Strong And Fierce In You Like a Cancer (The Ark in Space)


It’s January 25th, 1975. Between now and February 15th, Edward Wilson and Robert McCullough will both die in attacks in Belfast, Clyde Hay will be the final viction of the Skid Row Slasher, a hundred and three civilians will be slaughtered by Ethiopian troops in Woki Duba, and two thousand and forty one will die in an earthquake in China. In addition, CEO of United Brands (formerly United Fruit) Eli M. Black will commit suicide shortly before it emerges that he paid a large bribe to the President of Honduras, P.G. Wodehouse will die of a heart attack in a hospital in Long Island, and Richard Ratsimandrava, the recently installed President of Madagascar, will be assassinated, sparking a civil war. Also, the world will slide ever closer to the eschaton, and The Ark in Space will air.

The Ark in Space marks the first time since The Daleks that Doctor Who has done an outright post-apocalyptic story, and the first time in which this happens on Earth, instead of on a Planet of the Convenient Metaphor People. Instead Doctor Who has entered the phase where it begins to fantasize about the end of the world. This fantasy, speaking broadly as opposed to about one specific television show, comes in two main flavors. The first is “this is awesome,” in which the spectacle of destruction is fixated upon and, often though not always, eroticized. This isn’t entirely impossible for Doctor Who to do—The Dalek Invasion of Earth is on the brink of it—but it’s ultimately unsuitable for a show in which the hero reliably saves the day.

Instead Doctor Who must indulge in the second flavor of apocalyptic fantasy: the post-apocalypse. One could easily write a book on the ways in which the post-apocalypse has been imagined, and it’s a serious possibility when I finally decide that the week to week grind of blogging is destroying my soul. But in lieu of a full taxonomy, let’s simply categorize The Ark in Space. The basic shape of its post-apocalypse—a time capsule of humanity held in suspended animation—is familiar. But what sort of humanity, exactly? There’s clearly been some sort of effort to select a particular type of person—Noah talks about balancing the “genetic pool” and fears the possibility of introducing “regressives” into the gene pool, while Vira talks about “dawn-timers” and “the chosen.” There’s unquestionably some eugenics going on here, in other words. Which makes the fact that the entire Ark appears to be white rather alarming. Sure, the Doctor has a nice line about “The entire human race in one room. All colours, all creeds. All differences finally forgotten,” but this is before the pods actually open up. 

The truth is that this appears to be an Ark full of Nazis. This was not Robert Holmes’s intention—he specified that Vira should be black. But director Rodney Bennett ignored this, and so we got an all-white ark full of eugenicists. One might fairly object that the Doctor probably wouldn’t be quite so gung ho about saving a bunch of Nazis, but the nature of Tom Baker’s performance largely covers for this. The decision to make the Doctor so giddily happy about danger and monsters in their own right—a sort of crazed thrill-seeker who finds mortal peril fun—makes it strangely believable that this Doctor could just sort of fail to notice that he’s surrounded by Nazis as long as there was a horrible slime monster to distract him. (Although given his comment that “Earth is for humans” later, maybe we don’t even need that justification.)

Which brings us to the horrible slime monster. The Wirrn are, first and foremost, creatures of consumption: they eat people and gain their memories and knowledges, and their plan is to simply consume the whole of humanity. This is a good match for the post-apocalyptic setting, or at least would have been for a post-apocalypse coming off of any of the ecological concerns of the past five seasons. Interestingly, however, the destruction of this Earth is largely arbitrary, outside of human fault. (And, as we learn in the next story, largely overstated.) Instead, the Wirrn find themselves peculiarly aligned to the accidental Naziism of the Ark itself. 

The key concept is the sense of bodily invasion, particularly the astonishing opening to episode three in which Noah and the Wirrn war for control of his rapidly colonized body. The scene is one of staggering body horror, but it’s impossible not to read this in light of Noah’s obsession with genetic purity an episode earlier. The horror isn’t just mind control and bubble wrap, but of bodily corruption and impurity. The Nazis are forcibly impregnated with another species’ babies, which then eat them alive. Worse yet, their goal isn’t simply destruction, but to absorb humanity’s knowledge and culture and then go on to propagate themselves along similar lines. It’s a literalizing of the white nationalist phobia of a “great replacement”—humanity carried on by a literal vermin race.

