Monday, February 1, 2010

Doctor Who S12 Ep76: The Ark In Space

The Wirrn: Giant, Dead, Alien Insect or Giant, Brown, Space Dung? You decide.

Tom Baker as Doctor Who: "It may be irrational of me, but humans are quite my favourite species."

Doctor Who, Episode 76, The Ark In Space [1975] may be the episode that instantly springs to mind from my youth. My induction to the good Doctor, the Tom Baker Years, definitely came by way of a handful of episodes during my childhood: The Ark In Space, Pyramids Of Mars, Genesis Of The Daleks, Terror Of The Zygons and The Sontaran Experiment to name a few. There were others certainly, but these are definitely the ones that always stayed with me. In fact, those first three seasons of Tom Baker's tenure and part of his fourth hold the key to the classics: Season Twelve, Season Thirteen, Season Fourteen and Season Fifteen [1974-1978]. It also felt like genuine science fiction. There is definitely a touch of Alien about the proceedings for The Ark In Space, which is interesting as it pre-dates British Director Ridley Scott's film. Doctor Who takes a step forward improving upon Tom Baker's introduction to the franchise, Robot, with his sophomore effort. Without further ado, let's take a look inside that ark.

Did I say it felt like science fiction? This rubber space staion not so much. This may have been in an episode of Pigs In Space.
PART ONE: The entry opens with one of the funniest looking space station models ever committed to film. It looks positively ridiculous as if someone blew air into a blow up model. Hysterical. Granted, it wasn't until the end of the entire feature I discovered new CGI Model Footage was created to replace these absolutely hideos sequences. In the same manner Star Trek The Original Series employed new computer enhancements to its DVD re-releases, Doctor Who makes the same fairly minor CGI adjustments and really opens up the Whoniverse. You simply activate them in the DVD menu so the new effects play the outer space shots during the presentation. Granted, to truly appreciate these new effects you will have to watch the inflatable space station sequence first. [See snapshots of the new CGI images at the end of the entry]. Through a green lens we are led to believe there is something on that space station as it opens the chamber to a human in some kind of cryogenic sleep. The green lens reminds me of a kaleidoscope.

The Tardis arrives with its trademark wail. To create the effect of the Police Box/ Tardis arriving, clever lighting is applied to give the impression of the Tardis arriving aboard the space station from out of the shadows. It's a very simple effect but works beautifully and probably cost nothing. It is my understanding this is the last appearance of the Tardis for quite some time going forward. We'll learn more later. Doctor Who assesses the situation aboard the artificial satellite. Harry Sullivan is definitely in a bit of shock over the whole concept of time and space travelling in the Tardis. Sarah clearly understands the drill having been the companion to the Third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, in Season Eleven [1973-1974]prior to Tom Baker's arrival as the Fourth Doctor. She empathizes with Harry's fish-out-of-water status.

The Doctor has found the lights and repowered the rooms inside the space station. The Doctor believes they have landed the Tardis somewhere circa the 30th Century. Harry apparently messed about with a Helmut [sp] Regulator. Sarah has stumbled upon a room, but the wall closes behind her and the room quickly begins losing oxygen. The Doctor and Harry find her passed out as the door closes behind both of them. The Doctor attempts to restore the oxygen supply but finds cables have been severed in the wiring ducts. Harry begins to fade. The Doctor repairs the wires with his handy sonic screwdriver and air begins to flow. The heroic trio begins to bounce back. The Doctor suspects the cables may have been "bitten."

The Doctor brings systems back on-line and when they step through the door some kind of defense mechanism begins attempting to zap and vaporize them. Harry and The Doctor manage to duck out of its site. In the adjacent room, Sarah winds up in some kind of cryonic preservation chamber on the space station dubbed NERVA.

