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11 February 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 407: The Ark in Space, Episode Three

Dear diary,

The Ark in Space has always been something of a fan-favourite in the world of Doctor Who. Russell T Davies has cited it as being his favourite ‘classic’ story, while Steven Moffatt has hailed it as the best of all the Tom Baker stories (perhaps a worrying sign for me, so early into his tenure - will it all be downhill from here?), and for as long as I can remember, it’s been one of those Doctor Who classics that you just can’t fault.

I think a lot of the praise for this has to be given over to the story’s casting. There’s a scene early on in this episode in which Kenton Moore, in the role of Noah, has to struggle against his spreading infection, and try to send a warning to the rest of his waking crew to get them away from the possible danger. The only way I can think of to describe the scene is that we’re watching a proper actor at work - he’s taking it all very seriously. If you can overlook the bubble wrap hand that he’s sporting throughout the scene, it’s possibly the closest to real drama that we’ve seen the programme attempt in a very long time. It’s being played as scary, and serious, and even though Tom Baker grins his way through much of the episode, it’s got a far darker tone than anything the show’s given us since probably Season Three.

Later on, the Doctor and Vira encounter him in the corridor, and he’s been significantly more overtaken by his Wirrn persona. The design on this ‘phase’ looks significantly more effective than the earlier hand effect, and it’s possibly the scariest bit of the transition. While the hand and the larvae don’t really work for me (though bubble wrap would have seemed more alien in 1975, by 2014 it’s just that bit too common place to really have any effect on me!), this half-converted Noah really does do the trick. This same scene has a bit of awkward editing where they’ve cut a line of Noah begging to be killed, and based on the performance being given elsewhere in the story, I’m not surprised it was cut.

It’s amazing, too, how simply changing the lighting setup can make this previously huge, white, open set feel small, and claustrophobic. It’s like getting up in the middle of the night in a house you know so well… and suddenly finding it strange and not how you remember it. I get the sensation whenever I visit the farm back home - I grew up in that house for 17 years before moving out, so I know it like the back of my hand, but if you get up in the middle of the night and make your way to the bathroom with very few lights on, the whole place feels different. It’s great to see this being put into practice with the Nerva set, and especially after I spent so long yesterday praising the way the set looks. Here, we’re given a whole different viewpoint on the place.

Ironically, listening to the commentary I recorded five years ago for this episode with some friends, only one thing stood out to me. Once I’d heard it, I couldn’t really pay much attention to anything else, because I’d somewhat shocked myself! My then-partner points out how the bubble wrap looks so much better when it’s being used for the half-converted Noah compared to when it was just on his had. I thought that was a fairly good observation, and indeed I’d made the same one in my notes while watching today. But then younger me cut in on the commentary; ‘I don’t think the bubble wrap is helped by the fact that this set is lit like it’s from the mid-1980s’.

Within Doctor Who fandom, it’s generally accepted that during the mid-80s (Some of Colin Baker’s stories, and Warriors from the Deep in particular) suffer because they’re lit so bright and flat throughout. There’s not much room for atmosphere, because you can see every nook and cranny of the set. I’d not really considered the fact that his set is being given the same treatment during my current watch-through, though as Alex then says on my old commentary: ‘I think it’s supposed to be lit like this, though. That’s part of the style’

He’s right, of course, and I’m surprised that younger me was so dismissive of the lighting during that watch. I can’t remember ever being anything less than loving of this set (especially when - as I said yesterday - I used to use it as my default ‘space’ set when thinking of Doctor Who), so I was really surprised to hear myself saying this. Assuming it is me, of course. I’m convinced that I don’t really sound like that, but Emma assures me that my voice hasn’t changed in the last five years. She seems to find it quite amusing.

Despite my shock at the statement, it’s exactly the kind of thing that I was hoping for these recordings to throw up. I genuinely can’t recall ever thinking that about these sets, and as my entry yesterday praising the design of the Nerva station will attest, it’s certainly not something that I’d agree with now. I love seeing just how much my opinions have changed over the years, and I can’t wait to revisit some stories in the future and see how my views then compare with the ones I record in this diary now. It’s a great time capsule, and I really am enjoying this chance to revisit my earlier feelings on things…


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