Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 34: The Ark – The Plague (and The Ends of the Earth)
Remember the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who late last year? Of course you do! I had been counting down towards the great event with my choice of Fifty great scenes… Then, let’s say, things went mildly awry. But I still have Fifty marvellous moments to champion, and Doctor Who goes on too. Tonight, I bring a great cliffhanger and a massive spoiler (so get your The Ark DVD now) as I go back to the youngest-oldest Doctor (William Hartnell), and forward to – well, failing to write a blog isn’t the end of the world, you know. But this is…
“The last moment has come.”
Hello again, possibly extinct regular reader! I hope you’ve been hibernating for the Winter, or perhaps in suspended animation. I won’t go into it all, but – short version – Richard is lovely, and most of the rest of life hasn’t been. It is, chasteningly, six months ago today that I last wrote anything on this blog (an article that, in retrospect ironically, was titled “Speeches I Didn’t Make”), and seven months yesterday since I posted Number 35 in my exciting Doctor Who Fifty countdown. A happier anniversary is that tonight is the 48th anniversary of (mild spoiler) The Return, the third episode of Doctor Who serial The Ark and the one that goes on to explain just what the security kitchen was going on at the end of the brilliant cliffhanger I’m about to celebrate. This much-delayed blog post is also, it turns out, my 700th on Love and Liberty, and 700 is a significant number in this particular plot. It’s time for the excitement, the adventure and the really wild spoilers, and, I mean, you may think it’s a long time down the blog since I published, but that’s just peanuts to this Ark in space…
Back in March 1966 – or forward at least* ten million years from another point of view – the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his friends Steven ‘Space Pilot of the Future’ Taylor and Dodo ‘Aptly Named Walking Extinction Event’ Chaplet materialise on a huge space Ark carrying some of the last of humanity and their
Naturally, the Doctor and his friends are the ones who treat the Monoids as people, while some of the Ark humans explode with xenophobic panic against our heroes, merely because Dodo infects them all with her antediluvian cold and threatens to wipe out what’s left of humanity (and, you know, Monoidony, nothing to see there). With, inexplicably, no telephone sanitisers to hand, it’s left to the Doctor to find a cure while the Ark sails from the Earth and the torches start burning.
Doctor Who – The Ark is a strange beast. It’s brilliantly structured, and has an epic sci-fi feel to it rare in the series’ early years (with impressive visuals for the time, too)… But the ambition doesn’t extend to creating much in the way of characters, and the second half trails off into B-Movie shonkiness. It also inspired a fabulous YouTube video to “Get Back!” which has sadly long since been double-copyright-bombed off the Internet, but if any readers happened to take an illicit copy…? But I’m looking for what’s most brilliant about the story and that, unusually, comes exactly in the middle. It’s something that Doctor Who was able to do to viewers in the 1960s and, if you don’t read the Internet too much, today – when stories aren’t given a simple title and an episode number, but an individual title each week that might leave you guessing how long each particular plot will run. This third season of Doctor Who had already had a story that consisted of just one episode and another that lasted for twelve, so when in the last few minutes of the second episode the cure is found, the moral expounded and the Earth de-rounded, there was no reason not to think that the TARDIS would be off to a completely different adventure the following week after this fortnight’s sci-fi parable.
But the TARDIS crew, and the viewer, were back on the Ark after the Hartnell era’s second and most inspired false ending.
The TARDIS materialises and Dodo, her undeterred eagerness to explore nothing to be sneezed at, rushes off to see the new sights. To everyone’s surprise, they’re more like the old sights. The TARDIS hasn’t moved at all – an important and popular fact that is wrong in all important respects – but the Ark’s vast indoor jungle is suddenly looking rather overgrown (and, still more disturbingly, no longer seems to host elephants). The Doctor explores rather gingerly, noting:
“Well, that’s strange. Something must have gone wrong. It appears we’ve landed back in the same place.”Dodo, on the other hand, bursts into the huge control area, expecting to see their friends and previous persecutors, but is puzzled by the apparent lack of humans as well as elephants, assuming “They can’t be far away” because “We’ve only been gone a few seconds.” Steven, taking his cue from the Doctor and more used to time travel, wonders just how long their “few seconds” may have been for the Ark.
