Monday, October 21, 2013

Doctor Who: in defense of "The Ark"

The second of seven neglected or maligned Classic Who serials that I consider worth revisiting, one for each Doctor. The series commences here, with "Terminus."

It's easy to tell a fellow Whovian that you like "The Ark": they think you're talking about "The Ark in Space." They nod, say "me too" and go on their way. But occasionally, one of them stops, as if to ask, "Did I hear you right?", and warily doubles back: "Not the one with the Monoids?" And you gulp, "Um, yah," and they add, shaking their heads as if they're questioning your sanity, "The ones with the ping-pong balls in their mouths?"

And then you realize you have to provide a coherent, reasoned justification for liking a TV serial that features creatures holding ping-pong balls in their mouths.

So here it is. Let's jump right in and discuss the elephant in the room. Not the elephant in the jungle -- that'll come later. The one in the room. The Monoids. With some poorly constructed Who creatures, it's easy to look the other way, because their airtime is (mercifully) limited. (Despite what folks now tend to remember, the Myrka really isn't in that much of "Warriors of the Deep.") But the Monoids are everywhere in "The Ark" -- in fact, they dominate Episodes 3 and 4. And the design is atrocious: with their Beatles mop-tops, ill-draping rubbery fabric covering body and face, beauty-pageant sashes, flipper feet and ping-pong ball mouths. (The ping-pong balls are meant to be their eyes, but the actors hold them in their mouths and -- oh, dear God, just Google Image it.) And you may be tempted to ask: who possibly thought creatures like this might make a good and (as we learn in the DVD extras) potentially recurring villain? But this is a show after all that owed much of its early success to pepperpots with plungers. The Daleks are creatures that come to mind every time you unstop your toilet, so ping-pong ball eyes: why not? But unfortunately, the Monoids are not only preposterous looking, but dopes: easily duped and eventually exterminated not through any grand machinations on the part of the humans, but through their own internal discord. And as for the actors inhabiting them: well, it's a little hard to judge the effectiveness of performers speaking through fabric. So the actors make no impression; the Monoids a painful one. The script has the Doctor's companion Steven, on first encounter, describing them as "terrifying," but they're not; they're really, really not.

There are those for whom the glare of the Monoids is blinding, and that's not an unreasonable response. But if you can look past them, there are riches awaiting you in "The Ark": some satisfying, some rather sensational.

So: "The Ark." Well, it's millions of years in the future, and the Earth is plummeting towards the sun. So they've sent an ark into space containing Earth's entire human population, most reduced to micro-cell size -- plus their servants (or as they call them, their "friends"), the Monoids. ("The origin of the Monoids is obscure. They came to Earth many years ago from their own planet, which was dying," we're told, in a piece of exposition that manages to be both vague and admirably compact.) A spaceship so large it resembles a domed planet, manned by all of mankind, shooting through space toward a new, inhabitable home, is the first of several good ideas in the script, and one that apparently came from outgoing producer John Wiles, in a freakishly short stint on Doctor Who. (By the time he started greenlighting new scripts, he'd pretty much decided to leave.)

Presumably, writer Paul Erickson (who asked that his wife Leslie be given co-credit) came up with the other good notions, and there are several. The first stems from a neat piece of dialogue early in Episode 1, as the Doctor and his companions meet the ship's Commander (who, as always in Who, presumes they might be hostile aliens). The Doctor reassures him:

Doctor: Oh, rubbish, rubbish. With all our imperfections, I can assure you, sir, if you were to cut my skin, I would bleed, the same as you would.
Steven: That's right.
(Dodo sneezes.)
Doctor: There you see, complete with chills.
Zentos: Chills?
Doctor: A virus fever which used to be quite common to the human being.
Commander: And cured so long ago we've forgotten what it was like. Fascinating! It's like history coming to life. Tell me, Doctor, if you cannot direct your spacecraft, your journeys must take you to some strange places...

A quick conversation about space travel neatly disguises key exposition -- in fact, the very germ (no pun intended, as you'll see) of the plot. Because Erickson's idea is that the Doctor and his companions could come to a new world, introduce a virus that was harmless to them (in this case, the common cold), but reduce an alien world (or here, humans in the future without antibodies) to ruin. And that's precisely what happens, set up neatly in the first, innocent exchange, and ultimately becoming The Sneeze That Changed the Course of Human History.

