Monsters are Real (The Ark in Space)

(28 comments)

I won't lie. It's a man with bubble wrap glued to him. But
it's the scariest man with bubble wrap glued to him ever.
It's January 25, 1975. The Tymes, a Philadelphia soul group, are at number one with "Ms Grace." (This is something of a golden age for this genre of music, and it spills over to the UK. In return, David Bowie slips over to the US and records Young Americans - which he's just putting the finishing touches on now. Young Americans is his version of a soul album - an album that would spawn his first number one single in the US, "Fame," which merely hits 17 in the UK.) It lasts one week before giving way to Pilot, a splinter group of the Bay City Rollers, with "January," which stays on top for the remainder of this story. Gloria Gaynor, Marie and Donnie Osmond, The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, and Wigan's Chosen Few also chart.

In real news, the Weather Underground bombs the US State Department, hurting absolutely nobody and generally continuing their reputation as the fluffy bunnies of the terrorist world. An earthquake takes place in Haicheng, China, killing over two thousand people, but here the real news is that it did so as expected, being as it was the first ever successfully predicted earthquake. An unsuccessful attempt to partition Cyprus following last summer's Turkish invasion of it takes place. And, for our purposes most interesting of all, Margaret Thatcher defeats Edward Heath to become the new leader of the Conservative Party.

While on television, we have a legend. It is not that The Ark in Space is the best story of the Hinchcliffe era. It's not. But there are a handful of points in the history of Doctor Who in which an episode airs that clearly marks a sudden leap forward in quality: a point where you can basically say that nothing that has come before is quite this good. The tendency I've discussed before whereby storytelling techniques get ever savvier and lead to a general trend of improvement for all television helps make this happen, but the point remains: watching The Ark in Space, it is clear that we have just moved to an entirely new level.

In this regard, what is most striking about the episode is that it's so much grimmer. Not since Terror of the Autons has the series engaged in such a concentrated and extended effort to be scary. And even there, the fear was wedded to a sense of the spectacular and the emerging glam aesthetic. The last time the show spent a lot of time being scary for its own sake was The Wheel in Space. But here, all of a sudden, the show is all about fear, and lingering in moments of fear. I'd say "again," but that would obscure things somewhat. Even in the Troughton era, at the height of the golden age of monsters in season five, the show did not go for this sort of unrelenting horror. The nearest equivalent - Fury From the Deep - is downright cuddly in comparison to this.

On top of that, there's a new sort of pessimism to this story. In the Pertwee era, the future was either not going to happen because we were going to destroy ourselves, or it would happen and be awesome. There was very little middle ground. If the future had humans in it, it would be good. On one or two occasions you'd get a slight hybrid - the future where the Earth is crap but everywhere else is good. But here we get a strange new approach - a future in which humanity survived and the Doctor paces around making speeches about the indomitable nature of humanity, but where everything is grimy and dangerous and not at all sexy. A future, in other words, in which humanity survives but life remains about as good (or, rather, bad) as it is right now.

It's worth noting that part of this tonal shift comes not from moving forwards, but rather from moving backwards. One of the most interesting things about the story is that its first episode has no characters aside from the TARDIS crew. The story starts with an episode of them exploring the setting and trying to figure out where they are and what's happening. I don't even remember the last time a first episode was TARDIS-crew-only - I'm going to tentatively say The Space Museum, and trust that a commenter will correct me if I'm wrong (I know that had some people in non-speaking parts, but The Ark in Space has someone in a just-speaking part, so we'll call it even). And indeed, there's a sense of a return to first principles behind the camera as well - although the script for this story is by Holmes, it's actually a full rewrite of a John Lucarotti script.

The down side of this is that really selling the episode requires putting Sarah in the refrigerator - quite literally this time. Lis Sladen has only twenty lines in an episode with only three characters, and several of those are just shouting "Doctor!" or moaning "where am I?" The reason for this probably has less to do with the usual division of labor whereby the companion gets in trouble and the Doctor rescues here than it has to do with the fact that there are actually two companions again here (another move back to pre-Pertwee approaches), one of whom is on his first adventure. Accordingly, it's more interesting to have the more clueless Harry around for the Doctor to explain things to while the more experienced Sarah goes and gets into trouble. But it's still a shame to see Sladen marginalized. (Though to be fair, in episode four she gets her best moment on the series to date, so it works out.)

But all of this points towards a larger refocusing that is going on here: a turn towards an aesthetic of discomfort instead of comfort. As we discussed back in The Monster of Peladon, there are only three Pertwee stories in which the show does not leverage a familiar element (generally the Master or UNIT) to introduce us to the world of a given story. Pertwee rarely landed anywhere in which the point is how strange and unusual the place is. Even if we confine ourselves to his non-terrestrial adventures, a majority use a familiar and returning element to ground things. But here things change. Even though The Ark in Space is the only one of the five stories shot in its recording block not to feature a returning concept, the ones that do return are often twisted and changed into new shapes, as we'll see in both Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen.

