Saturday 28 November 2020


First broadcast: March 1966

Written by Paul Erickson

(NB Erickson’s wife, Lesley Scott, was co-credited at his request but made no contribution)

Plot spoilers? Giant statue sized ones!

Dodo's cold causes havoc for the last men and their one-eyed monsters.

- from the BBC Episode Guide

In Space Everyone Hears You Sneeze

So the Earth's been destroyed, and a giant generation starship has been launched to re-establish humanity on another planet. This contains all humans (handily miniaturised), two-by-two representatives of all animal species (hence it’s the titular Ark) and the obliging servitude of the mute Monoids. As you might expect, the Tardis crew then show up. Dodo unwittingly unleashes a cold, against which none have any immunity so they all start dropping dead like over-acting flies. Without Dominic Cummings to mess it up the Doctor can rustle up a quick cure, and they’re off again.

One of the least revelatory revelations in Wood and Miles' 'About Time' guide is that the starship was the impetus for the whole thing, rather than just functioning as a setting. (Producer John Wiles envisaged a ship so big you needed transport to get across it. Alas there never was a sequel with a spaceship so big you needed another spaceship to get across it.)

Which is a pretty bizarre reversal of intent. Everything up to now has been built on the presumption that this was SF done on the cheap, sticky back plastic in space. It didn't matter as the whole thing was quite obviously only a poky studio set anyway. So the solution became – let's pretend. Best epitomised when they said “let's pretend a Police box is a time and space machine”.

Also, if ‘Daleks Master Plan’ was where ‘Who’ met up with space opera, this is something quite different. Generation starships were conceived of as a more credible alternative to faster than light travel. They’re a hallmark of Proper Science Fiction, in a series which has up till now tottered between serious drama and bug eyed monsters.

And even more bizarrely they take up the conceit and get away with it. The sequence which introduces the Ark is genuinely impressive. The sense of suddenly bursting into scale is of course enhanced for those of us who've been watching the show unfold so far, and have got used to cupboards doubling as alien planets. But it would stand up on its own terms. Partly because it clearly is a real set, with real plants, real animals and real buggies driving across it, rather than some CGI impossibility. (In this way it‘s almost a forerunner of 'Silent Running'.)

This sudden break into stylishness is, however, undercut by the appearance of the Monoids. With their shuffling gait, mop haircuts and mono vision they certainly are classic – just for all the wrong reasons. They look like Chewbacca had joined the Beatles and the Residents simultaneously, while swearing a solemn vow to be clumsy in all things. 

Normally this wouldn't matter. Because normally the show is auto-innoculated against that sort of complaint. It’s secret weapon is to take its own absurdity and convert it into charm. Get them to shuffle up to any other Hartnell story and they'd be fine. But here they're in a spaceship which really does look like a spaceship! And they start to look like they must be made up for a fancy dress party.

But there's worse. Almost inevitably, having established they actually can do 'proper science fiction' after all they then go and make its most cardinal error. Having established the great big spaceship they don't have an idea big enough to fill it with. The plot we have seems chiefly written to demonstrate that Dodo with a cold is even more annoying than Dodo without one. There's a subplot where the plague she unleashes gets them put on trial for sneeze terrorism, or some such. It helps pass the time, I suppose.

As if to rub it in, its hard to escape the notion that this story was the inspiration for the Earth Ark in Douglas Adams’ ’Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. If he stuffed his ship with hairdressers and project managers while this one is full of RADA types, that doesn’t seem too much of a difference. When Zentos announces he’s first spotted the stowaway travellers, you almost expect the Commander to comment “prisoners? He’s always wanted some.”

So the thing had a great setting but no front story. Never mind, we were only held up for two episodes. And now they're off again...

No Sum Of Two Halves

...except when they land its in the Ark’s future. And the virus had returned to become a plague, with the result the Monoids have gained the power of speech and become top dog. As the Ark prepares to finally land at its destination planet, Refusis, they plot to eliminate the pesky humans once and for all...

The story's central conceit, that the Tardis returns to the same spot several hundred years later with no crossover in cast bar the travellers themselves, is indeed a smart one. (Generally thought to also be Wiles'.) It allows us to see the ramifications of the first set of events through the protagonists’ eyes, in a way that wouldn’t be possible in any other kind of a show. (It also allows for a classic cliffhanger, which for once I won’t reveal.) We should also remember that back then episodes were merely titled individually and so viewers had no way of knowing when one story was about to end. They would likely have believed they were watching the closer of a two-parter, and been totally wrong-footed by the twist.

So, much like the spaceship set, the join looks good. But will it hold?

