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12x2. The Ark in Space
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Rodney Bennett
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry arrive thousands of years in the future on Space Station Nerva, where the remnants of humanity have been left in suspended animation until the Earth, ravaged by solar flares, is habitable again. They discover a number of malfunctioning systems and are greeted with suspicion by Noah and Vira, two of the revived crew, but soon all of them face a much greater menace. An insectoid alien species, the Wirrn, are on board the station, and they intend to use the humans who are still asleep as digestives for their reproductive cycle.

Review: "The Ark in Space" is a tough serial to review. It would be easy to approach it as simply an above-average example of the Doctor fighting monsters on a space station, but I think that overlooks what a fundamentally grim story this is if you really think about the issues it raises. And yet, at times I was left to wonder if the script completely understood what it was doing, or if perhaps Robert Holmes actually only intended an above-average example of the Doctor fighting monsters on a space station.

On that surface level, "The Ark in Space" certainly works. The premise of humanity surviving Earth's devastation by placing people in suspended animation in outer space until the planet is hospitable again is one of the most imaginative that I've seen on Doctor Who in a while, and it's well-realized with the sheer white structures, the eerie background hum of Nerva's systems, and the occasional triggering of automatic recordings from thousands of years ago. The Wirrn themselves are also interesting conceptually and come across as truly alien: they can only survive by laying their eggs inside other organisms, they share a collective intelligence and memory, and they assimilate the knowledge and abilities of their victims. They are also a very credible threat. The Doctor openly admits that he's afraid of them, which is pretty unusual for him, and they keep the humans on their toes as soon as they emerge near the beginning of Episode 3. Kenton Moore's performance as Noah, the humans' designated leader, also helps to convey the sense that the humans are rapidly losing control of the stiuation, convincingly portraying a man who proceeds from disorientation (at one point he confuses himself with Dune, who was digested by the newborn Wirrn while the others were still asleep) to terror and desperation as he realizes that his mind and body are being taken over.

Digging below the surface, "The Ark in Space" is a tale of fiercely competing survival instincts. In a famous soliloquy towards the end of Episode 1, the Doctor calls humanity an "indomitable" species, admiring the creativity that led them to conceive and construct the Ark and their determination to "outsit eternity." Upon awakening, however, Vira and Noah sometimes seem barely human at all. Their speech patterns are so coldly analytical that they have trouble even communicating with the Doctor and Harry, and later Vira allows them to escape because she doesn't think past her assigned duty as a med-tech. In fact, Noah's fate could be seen as due to a lack of adaptability that seems ill-suited for survival, in that his prejudice against "regressives" leads him to disregard the Doctor's warnings and blunder into a confrontation with the Wirrn. It is after this happens, however, that the preserved humans start to show the flexibility and innovation necessary to ensure their survival. Noah uses whatever control of his own mind he has left to put Vira in command and try to adjust the plan so that the others can proceed without him, while Vira adapts to her new position and makes the decision to trust the Doctor and his companions. Though they are able to battle the Wirrn to a stalemate, it's ultimately Noah's lingering humanity that makes the difference, as the Doctor successfully appeals to him to lead the Wirrn into the escape shuttle and leave the Ark.

On the other hand, the Wirrn demonstrate an equally strong impulse to survive, and in the end I can't help but feel as though evolution, and history, dealt them an unfair hand. After all, it's not their fault that they can only reproduce by killing other species, and in Episode 4 we learn that they used to feed on "cattle" before they were driven from their home planet by colonizing humans. (Vira, incidentally, does not seem terribly regretful about this -- she seems more pleased that the human "star pioneers" survived than anything else.) It also seems that consuming and assimilating other races is their only way of advancing their own capabilities, thus their offer to let the revived humans leave the station if they can use the remaining sleepers for their reproductive process. The Doctor correctly condemns this as immoral, but not before trying to convince them to just leave the station and live on in space. Even after that, he doesn't try to wipe them out but rather electrifies the sleeping chambers so that they can't get in and again urges them to leave, telling them, "You're beaten." He also risks his life a number of times, undergoing a dangerous procedure to recover the final memories of the Wirrn Queen and preparing to sacrifice himself at the end to make sure the shuttle launches properly, and he matter-of-factly accepts responsibility for getting Sarah and Harry into this situation in the first place. This new Doctor may be rather aloof and, well, alien compared to Pertwee, but "The Ark in Space" seems to indicate that his principles haven't changed so much as his method of expressing them.

But . . . .

I'm not sure if the script truly comes to terms with its more unsettling implications, and as a result the justification of its characters' human-centered outlook feels a bit muddled. What are we to make, for example, of Noah's decision to destroy the shuttle after he's lead the Wirrn aboard and they're leaving the station? If he can control the other Wirrn, and if they really are leaving, what threat do they pose? One might be inclined to characterize it as an act of sacrifice, but I can't help but see it as a reflection of the darker side of the human survival instinct, i.e. the innate fear of The Other that leads to racism and xenophobia. For that matter, I have to wonder a little about the Doctor's declaration that humanity is his favorite species and his earlier readiness to destroy the Wirrn before he learns of their history in Episode 4. I'm not saying he should have allowed the Wirrn to kill the remaining sleepers, but does he try to stop them because it's the right thing to do, or because he's playing favorites? Does his later attempt to use less violent methods mean that he now sees the Wirrn as victims of circumstance and wants to give them a chance to leave in peace, or had they simply grown so powerful that killing them was no longer an option? In a way, I suppose this is simply a mixed blessing of the character -- the Doctor is more interesting than a typical hero because we never know quite what he's thinking or why, but this can also just become an excuse for inconsistent writing. In any case, it isn't resolved here, and the strangely upbeat denouement leaves us with little indication of how we're meant to view the Doctor's motivations.

Maybe this is the point at which I'm supposed to shrug my shoulders and admit that, yes, it is just a TV show. But so much of what creates this ambiguity really doesn't serve any other purpose -- there's no reason for the Wirrn to have been driven off their planet by humans, for example, if Holmes was just going for scary alien monsters -- that I have to think there was a conscious attempt to explore some of these issues. In a way, I'm reminded a bit of "Inferno," another first-rate serial that at one point seemed to be questioning the Doctor's judgment but never really followed through on it. Still, there are worse comparisons to be made: "The Ark in Space" is not quite the landmark that "Inferno" was, but it does share the quality of doing enough things right that I'm not going to complain too much about it, and it continues the strong beginning for the new cast and production team.

Other notes:

- Sarah and Harry continue to get on each others' nerves in an amusing way, with Sarah taking umbrage at being called "old girl" and Harry making an asinine comment about one of "the fairer sex" becoming a leader of Earth in the future. (Though the writers couldn't have known at the time, this is also kind of ironic, since the UNIT stories take place in what would turn out to be the Thatcher era.)

DVD notes:

- The commentary with Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and Philip Hinchcliffe is pretty entertaining, especially when they start laughing at the admittedly cheesy bug costumes. My favorite bit off the top of my head is Baker's reference to his Catholic childhood and belief in "God swimming around the Earth," followed closely by Sladen discussing the joys of popping bubble wrap (one of the main components of the Wirrn outfits).

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

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