If you’re familiar with Shelley’s poem Ozymandias and the statue which inspired it, I like to credit The Ark with inspiration rather than coincidence in throwing that idea into reverse just as it throws the TARDIS far forward in time. While most humans and Monoids are to sleep through the Ark’s seven-hundred-year voyage, the great ship’s dedicated guardians set themselves a task to mark the journey: that while generations lived and died in space to build humanity’s future (oh, and the Monoids’, nothing to see), they would build a vast statue, an embodiment of humanity’s greatness that would at last be completed for the Ark’s arrival. When we saw the Ark setting out from Earth, only the mighty feet were complete.
Unlike Ozymandias, the feet are a sign of hope and promise; the reversal and despair of the mighty only comes when the statue reaches its height.
Dodo sees, towering above the Ark’s deserted centre…
“Doctor – Steven – look! …The statue. They’ve finished the statue.”The camera follows Dodo’s gaze up the chiselled muscles of the nearly-nude figure that holds a new world in its hand in a thrilling exploitation shot… To the great Monoid’s head at the top.
*The Doctor, told this is the Fifty-Seventh Segment of Time by the Arkists’ reckoning, and told that two particular historical events took place in the First by the same reckoning, instantly calculates that (providing the Segments are of equal duration) “We must have jumped at least ten million years” from the TARDIS’ previous landing in the 1960s. Mathematically inclined readers will note that given this minimal information, it is possible to deduce a minimum period of time but not a maximum one, and that this is exactly what the Doctor does. This may prove handy, in a different segment of time.
Astute readers may have deduced that in the last few weeks I’ve been assisted in my faint desire to make life more helpful and intelligible by watching and listening to at least five different variations of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, some of them even legal. This is not the story of that book, or even of the mind behind it and his contributions to Doctor Who. However, you may also be aware that Douglas Adams began with the idea of a series of quite different stories, all of which would end with the destruction of the Earth. Doctor Who has had much the same idea, with the exception that all of its many versions of the ends of the Earth can, if you squint generously, be said to agree with each other (just don’t get started on Atlantis). In this spirit, rather than just one bonus quotation below, I’ve picked out a selection that all more or less relate to the destruction of our small, blue-green world, though not necessarily all to the same destruction. There’s one related event that I’ve omitted, not because I can’t find a gorgeous line about it but because – in a more minor failure of forward planning than the general one of being a year late – I’ve already used it as a bonus quotation for a completely different one of the Fifty. Arguably, the title of the Doctor Who story involved may maintain some mystery about the planet and its fate (Richard isn’t entirely convinced, if you scroll down to his “… In A Hurry”), so I shan’t spoil it for you here, instead inviting you to click this link and read the Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation only if you feel yourself thoroughly prepared. This story may safely be made the subject of suspense, since it is of no significance whatsoever.
Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Frontios
Early in Part One, the Doctor (Peter Davison) has decided to sort out the TARDIS. His priorities and efficiency in doing so are uncannily similar to when I aim to tidy our flat, and for the TARDIS, too, things are going to get far more untidy before long. His friends – well, it’s 1984 (or ten million / five billion and forty, etc), so perhaps I should call them ‘his bitching contestants’ – Tegan (Australian) and Turlough (alien, and therefore British but a bit fey) just think he’s gone completely hatstand. On the sunny side, at least I don’t drive; here, the driverless TARDIS has drifted above the planet Frontios, where the forecast is less sunny than cloudy with a hint of meteorites. Turlough and Tegan try to bring this to the Doctor’s attention, though their main interest remains in sniping at each other. She’s louder, but he’s more cutting. And he can read…
“Doctor? Something’s happening to the controls.”Tegan wants to visit – “Laws of Time,” the Doctor weasels, and changes the subject to wanting a pair. That’s not unusual for this Doctor. Guess where they end up? Only to find that this group of fleeing humans are, if anything, even more useless than the first lot, with a total, brilliant ship in a worse state than the TARDIS – for a while….
