Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...
Day 405: The Ark in Space, Episode One
Before I start on today’s entry, a little side-step. During the 2009 break from a regular series of Doctor Who, I decided that the time had finally come to sit down and do a marathon. I’d managed to collect most of the stories by now on a combination of DVD and VHS, and with no 13-week run to look forward to, the time finally felt right. There was no way I’d manage to do it alone, though. At the time I was sharing a flat with my then-girlfriend, and she’d expressed a vague interest in the classic series, even watching a few stories with me from time to time. Along with her and my friend Alex - a massive Doctor Who fan whom I’m lived with briefly when first moving out from home - we decided that we’d start from Robot and work our way forward. The reasoning was simple: we didn’t want to have to deal with all those missing episodes, and Alex hated the Pertwee years as much as I did. It was only logical that we should start from Tom Baker and work our way forward.
We decided that we’d do six episodes a week, all in one go on a Friday night. Alex would come over bearing takeaway, or we’d cook, and then we’d all settle down to enjoy that week’s episodes and discuss them aloud. In the corner of the room, my laptop would record everything that we’d said, so that I could write it up later on that weekend to post on one of the Doctor Who forums as a record of my experiment. I’ve always been the same - I can’t just sit and watch a marathon of a TV show, I need to document it to feel like I’m actually doing something with my time that’s vaguely meaningful.
Over the next couple of weeks, we made our way through Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, and the first two episodes of Genesis of the Daleks. Things all sort of fell apart after that. I can’t remember why we didn’t keep on watching (though I have a vague memory that Alex moved house around this time, so popping over on a Friday night became a more mammoth task, involving several busses instead of a 20-minute walk), but I know we only made it that far. I continued on with Revenge of the Cybermen and Terror of the Zygons, but then found myself giving up, too. And you wonder why I didn’t expect to keep The 50 Year Diary going for this long!
And now, here we are, five years on… and I’ve forgotten pretty much everything. I can’t remember a single word that we said about the stories, or really how I felt about them at the time. All of it, completely lost as my mind has moved on to think about other things. I know I wrote the first couple of stories up, but I don’t think I ever did anything with those write-ups. It wasn’t until starting on Robot the other day that I could even remember doing this mini-marathon. But then I got to thinking. I’ve still got the laptop I had at the time, because it’s the computer I take whenever I go away somewhere, so that I can still watch episodes for the Diary.
A bit of digging around in the various long-forgotten files of the hard drive turned up five separate audio files. ‘Ark 1’ to ‘Ark 4’ and ‘Sont. Exp.’. A quick play through iTunes revealed that these were the original recordings we’d made all those years ago. Then it sparked up a bit of a mystery. ‘Ark 1’ was only 16 minutes long, and clearly started right in the middle of the first episode. There was no sign of Robot, and nothing for Genesis, either. I was rather liking this. It was all a bit like archaeology, trying to figure out what had happened to these other recordings - where had they gone?
Eventually, I realised. There’s no recordings for Robot, because we never made any. For that first serial, I wrote out in shorthand all the things we were saying so that I could write them up later. It was obviously somewhere early in the first episode of this story that I realised we could simply be recording our thoughts directly into the computer. As for Genesis… that’s still a mystery. I could just be that I’ve deleted the files over the last five years, and these five have somehow survived the cull, like a crop of missing episodes turning up in deepest Africa. It could be that they’re on there something but listed under some obscure name (my digital filing system has never been particularly easy to follow). Or, it could be that I’m mis-remembering, and we never even made it as far as that, stopping after The Sontaran Experiment.
Anyway, I’m excited by this find, because it means that - for the next six episodes, I’ve got a rather unique perspective on these stories: my own. When we recorded them, I’d just turned 20, David Tennant still had three episodes to go before handing over the TARDIS key, there were 106 missing 1960s episodes, I’d yet to move to Cardiff, and I never dreamt that I’d actually do a proper marathon, day by day, that everyone could read. I’ll be spending the next few days watching the episode through, writing down my thoughts, and then doing it all over again but with younger me on the commentary track. I want to see how much my opinions of these episodes - and of Doctor Who in general - have changed in the last half-decade, and I hope you’ll put up with having two of me around for a week or so!
- - -
It’s funny that, over the course of the last few Jon Pertwee seasons, I’ve been pointing out more and more instances of 1963-style opening episodes. It’s usually in a Terry Nation script (Planet of the Daleks and Death to the Daleks both spring to mind!), but we’ve seen a bit of a return to the idea of the TARDIS crew being alone for much of the first episode. I’d thought that they were just strange leftovers from a bygone age, and caused simply because Terry had been invited back to the programme after such a long absence. I’d completely forgotten that not only does this episode adhere to that format, but it actually doesn’t feature anyone other than out three regulars.
Oh, sure, there’s a pre-recorded voice being played while Sarah undergoes her cryogenic suspension (she must be getting used to that by now, having woken up from a supposed long sleep during Invasion of the Dinosaurs), and we get both a small, slug-like creature and the Wirrn in the cupboard, but there’s no other characters present aboard Nerva at this stage who haven’t arrived there in the TARDIS.
In some ways, it’s quite reminiscent of The Dead Planet - that first episode of The Daleks - where much of the threat comes in the form of sliding doors closing behind the characters, or the potential that there could be some kind of threat lurking just out of sight around the corner. It’s quite a laid-back episode, but it never allows itself to be boring in any way. I’m also impressed by the way that it once again separates the Doctor from Sarah Jane: it’s very much about him and Harry exploring the ship, and for a large portion of the episode, Sarah is completely out-of-the-loop.
It’s lucky, then, that Harry is such a loveable character. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone say a bad word against either him or Ian Marter, and this is the perfect showcase for all that is right with him. He sparks so nicely with Tom Baker, and it’s not hard to picture those anecdotes Lis Sladen used to tell about the pair scurrying off into a corner at rehearsals, making notes and plans for their own Doctor Who film. The Doctor is, on the whole, quite dismissive of Harry at times, but you always get the sense that it’s done with a sense of kindness and gentle teasing - the Doctor likes him, really.
It turns out that he’s rather fond of human beings on the whole, really. I try not to quote big lots of text, but I think this may be one of those times where I can allow an exception to the rule;
Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenceless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to out sit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable.
It’s such a lovely speech, and it’s delivered with real charm, too. The direction, the timing… everything really pulls together to make it a real highlight. I’ve always known about it being here, but I’d completely forgotten just how much there was to it. I could recall the Doctor describing us as ‘indomitable’, but I had no idea just how lovely everything leading up to that moment is.
As for what the ‘me’ of five years ago had to say about this one… I’m missing all the earliest parts of their arrival because of starting the recording so late in to the episode, but I tend to pipe up throughout the rest of the time. It’s perhaps surprising that there’s two things I point out during my earlier observations that I considered writing down on this watch through, too, before completely disregarding them and deciding against making the note.
The first was the pulsating light in the wall when Sarah Jane is about to be teleported off for the suspension process. The second comes not long after, when the voice starts to play out, welcoming her to Nerva and preparing her for what’s about to happen. Upon being greeted, Sarah gives a small, drowsy wave into the air. It’s such a small moment, but it really is rather lovely. I’m not sure why I decided to ignore it this time around - despite it raising a smile - but it’s interesting to know that it did catch me on both occasions.
I’m hoping that with tomorrow, and the first ‘full length’ commentary for an episode, I may continue to see these little things that I’m not bothering to really make a note of anymore. It’s interesting to see how my observations have changed over the years, and it’s great to be watching that change in the first proper story of a bold new era for the programme.
Surely, though, the noise on these recordings isn’t really what my voice sounds like?