Pushing the interpretation even further is the Wirrn’s motivations. As they explain, “long ago humans came to the old lands. For a thousand years the Wirrn fought them, but you humans destroyed the breeding colonies.” The fact that Vira’s immediate response to this is to talk about the success of the “star pioneers” makes clear that this is the consequence of a human colonization effort. So the Wirrn are a diaspora population of a planet violently colonized by the humans. Only the fact that they’re not rats or something stops this interpretation from more or less running the table, and honestly insects is pretty much the second choice there anyway.

The problem with this interpretation is that along with being more or less convincing there’s not actually anything that undermines or subverts it. The story really does basically read as a white nationalist horror story. Its resolution—that Noah remembers his heritage long enough to destroy the Wirrn—is part and parcel of a story that consistently valorizes and romanticizes the nature of humanity while portraying a bunch of eugenicist white people as the whole of it. I mean, fuck, the story even does “Earth for the Earthmen” at one point. This isn’t an idiosyncratic bum note in a story that’s otherwise only standard levels of imperialism-fetishizing bullshit. It’s not even a story with a huge chunk of racism baked into a premise that is still being used to explore other things. This is a story with a coherent full-on fascist interpretation. 

That this is the first place in which we try to imagine a post-apocalyptic future is thus ironic and more than slightly frustrating. The post-apocalypse is interesting in no small part because it presents an opportunity for radical imagination. Utopian fiction is one thing, but its instincts are towards seamless continuity with the present—utopia is something that happens to this world. The post-apocalypse, however, imagines a radical break between the present and the future. What’s relevant here is not the rupture itself (although the nature of the end typically gives some clue to the aftermath—consider the relationship between a blameless apocalypse and a fascist post-apocalypse), but the fact that the post-apocalyptic creates an opportunity for starting over, designing a world from first principles.

This is clear in The Ark in Space. There are connections to the past, to be sure—Noah being arrested by the voice of Earth High Minister, for instance, makes it clear that the Ark is being run along the ideology of the regime that built it. Which is, of course, an obvious thing—indeed, a necessary component of the cryo-ark shape of post-eschaton. The result of this is that the Ark offers an aggressively rigid view of the future—Vira, for instance, is a med-tech, and Harry and the Doctor remark on her lack of inclination to try to stop them, with the Doctor explaining that “By the thirtieth century, human society was highly compartmentalised. Vira is a med-tech, and I suspect we're an executive problem.”

This isn’t uncommon—plenty of post-apocalyptic visions assume that an extremely regimented society in which everybody has strict rules is necessary. The logic is clear enough—in a crisis, a centralized system with clearly defined roles is often imposed as a means of handling it. (Think about Incident Command System-style management.) Given that there are few crises more absolute than the apocalypse, it stands to reason that society as a whole would orient along these lines, especially when the whole point of the post-apocalypse is to maintain cultural continuity with what came before. 

What’s interesting in all of this is the contrast between that and what we might expect from the credited writer, Robert Holmes. Holmes is renowned for his mocking disdain for bureaucracy and structure, and to be fair there are flashes of this in The Ark in Space, most obviously when the cranky engineer Rogan wakes up and immediately begins complaining about shoddy management. But for the most part, well, as we’ve already established the story does precious little to subvert authoritarianism. There are possible reasons for this—this isn’t Holmes writing his own idea, but rather Holmes hastily stepping in when a script fell through after the producer had already structured two other stories around its existence, and then the replacement script written under a variety of constraints in order to keep those other two stories afloat also fell through. And it’s fair to point out that The Ark in Space is unlike the stories Holmes writes when left to his own devices, with its focus in fundamentally different places than the bedraggled and larger than life hucksters Holmes prefers.