Meanwhile, Harry and The Doctor hide behind a desk as they move about the room in an effort to disable the electro defense mechanism. It responds not to movement, but organics. Not sure why it's zapping shoes and hats then. The two geniuses trick the device and manage to shut it down.
Elsewhere Sarah is cryo-frozen. The Doctor and Harry begin looking for her. Harry spots some kind of slimy green slug. The sterile, white set design chosen for The Ark In Space is truly exquisite. It's a great choice and truly adds to the feel of the installment. It's as if they are on a genuine space vessel set in the distant future. In fact, The Doctor and company have time travelled to the distant future as both men determine they are on some kind of lifeboat that was launched by Earth before prior to a great cataclysmic event. "What's happened to the human species Harry?" The Doctor opens a room and finds the cryogenic chamber. It's notable that green slime leads away from one of the tubes. Harry observes one of the men and notes the man is lifeless. The Doctor indicates they are in suspended animation. Oddly enough, it takes The Doctor and Harry many minutes before they actually notice the trail of slime. The editors really didn't do a good job veiling that oversight in the editing room.
In the final moments of Part One, The Doctor and Harry find a cryogenically frozen Sarah Jane Smith. Their friend has been placed in suspended animation. Harry anxiously tries to find a way to help her. He opens a door surprised by an insect-like alien bug that falls upon him as the cliffhanger music kicks in. And I do mean the bug literally falls on him. By God that was scary when I was young lad. Today, not scary. It's like a giant doll. Granted, perhaps it was dead which might account for its lack of movement. We shall see. You can't expect these things to be animatronic can you? Still, the sinister music always played a part in the tension mounting world of Doctor Who.
PART TWO: It turns out the alien creature was dead or "mummified." Well that's good news. At least that explains why it just sort of fell out of the closet in a heap. One of the cryogenic women awakens. She injects herself with a shot from a medical kit found near Harry and The Doctor.
The woman is a little stunned and curious about The Doctor and Harry. Her name is Vira. She looks a bit like an extra from Space: 1999. In fact, Sarah seemed to get a new outfit out of the freezing process. WOW. Fancy that! The Doctor asks for Vira's help to resuscitate Sarah. Harry tells the woman Sarah has only been frozen for about an hour. Vira injects Sarah with a similiar shot and tells the boys she will either die or survive. Time will tell. My money says she will live.
Vira opens another chamber to unveil her leader. His name is Noah. The chambers are essentially plastic and molded styrofoam. There is of course a bit of play here with the whole concept of this colony being in a kind of Noah's Ark via NERVA. Vira explains the solar flares destroyed Earth. The Doctor informs Vira The Ark has had a visitor. The Doctor shows her the dead alien space excrement, I mean Wirrn. Elsewhere, the slimy larvae version of the alien creature is making the rounds.
The Doctor heads to the control room. Noah is not pleased to learn about the Doctor, Harry and Sarah. They could have an impact on the perfection of the colony's genetic pool. I'm sure the Nazi will be even less pleased when he learns about those alien insects.
The Doctor heads off into some dark sections of the station. That always makes for great fun when you're a kid. Sarah is back among the living. The Doctor finds some kind of tank and the green slime is inside it along with a creepy eyeball. Moments earlier the larvae had somehow used its body to get inside the tank.