But perhaps the best idea of them all is a visual image: a giant statue (still being erected) representing the humans' seven-hundred-year journey to their new home. It comes into play several times during the course of the plot and, at one point, results in one of the best moments in all of Doctor Who, past and present: a visual surprise that turns the serial on its ear. And frankly, if that were the only good thing about "The Ark," it would still be worth watching, because it pours more anticipation, surprise, chills and lingering mystery into one fifteen-second camera shot than some whole episodes manage in twenty-three minutes.

The regulars are all in good form, and that too makes "The Ark" a serial to be cherished, because there is precious little of William Hartnell's third season surviving, which means there is precious little of Peter Purves surviving, which means there is precious little of the short-lived team of the Doctor, Steven and Dodo. And they're quite a good little trio. Perhaps no companion in all of Who-dom is as alternately overlooked and ridiculed as Dodo -- even the name is an unfortunate invitation for mockery. But Jackie Lane, in her first full serial, settles into her role with ease, even as her accent is refined over the course of a few episodes. She fills much the same role as Vicki did -- a faux-Susan for the Doctor, a buddy and occasional irritant for Steven -- but Jackie Lane has a nice plucky tomboy charm that adds some freshness to the mix. It's a good story for Hartnell -- the sci-fi adventures never suited him like the historicals, and particularly in the later years, the technobabble proved a challenge to his memory -- but for a third-season story, he's particularly spirited, confident and relaxed in "The Ark," in a way I'd argue he hadn't been since "The Time Meddler," at the end of the previous season.

And then there's Steven, the unluckiest of companions. Peter Purves filmed nine serials with the Doctor, one of them the twelve-part "Daleks' Master Plan." Of those nine, only three survive in their entirety. He's in many ways the forgotten hero of Doctor Who, the one who kept the show running as Hartnell's dwindling memory sapped his onscreen charisma. I remain a staunch Hartnell fan, but the sad truth is that as his recall went, and he had to hunt for lines by inserting his now-trademark vocal mannerisms (which folks now recall as a character trait rather than an acting trick), a good deal of his authority was lost, too. And that role fell to Peter Purves, who fortunately was a naturally commanding actor, a rugged rogue who could not only handle the heroics required of him, but also take over a lot of the sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that was increasingly tripping up Hartnell. (Clearly making Steven an astronaut from the future was a calculated move by script editor Dennis Spooner to allow him to assume some of the Doctor's dialogue; it paid off in spades, as it does again here.) His timing was impeccable, the occasional bits of levity he was allowed superbly executed. With all respect to Ben and Polly, Peter Purves' Steven Taylor was the link that got us from Barbara and Ian's exit to the Second Doctor's arrival, and if he hadn't been able to pick up so much of the slack for so long, so winningly, it's hard to say whether Who would have survived. But what doesn't survive are most of his serials, and so he's become (particularly with so much of Deborah Watling's Victoria now recovered) the forgotten companion. Purves is marvelous in "The Ark," and it's a great showcase for him. Poor Steven had been doing battle since he first boarded the TARDIS: being injured in Troy; butting heads with all the wannabe-companions in "Daleks' Master Plan"; being stranded by the Doctor in 16th-century France. "The Ark" is a nice change of pace for him -- he's clever, resourceful and commanding. There's seemingly nothing he can't do, and in "The Ark" he does it all -- and of course, in three more stories, he's gone.

So, an engaging setting, and an inviting premise. The principals in fine form. But you can't properly discuss "The Ark" without talking about the things -- aside from the Monoids -- that go wrong. But before we do, let's put one big myth to rest. Lots of Doctor Who serials are allegories (one might argue, the best ones): like good sci-fantasy, much more than the bare-bones plot. And "The Ark" is very much about the fate that befalls a people who build a culture on oppression and ultimately become themselves oppressed. And further, it's about the even worse fate that befalls those who rise up in revolt, but prove even crueler overlords. The humans call the Monoids friends, but treat them as second-class citizens; the Monoids overthrow them, and make the humans their slaves. But the Doctor makes it clear that he blames the humans just as much as the Monoids: that no race should be subservient to any other. What muddies the waters steering "The Ark" is that all of the humans are white, and the Monoids are darker-skinned -- and I've seen theories put forth that the monotonous, muddle-headed Monoids stereotype people-of-color at their worst: that "The Ark" is essentially a racist parable. And that's rubbish. Yes, the humans are fair-skinned; welcome to Doctor Who, 1966. (Would you rather they be in black-face? -- because that's the alternative.) And yes, the Monoids have darker skin, because they're in costumes that cover their faces, and the fabric has to read on camera -- it couldn't very well be stark white. There was an awful lot of bigotry out there in 1965, there's quite a bit of it in Classic Who (even the most beloved: I still can't watch "Talons of Weng-Chiang" without tripping up on the xenophobia and misogyny), and heaven knows, there's a lot out there in 2015 -- but let's not look for it in "The Ark."