But The Ark in Space isn't just a turn away from the familiar, it's a turn towards reveling in unfamiliarity. The whole point of the first episode is that this is a strange and scary place. This is an older and more visceral aesthetic than the comparatively simple aesthetic of the glam spectacle. The heart of the glam spectacle - the pop commodity - is a relatively modern invention that depends upon mass media to function in the first place. But with The Ark in Space we revert suddenly to the more primal aesthetic of the grotesque.

The grotesque is an odd duck, and I'll spare you an elaborate exegesis on how it works. But basically, it's a special case of the larger category of the sublime. I'll just go ahead and offer one of my favorite quotes, from Kant's Critique of Judgment, on this:
Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might. But, provided our own position is secure, their aspect is all the more attractive for its fearfulness; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the forces of the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace, and discover within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.
In other words, the sublime is a sense of safe fear. Kant later compares it to the fear that a righteous man would have in the presence of God: the righteous man knows that God loves him, but is still afraid of God because God is worthy of fear. The grotesque works along similar grounds - it is scary and repulsive, but it is also contained so that we are drawn to it despite its unnerving nature. The grotesque becomes one of the major aesthetics of the Hinchcliffe era. And this requires us to talk about an aspect of Doctor Who we haven't had much cause to talk about yet: fear.

I can talk about this one first hand for The Ark in Space. Because this is easily my favorite Doctor Who story that prior to this I had only ever seen once. Watching that first tape, it was self-evident that The Ark in Space was the best story of the three. But it scared the pants off of me. I knew it was great. I endlessly hoped for a return of the Wirrin. But I always managed to find a reason to watch something else when I was looking for Doctor Who to watch, because this one, good as it was, freaked me the fuck out.

Part of this is production. The Ark in Space has some of the most laughable effects to date, with several parts of the Wirrin very obviously being bubble wrap spray painted green. Most obvious is a scene at the start of Part Three in which Kenton Moore, as Noah, has to stare in horror at his hand, which is transforming into a Wirrin. And he is very obviously staring at bubble wrap. But Moore acts the hell out of the scene, grappling with the hand with utter conviction such that you don't notice the hand, you notice the horror and agony of the actor. It's actually one of the great triumphs of cheap effects in Doctor Who, and a textbook case of what I previously called invisible effects. The point of the effect is not to be noticed, and it works far, far better than green bubble wrap has any right to do, cementing one of the basic rules of invisible effects: if everybody acts as though they believe the green bubble wrap is terrifying, it will be.

Which gets at the real reason this story is scary, which is the confidence with which it leaves things unsaid. And here we get to the heart of how scary children's television - a subgenre that Doctor Who in seasons 12-14 is basically the pinnacle of - works. Neil Gaiman once remarked of his novel Coraline that it is far too scary for adults, but just right for kids. This gets at one of the fundamental trickinesses of children's horror - most adults are terrible at evaluating it. This is because adults tend to assume that children dislike being upset and disturbed. From an adult perspective, it's easy to see how this mistake could be made - particularly if you are an adult with a job description including putting a scared kid to bed afterwards.

The result of this is that people imagine that there is some sort of firm line for a given child one side of which is fine and the other side of which is too scary. Which is rubbish. Actually there's a whole grey area between "totally fine" and "too scary." And children's entertainment thrives in that grey area. Almost every truly classic piece of children's entertainment that is remembered vividly by adults decades later is something that sits in that area that's disturbing but not so disturbing as to be completely unmanageable. Put another way, traumatizing children is good. (It's also worth noting that children are very, very good at managing their own trauma levels. It's very rare for a kid to sit through something that's too old and too scary for them.)

This is what the entire "behind the sofa" image is actually about - the sofa serving as a physical interface for managing how disturbed one is. In practice "behind the sofa" is a phrase to be taken non-literally - most kids do not and did not actually crouch behind the sofa. Instead, children engage in a more internal version of this same negotiation between fear and pleasure. Central to this is also the phenomenon we settled way back with The Crusade about how cliffhangers work. All television, but Doctor Who especially, works based on anticipation - it sets us up so that we think we know what is going to happen, and then plays with and on our expectations. The sofa is really a metaphor for how that works - we crouch down behind it and peer up over it as part of our re-evaluating of how OK everything is or isn't going to turn out, using the sofa to manage our level of fear.

In these terms, The Ark in Space is a triumph. It delights in the creation of large and anxious stretches to mess with viewer expectations and tease them with the prospect of something terrible happening. But more time is spent on the possibility of the terrible thing than on the terrible thing itself. The horror of the Wirrin is left shown but not told.

Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood suggest that this works according to an age line - that the people old enough to understand the true horror of the Wirrin are also the ones old enough to know it's just men in rubber suits. But this assumes a much more rigid line than I'm inclined towards, and, perhaps more to the point, a much more rigid line than I experienced. Rather it is that the Wirrin are clearly disturbing in a way that is slightly hard to quite articulate or nail down at a young age. If you are too young to intuitively grasp that what makes the Wirrin horrifying is that they give you the experience of being eaten alive and slowly converted into one of them simultaneously, that's fine, because you can still tell that these monsters are terrifying in a way that previous monsters haven't been. The gruesome explanation is held back to be read between the lines, but the consequences of that expectation are on clear display. (In particular Tom Baker handles this well, playing against the charismatic bravado he usually projects by having the Doctor appear genuinely afraid of the Wirrin at times. This is a trick he uses throughout the Hinchcliffe era to great effect.)

The result is a story that manages to achieve one of the true pinnacles of children's entertainment - something that disturbs children just enough that they remember it for their whole life, but not so much that they don't enjoy it. And, of course, the standard tropes of the Baker years are on display here too. Baker is still easing into the role and isn't completely comfortable yet, but his performance is perfectly pitched for this. On the one hand he's still charismatic and fun to watch, and provides a helpful anchor of safety in amongst all the scares. On the other, his ability to instinctively make the Doctor seem alien and strange is miles ahead of any of his predecessors, and this helps ratchet up the alienating quality of the story.

And, of course, massive credit goes to Robert Holmes for how well he understands this. Most obviously there's the scene in part four where the Doctor berates Sarah for her incompetence as a way of motivating her to get herself out of a problem when she's starting to give up hope. It's a moment that is truly stunning. On the one hand, it reaffirms that this Doctor is socially aware and clever in a way that his predecessor wasn't - that he's someone who understands people well enough to manipulate them. But on the other, it's cruel in a way Pertwee's Doctor would never be, and Troughton's Doctor only was in extreme cases. Holmes has an intuitive understanding of how well Baker can sell the alien nature of the Doctor without endangering the audience's sympathies, and he goes to town with it.

Even with only two Doctor Who stories, both of which I'd watched earlier in the day, under my belt, this story carried a tangible sense that a truly incredible thing was beginning. This was the story that made Tom Baker's era my favorite (at least until I discovered that there was a Doctor beyond Colin Baker, who was the last one referenced in any of the books my parents owned). And though there were no more Baker episodes in my parents' collection, between their extremely thorough set of Target novelizations and the VHS releases I eventually discovered (which at the time heavily favored Hinchcliffe-era Baker stories: eight of the sixteen Hinchcliffe stories were out on VHS in the US when I started buying tapes), it was easy to have a childhood defined by this era of Doctor Who. And more to the point, watching The Ark in Space, it was clear to me, as it had been to millions of kids in 1975, that I wanted my childhood defined by this.

And so it was.

Comments

RandomTangent 5 years, 7 months ago

Between the photo caption and "fluffy bunnies of the terrorist world" you leave me with only one reasonable response.
Will you marry me?

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John Toon 5 years, 7 months ago

Re regular-only first episodes - would you allow The Mind Robber?

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Wm Keith 5 years, 7 months ago

"everything is grimy and dangerous and not at all sexy."

I think you're forgetting Vira. (And that white costume which looks so good on Sarah-Jane. And the beautifully realised set for the cryogenic storage room.)

Grimy, no. Dangerous, probably. Sexy, no question.

But then, this was the first Doctor Who story I ever watched, at the age of four-and-a-half, and perhaps it had even more of an impact on me than I previously realised.

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elvwood 5 years, 7 months ago

This was the story that made me forgive Tom Baker for not being Jon Pertwee. I thought it was great, and didn't notice any problems with bubblewrap (not that I would have known what that was at the time) - or anything else, for that matter. It felt more "grown up", somehow, which was important to me at the time.

Regarding scares, I hope you cover "The Children of the Stones" in a Pop Between Realities when you get to 1977!

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 7 months ago

thanks for doing such a good job enumerating what i believe is so fascinating about this story! everyone wants to talk about what makes monsters scary, and the Pertwee "Yeti in the loo" story has made the rounds so many times that no one wants to talk about the other types of fear that doctor who is so good at.

and that big one is getting off earth, thousands and thousands of years away from your home, friends, family and realizing, in a very profound sense just how big the universe is and how very, very alone you are, especially should the Doctor fail and you leave you alone, stranded... forever. Sarah and Harry are WAY out of their depth, and even the future humans, far more technologically advance and all, are out of their depth because they can't think outside of the box quickly enough to save themselves. Tehy are all screwed except for the Doctor here, and Holmes paces this one exceptionally well, so that the resolution isn't apparent until he 4th episode. After, how many Doctor Who's have been around where we know the solution by episode two and then have anohter hour of running through corridors before we can finally get to it?

Baker nails his character here so completely, so thoroughly, that it suddenly makes it impossible to now see him take the character over within his second story. No one had done it this quickly or would do it this quickly til Matt Smith comes onto the scene, and his second story is crap compared to his first.

even with some of the crap effects, lets also comment that the sets themselves look far better than the Pertwee sets. The curving corridors, the sleeping pallettes, the engine room, all look richer and sell the concept of the space station better than the CSO interior of the machine on Carnival of Monsters. another step forward.