This is called the 'hold-still-while-we-apply-a-green-splotch-effect' shot.
Sarah spots the "galactic woodworm" as Harry calls it. Vira is upset to fine Doon, one of the colony men, is missing. Meanwhile, Noah has The Doctor at gunpoint. The Doctor tells Noah the energy stack is being tapped by something below. At the rate it is absorbing energy and there could be problems soon. Noah reports to Vira The Doctor has been handled. Doctor Who has been zapped by the conspiracy theorist that is Commander Noah. He refers to them as the Regressives. It's hard to believe humans are The Doctor's favorite species. Noah goes below and finds the space slug that manages to scrape his hand with slime. Suddenly Noah passes out.
Harry and Sarah go to The Doctor's aid as he regains consciousness after being zapped by Noah's stun gun. The Doctor runs to Noah's aid. Noah holds the trio at gunpoint again. This time his hand is inside his pocket. He is no doubt being transformed as a result of contact with the Wirrn larvae. Another of the colonists, Libri, is awakened. Noah has Libre stand guard over The Doctor and company. Noah tells Vira the system must be shut down. Vira is perplexed. Why? "The plan has changed," he shouts. Noah tells Vira he is Doon. The slime-bug is clearly an entity that collects the memories of its victims. I suspect Doon is dead. There is a very Star Trek: The Next Generation, pre-Borg-like identity to the idea of the Wirrn.
Be afraid, be very afraid of my SPRAYED GREEN BUBBLEWRAP HAND! Ahhhh! It's like something out of The Muppet Show along with the Space Station.
The Doctor suspects the alien creature's egg sack is missing. It has released its larvae. The creature fully digests the intelligence of its victims. The Doctor holds a piece of cellophane wrap, make that membrane, as he discusses the situation. Meanwhile, Noah kills Libre. Noah then pulls his arm from his shirt pocket. It is hideous. It is truly gruesome. It is GREEN BUBBLEWRAP! Even the Boy Wonder is appalled and laughing hysterically. Kids just get way too much today. Can I ask you a queston? How is it kids today can deconstruct anything that is on the boob tube in two seconds flat. By God, when I was his age that wasn't GREEN BUBBLEWRAP! That arm was comprised of a highly toxic, lethal, viral green gelatinous mass that was clearly overtaking Noah's body. His situation was terminal and I was frightened for my good friend The Doctor. Not the Boy Wonder! Jesus! It is Green Bubblewrap to him. How come I never noticed that! Damn! That is one cheap-ass effect and yet I was duped hook, line and sinker like a flounder on a Summer's day. Damn! How is it nothing gets past these kids today? I sure was gullible. I'm telling you, to me, that was a raging slime! By the way, I'm slightly off base here, because that is green spray-painted Bubblewrap. That is one expensive effect. I think as a regular feature of each Doctor Who entry we shall give you the best cliffhanger moment of the story and the cliffhanger award for The Ark In Space definitely goes to the bubblewrap hand moment found here. Absolutely Classic!

Pure chemistry: Tom Baker & Elisabeth Sladen.
PART THREE: Thus far, the revived guests of our series have been as cold in personality as the NERVA space station environment itself. There is little warmth to be found in these Earthlings. You definitely get the feeling of being very isolated and alone in space based upon their performances as well.
The magnificent adventure aboard NERVA continues. When we last left off Noah, played convincingly and somewhat sympathetically by Kenton Moore [looks a bit like Cy Curnin of The Fixx] was admiring his green bubblewrap arm. Catching up, Noah smashes his bubblewrap hand against a console in frustration. Noah warns Vira to take command. He is clearly in conflict with the changes overtaking his body. Before long Noah will be completely absorbed by the alien parasite. This is tru body horror of the first order and as a child I was unNERVAd.
The Doctor expects that Noah is being physically absorbed. Vira is in charge of "revivification," but The Doctor needs to find Noah and wants Vira to accompany him. Sarah Jane and Harry will handle the revivification process.
Elsewhere, the bubblewrap is overtaking Noah's body like a well-packaged item for ebay. Meanwhile, two men are revived and one of them tells Sarah how he knew there would be a "snitch up." He guessed it would happen 5,000 years ago. Crawling about the station is a number of larvae form Wirrn.
More green, spray-painted, cellophane membrane.

Vira plans the main phase of the revivification process. The Doctor warns her the plan must be placed on hold or the Wirrn aliens as they are referred will take over the entire station. The larvae will spread. The Doctor begins testing some of the Wirrn's membrane. The Doctor must link his cerebral cortex to the Wirrn membrane. Vira suspects it is risky. Vira is beginning to thaw out in more ways then aone. She's beginning to warm up to our dear friends aboard NERVA.

Noah is a bit of a bubblewrap freak show at this point. He's your packing supplies guy.

One of the men is attacked by alien Noah as The Doctor reviews the past memories of the Wirrn's arrival. He witnesses how they cut the cables and dismantled the station's defense systems. He experiences how Doon was killed. Harry and another of the revived men, Rogin [played with excellence by Richardson Morgan], run into Noah and zap him with their electric toy guns. Larvae continue to plague the station. A sweaty Doctor sits and watches as Harry and the others zap away at the bubblewrap-infected larvae. They have strange little ray guns that open like flowers and then cut through the Wirrn skin. This is too damn funny. It would be a crime not to watch.

That's quite the gun. I think I bought one of those for $2.99 at my local drug store. Space:1999's production was off the charts compared to the budget of Doctor Who.
The larvae creature is kept at bay by the laser fire. The Doctor suspects the Wirrn will be a thousand times deadlier as full grown adults. How would The Doctor know that? Perhaps he learned it during his mind meld. He does know one thing the electrical defense system was the Wirrn's weakness. He suspects there will be hundreds before long. The Doctor needs to utilize electricity to stop them. The Doctor is doing something to reverse a device to rematerialize the group back inside the adjacent control room. The Wirrn throws a wrench in the works when a sudden power drain occurs.

