Something’s Cooking in the Kitchen
Doctor Who: The Ark on DVD
The Ark was the final Doctor Who story made with John Wiles as producer, and over the years his era has become known for two things; off-screen he got on so badly with William Hartnell that they tried to get each other sacked/killed, and onscreen the majority of stories he produced were dark, mordantly funny, and typically concluded with innocents being ruthlessly slaughtered. Such is his forbidding reputation among some fans, you get the impression that if he hadn’t resigned, by the time Season Four came around he would have been planning Doctor Who: A Serbian Film. The Ark though, shows that there was more to the Wiles era than harsh realism. The story is more obviously aligned to mainstream science fiction than any other previously shown in the series, and it’s also very…large. There’s a vast spaceship, a huge statue, some crazy monsters, and the whole of humanity travelling to a planet of invisible beings – all of this taking place over a period of 700 years. It’s hardly surprising that the realisation of this ambitious brief led to calamities as well as triumphs.
There’s a lot of bathos in Doctor Who, and The Ark is no exception. The acting, on the whole, is dreadful. Eric Elliott as the Commander staggers around with a rictus grin that gives him the look of Old Man Steptoe, while Inigo Jackson as Zentos bellows out lines with such force that his head shakes from side-to-side as his fellow actors staunch their bleeding ears. Maybe that’s the reason the mass of Guardians are so unreactive during the cliffhanger when Zentos warns them of their doom: they just couldn’t hear him. I should probably cut Jackie Lane some slack as it’s her first story and she doesn’t have much to work with, but Dodo’s mysteriously morphing accent is only one of the problems with her performance. It’s a distraction admittedly – one minute she sounds like Jacqueline Hill, and then suddenly she’s a young Nora Batty – but at least the accent is entertaining, while the rest of her performance is all energy and little else.
And then there’s the Monoids. Everyone knows that they’re rubbish: terrible hair; stupid bodies; inadequate feet. But I was cheering every time they appeared, especially when the humans communicate with them by channelling Lionel Blair. There’s a scene in The Steel Sky when Zentos and a Monoid are in the back of shot having a sign language conversation so energetic that they look like an early version of performance art group “Action! Image! Exchange!” from Vic Reeves Big Night Out.
Comic moments come thick and fast – during a trial one Monoid waves his hands furiously and Zentos interprets for us: “My learned friend says…”. Monoids do not look like learned friends, although it’s true that a Monoid barrister would have livened up Crown Court no end. Things don’t get much better when they gain the power of speech in later episodes, mainly because they have numbers rather than names and their leader is simply called “One”. So when they say things such as “One has spoken”, they sound like members of the Royal Family or Brian Sewell, while more complicated exchanges: “We should have heard from One” “Yes Two” are just an alien version of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”.
And yet despite all these failings and the frequent unintentional humour, I really fell for The Ark this time around because it’s just so ambitious and, within the constraints of television at the time, often visually impressive. Much of this is down to director Michael Imison’s budget-defying attempts to match the epic concepts in Paul Erickson’s scripts. Imison uses crane shots throughout the scenes in the main control Something’s Cooking in the Kitchen 30.1.2011 room, which, as is mentioned on some of the accompanying extras, give a sense of sheer scale that the series hadn’t achieved up to that point. Beyond that, he famously used a real elephant on the set just to prove that there is life beyond stock footage, then rather brilliantly pulls off one of the best cliffhangers (at the end of The Plague) in the show’s history. He even destroys the Earth as well, but it’s the smaller moments that really stick in the mind. Maybe it’s just me, but the moment where we see a Monoid tenderly feeding the elephant is one of the oddest images in the series, followed closely by the “where did they come from” shock of six Monoids emerging like ghosts from the jungle towards the end of The Steel Sky.
All this and there’s a Security Kitchen as well, which is a thing of wonderful, headscratching bafflement. The Ark is a obviously a patchy story, and it unravels in the last two episodes as the monotony of the Monoid civil war increases in direct proportion to the wetness of the human Guardians. But seeing it again on DVD has made me appreciate its many virtues, and even its bad moments are far from dull. In the end though, one big mystery still remains. What the hell did Paul Erickson do to upset his wife Lesley Scott? And did he really think that giving her a co-author credit on Doctor Who would make up for it?
The accompanying extras for this release were all directed and produced by Thomas Guerrier, and they’re notable for the presence of Matthew Sweet, the cultural commentator and frequent presenter of Radio 3’s outstanding arts programme Night Waves. The main feature Riverside Tales, written by Sweet, is part ‘making of’ The Ark, but takes a wider look at the Doctor Who stories made in the wide-open spaces of Riverside 1. It’s an affectionate look at the place where many of the programme’s famous moments were recorded, including the first regeneration, and Sweet accompanies Peter Purves on a brief tour of the studio as it exists today. The Ark is frequently mentioned, and Michael Imison explains how he pulled off some of the most technically challenging scenes, but also discusses the difficulties of working with Hartnell at the time, as does Purves. It’s a nicely written piece, and often very funny (“Television Centre was for important shows like TW3, and…The Lance Percival Show”) while making good points about the storytelling possibilities that Riverside 1 opened up before the show was shunted back to Lime Grove.
All’s Wells That Ends Wells is a tortuously titled piece about the influence of HG Wells and his work in relation to Doctor Who. As well as Matthew Sweet, it features, amongst others, acclaimed historian Dominic Sandbrook, and author and critic Kim Newman. While it’s very impressive that Guerrier rounded them all up, I did wonder, on the similar principle that members of the Royal Family aren’t allowed to travel together on a plane, whether it was wise to have so many cultural historians all in the same place at once. If anything happened to them half the Sunday broadsheets would close and Radio 4’s Front Row would fall silent. But the piece packs a lot into its short running time and makes some salient points about the relationship between Doctor Who and science fiction. I did worry about one featured expert named Anthony Keen who seemed to be nursing a shocking cold – I kept expecting him to ask for “a second class return to Dottingham”. Perhaps it was a tribute to Dodo.
One Hit Wonder spends a jolly five minutes questioning why some Who monsters are more popular than others, and Jac Rayner gets to say “security kitchen” on Something’s Cooking in the Kitchen 30.1.2011 camera before anyone else. I’ve only mentioned the security kitchen twice in this review (OK – three times now) which I think shows great restraint. It gets a few more mentions on the entertaining commentary, which features Peter Purves and Michael Imison with Toby Hadoke as moderator. Imison comes across as a lovely chap, and seems to have no bad feeling about the show despite the fact it he directed it at a difficult time in his professional life. He’s quite happy to discuss the weak moments – including admitting that the Monoids are based on his idea – but he rightly takes pride in the things that work, and Hadoke’s enthusiasm for the show really helps to bring that out. Purves is solid as usual, and is also willing to discuss the behind-the-scenes difficulties of the period, particularly the “cutthroat” way that regulars were hired and fired. Every release has a commentary, so it’s easy to overlook them, but they have been great over the last few releases, as have the production notes which on this occasion are provided by Jim Smith.
There has been a succession of ropey stories released over the last year or so, and doubtless some will see The Ark in the same vein, but I think it’s a significant story, and this DVD release gives it the attention it deserves.
The Ark is released on Monday 14th February in the UK, and on Tuesday 8th March in the USA.