But ultimately, the easiest explanation is that Holmes has never been as simple as his most reductive fan legacy. Yes, Holmes is prone to displaying an anti-authoriy streak, but this is scarcely incompatible with fascism, which routinely involves a superficial anti-authority posture even as it pursues authoritarian ends. (Consider the extended fascination of various conservative politicians with being described as “mavericks.”) Holmes is, at the end of the day, a classically conservative writer—an ex-cop who winged about his taxes and wrote a story made up in a large part of anti-Chinese stereotypes. The existence of various fascinating pathologies within his writing that have led various critics to create reasonably persuasive leftist interpretations of some of his stories does not change the fact that Holmes himself is a firmly conservative writer. And so it can scarcely be called a surprise when one of his stories turns out to have an entirely plausible fascist reading as well. 

The usual line about The Ark in Space is to note its intense scariness. And it’s true, this is a story interested in the lurking, the crawling, and the barely spoken of dread—a pivot towards the era’s previously discussed fascination with the gothic. But here we are suspended in the middle of the pivot, dialing up the sense of horror while still remaining fixated on the Pertwee era’s love of the weird. And yet as we’ve seen, there is a lurking menace here. When Doctor Who began, fascism was a viscerally remembered, still-immediate threat. Eleven years and change later, it can hide in plain sight. The oft-made suggestion that Doctor Who and David Bowie moved in some sort of mystical synchronization is surely a couple of self-important bloggers over-hyping the obvious fact that both of them are constantly playing off the tensions and anxieties of the British public, but it’s probably worth noting that this is around the time that Bowie began sinking into his notorious Thin White Duke persona. Something was in the air, or more accurately, in the blood—an old infection thought suppressed but now flaring up anew, still quiet and in the background, only detectable in hindsight.

My summaries of history that open these essays focus on destruction, not mere politics. But it is perhaps worth adding one additional headline to the mix: the election of Margaret Thatcher as the leader of the Conservative party. My point is not anything so bland as the assertion that Thatcher was straightforwardly a fascist. But there’s a seamless line from her to Boris Johnson, a Prime Minister whose chief advisor came up in the Overcoming Bias and LessWrong forums, both places where the hyper-planned eugenicist approach of the Ark would have gotten a perfectly approving reception.

Plenty of people have spoken of the nightmares that The Ark in Space gave a generation of British children. But the real nightmares it augured festered elsewhere, in a world beginning its final, fatal descent into madness.


CJM123 2 months ago

Loved the essay and frankly I'm surprised Holmes even wrote a black character into his script. I remember with one obvious and terrible exception his work being very white. I wouldn't realise he would even notice Nazis.

And the only thing that stopped Maggie Thatcher from being a full-blown fascist is that she lacked even the sordid imagination of other possibilities that even Fascism requires.

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prandeamus 1 month, 4 weeks ago

Without necessarily going all the way down the "Talons" discussion about racism, it does raise some interesting problems about how much in a given story is the writer's intent and how much comes from the director and all the other creatives. Classic Who is, in hindsight, extremely well documented, but how much of this is known for other stories. (I've heard tell here that one director had a habit of swapping at least one male role to a female one, but cannot recall who it was.) Do we know how frequently race and gender were changed from script to screen?

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Fox 1 month, 3 weeks ago

I think that director who you are thinking of is Pennant Roberts. He cast Ingrid Pitt in Warriors of the deep against the written male roll I believe he did it in Pirate planet as well.

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wyngatecarpenter 1 month, 3 weeks ago

I once went to a Record and Film Fair in my home town where they had attempted to drum up some business by having Ingrid Pitt as a special guest to meet fans, sign stuff etc. I got there mid afternoon and she was sat at a table with a minder and no one paying any attention. I felt quite sorry for and thought about going over, but the only thing I could think to talk to her about was that scene in Warriors Of The Deep, so I didn't. I thought it would only make things worse

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Christopher Brown 2 months ago

I never liked The Ark in Space as much as other folks despite the adorable bubble-wrap grub, and I think it was because I never found an underlying emotional connection with it. Even without the horrifyingly plausible Nazi reading, the story collapses too easily into us vs. them re: the Wirrrrrrn.