Harry escapes, but the power drain prevents Sarah, The Doctor and Vira from getting to the room. The oxygen tanks also ceases functioning. The Wirrn don't need oxygen in their pupae stage. The Doctor knows the creatures will be in their dormant stage as they continue to grow. He heads off to reactivate the power. Below deck, The Doctor finds many of the creatures are in gestation, but is greeted by a full grown Wirrn in the form of Wirrn Noah. Insects are gross, but fascinating. We get the prerequisite cliffhanger music leading us to the conclusion of Doctor Who, The Ark In Space. Have I mentioned I love Sarah Jane Smith? She is the cutest thing on the planet! She's got a tight little body too.
PART FOUR: Noah is essentially fully transformed into a dreaded and dreadful Wirrn. The Ark In Space is terrific in building its claustrophobic vibe. The body horror transformation of Noah, while low-tech, is also about as awful as it gets. Body mutation into something entirely alien and horrific is always tough to stomach. The whole concept of the body fighting against a foreign body inside is truly frightening in any form. It ranks right up there next to death and you know how I feel about death. Body mutation is the next most awful thing with death often resulting from the internal struggle. It's the mental and physical struggle for control of one's identity that absolutely stops the heart. Films that really explore that process to great effect for me included John Carpenter's The Thing [1982], Slither [2006], Resident Evil [2002] and David Cronenberg's The Fly [1986]. Those are truly horrifying. The transformation in The Exorcist [1973] is also a frightening example. Implantations in the body like those found gestating in Alien are just horrific. How about Director Ishiro Honda's Matango [1963] also referred to as Attack Of The Mushroom People. That was truly scary. There are many. Anyway, here we go with the final segment of The Ark In Space.

Noah never envisioned an ark quite like this.
With the Wirrn in attack mode, Vira shoots Noah Wirrn. Noah Wirrn reaches back for what little humanity he has remaining and warns Vira to take the shuttle and leave the ark if she wants to live. The Wirrn wants The Ark for their new home. Humans attacked Wirrn in the "old lands" and drove them from their breeding colonies on Andromeda. The Wirrn shall utilize the humans in their cryogenic chambers to sustain their existence. The Wirrn are beginning to break free from their chrysalis stage transformation.
The Doctor catches up with Harry and company and tells them all he bumped into Noah who was "quite chatty." Harry suggests piling into the Tardis to escape. The Doctor knows Vira won't leave The Ark and they will not leave her. The Doctor, to use an insect term, hatches a plan. They will lure the Wirrn away from the solar stacks. They will take the energy to create an electrical field to stop them. The Doctor figures bait is required. Sarah sacrifices herself in order to run a cable. That's the downside of being tiny and tight. She's just the right size. Sarah will run the cable to the cryogenic chamber. The Wirrn are on the move. There is some real suspense built up in this segment. Can you imagine how good this entry might have been with a little money to spend?
With Sarah in the tunnel. Harry asks her how she's doing. In classic feisty Sarah style, she replies, "How do you think I'm doing twit?!"
The Wirrn enter the cryogenics chamber and The Doctor hides inside one of the chamber tubes. Rogin and Vira direct Sarah through the layout of The Ark's air ducts. She is in some tight spaces. It's a good thing she's so cute and petite. The Doctor preps the cryogenic chamber with power runs. Sarah tires and repeatedly getting stuck is wearing her down. This is a terrific scene with terrific dialogue as The Doctor motivates Sarah with some good old-fashioned reverse psychology. This was an unforgettable scene from my childhood.

Note the inadvertent, on-camera cellophane slime to the right.

The Doctor connects the cable and electrifies access to the chamber. Miraculously the Wirrn never hears all of the commotion in the room despite being just next door. Sarah gets the doors closed in a nick of time. The Doctor suspects the Wirrn are planning something. After all they are an intelligent lifeform and are capable of assimilating human knowledge as well. One of the Wirrn breaks through the vent and attempts to abduct Sarah. The Doctor breaks her free. I remember these moments being particularly terrifying watching them after school.