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Aaron 5 years, 7 months ago

I hope your going to have an extended conversation about what makes the Hincliffe era any better than Troughton's season five, because right now I don't see the difference. They both just seem like monster of the week stuff with the goal of trying to scare their audience, a type of Doctor Who that you got notably bored with as we were going through the Troughton era. I agree with you on virtually everything in Doctor Who except Hincliffe era, which I've never been able to see the magic of. I hope that your enthusiasm for it will be able to show me what's good about it, and how it's superior at all to the Williams era that follows it.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

Well, my watching is most of the way through Season 12 now, and I agree that by Revenge of the Cybermen that season is starting to get a bit down a classic monster blind alley - one that I doubt will be helped by Terror of the Zygons, even if they aren't a returning monster. But after Terror of the Zygons, there's a definite turn away from monster-of-the-week in Season 13, and Season 14 is practically monster-free.

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Aaron 5 years, 7 months ago

Season fourteen? I see the Mandragora, the Master (who's clearly more a monster in the Deadly Assassin then just an adversary), the Robots, and Mr. Sin. It doesn't strike me as monster free, but just more of the same old same old. But, of course, I guess we have two whole seasons before we can argue that point.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 7 months ago

I have to agree with Aaron here. I was going to save this 'till later (though I will return at the appropriate time with more detail) but since the point has already been raised I may as well chime in now. This is absolute blasphemy to say and I know I'm utterly in the minority here, but I never *got* the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. I didn't like it very much the first time I saw it and it just gets worse every time I go back and re-watch it. It has its moments, but I definitely think it's one of the weaker Tom Baker eras (though not the absolute weakest, I'll add).

There are certainly a number of standout serials here ("Brain of Morbius" and "Seeds of Doom" come to mind), but the overwhelming trend during these three years seems to me to be this: Cut-and-and paste the plot of a Universal or Hammer Horror film (or in the case of "Robots of Death" an Asimov book), remake it with Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Louise Jameson, replace the monsters with aliens and tell the story worse. Sure, the pacing, editing and acting are all superb but every time I watch one of these stories I'm just left profoundly unmoved (with the exception of "Pyramids of Mars", which makes me climb up and down the walls and claw at my eyes in blind frustrated rage).

That being said, Phil, you always do a superlative job of getting at the heart of these stories and showing how each and every one is important: I never thought, for example, I'd see anyone attempt, let alone succeed, in defending "The Web Planet", "The Chase", "The Time Monster" and "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" and you helped me see those serials in a new light. So I have to second Aaron and say I'm really looking forward to learning why these seasons are so revered by the fandom.

As for Season 12, I will readily sing the praises of "The Ark in Space" and "Genesis of the Daleks" like anyone else, though I think the Nerva Season-long story ark probably didn't need to be a Season-long story arc, though I know why it was done from a budget standpoint. I would agree things get a wee bit too close to Season 5/Troughton Season 2 for my liking near the end. However, I would also say things pick up around "Planet of Evil", but don't stay for long in my opinion.

My moaning aside, fantastic overview and a cracking read as always. Will probably see you around, well, "Pyramids of Mars"...

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Matthew Celestis 5 years, 7 months ago

WGPJosh, I'm totally with you. I don't care for the Hinchcliffe/ Holmes era at all. I think a lot of those stories are overrated.

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Seeing_I 5 years, 7 months ago

It's worth noting that bubble wrap was a very new and not often seen product in those days, so the number of viewers who would have picked up on that was very very small. Heck, even in 1984 when I saw this for the first time, I didn't realize it either.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 7 months ago

why do want to see a monster free season? I rather enjoy that we get a host of new monsters to check out over the next couple of years rather than a bunch of retreads. given people complaining about the lack of stand alone stories in matt smith's era you'd think that theyn wouldn't be bitching aobut the monster of the week stories.

my biggest complaint is the Universal plot lift, where Holmes spends very little effort to disguise his source material. Morbius is guilt of that.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 7 months ago

@inkdestroyedmybrush

Can't speak for the other Hinchcliffe/Holes critics here, but for me at least for me my big issue is not the monsters themselves, but how they're used. My problem with Doctor Who monsters is too often they run the risk of being generic evil things that need to be stopped for no other reason then their being generic evil things. At best it's a pointless and unsatisfying story and at worse you run smack-dab into troubling issues of xenophobia. I think even Phil will back me up here as he addressed this back in the Troughton era, because before it did some much-appreciated back-pedaling and introspection in its last year it was most definitely well into that territory (see "Tomb of the Cybermen" for just one particularly bad example).

The Cybermen are actually a great example of what I'm talking about. Now, the Cybermen were a fantastic concept when they were first introduced in "The Tenth Planet", and Phil did a great job showing why: A version of humanity that had achieved true enlightenment, but in a form that is incredibly unsettling and disturbing. Representing enlightenment in the Kenneth Grant/Lovecraft sense they provided a really clever and imposing challenge to the humans, forcing them to back up their claims of moral superiority, because in many ways the Cybermen were better than them. However, the minute they show up again in "The Moonbase" (and every subsequent appearance as well) they're turned into boring monolithic conquerors who go around taking over civilizations for the hell of it. They have no motivation and serve no narrative function other than being evil bastards who need to be stopped, and to me that's incredibly uninteresting.