Just curious El, would you still personally rate the story a 10/10? :P

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Brimstone 2 months ago

I've always been obsessed with this inspiring Alien and Ridley Scott originally being meant to design the Daleks.... alternate futures... histories....

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The Not Quite Handsome Doctor 1 month, 4 weeks ago

I suppose I've always liked this one about on the level of its reputation -- enough to go back and watch again more than once, anyway. But now that I'm thinking of it, I've always thought the first episode was the best by far, focusing on the new core cast and how they'd be functioning together, and on exploring Nerva and dealing with its dangers. That means that in effect there was always a slight feeling of disappointment when the main story actually began.

In any case, the old serial I've just started watching yesterday, for the second time, is The Web Planet (El's perspective on which having been quite useful to help me appreciate the first time around). Given the relative reputations of the two stories, I'm enjoying the realization that there's at least one fundamental way the earlier one is superior: its ethics with respect to human-insectoid relations.

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prandeamus 1 month, 4 weeks ago

In a relatively rate positive comment about Gary Russell novels, I do think that the novel "Placebo Effect" tried to ask the question: what was so terrible about what humanity did to the Wirrn? The book made no impression on my in hindsight, so maybe the answer wasn't very satisfactory.

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Fox 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Even as a child I always found the bit about humans basically wiping out they're children and colonizing the Wirrn home planet as plane wrong. Always felt like the Doctor should of been on the Wirrn side on that one.

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wyngatecarpenter 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Much as I like this story I can certainly see the problems raised here, but my view of it is that we aren't meant to admire the human society that we find. The first impression of Vira is of a cold , humourless character, and if I rememebr Noah's first action when he is revived is to attempt to find and kill The Doctor. My interpretation would be that it is trying to show a human society that has become little different to an ant colony - as the Doctor says it is "highly compartmentalised", all individuals within it have a specific function and have difficulty thinking outside that role (with the exception of Rogan apparently, but I suspect Holmes just got bored with writing such functional characters). From there the logical conclusion is metamorphosis into actual insects. The story is resolved when Noah manages to reassert his humanity.
I agree that Robert Holmes' politics are nowhere near as left wing as some fans like to think, but at the same time I doubt he was intentionally writing a pro-eugenecist story inthe same season he was script editing Genesis Of The Daleks.

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David Ainsworth 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Oh, it's clearly the case that this story criticizes these humans: see, for example, one of Harry's moments of comedy that aren't, when he gets indignant at Vira's question about Sarah's value. Tom Baker's delivery of the Doctor's response ("The answer is yes") coupled with his subsequent association of his own position with Harry's makes quite clear what the Doctor thinks of the question.

In addition to having the "displaced by colonization" explanation, which quite frankly renders the story less plausible because the Queen must have galaxy-hopped to get to Earth, this story also makes the remarkable maneuver of having the Doctor's solution be to send the "base-under-siege" invaders into space to save them as well as the humans. If Noah hadn't sabotaged the ship, the Wirrn would have survived, leaving a story where multiple humans were killed by alien invaders who are themselves left almost entirely intact.

Couple that with a few other gestures--Noah's brilliant "No more aliens!" comment, the story's open with a POV shot from the monster's POV coupled with the Doctor's later "mind meld" of sorts--and Ark in Space is remarkable in the degree to which it invites the audience to sympathize or even identify as much with the alien invaders as it does with the beleaguered humans.

The problem, of course, is that the set-pieces, especially in the last two episodes, function in such a traditional way that they undermine that framing and shift us back into identifying solely with the human characters.

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Przemek 1 month, 3 weeks ago

I really liked this one. It shows how easy it is to create a work that accidentally or at least unintentionally says horrible things. And how fascism lurks everywhere if you're not actively trying to banish it.

(I gave "Ark in Space" a try when I made one of my several failed attempts to get into Classic Who. Unfortunately, the special effects made it difficult for me to enjoy this story. Yes, everyone believes their bubble wrap, but it still looks like bubble wrap.)

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