“Robot” is essentially a coda to the Pertwee era even if it is the fourth Doctor’s introductory story. The tone of the series changes dramatically with Tom Baker’s second story, “The Ark in Space”, written by Robert Holmes, and here is where Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes really begin to put their stamp on Doctor Who. I’ll confess yet again that Holmes is my favorite writer for the original series, and “Ark” is one his best efforts. The production is excellent, considering the low budget they had to work with. The sets successfully create the illusion of a sterile space station environment, even if the black curtains that make up the starfield outside the windows are occasionally too visible. The music and acting are solid and really sell the characters and their situation. The level of tension starts out low but builds nicely throughout the four episodes as the stakes are revealed. This is the type of Doctor Who that caught my imagination when I was young, and which has kept me a lifelong fan.
The TARDIS arrives far in Earth’s future aboard a space station orbiting the planet. “The Ark in Space” is a post-apocalyptic story, set in a time long after the Earth has been devastated by solar flares with most of the population wiped out millennia earlier. However the story doesn’t deal with a dystopian Earth and a destroyed society, but rather with the survivors who were put in suspended animation aboard a space station to ride out the disaster. These individuals are charged with preserving human society and learning and with rebuilding the Earth. They are knowledgeable and well-spoken, but very rigid and elitist as well. They are also under grave threat of extinction thanks to the insect Wirrn who have boarded the station during humanity’s long sleep.
One of the story’s strengths is that it doesn’t dive headlong into the action. There is an opening sequence from the Wirrn queen’s point of view that isn’t explained for some time. This serves as a clear indication that something’s not right, but after that, the first episode is spent at a fairly sedate pace setting up the mystery, with only the three regular characters exploring the environment they find themselves in. The difficulties they encounter are mechanical in nature, not monstrous, and include a lack of oxygen, a high-voltage security system and teleportation into a cryogenic sleep preparation chamber. When the monster is revealed at the end of episode one, it’s actually dead… though we don’t find that out until episode two.
The nice thing is, all of these obstacles presented in the first episode are significant later on. They aren’t just action for the sake of action. The lack of oxygen in one scene demonstrates the peril that everyone is in later on when the Wirrn cut the oxygen supply. The transmat couch is used in reverse later on to bypass the danger of Noah lurking in the hallway. And most crucially, the auto-guard provides the vital clue to the Wirrn’s vulnerability, enabling the Doctor to fight them.
In episode two, the humans begin to awaken from their hibernation, thanks to the restoration of power by the Doctor. The culture clash between Harry and Vira is amusing, and also serves to illustrate the vast gulf of time separating her generation and his. Noah is belligerent and hostile even before being infected by the Wirrn, and becomes quite hostile afterwards as he slowly transforms into one of them. Only his strong feelings for Vira allow him to retain some grip on his humanity. As gruesome as Noah’s transformation is, the fate awaiting the rest of the humans is equally as bad. The Wirrn plan to eat them all alive while they sleep, and in the process absorb all the knowledge and skill that each individual possesses. This is exactly what they did with technician Dune, seen in the opening sequence of episode one.
The Doctor and the humans on the Ark fight to stay alive while the hostile larvae attacks whoever it can and the pods in the power room mature to the point where they’ll hatch out. The single grub is incredibly difficult to fight, and the Doctor believes the adult Wirrn will be much deadlier. The best he is able to achieve is a stalemate, where power from the escape shuttle is used to set up an electrical barrier around the cryogenic chamber. There’s no talk of how to actually defeat the Wirrn, which would seem to be an impossible task. The Doctor tries to talk Noah into leading the swarm out into space, but seemingly makes no progress.
In the end, it is the transformed Noah saves the humans by leading the Wirrn swarm into the escape shuttle and deliberately neglecting to activate a safety feature. The shuttle explodes, taking the Wirrn with it. The Doctor wonders if whatever was left of Noah’s human spirit caused him to take that action. Rogan sacrifices himself to see that the shuttle clears the station. The Doctor was willing to do the same. Despite the non-flattering picture of human society that Holmes painted early in the story, when push comes to shove the nobility of the human spirit shows through in the form of various individuals who sacrifice their lives for others.
In short, this is an excellent story, only hobbled somewhat by the low budget. The narrative itself is great, and so is the acting. I’d love to see this story with a big budget and CGI Wirrn that look a little more convincing, but the production works despite the limitations. One of Doctor Who’s best.