Doctor Who: The Ark – DVD review

The episodes go in two by two

1966 *  U  * 98 mins * £19.99 * 14 February 2011
Distributor: 2entertain
Director: Michael Imison
Cast: William Hartnell, Peter Purves, Jackie Lane, Eric Elliot, Inigo Jackson

Has there even been a more laughable bunch of Doctor Who villains than the Monoids? These one-eyed aliens noisily discuss their wicked plans, can’t resist making wise-cracks about humanity’s imminent demise, and mutter an awkward “Er…” when they’re caught out. With their over-sized Beatle wigs, bingo wings and waddling pooed-my-pants gait, they’re not exactly a terrifying sight either. The poor saps don’t even have a proper backstory.

If you had to summarise “The Ark” in a single word, “quaint” is the only one that’d do. What else can you call a story in which prisoners are carted off to a “security kitchen” (just how secure can a kitchen be?) – especially when said kitchen is staffed by people wearing those plastic ribbon curtains popular in ‘70s bookmakers, and stocked with industrial-size tins of magical just-add-water new potatoes.

The story, a kind of HG Wells’s Greatest Hits, sees the TARDIS crew landing on a spaceship containing all that remains of life on Earth – including a real live elephant! – which is headed on a centuries-long journey to a new homeworld. In a development that surely wrong-footed viewers of the time, the Doctor and co depart at the end of part two, then return to exactly the same point, four hundred years hence, only to discover that humanity’s Monoid servants have overthrown their masters – a revolution caused in part by the time travellers spreading the common cold. It’s a fascinating idea, and it’s rare we see the Doctor having to face the consequences of his actions.

The story is breathtakingly compressed at times, chewing up and spitting out plot points that other tales of the era might have dragged out for an episode or two. Much-derided companion Dodo is a breath of fresh air, simply because she dares to use words like “dodgy”. And compared to most Who of the time the expansive sets look positively epic, giving the story a rare sense of scale. “The Ark” may teeter on the dividing line between the risible and the naïvely charming, but you can’t help but admire the ambition.

Extras:

The three featurettes all seem a little unfocussed. “Riverside Story” (20 mins) sees Peter Purves visiting the studio where the story was shot, providing some interesting insights about Hartnell – Purves ascribes the increasingly gaffe-prone actor’s bad temper to the fact he was “aware he was losing it”. “All’s Wells That Ends Wells” (13 mins) sees various talking heads discuss HG Wells’s influence on Who. “One Hit Wonder” (four mins) puts the boot into the Monoids. Comedian Toby Hadoke moderates a commentary with Purves and the director. The usual text commentary, gallery and Radio Times PDFs complete the package.

Ian Berriman