For one thing, it would have been better if they'd had some other kind of adventure. (Or, if we were in a franker mood, an adventure.) Just as they're saying goodbye, Dodo sneezes. Like people do. Then fast-forward for them to discover that sneeze has unleashed decimation. Not only would we not have to suffer the cure-the-cold plotline, but it would remove the clunky plot twist about the cold being cured then inexplicably coming back. (Okay, in practice viruses can mutate. We're talking dramatic effectiveness here.) As it is, its unclear exactly how the returning virus enables their uprising. First time round the Monoids seemed as vulnerable to it as the humans. And I don't remember bird flu leading to the birds taking over.

Worse, the two halves of the story simply jar - in tone and in content. The second half is so different its like the Monoids seized control not just of the Ark but the scripting. Having only just established we're for once in serious SF territory, the second section jumps back to sci-fi in one genre-busting bound. 

The first episode is called ’The Steel Sky’, which conjures images of Asimov novels. Later episodes should really be called ’Menace of the Monoids’ or the like. Its a melodrama populated with monsters, plots, plotting monsters and bombs. In which the monsters take to loudly telling each other what their plots are, plots which according to tradition don't really make a lot of sense. (“Let us kill off all those who humbly serve us, thereby maintaining our privileged existence.” “Mmm, yesss.”)

The join becomes so jarring, you almost start to wonder whether a directive came down saying the next story had to use the sets and costumes of the last. There is some evidence of foreshadowing. (Including a scene, quite nice in itself, when the Doctor casually comments to a Monoid he’s smarter than anyone thinks.) 

But the story seems unclear whether we should see their revolt as motivated or merely unprovoked malice. It’s absolutely unlike how the treatment of the Ood would come to be played in ’New Who’. Yes they have servant status and are clearly second-class citizens. Yet when a Monoid is first to die from the virus, humans respectfully attend his funeral. It’s even stated it was the humans who gave the Monoids the power of speech through the electronic voice boxes they now sport – a funny sort of tyranny. The structure rather resembles the Monoids - something of a fuzzy hodgepodge of things. Perhaps the Doctor should have invented the devices before leaving, with were then thrown into the mix of history along with Dodo's germs.

Of course watching a series such as this is a little like buying the wares of a colander shop – you’re likely to end up with lots of holes. The solution is not to fix on the holes that don't fill the foreground. It’s never explained, for example, why there needs to be a forest of live animals if the humans can just be miniaturised. But we kind of know why – a forest aboard a spaceship looks cool, and it has little input on the main plot. But if the selling point of ’The Ark’ is that these two halves are joined when they’re not, that’s not something that can be glossed over.

You Are Now Entering Heaven (Please Extinguish All Petty Squabbles)

However, were we to decide to accentuate the positive, ’The Ark’ could be said to make a symbolic kind of sense which part-lifts it from B-movie status. From its Biblical title, it’s clear that – at least in the second half – this is another parable. The dark silhouetted Monoids are our shadows. At first they obediently obey and copy our movements. Later, like the shadow in the Hans Christian Anderson tale, they cut themselves free from us to reflect us at our worst.

Note that their name combines 'id' and 'mono'. Their uni-name and cyclops eye demonstrate monomaniacal vision, a singular lust for power, and a consequent inability to see the depth in things. (Compare to the Daleks' eyestalks.) While the now-shadowless humans have the opposite problem, and are for the most part hopelessly compliant.

Notably, they largely bring themselves down through their own folly. Instead of being named they are hierarchically numbered down from the dictatorial One. Eight Hundred and Seventy Three must not be a happy Monoid at all. This leads to a bid for power from Four, which ends in a self-destructive civil war. Finally, the few survivors give up in disgust. (I like to imagine nominative determinism at work, that by giving themselves those namebers the Monoids were effectively dooming themselves to death by internal strife.)

If their number-identity system combined with their chronic backstabbing syndrome sounds comic-booky, it probably is. It almost exactly duplicates the antics of the Secret Empire who debuted in Marvel's 'Tales to Astonish' only a few months later. (Their internecine squabbles ended with one of the Numbers seizing control by offing all the others. Precisely what was left for him to control by that point was not made terribly clear.)

Nevertheless this epitomises a common way of portraying evil in the Whoniverse, not as some absolute force which counterposes good so much as a deficiency, a failure to perceive the true picture. It can tends to bring about its own downfall,with the Doctor only tangentially involved, like a brute attacker bringing himself down with his own weight. The Daleks were presented quite similarly, particularly in their first outing.

(As we’re being fannish, we might even use this to explain away another plot inconsistency. It’s a combination of Steven’s arrival and the Monoids planting a preemptively retributive bomb which finally galvanizes the humans into action, their malevolence setting up their own undoing.)

