Doctor Who: The Ark

Doctor Who: The Ark cover art

Written by John Lucarotti, adapted by Jonathan Morris

Starring Tom Baker, Sadie Miller, Christopher Naylor, Terry Molloy

In Big Finish’s brief run of re-adaptations of some of the scripts from Season 12 of Classic era Doctor Who, Return of the Cybermen, the original script that eventually became Revenge of the Cybermen was interesting, but clearly showed the weaknesses and loose edges of Gerry Davis’ original script. Daleks! Genesis of Terror justifies itself mostly through the joy of having Terry Molloy sit in as Davros at the end of Episode 1, and an impressive interview of producer Philip Hinchcliffe by Samira Ahmed, while the main body of the material is flimsy and light, and doesn’t involve full-cast reconstruction beyond the end of the first episode.

Doctor Who: The Ark is that weirdest of things – a skilful adaptation of a script that changed significantly before it made it to the screen… which more or less ends up being more enjoyable than the on-screen version.

Now, before half the fans in the world grab their pitchforks, a disclaimer. I’m not a fan of the Wirrn.

At least, I’m not a fan of the Wirrn as they were rendered on-screen in The Ark in Space. As an idea, the Wirrn are fantastic – while also being avatars for a whole class of life of which there is plenty on the Earth – parasites that devour their host.

But as they were rendered in The Ark in Space, the Wirrn are one of those monsters that fall into the silly/menacing gap, looking as they do like a shish kebab (to choose one of the kindest lookalikes) with a face and legs section superglued on the front. They have zero convincing moving parts, and they end up looking like rejects from the Puppet Theatre of Outer Space Death.

So… there’s that.

A Different Dimension of Doctor Who

Perhaps that makes me more accepting than some other fans to the idea of The Ark in Space with an entirely different threat to the Wirrn. But what Doctor Who: The Ark ends up delivering is compelling, diverting Doctor Who with a distinctly Season 12 vibe (thank you Jonathan Morris), and yet also, a kind of otherworldliness that speaks of the extended universe of Who.

There’s a big play made of dust in the control mechanisms of the Ark – oh yes, we’re still basically on the Ark, with all its rows of freeze-dried indomitable humans – that resonates with the kind of story sometimes told in the Doctor Who annuals of the mid-Seventies. And for all Tom Baker is still very much the Fourth Doctor, here he’s almost the Fourth Doctor in the Peter Cushing movie dimension.

There are key differences of tone, of inflection, and of behaviour that don’t quite sit right with at least the Season 12 Doctor, and there are, beyond any shadow of doubt, line-reads from Tom that are much fruitier and over-the-top than anything he got away with so early in his run.

There’s what feels like a much wider bodynatchers vibe to the plot here, too, with possessed humans seeming still to be like humans for significantly longer into the run-time, rather than transforming their voices into something non-human, which gives the whole thing a rather more “insidious invasion” feel, reminiscent of the black and white sci-fi classics than the transmitted Ark in Space, which has its grander “fall of one great man with a weakness” theme to elevate it.

The nature of the non-Wirrn alien monster here is perhaps a little underwhelming, and potentially a little overcomplicated, while the Doctor’s solution to the threat is simplistic and massively convenient – a case of “Oh Sarah, go and fetch that experiment I’ve been doing just in case of coming across this kind of thing.” Again, think of a Fourth Doctor that eventually succeeded Peter Cushing in the movieverse and you get the idea.

Reasons To Love The Ark

All of which is really the most fannish kind of nit-picking, because there’s not a point at which Doctor Who: The Ark doesn’t thrill you as you listen.

Tom Baker, as mentioned, is at his most utterly mischievous, and some of the line-readings he gives would absolutely fail in anyone else’s mouth, but because it’s Tom Baker being massively Tom Baker, he gets away with them – listen out in particular for “the whole human race will die,” it’s a treat.

Sadie Miller and Christopher Naylor are absolutely in their stride here too – you could pick up their Sarah and Harry and drop them straight into the televised Revenge of the Cybermen and their line deliveries would be entirely consistent (than which, in fairness, there’s probably no greater praise).

Terry Molloy, fresh from his one-scene wonder in Daleks! Genesis of Terror does double duty here, giving both a serviceable resonance of the on-screen Noah, and a nicely clipped sense of mystification at all things human as Narib, the main villain of the piece. And Yasmin Mwanza as Dr Viva (a glorious name-play as she’s the one responsible for reviving the crew of the Ark and bringing them back to life), as always, delivers much more than your money’s worth. Side not to drama companies – there is never a bad day to cast Yasmin Mwanza in things. Do it more. Thank you kindly, audiophiles everywhere.

There’s a traditional Season 12 amount of faffing about in the middle, and if anywhere, it’s here that the strains of taking a visual script and turning it into audio begin to show just a little – long story short, there’s a bit of peril with Harry Sullivan, a spacewalk, a bit of aimless drifting, running out of oxygen, and a cunning and clever plan to get him back on the Ark.

As a visual, it would work rather well (though probably not at the time Season 12 was broadcast – think Four To Doomsday and the cricket ball), but in audio, the need to have it rendered in conversation, observation and even to some extent, peroration gives it perhaps a little of the sense of snooker commentary on the radio.

Baker vs Molloy

But taken as a piece, Doctor Who: The Ark feels like the most successful of the Season 12 scripts adapted by Big Finish so far – and unless there happens to be a plan to lay The Destructors at our feet (what would eventually become The Sontaran Experiment), it looks likely to retain that title. It’s fun, fast, fluid, and shows a kind of early Fourth Doctoring that isn’t quite the same as what we’ve now become used to.

If you only have the money for one of the Season 12 re-runs, it would of course be almost infinitely tempting to see what Revenge of the Cybermen originally could have been like if it had stayed Return of the Cybermen all the way through to the screen. And to be sure, that’s an interesting experiment.

But if you want a re-do that’s actually absorbing as well as being a fascinating look at scripts that underwent an editorial sledgehammer or two before getting to the screen, Doctor Who: The Ark is definitely the way to go.

Tom Baker versus Terry Molloy. Nuff said.

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