That's my problem with monsters in a nutshell: They can provide wonderful potential for deft storytelling provided they're used carefully, but they so rarely are. This is precisely the problem Hinchcliffe and Holmes too often run into in my opinion, because you get characters like Sutekh who really have no characterization to speak of except being the Big Bad Evil Thing the heroes have to stop. After several dozen of those, I'd rather have no monsters at all then have any more boring, overly reductive Black/White morality tales.

The other thing that isn't brought up as often but I think is equally as important, is this: Who said Doctor Who has to be a show about monsters or scary things? In its earliest conception the idea was to make the show about everything: That's the point of the TARDIS, it can take you anywhere in space and time and tell any kind of story. I find this sort of fetishistic focus on fright and monsters troubling because what it says to me is that "yes, Doctor Who can be about anything, just so long as there's a big ugly monster to jump out at you and go 'oogy-boogy'".

A caveat before I get in any more trouble: I know Robert Holmes didn't originally write "Pyramids of Mars", and I concede that. However, it still happened under his watch and I'm less willing to forgive him because of a number of other stories during this era with very simplistic morals and stupendously unoriginal scripting. As for the other stories I mentioned, I'll defend "Brain of Morbius" and "Seeds of Doom" for two reasons: Yes, I know one is just Frankenstein and one is just The Thing, but what they have that so few of the stories from this era have is an antagonist with more than one dimension to his personality. Because the writers took the time there to actually develop their characters, it makes it easier for the actors, who are all incredibly talented, to help bring the story to life. "Brian of Morbius" is also in my opinion just as much about The Doctor, and is the first time in a quite a long time we start seeing some mystery brought back into his character and for that I'm grateful.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 7 months ago

@WGPJosh

sorry, was writing from work earlier and being fairly simplistic with my points.

I agree with your points. Holmes was instrumental in bringing in the "ordinary britisher" to offer his take on the goings-on, whether as a plot point (such as the poacher) in Spearhead or a comedy bit, but he rarely would put the same spin on the villian.

That being said, Noah in Ark has more complexity to him in the end even as he's being possessed, Borusa and Runcible are given more depth along the way in Deadly Assassin, even Solon is a sympathetic character as the Anti-matter takes him over. Davros is a masterpiece as portrayed by Wisher in Genesis. Holmes' Master in Assassin is a pissed off time lord out to get his revenge, a decent reading of the character at that time in his history.

You're right about the "Big Bad" as Whedon termed it in Buffy being evil for the sake of being evil sometimes (Suethk, the Zygons, the crap Cybermen of Revenge, Eldrad) but i do think that there are certainly other examples of power hungry individuals whose motivations propel them into what we we would consider EVIL (Magnus Greel perhaps?, Chase and Scoby in Seeds).

the other part of what you brought up i.e. why is Doctor Who about Scary things is a reasonable point, although Doctor Who of 1974 was certainly a creature of its time, and it had settled into a pattern and structure and was not going to be completely ripped apart back then. Nice as it would have been, i think that is asking a bit much of them to ignore the demands of what their audience would have been seeking on a saturday night. Even in these enlightened times, when was the last time the Doctor Who ignored the dramatic appeal of having something menacing and was about something other than having an adventure? Vincent and the Doctor is the closest episode that I can think of. the monster there seemed so grafted on to the story. I would certainly have wanted to simply have watched 45 minutes of the Doctor and Amy hanging with a mentally unbalanced Vincent, but i'm not certain how many other people would have. I'd love to have the Doctor spend an episode hanging with Napoleon or the DeMedicis with lots of palace intrigue.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 7 months ago

@inkdestroyedmybrush

I think you really nailed both Robert Holmes's greatest strength and his greatest weakness as a writer: You're absolutely correct, he is excellent in representing ordinary people who live in the worlds he crafts and using that to help flesh out the narrative. You're also correct in saying he doesn't do this for his antagonists and, I would extrapolate from that, his actual plots. So, what you wind up with is an incredibly well-fleshed out world with interesting characters where nothing remotely interesting or challenging is actually happening.

I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear above, but I actually think all the examples you listed there are very valid and would agree. Despite me airing my complaints on the "Ark in Space" entry I actually quite enjoy that serial and agree Noah was well-handled. I also agree about "Genesis of the Daleks": Davros is of course brilliantly written and acted and that episode is a deserved classic. And I already defended both "The Brain of Morbius" and "Seeds of Doom" as my favourite episodes of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, for precisely that reason: Their villains are actually compelling in a way Holmes' rarely are. I may disagree with you somewhat only on "Deadly Assassin"...It's a great episode to be sure but I have very mixed feelings about The Master's presence here.

