The Ark in Space was a bold statement that Doctor Who was under new ownership. After five successful years, Jon Pertwee and his producer, Barry Letts, had both just departed and new producer Philip Hinchcliffe was keen to take the programme into deeper and darker waters.
Hinchcliffe was lucky not only to have the experienced writer and script editor Robert Holmes on hand, but also he had the considerable talents of incoming Doctor, Tom Baker. The Ark in Space was Baker's second transmitted story and the third in production order, but given his assured performance you could be mistaken for assuming he'd been in the part for years.
The central concept of the story is deeply disturbing - a group of parasitic aliens called the Wirrn infiltrate the Space Ark where the last members of the human race are in deep hibernation and they proceed to lay their eggs in the helpless humans. This allows the Wirrn to consume their hosts, thereby inheriting the knowledge of their helpless victim.
Whilst the concepts are horrifying, some of the realisations are maybe less so. There's no getting around it, but when Noah is infected by the Wirrn, the initial possession looks uncomfortably like his arm is covered in green bubble wrap, for obvious reasons. But by the time this happens you should have already bought into the concept of the story and its ideas. If not, then it's probably best to switch off DVD and do something else.
As I've said, Tom Baker is never less than totally mesmerising. The relatively small cast allows Baker substantial screen time and Robert Holmes' script gives him plenty of good material to work with. He is ably supported by Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter as Sarah and Harry. It's easy to see why Sladen would go on to become one of the most popular of all the Doctor's companions, although here she does overplay a little. Later on as her working relationship with Tom Baker deepened they would enjoy more subtle byplay.
Although Ian Marter didn't remain with the series for long, his square-jawed, enthusiastic performance was a definite plus for the early Tom Baker serials. Here he gets some good two handed scenes with Tom early in the story, and handles them very well - it's a shame that there weren't more of them during his time on the show.
Originally released on DVD in 2002, this special edition has slightly improved picture quality. But anyone thinking of upgrading will surely be doing so for the additional special features.
All of the original special features from the first release have been retained, with the exception of the news report on the filming of Revenge of the Cybermen. As it's also on the Revenge DVD, this is no particular problem. Disc 1 has a new making of documentary, running for half an hour, called A New Frontier. This is an entertaining watch, and it was particularly nice to see Wendy Williams (Vira) and Kenton Moore (Noah) recount their memories of the show.
All of the material on Disc 2 is new to DVD and kicks off with The Ark in Space - Movie Version, a 70 minute edit produced for a BBC repeat in 1975. Back in the 1970's it was quite common to edit Doctor Who stories down for an omnibus repeat, there's another example on Planet of the Spiders
. This is an interesting curio, and good to have on disc.
There's a couple of other small Tom Baker pieces. Scene Around Six which dates from 1978 is a news report featuring Tom Baker visiting schools in Northern Ireland. The reaction of both children and adults to Tom and his interaction with them is just wonderful to see. It's a small reminder of just how popular he was back in the day.
The second Tom Baker item is just over a minute of mute 8mm film from the location filming of his first story, Robot. It's short, but incredibly sweet as it gives a lovely behind the scenes look at Tom's debut story.
The other major new special feature is Doctor Forever! - Love and War. This is the first in a new series of documentaries which will appear on the Doctor Who SE's to be released this year. This edition looks at the range of original fiction published by Virgin and the BBC in the 1990's and has some notable and interesting contributors, amongst them Russell T. Davies, Rob Shearman, Mark Gatiss and Gary Russell. It's an entertaining half hour for anybody who remembers and read the books, the only slight drawback is that it's presented by Ayesha Antoine who has all the warmth and animation of a block of wood. Thankfully she's not on screen very long, as the voices who shaped Doctor Who in the 1990's take centre stage to tell their stories.
If you've not got The Ark in Space then it's an essential purchase, as it's one of the very best Tom Baker stories. If you already have the 2002 DVD, then you need to weigh up whether the new special features are worth a repurchase. In my opinion they are. And whilst The Ark In Space might look dated and slightly unconvincing in places, there's no denying that it still packs a punch - nearly forty years after its original transmission.