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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space - Special Edition

(BBC; US DVD: 12 Mar 2013)

Imagine a timeworn spacecraft with a dormant crew that has been in deep cryogenic hibernation for several years. When the crewmembers finally wake up, they find their ship infested with terrifying insect-like creatures. To their horror, they also discover that their unwelcomed guests are endoparasites that have implanted their eggs inside the body of a member of the crew.


As incredible as it may sound, this is not the pitch for the next entry in the Alien franchise. Indeed, these plot points belong to The Ark in Space, the Doctor Who serial that aired in 1975. That’s right; The Ark in Space was made nearly four years before Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon, and H.R. Giger terrorized audiences with the original Alien.


By all means, The Ark in Space is one of the best serials of the long running Doctor Who British TV series. The Ark in Space is the second serial of the 12th season (which was the first season to feature the beloved Tom Baker as the indefatigable Doctor), and pretty much defined the visual and narrative structure of the following four seasons. As such, the early Tom Baker era has some of the creepiest and most intimidating serials in the entire history of the franchise.


Indeed, previous seasons of Doctor Who were child-friendly science fiction extravaganzas that were devoid of truly horrific moments. On the other hand, The Ark in Space was the first serial to feature a more adult oriented plot with several ghastly situations rooted in a variety of hardcore gothic elements. For example, shortly after The Ark in Space, the intrepid Doctor would be confronted with mummies (Pyramids of Mars), a sort of Frankenstein monster (The Brain of Morbius), witches in a nightmarish medieval castle (The Masque of Mandragora), carnivorous plants (The Seeds of Doom), a homunculus (The Talons of Weng-Chiang), the Loch Ness monster (Terror of the Zygons), and a deadly creature terrorizing a foggy lighthouse (Horror of Fang Rock).


As The Ark in Space begins, the Doctor and his two companions, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), materialize aboard a space station orbiting the Earth. The Doctor quickly realizes that the station has been dormant for thousands of years, and the crew is in deep cryogenic hibernation. He also fixes an electrical malfunction that impaired the alarm clock that was supposed to wake up the crew. To his horror, Harry discovers a large mummified insect-like creature. These monsters are the Wirrn, parasitic animals that have been reproducing aboard the space station by laying eggs inside the bodies of the dormant members of the crew. 


It’s hard to deny that such a creepy and imaginative tale was groundbreaking back in 1975. Even though parasitic creatures from outer space had already been explored in movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the portrayal of living humans as unwilling incubation chambers was a dramatic innovation, specially for a TV show. However, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth mentioning that such a gruesome life cycle had already been depicted in A. E. Van Vogt’s criminally underrated sci-fi novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which was first published in 1950. Still, unless my memory fails me, The Ark in Space was the first one to portray endoparasitoid monsters in broadcast media (film or TV).


As in many other Doctor Who serials, The Ark in Space conveys strong social, cultural, and political ideologies wrapped up in the cover of an apparently mundane science fiction tale. In this case, The Ark in Space reveals that the Wirrn used to live in perfect ecological equilibrium with other animal species in a distant planet. However, indiscriminate human colonization and terraforming destroyed the Wirrn’s natural habitat. So, the Wirrn was forced to travel across the stars to find a new home with adequate animal hosts to incubate their eggs. When the Wirrn encountered the last remnants of humanity in the space station, they decided to use mankind as a means to reproduce their nearly extinct species.


As a consequence, The Ark in Space portrays the problematic conflict between a seemingly primitive culture (the Wirrn) and a civilized society (the human race). In this case, there is no doubt that mankind is guilty of destroying the Wirrn’s home planet. However, any possible cultural guilt felt by the crewmembers of the space station is relieved by the brutal attack enacted by the Wirrn. Thus, the crewmembers become scapegoats that are punished for the destruction of the Wirrn’s world. As such, the Doctor and the crewmembers are “goaded” to violence, exterminating the alien creatures without prejudice, while maintaining their moral viability. As such, the complexities of post-colonial ideologies are reduced to a moral conflict between the forces of good and evil.


Furthermore, The Ark in Space showcases telling racial and gender ideologies. For instance, it’s revealed that the space station is a futuristic Noah’s ark, which mission is to preserve human culture while the planet is ravaged by violent solar flares. However, there is no apparent racial or cultural diversity within the carefully selected crew. On the other hand, we also find out that the world leader who oversaw the construction of the ark was a woman. This is a rather interesting plot point, considering that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister 4 years after the first airing of The Ark in Space.


The Ark in Space was one of the first Doctor Who serials released on DVD back in 2002. Eleven years later, The Ark in Space is being re-released, this time as a special edition 2-DVD set with a substantial number of interesting extra features. The image and audio on this special edition are not improved over the original edition, but it is good enough to showcase the severe limitations of the original recording medium.


The bonus content of the special edition set contains some carryovers from the original edition, including the audio commentary by Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and producer Philip Hinchcliff. Some new extra features include an insightful making-of documentary and a variety of pdf files. Die hard fans of Doctor Who that already own the 2002 edition may consider double dipping on this one. In any event, The Ark in Space should be required viewing for anyone interested in horror and science fiction movies.

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Marco Lanzagorta received a PhD in physics from Oxford University and has worked at prestigious research institutions in England, Italy, Switzerland, Mexico and the US. During the past 25 years, he has conducted research in physics, computer science, and neuroscience. Currently, Marco is a research physicist at a major defense research laboratory in Washington DC, and an affiliate associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


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