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Classic Who: The Ark

Wow, a story with moving pictures! After so many still reconstructions, I was genuinely quite confused by that at the start of this story. It didn't help that it opened with a still shot of a lizard on a jungle floor, which resulted in me sitting there squinting closely at it thinking: "Is that thing moving? Eh, surely it can't be? But - whoa! It is!" I've just, in fact, had a very similar experience this morning thanks to The Gunfighters' opening shot of an empty street in a frontier town, followed by the sudden entrance of three guys on horseback. It's almost like the directors of these stories knew that the ones in between would be reduced to still images at some point in the future...

The writing team behind this story (Paul Erickson and Lesley Scott) are new to the game, and they're doing some great things here. The dialogue is good, the social set-up is detailed and generally well-explored (see below), and both are well-supported by some really quite lavish sets and costumes (no surprise, as the designer was the excellent Barry Newbery). I liked the structuring, with two episodes set early on in the colonists' mission, and two at the end. It effectively meant that we got two related stories rather than one, which helped to keep things fresh, and there were lots of small clever resonances between the two (quite apart from the major inversion which they explore). It is of course quite rare for the time-travelling abilities of the TARDIS to really be explored outside the journeys into the past which the historical stories are busy handling. But this is a nice example (alongside The Space Museum) of what can be done with that in a non-historical story. It's perhaps particularly important given that this is Dodo's first story, since it brings her fully up to speed with the TARDIS's capacities, and of course also reminds any new viewers how the programme's format works along the way.

Dodo herself lives up to her opening promise. It takes her a while to believe that she really has travelled off Earth in the TARDIS, but once she grasps it, she throws herself into the new situation boldly and enthusiastically. Even though she's lost her regional accent, the Doctor still ticks her off for using modern, slangy English - but it's played fondly, in the context of what is clearly intended as another paternalistic relationship with her, along the same lines as Susan and Vicki. Was her name possibly a set-up for a story which places her in an ark designed to save both humans and animals from extinction? It works quite well, anyway, given that she is a representative of an extinct phase of humanity - and indeed threatens to bring wholesale extinction with her thanks to her cold (see below).

The main issue at the heart of the story is obviously that of colonialist imperialism, and related racism. Quite a lot of thought has obviously been put into the theme. Indeed, it is situated within a wider framework in the first episode, when the TARDIS crew are themselves accused of being nasty alien saboteurs, and the Doctor (although of course not actually a human), assures his suspicious captors that 'if you were to cut my skin, I would bleed, the same as you would'. I think this is pretty clearly a reference to one of western culture's most famous explorations of xenophobia.

The Guardians (human colonists) who are in control of the ship for the first two episodes are on their way to colonise the planet Refusis in the wake of Earth's demise. But the only consideration which they give to how the people of Refusis might feel about this is a concern that the Refusians might try to sabotage their mission. In fact, the script shies away from really confronting this issue, since when we meet the Refusians in episode 3, we learn that they have lost their physical bodies due to some kind of solar flare accident (don't ask!), and actively want to be colonised anyway - so much so that they have already built houses for the incoming arrivals. I found that pretty uncomfortable-making, since it looks awfully like a 'beneficial ideology'-style apology for European colonisation - i.e. a model of colonisation in which the indigenous people are viewed as being jolly lucky for what happened to them. :-/

Meanwhile, on-board the Ark itself the Guardians are accompanied on their mission by the Monoids, who are described as refugees who arrived on Earth after their own planet had died. This is already quite a stark contrast with the position of the Earth colonists, who clearly do not expect to land on Refusis in the role of humble refugees. Rather, the Monoids have essentially been enslaved in return for asylum on Earth - and are being treated pretty shoddily in the process. In the first two episodes, they literally cannot speak - only see - which I think is quite a potent metaphor for the voicelessness of oppressed peoples. The Guardians seem to treat them as competent servants, but do not give them very much recognition for their capabilities - something explicitly signalled by the Doctor when he comments to a Monoid, "You know, you’re far more knowledgeable than most people realise, aren’t you?". And the perspective of the Guardians becomes all too clear when the inhabitants of the Ark start being affected by Dodo's cold. Though several Monoids have already perished, they are only really spurred into concern and action when their own people begin to die.

