The Ark in Space is a Doctor Who serial from 1975. Although never acknowledged as an influence, it has a great deal in common with Alien (dir. Scott, 1979), despite being broadcast four years earlier. Whereas Alien focuses on issues of gender equality, The Ark in Space’s central theme is of nonconformism: a favourite of mine. This post will analyse the serial, focusing on the depth and effectiveness of its central theme and its similarities with Alien.
The Ark in Space sees the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his two companions, Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter), arrive aboard a space station in the far future named the Ark. Here the last remnants of humanity have fled Earth to avoid an apocalyptic catastrophe. As in Alien, the humans rest in cryogenic chambers. Sarah accidentally gets caught in the Ark’s automated indoctrination process and joins the crew in stasis. During the process, a recorded message plays, which refers to Sarah as “sister”. This use of family titles draws comparisons with the ship’s computer from Alien named ‘Mother’. In Alien, this implies a future genderless society where human merger with technology has led to the termination of traditional gender roles. In The Ark in Space, it implies assimilation into an artificial family unit and loss of identity. The Doctor and Harry stumble upon a room where a record of human knowledge has been catalogued and stored on microfilm. The explorers then discover the sleeping humans filed and stacked together in their cryogenic chambers, resembling the stored data. This indicates that the human race has now become no more than an assemblage of accepted knowledge and lacks any free thought. The Doctor gives a speech in which he seems to praise the human race’s aptitude for survival, but both his delivery and the incidental music bear an ominous tone. This suggests, as much as the Doctor respects the human race, he fears the lengths they will go to in the name of survival.
With the arrival of the Doctor and his companions, the Ark’s systems are activated, and the sleeping crew begin to awake. First to awake is Vira (Wendy Williams). She uses disciplined, characterless language – showing her loss of identity – and is immediately abrasive towards the Doctor and Harry. She is critical of the Doctor’s flamboyant speech, claiming it proves he is a regressive, and evaluates people in a machine-like manner, indicating that conformity results in a lack of creativity and personality. When she is notified that Sarah has been trapped in a cryogenic chamber and her life is at risk, she asks, “Is she of value?“, indicating that humanity’s conformity has also robbed it of its compassion and ability to appreciate anyone beyond what practical use they may have in their established system. Vira has a prejudiced attitude towards the adventurers, seeing them as unsophisticated, inferior, and not to be trusted. The crew’s leader, Noah (Kenton Moore), who is referred to as “prime unit”, again showing the crew’s machine-like conformity, has an even more severe attitude. He sees them as being a threat to the human race’s genetic pool and orders them destroyed. Like the Ark, Noah takes his name from the Biblical tale in which God murders all humans he deems undesirable. His talk of regressive elements being eliminated to maintain the purity of the human race also evokes a historical case of eugenics, namely, the Nazis’ ‘final solution’. The Nazis exterminated approximately ten million people they judged ‘inferior races’ to prevent them mixing with what they deemed the ‘master race’. The Doctor references such holocausts in his earlier speech and his fears about the lengths humans will go to in the name of survival are also connected to the ‘final solution’, as the Nazis used Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory to justify their atrocities. The Ark’s crew have adopted similar principles. Noah is said to have been “pair-bonded” with Vira, and although they do show limited affection for each other, the term ‘pair-bonding’ suggests this future society’s mates are selected for them to keep the genetic pool pure, and love is no longer a factor to consider. The crew’s desire to become the master race is also suggested via the body prints on their capsules. These resemble the fascist statues that decorated Nazi Germany, which were meant to depict the perfect physical form.
