|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.