The second two episodes then explore the inverse side of this relationship - the Monoids have rebelled and taken control, with their new-found agency signalled by the fact that they have now acquired electronic voice-boxes, and are hence able to speak. On one level, this inversion is quite creditable, in that it's an explicit way of showing that you may reap what you sow. The Doctor observes that the Guardians were sometimes 'extremely intolerant and selfish' and that it is no surprise the Monoids rebelled, flagging up the intended moral lesson. But the Monoids are also portrayed as far worse masters than the Guardians. They have numbers instead of names - always a sign of a brutal, anti-individualistic society (and actually anticipating The Prisoner on this point by several months). They use guns and threats to keep the humans under control, and approach the planned colonisation of Refusis with an rapacious imperialist zeal, explicitly preparing to enslave the inhabitants.

What bothers me about all this is that it's pretty obvious that the Guardians, who are all white, are an analogy for western Europeans, while the Monoids, who are dark and furry, are an analogy for the various so-called 'primitive' peoples who were subjected to their colonisation. Their refugee status even reflects this, as it must have had contemporary resonances of the influx of immigrants from the Caribbean who had come to Britain in the 1950s. So, as I said above, it's difficult not to come away from it all with a sense that white European enslavement and colonisation may have been a bit questionable, but thank goodness those nasty coloured people didn't get a stab at it, as they'd have been far worse! So I think I'm a bit torn between liking the attempt to turn the tables on the dominant race, and finding the underlying assumptions about colonisation and the characteristics of white Europeans vs. dark 'primitive' peoples rather unpleasant.

The motif of the future-humans having no resistance to Dodo's cold must have been introduced primarily to create a crisis which needs solving in the first half of the story, but it also allows some interesting ideas to be batted around. It plugs in to our contemporary fears about human dependence on science and technology - will it go so far that we end up destroying ourselves? (See almost any newspaper for the way this debate still rages today.) At the same time, it expresses pride in the viewers' present - maybe we are actually enjoying humanity's best days right now, given that we can fight off a cold without a second glance, and indeed still have a planet to live on to boot? And I think it also furthers the theme of the impact of imperialism, by picking up on historical examples of indigenous populations who really have been dramatically affected by the diseases brought by incomers. Certainly, it is referenced by the Monoids as one of the factors which allowed them to seize power from the Guardians.

We get a great deal of people watching each other on television screens in this story - that is how the Guardians first see the Doctor, Steven and Dodo; how they watch their trial from their prison-cell; and how the inhabitants of the Ark communicate with characters who have gone down to the planet Refusis. This device has already been used in The Chase (and will crop up later in stories like Vengeance on Varos), and I think it is almost always inescapably a meta-reference, since it shows us characters on screen doing exactly what we are doing - following the action on telly.

The Doctor's heroisation continues, as he seeks in episode 2 to escape from the prison cell where he, Dodo and Steven are confined, not in order to save himself, but in order to help cure the plague caused by Dodo's cold virus. The story also has obvious resonances for later stories like Four's The Ark in Space, and Underworld, which similarly feature colonising missions. Indeed the latter also features the same motif of a voyage so long that it takes several lifetimes to complete - and which was then so nicely subverted by New Who in The Doctor's Daughter.

Finally, Steven suggests in episode 3 that 'the TARDIS made the decision' to travel into the Ark's future: not the first time it has been shown as sentient, but I think the first time it has explicitly been said to choose the crew's destiny intelligently. Implicitly, of course, the same capacity had been referenced at the end of the previous story, when it appears to have carried Steven and the Doctor directly to an encounter with Anne Chaplette's descendent - but I can't remember the idea being voiced explicitly before.

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