The Doctor must face not only the threat of the hostile crew but also a far greater enemy lurking in the shadows of the Ark; the Wirrn, a species that, like the Alien, presents a monstrous vision of what humanity’s sin will result in. A gruesome embodiment of the horror of conformity, the Wirrn are a species of identical giant insects that have infiltrated the Ark. Like the Alien, they also impregnate a human host, gestate inside them, and go through various distinct stages of development; a larval stage in which they resemble giant maggots, a mutation stage in which they are crossed with their human host, and their final insect form. Also like the Alien, they absorb human attributes and intelligence, but unlike the Alien, they’re able to share thoughts. When Noah is impregnated by the Wirrn and begins to mutate, his mind becomes one with the Wirrn and previously infected crew member, Dune, professing, “I am Dune”. The Wirrn’s hive mind presents them as being symbolic of conformity, as not only are they physically identical, but they all think as one. The Ark crew’s loss of identity and desire to function as a single entity shows they aspire to a similar insect-like conformity. Other comparisons are drawn between the humans and the Wirrn, showing the Wirrn represent a vision of what humanity will become if it cannot break free of conformity. The humans live by their accepted knowledge, while the Wirrn all think as one. The humans have systematically selected sexual partners without considering affection, in an attempt to create a master race. Affection is definitely not a consideration for the Wirrn, who reproduce by forcibly impregnating their unwilling victims, using sex to advance their species. The Wirrn have a queen, while the humans also have a female ruler: the Earth High Minister (Gladys Spencer). The humans display insect-like discipline, organisation and impassiveness, and their cryogenic chamber resembles a giant insect hive. Furthermore, Noah, the crew’s most stringent conformist, literally becomes a Wirrn. The Wirrn plan to infect the entire crew, transforming them all into insects. The crew’s battle with the Wirrn represents a symbolic struggle with conformity. Noah is at the centre of this struggle, as he fights to break free from the Wirrn’s control, as it eats away at his humanity both physically and mentally.
The crew must literally overcome conformity to defeat the Wirrn. Crew member Libri (Christopher Masters) is able to recognise Noah as being infected by the Wirrn before he mutates because of a subconscious impression; an illogical instinct that breaks from his strict programming. Although the Ark has kept vast records of human knowledge, it only contains intelligence that has been deemed useful by their conformist regime. The Doctor uses knowledge based on gipsy superstition, i.e. the belief that the eye retains its final image after death, to carry out an experiment that gives him useful knowledge of the Wirrn. This is not the kind of information that would be stored in the Ark’s records, as the fascist-leaning humans would most likely consider it the imaginings of regressives: gipsies being vilified by the Nazis. And yet it helps the Doctor and the crew fight the Wirrn; proving the benefits of diversity. The Doctor hatches a plot to lure the Wirrn into a shuttle and transport them off the Ark. Once the Wirrn are lured inside, the Doctor must unlock the shuttle manually from the docking port, meaning that when it launches, he will be killed in the blast. At this point, crew member Rogin (Richardson Morgan) sacrifices his life, staying behind instead of the Doctor. Rogin giving up his life for the Doctor seems a little far-fetched, but it does have some setup and fits with the serial’s overall theme. With his first lines of dialogue, “There’s been a snitch-up”, Rogin conveys an idiosyncratic personality, showing his willingness to break free from conformity. His last line, “You don’t want trouble with the space technicians’ union”, indicates a left-wing political stance that is at odds with the crew’s fascist ideology. His illogical self-sacrifice is a sign of strong independent thought; a heroic deed that could only be possible by breaking free from the restrictions of conformity.
As the Wirrn escape in the shuttle, the Doctor theorises that even though he was fully mutated, a vestige of Noah’s human spirit remained and he helped lead the Wirrn onto the shuttle. The Ark then receives a communication from Noah. He bids Vira a sad goodbye, suggesting he held a love for her that was unable to be expressed under their conformist regime, and the shuttle blows up, destroying the Wirrn. Noah’s message confirms he’s broken free from the Wirrn’s control. Like Rogin, his rejection of conformity has allowed him to sacrifice himself; a sacrifice carried out for the woman he loved and the good of all humanity. The Doctor and his companions say goodbye to Vira, who laughs and smiles for the first time, now that she and the rest of the Ark have been freed from the oppression of conformity.