But for all of those very valid and excellent examples, the fact remains for me at least they remain the exception to the rule here: For every "Ark in Space" or "Genesis of the Daleks" Holmes also gives us a ""Revenge of the Cybermen" or at his absolute worst, a "Pyramids of Mars". That's not even getting into the incredibly uncomfortable implications of "The Face of Evil" and "Talons of Weng-Chiang". In my opinion at least this era is simply far too ethically reductive and narratively rocky to ever go down as a memorable classic in my book. It sure has its share of great moments, but those are at least balanced out equally by the mediocre and cringe-inducing ones.

Perhaps it is a bit much of me to ask the Doctor Who of 1974-1977 to be as complex as I'm looking for, but to that I would ask why now, if it had such a stellar track record in its own past (particularly anytime it was under the supervision of Verity Lambert and/or David Whitaker). Also, despite an admittedly VERY uneven first season, as soon as Graham Williams takes over in my opinion the show enters a frankly unprecedented golden age that lasts until at least 1980. Even in the Pertwee era there were moments where the show reached giddy imaginative heights, even points during which Robert Holmes was in charge. I have a hard time believing audiences can change that much over just a few months to a year. Tom Baker's first three seasons just remain something of a mystifier to me.

As for modern Doctor Who, while the revived series has tended to favour large action set pieces and Steven Moffat in particular seems to enjoy crafting confusing time travel adventures in between playing with horror tropes, there are just as many cases where this isn't the case, although admittedly mostly in the Big Finish range. Not to mention I think it's perfectly possible to have an adventure without a scary monster chasing the heroes for 3 episodes: Look at "The Keys of Marinus", "The Enemy of the World" "City of Death", or Big Finish's superb "Farewell, Great Macedon" and "The Fearmonger". New Series examples are rarer, but extant, such as Moffat's own "A Christmas Carol" and the aforementioned "Vincent and the Doctor".

And hey, I'm seconding your call to have The Doctor spend an episode discussing politics and philosophy with historical figures! That would be awesome.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 7 months ago

@WGPJosh

good points as well, we can simply agree to disagree on the Williams era, which simply turns into the type of Doctor Who that i don't really enjoy. And I really love Pyramids.

I think the fact is that it would take some really good writing to have monsterless who and i think that there aren't enough writers up to the task. How much more interesting would the Shakespeare episode been without witches and just been the Doctor and Martha dealing with the crew at theatre and trying to get back to the Tardis without something (insert jepardy here) happening? Sounds like a Tennant I would want to watch personally. Also sounds a lot like a Hartnell doesn't it?

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WGPJosh 5 years, 7 months ago

@inkdestroyedmybrush

Agree to disagree it shall be! With the very large exception of (most of) Season 15 I adore the Williams era and "Pyramids of Mars" has to be one of my least favourite episodes of Doctor Who ever.

Definitely agree with your comments on Monsterless Who: Historicals have their own issues though and Phil already did an article on that, though I point you to Big Finish's "The Fires of Vulcan" and the Colditz saga as great examples of how you can do a modern day historical. I also still stand by my claim that you can have a Doctor Who Sci-Fi adventure without monsters, and even when you do use them monsters can be handled in a more engaging fashion than usual.

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Matthew Celestis 5 years, 7 months ago

WGPJosh, you voice so many of my own thoughts.

Pyramids of Mars is one of my least favorite stories. When I first watched it I was really expecting to enjoy it, but was amazed to find I didn't like it at all.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

Given that it's one of the most acclaimed Doctor Who stories in existence (and one I remember loving, so am expecting to be very positive about), I'm curious what your objections to Pyramids are, Matthew - not to argue against them so much as to keep in mind when I get to it Sunday or Monday night.

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William Whyte 5 years, 7 months ago

Pyramids of Mars is a bit like episode 3 of The Deadly Assassin stretched over four episodes: an attempt by Robert Holmes to see how much visual storytelling he can do and how little dialogue is necessary. As such it's nicely done but never really breathes: the characters don't get much depth, except the one played by Michael Sheard OBVIOUSLY, and while it's all nicely directed, it seems pretty slow to modern eyes.

And the opening fifteen minutes of episode four, which are basically The Adventure Game crossed with Death To The Daleks, are just rubbish. (May I say how much I hope you do a Pop Between Realities on The Adventure Game?)

I mean, I don't hate it, but it's nothing like as good as Brain of Morbius or Seeds of Doom. Or particularly Ark in Space, which is nearly perfect.

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Matthew Celestis 5 years, 7 months ago

Well, it did feel a bit depressing for a start- it's so bleak. There is a real lack of the good-natured humour that you find in much of Doctor Who. All of the non-regulars die horrible deaths. Being crushed between robot mummies is really nasty, as is being killed by your own brother.

Robert Holmes great at offering fully-fleshed out characters, but none of the red shirts here we meet get to provide any real interest.

Part of why I really wanted to like Pyramids of Mars was because I am a massive Lovecraft fan. It seemed to me that the story is trying to present an alien god with terrible cosmic powers from the past. Yet I think this is the area in which Pyramids of Mars fails the most.

