenderness and/or fondness for Dodo.  Only once, when in Episode Two the Doctor and Dodo watch with concern the trial with Steven in the witness box, do we even get the slightest suggestion that they have any positive feelings for each other.  For most of The Ark, the Doctor reprimands Dodo for one thing or another (primarily her English, though why he would care more about that than her cold we never get an answer to).

Finally, Lane's actual performance leaves much to be desired.  She may have been trying to be a simply East End girl, but again she just comes off as dumb.  When she says that the Monoids look "terrifying", the line is niether delivered well or believeably. 

Not that Purves' performance is any better.  Steven has never shaken his ability to look a bit dense from his own debut story as a companion, and here, he doesn't seem to believe that they are aboard a spaceship.  How many times will it take for Steven to believe the Doctor?  When the story shifts to the struggle with the Monoids, Steven appears to be secondary to where the Guardians themselves could have had a leader of the revolution. 

The guest stars also do a lot of damage.  Elliot's commentaries as the Commander during the trial as he lay dying are bizarre to say the least, and badly acted.  He, however, is nothing compared to Jackson's Zentos.  His wild overacting in Episode One especially is something to be seen with awe.  It is just so over-the-top one wonders how they could have made him Deputy Dogcatcher, let alone Deputy Commander.  Terrence Woodfield as Maharis, the Guardian collaborator who alerts the Guardians as to the Monoids true intentions, is better but he also comes off as stupid: knowing that the Monoids want to blow them all up, why would he still want to serve the Monoids?

I want to take a digression to wonder about the Guardian's costumes.  Daphne Dare does it again: she gave the Guardians short skirts cut into straps that barely hide their underwear.  I thought the costumes were quite daring for outer space, almost provocative.  However, the Guardians must have liked them, given that they wore them 700 years later, they obviously were no slaves to fashion. 

Now, let's have some positive details on The Ark.  Tristram Cary's score (particularly in Episode One) is extremely effective: having both a familiar and otherworldly feel at the same time.   While Imison's direction of the actors was shaky, his visual effects and cinematography are some of the best in First Doctor-era Doctor Who.  The destruction of the Earth at the end of Episode One is beautifully filmed, and the imagery of the Monoid head on the statue at the end of Episode Two is quite effective (with the score enhancing the feel).

Overall, The Ark is a failure for a myriad of reasons: weak/silly monsters (candidates for Worst Monsters in Doctor Who--again for another time), a terrible Companion (again, a candidate for Worst Companion in Doctor Who) some bad acting (and quite revealing costumes--can't get over that one), and a jumbled story that would have worked better if there had been a focus to one plot or another rather than mashing two stories together. 

In the end, the question shouldn't be "Who built The Ark?" but "Who see The Ark?"  The response: "No One, No One".  "Who see The Ark?"  "No one should go watch The Ark".

Now, a bit of housekeeping.  The next story (The Celestial Toymaker) is sadly, again, another lost story, with only the last episode (The Final Test) currently known to exist.  The following complete story is the four-part The Gunfighters.  As before, a short retrospective on Episode Four of The Celestial Toymaker will be made, followed by a review of the next complete story. 


Next Story: The Celestial Toymaker

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