“TIME PARAMETERS EXCEEDED”
“Ah. We must be on the outer limits. TARDIS has drifted too far into the future. We’ll just, ah, slip into hover mode for a while.”
“We’re in the Veruna System… Wherever that is.”
“I had no idea we were so far out. Veruna! That’s irony for you.”
“Veruna is where one of the last surviving groups of Mankind took shelter when the great – ah – yes. Well, I suppose you’ve got all that to look forward to, haven’t you?”
“When the great what, Doctor?”
[Sheepishly] “Well, all civilisations have their ups and downs.”
“Fleeing from the imminence of a catastrophic collision with the Sun, a group of refugees from the doomed planet Earth—”
“Yes, that’s enough, Turlough.”
Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The End of the World
The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) takes Rose – and most of the audience – on her first trip in the TARDIS to the far future… An elegant, spacious chamber; a huge, shuttered window; a mystery. Momentarily. What a magnificent vista for a pre-credits teaser: the shutters retreat to reveal the wide Earth below and, looming beyond, the swollen Sun…
“You lot… You spend all your time thinking about dying. Like you’re going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. That maybe you survive. This is the year Five Point Five Slash Apple Slash Twenty Six, five billion years in your future. And this is the day… Hold on. [Glances at watch to time the Sun’s sudden blazing red] This is the day the Sun expands.Like The Ark, this story has multiple perspectives on time. It’s set at the same moment as the mid-point of the earlier story (of course it is); it was, mind-expandingly, the future, not just on screen but conceptually for its promise of a whole new Doctor Who; it loved and learned from the past (not least The Ark, The Ark In Space and Douglas Adams); and today it seems so dizzyingly long ago. Back in the olden days of nine years ago or five billion years in the future, in the dawn of Russell T Davies when actions had consequences and stories had endings, I loved it for its perfect collision of soaring optimism with sobering wisdom:
“Welcome to the end of the world.”
“Everything has its time, and everything dies.”
Incidentally, I saw the ‘film poster’ above years ago online, as you do, and thought it rather lovely. I’ve not been able to find the site since, though, so if you happen to know who created it, could you drop me a line in order that I can say ‘Thank you’ and they can say either ‘You’re welcome’ or ‘Take it down, impudent worm’?
Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Ark In Space
In early 1975 (or, again, the far future, but not quite as far as the others), Tom Baker had just started to be the Doctor, and I’d just started to watch Doctor Who. This was the second story for both of us, and it scared me so terribly that I had recurring nightmares of it for years afterwards. It was marvellous. But there’s a famously hopeful moment amid the horror, and ironically it comes just as we realise that the Earth has been scoured of all life…
The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his friends Sarah Jane Smith and Harry Sullivan spend the first episode alone (save something lurking, green and horrible), exploring an apparently deserted space station that still manages to suffocate, shoot at or freeze-dry them in turn. Some chambers hold records of Earth; others, its unliving animal life; then, to a swirl of sober, eerie music, the Doctor and Harry find themselves amid cold towers of cold people, each in their own compartment. While Harry faffs about, humansplaining about massive mortuaries, the Doctor realises that the station and the ‘bodies’ are waiting until the Earth can live once again:
“Homo sapiens… What an inventive, invincible species… It’s only a few million years since they’ve 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 amongst the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to out-sit eternity. They’re indomitable. Indomitable!”Tom Baker’s speech near the end of Part One is utterly magnificent – both script and performance – establishing him as the Doctor even more than the manic energy of his first story. And in a story all about humanity, the Doctor reasserts an alien point of view which like so much of this story echoes across future series.
Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Sontaran Experiment
In this short but smart sequel to The Ark In Space that swaps claustrophobia for agoraphobia, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his friends beam down to Earth to see if it’s ready for the return of humanity yet. Good news: it is. Bad news: others found it first. There’s going to be a sinister alien, whose species I shall keep secret for the moment (what’s that? Oh, damn!), but first we meet some other humans. Not the clinical, compartmentalised people of the previous story who slept in the sure and certain hope of resurrection and the even surer certainty of superiority, but a rougher, tougher breed who weren’t among the Chosen and had to work for it, viewing the Earth their distant ancestors fled not as their manifest destiny but a useless and long-junked irrelevance. They’ve only been lured here to become prey, so, just for a change, they don’t trust the Doctor…
“I’m sorry to keep contradicting you, but there is a transmat beam from Space Station Nerva.”Shhh. He mentioned Atlantis once, but I think he got away with it.
“Space Station Nerva.”
“Is he crazy?”
“You don’t expect us to believe that.”
“Nerva – transmat beam – Earth. It’s as simple as that. Why don’t you believe me?”
“Because Nerva doesn’t exist, that’s why. There’s no such place.”
“Fascinating. You don’t believe it exists, yet you’ve obviously heard of it…?”
“Everybody’s heard of the lost colony.”
“Lost colony? Ahhh. You mean it’s become a legend, like lost Atlantis?”
“Lost Atlantis. It’s a legendary city… A go— Never mind. This is extremely interesting. Are you going to cut me loose?”
And in sharp contrast with the Doctor’s previous rhapsody, they’re not impressed. The budget didn’t stretch to a statue, but Ozymandias is back in spirit:
“Listen. If you are one of the Old People, we’re not taking orders from your lot. While you were dozing away, our people kept going – and they made it. We’ve got bases all across the galaxy now. You’ve done nothing for ten thousand years while we made an Empire! You understand? …We’re not taking any of that ‘Mother Earth’ rubbish!”
Surprising Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Doctor Who and the Silurians
After The Sontaran Experiment’s cold-water-in-the-face upending of The Ark In Space’s assumptions and the Doctor’s paean to its self-important survivors or even the importance of Earth itself, and going back right to the realisation that perhaps the Monoids might have something to say rather than just seeing everything from humanity’s perspective, I thought it appropriate to finish after the world ended and nobody noticed. Well, nobody you know, anyway. In 1970, or probably about 1976, or the 1980s, or – look, sometimes it’s easier to agree that ten million is the same as five billion – the Earth’s original owners woke up, and they weren’t happy. The different perspective of the Silurians / Homo Reptilia / Earth Reptiles / Indigenous Terrans is a three-eyed rather than a one-eyed one, but in this story the series had come on a long way in the four TV years since 1966. Going into sleep for millions of years, only to find the end of their world hadn’t quite wiped out all the little mammals, this was a story where the ‘aliens’ had as much of a claim to ‘our’ world as we did. But while the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) could see both sides by Episode Four, try telling that to either people…
“I spoke to it. And it understood me.”
“What was it like?”
“Reptilian. Biped. A completely alien species.”
“And it didn’t attack you?”
“Liz, these creatures aren’t just animals. They’re an alien life form, as intelligent as we are.”
“Why – why didn’t you tell the Brigadier?”
“Why? Because I want to find out more about these creatures; they’re not necessarily hostile.”
“Doctor, it attacked me.”
“Yes… But only to escape – it didn’t kill you. It didn’t attack me when I was in Quinn’s cottage. Well, don’t you see? They only attack for survival. Well, human beings behave in very much the same way.”
Next Time… The Next Time is out of joint – this one might have been ‘I had a little drink seven hundred years ago…’ – so while in the past I’ve offered a not terribly cryptic clue each time about what each time I was confident would be a planned, specific entry at the same time next week, I’m aware that this has been both a different Number 34 to that hinted at last August and that had I written it the next week it would have been, well, last August. So in the light of my impressive record so far, I will make no rash commitments. But if I do get to Number 33, and I do feel that you might need something cheerier after multiple and among them possibly even final apocalypses, it could be:
Next Time… Daylight! Music! Romance!