As great as Gabriel Woolf's performance was, visually Sutekh was basically a man in a mask. By way of contrast, the evil cosmic power Fenric in The Curse of Fenric worked so much better because for most of the story he was an unseen presence, an ethereal force of evil.

Sutekh simply does not cut it as a force of cosmic evil. Gods don't need to use robots or build rockets. They can't be imprisoned with technology. Pyramids of Mars tries to do something Lovecraftian, but ends up falling back on the standard trappings of alien baddies.

Similarly, the story attempts to recreate the visual elements of Hammer horror, but does not seem to understand how horror works. A mummy is not scary because it wears bandages, but because it is a walking corpse. A robot mummy is banal and pointless.

It also has that thing about history being open to alteration- the Doctor showing Sarah an alternative 1980 makes no sense when you think about it. I actually think Sarah's instinct is right and it is a trick- the Doctor has taken her to one of the moons of Saturn.

Those are my main complaints about Pyramids of Mars.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 5 years, 7 months ago

@ William Whyte -

"Pyramids of Mars is a bit like episode 3 of The Deadly Assassin stretched over four episodes: an attempt by Robert Holmes to see how much visual storytelling he can do and how little dialogue is necessary. As such it's nicely done but never really breathes"

this is, of course, why Doctor Who discussions can be so interesting. What I LOVE about Pyramids is that it is a suffocating story which ratchets up the tension, and that it isn't as filled with the talking heads shouting all the exposition over four episodes. It takes greater advantage of utilizing visual modes of storytelling to enhance the experience of WATCHING the story. What is the first maxim of storytelling in a visual medium? Show, don't tell. Pyramids really takes that on. A professional comic book artist for many years, its taking stuff OUT that really can enhance the visual impact of a story.

my two cents...

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William Whyte 5 years, 7 months ago

@inkdestroyedmybrush: I hear you. That's a totally valid comeback. For my tastes, Pyramids would be better a bit shorter and tighter, but tastes vary.

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WGPJosh 5 years, 7 months ago

I'll save my fully detailed rebuttal of "Pyramids of Mars" for when we actually get there, and William and Matthew have already covered many of my biggest complaints, so I'll not repeat them.

What I will do now is briefly reiterate the point I made above, that Sutekh, at least in my mind, as a completely unconvincing, morally reductive and boring villain. he has absolutely no motivation and, despite Tom Baker's stellar efforts to sell the character as feared destroyer of worlds it never *quite* works for me. The Doctor's final exchange with Sutekh also really falls flat for me for a number of reasons.

Finally, the Universal plot lift here that Hinchcliffe and Holmes fell back on so often absolutely cannot carry the story for me: The schizoid tone becomes impossible to ignore and it just really makes me wish I was watching one of the Mummy movies instead. Or, for that matter, Stargate SG-1, which does the premise a lot better in my opinion.

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 1 month ago

The first 9 months Channel 12 in Philly had DOCTOR WHO, they ran the stories completely out of sequence. No kidding. It was like, "ROBOT", then "THE SONTORAN EXPERIMENT", then "REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN"... no, not just every-other one. But I can't remember the rest. I do recall the 1st Leela they ran was "THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG", about a week or two before "THE HAND OF FEAR". Madness.

So I'd already seen Nerva Beacon some number of weeks before seeing "THE ARK IN SPACE". The visual design of the station, as a result, was rather anti-climactic. As was the "transporter" ending. How incompetent do you have to be to run a show that badly? It's like I've long said, a lot of people get paid good money to do really bad work.

I will comment on a running theme of the replies here. Early-on, I felt UNCOMFORTABLE with the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era. There, I've said it. I got to REALLY like Tom Baker, apart from those scenes where his character's seeming INCOMPETENCE was just too "convincing". With Troughton, you knew it was an act. With Baker... you were never sure. Sarah, I had somehow fallen in love with (halfway thru "THE SONTORAN EXPERIMENT"-- it caught me by surprise). So, I liked the concept of the show, and I liked the main characters. But these UNRELENTING serious, SCARY, dark, downbeat, MORBID, violent stories... it's like, WHAT was going on here? I guess, just as the "horror fad" in movies was dying (and Hammer Films was about to go belly-up), as is typical for TV, running a bit late, the "horror" fad continued for a few more years past its expiration date.

I THANK you for reminding me of this. Because over the years, many of these stories have grown and grown on me-- I've simply seen them MORE TIMES than all the rest of the show's entire run combined. And perhaps THAT's the single reason WHY these 3 years are so popular (I'd say 4, but when Hinchcliffe left, the quality did take a nosedive). Familiarity. Baker was MOST people's FIRST Doctor in America (he was my 3rd, but that's me). And, he lasted longer than any of the others. So to many fans, he's the "only" Doctor, or at least the only one that counts.