That is not an electric stool, but an electrified bug running into The Doctor's lifesize bug zapper.

The Wirrn have reactivated the power and Noah speaks to the humans over a communications system. The Wirrn warns that they control The Ark, but The Doctor insists he controls the cryogenic chamber that includes the people the Wirrn need to survive. Noah Wirrn wants them all off The Ark. If the humans do not surrender Noah Wirrn will turn off the oxygen pumps. It turns out Wirrn can live without fresh oxygen for years; Humans need two plus pounds a day. Noah is the swarm leader and he will let them go free if they surrender as long as the "sleepers" are left behind. The Doctor appeals to the human that was Noah. It's a rather good moment highlighting the appeal of Tom Baker.

The Wirrn are making their way to Harry, Vira and Rogin. Rogin turns on the rocket exhaust to blast the Wirrn. The Wirrn are space aliens and are on the hull outside The Ark making every effort to break inside with their swarm army. The bulkheads have a "low stress factor." The Doctor advises evacuation of the ship and has set the escape ship on automatic take-off once the Wirrn are lured into the craft for launch. Everyone is making an effort to escape. The Wirrn make a nifty little insectoid sound to really creep out the proceedings. They sound more like gerbils. The Doctor is preparing to sacrifice his life for Harry, Sarah, Vira and Rogin. Rogin intercedes and punches the good Doctor in a heroic sacrifice to save The Doctor. Harry, Sarah and Vira believe Rogin and The Doctor are dead. It turns out The Doctor was stuffed into a protection hatch on NERVA.
The Doctor wonders if there was any vestige of humanity left in Noah? We're left to wonder if Noah still harbors some humanity within. Noah contacts them just before the shuttle blows and says "goodbye Vira." It turns out there was something left of him inside the Wirrn afterall. It turns out there was something left of Noah's human spirit. Vira looks forward to returning the humans back to future Earth. The matter transmitter shall teleport folks back home. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry are the first to essentially transport themselves down. The beam down effort is hardly sensational and doesn't come close to Star Trek's Transport Room that beamed down crew members nearly a decade earlier. It's all in the budget folks and there really isn't much of one here. It's so long Vira.
So ends The Ark In Space and apart from some of THE WORST special or visual effects on record, next to Robot, there is an exceptional story under all of that sprayed green bubblewrap! Crikey! I'm surprised they didn't call this one The Green Bubblwrap In Space. In fact, the full grown Wirrn are referred to as "Giant Poops with tentacles "by The One To Be Pitied. Nice. Seriously though, The Ark In Space is quite a brilliant little tale and somehow manages to rise above all of those cheese-awful effects. I found Part Three and Four to be a particularly strong finish. When you consider just how tight the story is it's such a shame nothing can be done about those effects. Back in the day, they were terrifying. Star Trek: The Original Series surely had a massive budget in comparison to vintage era Doctor Who. Still, the creators did go back and replace the inflatable space station with some CGI sequences as pictured with a touch of modern class. I welcome it. Effects aside, the acting here is solid on the whole and the set designs transport us to another place. The story and delivery of the material elevates the viewer beyond the poor effects. Writer Robert Holmes deserves alot of credit. Doctor Who simply suffers from the lack of quality Gerry Anderson or Star Trek modeling. Too bad Babylon 5 didn't have acces to these kinds of computer graphics. despite paving the way. Science fiction has to start somewhere I suppose.
The Ark In Space: B
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Rodney Bennett
Producer: Phillip Hinchcliffe
This would mark the introduction of mainstay Philip Hinchcliffe on production.
DVD Extras: Audio Commentary with Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. Interview with Designer Roger Murray-Leach [The Ark In Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Planet Of Evil, The Deadly Assassin, Talons Of Weng-Chiang]. This would be a particularly fruitful period of stories at the hands of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe as mentioned earlier. There is also an off camera archival interview with Tom Baker from 1975, which is always entertaining thanks to the man. There is a terrific little Who's Who Biography on the stars of the show and its guest stars. This was a funny bit at the end of the fourth part I certainly never stuck around to notice in the past. See you next time folks!


Anonymous said...

Way Cool !!! the effects are Great !!! for the time period :)

SFF said...

Yep. Those were the days.