Thursday, 17 March 2011
In the grim darkness of the far future, flip flops are the first choice for footwear!
This is definitely not the most highly regarded story of the Hartnell era. I love it though. I saw first saw it on VHS when I was 18 and really like it and having watched it on the new DVD release, I feel it is my second favorite 1960s story after An Unearthly Child (the whole thing; those cavemen episodes are as brilliant as the Totters Lane junkyard episode!). The Ark has it's faults but it has an positive and innocent charm that is lacking in later stories. It is a welcome relief after the rather downbeat and violent mood of The Daleks' Masterplan.
A story about the destruction of the earth millions of years in the future was a bold and imaginative idea. Even bolder is the idea of a story that looks into the long-term consequences of the Doctor's actions. The return of the TARDIS to the same spot is masterfully clever, with the cliffhanger discovery of the completed statue. It is a very artful twist.
The Monoids have generally not been regarded favourably by fandom. This is a shame, as they look great, even if their movements are a little awkward. There is a great sense of mystery about them in the first two episodes; we don't know their origin and they never speaking, thus keeping their character a mystery. I prefer to think of the outer layer on their torso as a long snakeskin robe rather than skin (some fans think the head of the Nimon in Horns of Nimon is a mask). They have a somewhat Platypus-like appearance.
The great criticism of the Monoids is that they are a bit silly. Personally I think that is what makes them interesting. Does every race of alien monsters have to be expert in galactic conquest? Surely they must all start of as beginners. Having been a servant class on the Ark, it is unsurprising that they have not had a lot of practice at being evil. The moment when the Monoid can only mumble "err..." when Dodo rumbles their plans is great. There is also something delightfully childish about the Monoid who is about to smash the vase saying "When he hears what I am doing, he will come out to investigate." Like badly brought up children, they just need some attention and the Doctor and the Refusian's response reflects the childish folly of it's actions. The way the Monoids just give up their fight in the end suggests that they don't really have the stomach for a long fight. People have also criticised the fact that the Monoids address each other with numbers. They forget that the Monoids have only just adopted spoken language. Why would they have proper names before this? Besides, they are an alien culture. We should not expect them to be like us in every way. The Monoids do seem to have rather low standards of food hygeine (maybe this is due to their mouthes being in some unseen part of their anatomy?). They are strangely happy to eat food prepared in a room in which people eat, sleep, go to the toilet and, probably, copulate.
The Guardian society is not very well portrayed, nevertheless we are shown a variety of different ages, including children. This gives The Ark some points for realism. I think the Guardians' venetian blind tunics look rather good, though the female version reveals a bit too much flesh. As somebody who loves flip flops, I think it's great that all the male Guardians are wearing them. The female Guardians all wear the gladiator sandals that were so fashionable last summer. We get a lot of bad acting from some of the Guardians. Eileen Helsby who plays Venussa is an exception who shows real talent. She comes off as an unusually brave and spirited character among the Guardians. It would have been great if she had become a companion.
The Refusians are a budget saving invisible monster. That is a bit of a cliche, but the Refusian voice at least sounds great, with both authority and character. It has been suggested that the Refusians are a bit of a deus ex machina. I disagree. We are lead in the first episode to believe that there are Refusians and are left to wonder what they are like. The suggestion is that they may be hostile. Nevertheless, we are surprised to find that the Refusians are kindly preparing for the humans' arrival. The Refusians are perfectly happy for humans to come and colonise their world. There is also an irony in that the humans call themselves Guardians, but in the end they need a powerful guardian to help them out and to arbitrate between them and the Monoids.
The sets and modelwork for the Ark is wonderful. The production team do a fantastic job of capturing the size of the ship. The use of a real elephant certainly adds to this and makes it an exceptional spectacle. The shuttle that carries individuals to Refusis is also a well designed spaceship. The Refusis set is also distinctive and looks quite different to other tropical worlds that we have been shown in Doctor Who. The statue, with it's altered head is a real visual triumph. It totally captures the sense of social upheaval and also makes a nice visual reference to Lord of the Rings.
Hartnell was declining at this point, nevertheless he still has some strong moments in this story. The moment where he offers some friendly encouragement to a Monoid assisting him is beautiful. He recognises their talent before the Guardians who have known them for longer. He also offers comfort to a distressed Dodo when she is overcome with guilt and shows a stoic resignation at the thought that he and Dodo might be trapped on Refusis. Peter Purves is also as strong in this story as William Russell ever was. Jackie Lane was clearly not a brilliant actress, but she still managed to make Dodo a very likable character. There is a real sense of bubbly enthusiasm in Dodo.
The story makes a good moral point about the long term consequences of inequality. The Doctor rightly chides the humans for their intolerance and short-sightedness. He is a little harsh in saying that the Monoids have repaid the humans in kind. The humans had a patronizing attitude to the Monoids, and shockingly seem to think that being saved from a doomed earth is a privilege that the Monoids should rightly repay in service. Nevertheless, the humans were never cruel to the Monoids in the way the Monoids were to humans.
I love the fact that this story gives us an happy ending so far into the future. The humans have lost their homeworld, but they begin life on a new world, watched over by the Refusians. They have the chance to make peace with their old oppressors. I love the Refusian's stern warning that the humans and the Monoids must live together in peace or else they have no future on Refusis. There is such a wonderful sense of both optimism and innocence in this ending.
You know what? I like this story much more than Ark in Space. I prefer the sense of beauty and hope in this story much more than the terror and horror of that Robert Holmes offering.