Meanwhile, it turns out they could have co-existed with the Refusians all along, who have even preparatorily built dwellings for them all. But one native tells the Doctor only the peaceful might be permitted there, and decrees a day by when the humans and Monoids must be reconciled. This week's allegorical alien name would seem intended to evoke a combination of cosmic order and “if your name's not down, you're not coming in”. 

The Ark had been a spaceship, taking its crew to a planet, and taking a long time about it because space is big-you-see and habitable planets are rare. Now the Ark’s an Ark, and its destination, while ostensibly still a planet, is clearly Heaven - admitting only the good, guarded by disembodied angels. Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore describe them as “sound[ing] like a Shakespearian actor shouting from just off the set”, which is probably how most viewers imagine God works. 

(Strictly speaking, the Refusians are merely invisible. But this gets fuzzily associated with being disembodied. For example, the Doctor tells a Monoid he “won’t be needing his gun now”, when the logical thing to try would be spray-fire.) 

Compare this to the Rill from ‘Galaxy 4' or the ascetic pilgrimage of ‘Keys of Marinus’. The notion of the cosmos as celestial, there to separate the merely worldly from the pure seems a sub-theme rumbling on the background of the Hartnell era.

The two-by-two structure of this story also presents another twist. The traveller’s reappearance on the Ark gives this story a place in fan lore, as it suggests the Tardis intentionally took them back. The Tardis was, of course ascribed with sentience at least as far back as the early ’Edge of Destruction’. But there it safeguarded its crew, literally pulling them back from the edge. It's like the way sailors would inscribe a name and personality to the ship which kept them alive. Now its purpose is pretty much to take them into danger.

But that's not the real significance. At least as important as this being said is who it is said by, and how – its Steven who mentions quite passingly that “the Tardis made the decision”. Had it been said by the Doctor it would inevitably have become more of a pronouncement, Something New to Know About the Tardis. Instead, its treated incidentally, almost as if its something we all already knew.

And, while we've never been specifically given this information before, we did kind of know it. The show has turned enough of a corner that we now see more of the road ahead than behind. Once an exile and a wanderer, the Doctor now has a calling. The places he shows up at are the places the Doctor needs to be. He doesn't like to mention any of this, and has probably said none of it to Steven. But Steven still knows. Its become obvious. 

The other notable feature of ’The Ark’ is that it’s the first complete appearance of the new companion Dodo. Who was devised as a more ‘contemporary’ Swinging Sixties type of character, a plan which went down poorly with the higher echelons of the BBC - who promptly insisted she revert to something nearer ‘proper English’. While this insistence might now seem quite King Canute-ish, after hearing Jackie Lane endlessly repeat “fab”,”gear” and “grotty” and other things the young people say these days.... well, you start to wonder if they didn't have a point. However, the script manages to turn this into a decent running gag where the Doctor insists on her “speaking properly”. (Once a grandfather...)

Not a highly regarded entry in the Hartnell canon, ’The Ark’ is perhaps best compared and contrasted to ’The Web Planet’. Both have some good ideas which ultimately fail to come to fruition. But while ’Web Planet’ made some bold but recklessly wrongheaded development choices, ’The Ark’ is reasonably well directed – it’s at the script level where it fails to deliver. Overall, while it’s certainly more watchable it lacks the deranged invention that made Web Planet’ more interesting.

The Ark’ is at its best when not called upon to function as a story – in the establishing section that kicks off the first episode, and in the join with the second half. Both these work so well they raise the bar, and you find yourself wishing you could like it more. Your focus falls naturally on that central join, leading to a kind of grass-is-greener effect. The first half restricts itself to the quasi-plausible, so we end up with a plot where everyone gets a cold then gets better again. You imagine things are merely being set up and look forward to them kicking off after the break. But when the second section arrives, with its cliché-sprouting monsters, you look back to where you came from almost fondly. Alas you have to say it – The Ark’ is half empty.

Further reading! El Sandifer finds a racist, reactionary message in this story and pulls no punches in pointing it out. (“Revolution is bad. Youth are stupid. Dark-skinned people are savages who cannot be redeemed.”) Mostly, this section is for takes too tangential to mine for me to usefully engage with. But here, frankly, we’re both right. It’s not at all contradictory for the Monoids to be both a parable about our shadow selves and a political anti-black nationalist analogy. Racists are forever projecting their own worst qualities onto others then displaying disgust, and today it’s the turn of lust for power. And it would explain how they’re both slaves and well-treated workers.

But then the “two halves” nature of this particular story accentuates the differences, forks on us and frames the thing as a choice. A political response takes it first-side-up, a parable reading the reverse.

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