Besides, there's plenty else that trips it up. The young people in the first half are pretty awful (and the old man, the Commander, isn't all that much better: at his hardiest, he doesn't seem much healthier -- or more effective -- than when he's confined to his sickbed later, yelling vainly at a video monitor). There's bad acting in the air, and in the first two episodes, everyone but the regulars seems infected; the courtroom scenes -- and heaven help us, there are two of them -- are particularly dire. The costumes are atrocious; forget the Monoids, even the humans are fashion eyesores, dressed in sleeveless tunics that look like they've been put through a shredder. (It makes all the male actors look thin and gaunt; next to them, the strapping Purves seems like a giant.) And there's another alien creature besides the Monoids: more benign, but ultimately no less annoying. This one's on Refusian, the world the Earth ship is heading to -- and he's invisible. And although it's moderately entertaining the first couple of times watching chairs shift position by themselves, as if someone is taking a seat, and seeing space-shuttle hatchdoors seemingly open and close at will, the "invisible enemy" idea soon grows tedious. And finally, as tantalizing as the premise is, the dialogue itself is piss-poor, full of endless exposition with people huddled in corners discussing what they're going to do next. Erickson has a good story to tell, but not the mechanics with which to tell it well.

So on one side, a novel setting, an satisfying premise, a superb statue, and a solid TARDIS trio. On the other side, a hideous alien design, amateur acting in the first half, and a talky script. So what tips the scale in the serial's favor?

Director Michael Imison.

"The Ark" is actually one of the few Classic Who DVD's where I watched the full serial, then instantly went back and watched the whole thing again with the commentary. Faults and all, I was fascinated. And fascinated mostly because the direction was so imaginative that it triumphed over any inadequacies in performance, script and design. More than anything, "The Ark" is the the story of Michael Imison, the first-time Who director who did such a brilliant job, but went so overbudget that he was never asked back to the show again. Discarded so thoroughly, he never even directed for the BBC again. And when you watch the serial, that seems more than a little criminal.

Yes, he went overbudget, but he did what was necessary: he elevated even the mediocre bits into something memorable. You're still aware of everything that's wrong with "The Ark," but it's like sitting at the feet of a master magician, waiting to see what he'll pull out of his hat next. He manages beautiful shots and fun surprises and delightful sleights of hand throughout; he sustains the story-line even at its weakest: the kind of herculean feat matched in Classic Who history, to my mind, only by Michael Ferguson in "Claws of Axos" and, to a lesser extent, Michael E. Briant in "Death to the Daleks." In the DVD commentary, Imison says he was determined to show the Who bigwigs what he could do -- and he certainly did.

Right from the start. We open in a jungle setting, with a close-up of a reptile, held through the credits, until a bird swoops in to attack. We pull back, and see a Monoid watching it all, and we realize our point-of-view has been his. He turns slowly front, as if letting us bask in the alienness of it all, then retreats into the misty jungle. The camera follows, then passes him, tracking faster and faster to the right as a familiar sound is heard. The sound continues as Imison lets us peer through branches and leaves, through birds and beast, until he arrives at a small clearing just big enough for... a materialization. Imison eschews the usual "hold the camera on a spot until the TARDIS appears" approach: the TARDIS arrives just as Imison completes his tracking shot. It's astonishingly smooth and confident. And from there, as the Doctor, Steven and Dodo try to get their bearings (shot through trees and shrubs and shrouded in fog), reptiles and animals of all sorts appear to peer at them, when suddenly an elephant lumbers on from the left. And Imison shoots it cagily: at first showing just the elephant, then cutting to a reaction-shot of Dodo's face -- so we think the elephant is just stock footage cleverly inserted (the old Douglas Camfield ruse). But then they walk, slowly and suspensefully, towards it -- till they not only meet and greet the elephant, but stop to pet it! It's not just that Imison gets credit for going out and hiring an elephant; it's that he deliberately undermines our presumptions of what Who can and can't do. His first Who gig, and he's already using our own expectations against us.