Similarly, Sarah was their FIRST "WHO" girl, and, the one who lasted longer than any other companion. Sure, The Brig lasted more years, but who'd seen Pertwee back then (apart from me, anyway), and he wasn't one of the girls. Ditto for Jamie, who had more episodes than any other supporting character (well, he did wear a dress... KILT!! KILT!!! heehee). But most of his episodes are missing... and many people REFUSE to watch BLACK & WHITE. (I'm not kidding.)

I have always HATED some of the design aspects of Nerva Beacon. WHO puts a door switch on the far side of the room from a door? WHO sets up a defense lazer that will probably KILL you the instant you turn it on? WHY have an internal transporter built into a couch or bed, the latter awkwardly placed above-behind a control console? These sets were clearly designed by someone with no knowledge or common sense regarding interior design.

The crew of Nerva Beacon are even worse. 5,000 years were supposed to go by, did they think EVERYONE they met when they woke up would be like them? Was this some kind of Fascist regime with a superiority complex? And the incessant cries of "REGRESSIVES!", referring to their accents and speach patterns, get silly, when Rogan wakes up, and his accent's much more pronounced than The Doctor's.

And Noah-- well, he's just a trigger-happy sociopath! SHOOTING the Doctor in mid-sentence, I'd say he DESERVED what happened to him. I feel sorry for Vira-- "pair-bonded" to someone like that. At least, near the end, she started to loosen up a bit.

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Henry R. Kujawa 5 years, 1 month ago

To continue...

I got VERY pissed at The Doctor for bullying Sarah in the tunnel. But then, every other thing out of her mouth in this story was rude and obnoxious and insulting, especially toward Harry.

I guess I'm in the minority. Two things really make this story stand out for me these days. The first is, it's very clearly a RETURN to Patrick Troughton. Some of Tom Baker's dialogue, especially in the first half, could have been written for him (and maybe it was). Except, Troughton, Jamie & Zoe were ALL more likable!

The other thing is, I now tend to view this story less for what it was, than as a PREQUEL... to Holmes' "THE MYSTERIOUS PLANET". Because there is a DIRECT connection between the two. Although we don't find out what caused the solar flare until "THE ULTIMATE FOE".

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John 3 years, 3 months ago

This point doesn't seem right at all to me:

In the Pertwee era, the future was either not going to happen because we were going to destroy ourselves, or it would happen and be awesome. There was very little middle ground. If the future had humans in it, it would be good. On one or two occasions you'd get a slight hybrid - the future where the Earth is crap but everywhere else is good.

Having just finished with the Pertwee era, this doesn't seem right to me at all. Obviously, most Pertwee serials aren't set in the future, and several that are don't really address anything about the state of humanity - humans from the future don't appear in The Curse of Peladon (save the real earth delegate who arrives at the very end), Carnival of Monsters, or Planet of the Daleks, and we get very little sense of future human society in either Death to the Daleks or Monster of Peladon. Day of the Daleks depicts an alternate dystopian future that is prevented.

That leaves us with Colony in Space, The Mutants, Frontier in Space, and Planet of the Spiders giving us visions of future human societies. I don't see how any of those can be seen as depicting a future that is "awesome.

Now, none of these scenarios have quite the bleakness of what we see in Ark in Space, but I don't see how any of them shows the future as "awesome," or even really as just being "Earth sucks, but everything else is great." They all depict worlds where Earth has very serious problems that it's really beyond the Doctor's power to solve. The Doctor can save these particular colonists, he can help Solos gain its independence, and he can prevent a war between Humans and Draconians, but he can't end the environmental degradation and exploitative mining operations that are making life in the galaxy miserable and he can't end the political oppression that besets the Human Empire.

There are, I think, a couple of differences between the human futures envisioned in the Letts/Dicks era and the ones envisioned in this story, but it isn't that the former imagines a glorious future and the latter imagines a workaday one. The Ark in Space doesn't present "a future...in which humanity survives but life remains about as good (or, rather, bad) as it is right now." That seems, in fact, like a pretty fair description of the Mac Hulke vision of the future. What Ark gives us is a deeply alien future. The future humans that the Third Doctor and Jo meet are always pretty readily relatable. They have different roles in the story, but they never seem alien; they seem more or less like twentieth century people put into different situations.

The future humans in Ark in Space are deeply alien. Harry can barely even carry on a conversation with them. There's a *weirdness* to Holmes's future that is very different from the basic familiarity of the future as depicted by Dicks et al. The situation is also completely alien. The problems that humans face in the future in the Dicks era are always extrapolations of problems of the 1970s - pollution, imperialism, cold war, unrestrained capitalism. The problems in Ark in Space are just totally removed from anything in the real world. In this story, at least, Holmes simply doesn't seem interested in any kind of didactic message. It's a story about how the world of the future will be weird and unsympathetic. I'm not sure any of this is all that typical of the Hinchcliffe era in general, but it definitely forms a marked contrast with the vision of the future we've seen over the previous four years.

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David Sarkies 2 years, 4 months ago

The bubble wrap, that defines this story, and it was used so well. However it was not the scariest story from my childhood, that would be The Android Invasion.

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