Tuesday, October 13, 2009

4C1 - The Ark in Space 1

And with this episode, Doctor Who, Mark II begins. The Ark in Space is not only the first broadcast episode under new producer Philip Hinchcliffe's reign, but it was, in all honesty, the first proper Tom Baker story. Robot was produced at the tail end of the 11th production block, and Baker, while still instantly recognizable as the new Fourth Doctor, just seemed like he was a less active Jon Pertwee substitute in a Pertwee-era UNIT story. With a couple months to refine the character and his motivations, we are presented with the REAL Fourth Doctor in Episode One of this story.

It almost feels like a completely different programme. Gone are the vast casts of UNIT regulars and extras. In their place is a vast, empty space station, which is explored throughout this episode with increasingly gripping intensity by The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry. In a shockingly bold move by writer Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe, Episode One features just the three regulars. It feels so much like an early William Hartnell serial (most notably, The Daleks) that one could easily see The Ark in Space as a reboot, even a hard restart, of the programme's direction and motivation. All the universe is now a stage for The Doctor, having now materialized in a time in the far future, with nothing but a less than enthusiastic twisting of the Helmic Regulator to confine him.

As this is the first proper Tom Baker story, so, too, does the pandemonium over his Doctor begin. If I could choose one 25-minute episode to represent all that the Fourth Doctor is, was, and ever will be, it would be Episode One of The Ark in Space. Key to Baker's effectiveness is the presence of Harry Sullivan. While The Doctor and Sarah Jane would never have a cross word between them, having a slightly duff and inexperienced traveler like Harry around to be the fool for The Doctor to have to suffer gives Tom Baker a golden opportunity to spread his wings. Baker is by turns charming, gleaming, crotchety, majestic, heroic, and poetic. In short, he is magnificent.

Has there ever been a more gorgeously written and performed monologue, or even as glorious a scene in general, than The Doctor's "indomitable" speech? This episode has already strayed so far from the norm of what we have been used to that a 30-second soliloquy is the topper of what has been dazzling episode. From the ethereal opening sequence of a mysterious creature infiltrating one of the cryogenic chambers, to the shocking reveal of said creature at the episode's cliffhanger, Episode One of The Ark in Space is one of the most fundamentally important and landmark episodes of Doctor Who ever made.

The British viewing public obviously thought this at the time, too, and it wasn't, for once, the children viewers whose opinions raised the public awareness of the show. Tom Baker's Doctor, with his carefree attitude and rebellious nature, struck a chord with the teenagers and, most importantly, the college and university students of the nation. The word of mouth of the show's direction was incredible. Look at the viewing figures for Episode One (9.4 million), followed by those for Episode Two (13.6 million). The next episode of Doctor Who, broadcast on February 1, 1975 (I am proud as punch to have been born two days after this blessed event) gained over four million viewers purely in the basis of this new Doctor and this strange, new, and slightly more adult world that he found himself in. And, because of Tom Baker, the entire focus of the show changed. After eleven years of wondering what creatures and enemies The Doctor would meet and how he would defeat them, the show was now, finally, about The Doctor.

This episode succeeded in doing the impossible - turning an eleven-year-old programme that was a stalwart presence in the BBC schedules and in the lives of children everywhere into an overnight sensation.


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