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3x06. The Ark
Writers: Paul Erickson & Lesley Scott
Director: Michael Imison
Script Editor: Gerry Davis
Producer: John Wiles

Synopsis: The TARDIS arrives on a ship far in the future carrying the last remnants of the human race, with only a small crew of human Guardians and subservient alien Monoids operating the ship while the rest are kept in miniaturized form, to be restored when they reach their destination, the planet Refusis. The Doctor first has to find a cure when Dodo's virus threatens to wipe out the ship's crew, then jumps forward 700 years to a time when the Monoids have taken over the ship and plan to kill the humans.

Review: With "The Ark," we enter into what one might call the "Dark Ages" of Doctor Who. Of the third, fourth, and fifth seasons, only four complete serials remain, and only two additional restorations are widely available. Classic moments -- the harrowing epic of "The Daleks' Masterplan," Steven's near-departure over the Doctor's refusal to change history in "The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve," the first ever post-regeneration story in "The Power of the Daleks" -- are lost, and companions come and go, leaving fans to fill in the blanks with plot summaries, scripts, audio recordings, and the like.

In this case, we pick up halfway through the third season, two serials after Vicki's departure and with a new companion, Dodo Chaplet, having just joined the TARDIS crew. Like many other Hartnell-era serials, "The Ark" is fairly pedestrian in terms of pacing and execution, but the concepts and themes underlying the story are a notch above average. The idea of the human race embarking on this long journey to escape the destruction of Earth (which we do actually see on-screen, in a curiously underemphasized moment) is interesting, as is the script's exploration of how memories and traditions develop. The circumstances of the Monoids' arrival on Earth is described as "obscure," and when the Doctor and his companions make their second visit to the ship, they find that the story of their previous encounter is now regarded as a mere legend.

As Steven observes, these denizens of the far future have retained at least one human flaw which we all recognize: fear of the unknown. They are quick to suspect the "outsiders" of the TARDIS crew of malevolence when Dodo's illness begins spreading, and on a related note, they seem to have few compunctions about treating the Monoids as inferiors even if they are not overtly abusive towards them. Issues of racial and cultural tolerance have been explored in other serials such as "The Aztecs" and "The Sensorites," but "The Ark" is a little more forceful in its indictment of human xenophobia. It works partly by underplaying the second-class status of the Monoids in the first half of the story, then later forcing the audience to recognize that the Monoids had essentially been slaves to the Guardians, emphasizing the point that oppression with a velvet glove is still oppression. The Guardians' ignorance of the Monoids' origin is symptomatic of this: their system has operated this way for so long that they no longer question it, and one can speculate that the Monoids might have in fact been more ruthlessly suppressed at first than later generations cared to remember.

Unfortunately, while the Guardians and Monoids are effective as vehicles for these ideas, none of them are really developed as individuals -- nor, for that matter, is Dodo, who brings little if anything new to the "Innocent Young Female Companion" formula previously represented by Susan and Vicki. The invisible Refusians do not fare much better: their benevolence towards the new arrivals is so matter-of-fact that it seems almost too good to be true in a story otherwise fraught with inter-species conflict, and they end up serving as an obvious deus ex machina when it comes time to defuse the bomb. The only characters who carry much interest are the Doctor, whose actions recall his role in "The Sensorites" as scientist-hero and broker of peace between races in conflict, and Steven, who in the second half assumes a leadership role in organizing the Guardians in a way that recalls Ian and Barbara at their smartest and most proactive.

With better characterization and slightly more innovative plotting (or at least something other than a rote "find the bomb" scenario), "The Ark" might have been a first-rate serial on all levels. As it is, it's a competent but uninspiring piece of formula redeemed by some interesting subtext.

Other notes:

- When Steven and the Guardians decide to pick a few individuals to go to Refusis while the others continue to look for the bomb, all those who leave the ship are, if I'm not mistaken, male. If these people are all that's left of the human race, shouldn't they send a gender-balanced crew to the surface in case those on board fail to find the bomb and are killed?

Rating: *** (out of four)

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