The ship's control room is impressive, but Imison gives it even greater impact with swooping crane shots. He's astonishingly facile at disguising the expository nature of the script. He'll start with a two-shot, then cut away, as the dialogue continues, to other characters plotting in pantomime. Or he'll commence a scene with a close-up of a computer spitting out data, the dialogue in voiceover -- then pull back to a mid shot of the actors. At one point, he pulls off a complex tracking shot as Dodo is dispatched to the TARDIS to pick up medical supplies. We see her in the background, crossing the spaceship, right to left; as the camera tracks left with her, it picks up a row of shutters in the foreground, designed so we can still spy her through the spaces. As we reach the end of the row of shutters, two other characters begin a conversation in the foreground (as Dodo continues to exit behind them) about what animal compounds are needed for the cure. By the time they're finished, Dodo has exited, and we cut to a quick montage of the animals being collected -- before returning to the Doctor's laboratory. Imison doesn't just find the best place for his camera to rest: he finds three places. If he starts to get bored, he darts away -- sometimes in mid-sentence. The Doctor is laying out the ingredients needed for the cure: "Now this job.. This job is..." -- and we jump to the next scene. Typical Hartnell would have gone with a fade; Imison uses a quick cut.

In several shots of the statue, he pans up majestically, giving a sense of scale that's unusual for early Who. (Compare it to the scene in "Tomb of the Cybermen" where lifesize Cybermen emerge from their multi-level tomb, but as Morris Barry shoots it, with no idea how to suggest grandeur, it looks like a lot of mini-Cybers are coming out of a fridge.) He has a stunning eye for perspective: at one point, a hunt is underway for a bomb, and Steven and a female colleague are postulating its location. She walks away, and behind her the bomb is revealed, hidden in plain sight. It's in the giant statue (sorry: spoiler), but as shot, at a distance, the statue neatly fits behind her. Imison leaves no stone unturned. If he shoots a two-shot, there'll be a third person behind them spying, in deep focus. During the dreariest speeches, he holds the camera in a wide shot as the actors approach, or cuts away to items that catch his eye and inform our viewing. The legend of the Hartnell Who is that it's slow; Imison makes "The Ark" run like a racehorse. (He also broke with tradition by filming scenes out of story order, a sign of things to come.)

A lot of dialogue is exchanged through monitors and intercoms (this is a futuristic craft, after all), and it's done with precision. The special effects -- a miniaturization punishment, an exploding space shuttle, a shot of the Earth bursting into flames -- are solid and effective. And in a kitchen scene, as a lark, he has the staff toss pills into a bowl of liquid and -- presto! -- they're transformed into finished, edible goods. It's devilishly facile. In some ways, Imison combines the best qualities of two of Who's earliest directors (who collaborated on the show's second serial, "The Daleks"): Richard Martin, an imaginative elf who threw a wealth of ideas at the screen but struggled to sustain a narrative (which is why his best work is on "Web Planet," which depends on a barrage of fresh images), and Christopher Barry, who knew well how to build a episode, but rarely came armed with anything more than the basics. Imison could do it all -- and he went overbudget and was punished for it, joining the ranks of Tristan de Vere Cole, Ken Grieve, Lovett Bickford, Michael Owen Morris and others, who did one Who, and impressively, and were never invited back.

Imison's BBC director's contract was not picked up after "The Ark." He went on to serve as story editor on "Out of the Unknown," BBC's adaptations of stories by famous sci-fi writers, then took up as a literary agent. And this next part is from Wikipedia, so it might be true: "Apart from chairing the Noël Coward Society, which he founded, and working for the British Humanist Association, his proudest achievement was founding and chairing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, known for its late-night revues which launched the careers of Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, among others." It's an impressive résumé, and it's nice to think that he's had a rich, full life. It's also worth noting that, Monoids and all, "The Ark" is a job and a serial he should be proud of. Doctor Who fan opinion has become so heavy-handed and relentless through the decades that you often see fine artists apologizing for their output, because they know the fans have been ragging on them for years. They grow embarrassed by solid work. Imison's DVD commentary is informative but a bit sheepish, as if he's been beaten down by low appraisals. Let the guy relax and be proud. "The Ark" has its issues, but he did more than he had to, and he did it beautifully, and with style. His one contribution to Doctor Who survives, and is well worth a revisit: for his work, for the premise and the promise, for the Doctor, Steven and Dodo -- and for that glorious statue.

Next up: the Seventh Doctor's "Delta and the Bannermen".

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