May the 4th Be With You! – Finding Hope and Fear on “The Ark in Space”

Happy May the 4th everyone!  Today is the day we all celebrate the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker himself – the man who has played the Doctor longer than anyone else.  Getting into the spirit of the day – celebrating what it means when the Doctor is with you – I’m looking at “The Ark in Space.”  After regenerating, the Fourth Doctor’s first outing with Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter)  finds them exiting the TARDIS on Space Station Nerva in the year 16,087.  Nerva holds thousands of humans in cryogenic sleep alongside animal and botanical life and a vast store of “the entire body of human thought.”  However, the station also holds the Wirrn, a parasitic insectoid race bent on absorbing all human life.  Russell T Davies has said this was his favorite Classic Doctor Who story.[1] Steven Moffatt cited it as the best Fourth Doctor story.[2]  And (allegedly) it was Tom Baker’s favorite episode he ever filmed.[3]  I love it because space provides a unique setting for our stories, one as likely to inspire hope as soul-shaking horror.  Space holds endless possibilities and endless peril.  I chose “The Ark in Space” for this May the 4th piece as it gives us both while beautifully showing what  happens when the Doctor is with you.

With the Doctor, space travel often involves exploring exotic planets and meeting new beings, as varied as the writers’ imagination (and the special effects budget) will allow.  Sometimes though, as with “The Ark in Space,” Doctor Who finds itself onboard an actual spaceship or space station and sometimes, as with “The Ark in Space,” you get the sense of claustrophobic fear that fuels films like Alien (1978), The Thing (1982), Life (2017), or Underwater (2020).  Imagine being stranded on a spaceship or space station (or in a research facility in Antarctica or an underwater drilling base on the bottom of the ocean, as the case may be) and being hunted by something.  You can’t run, not really.  Where would you go??  You can’t flee into space (nor into the arctic tundra or underwater for that matter).  You can try to hide, but how long will that work?  In a limited space with a relentless creature hunting you, how long can any hiding place last?

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Harry, Sarah, and the Doctor investigate the body of an adult Wirrn in the cryofreeze chamber onboard the Nerva. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

Granted, running does very little to help in films like the Halloween series, It Follows, the Predator movies, Smile, the Friday the 13th films, A Quiet Place, or pretty much any zombie movie ever.  The creatures find you.  They always find you!  But there is some sort of psychological solace to be found in being able to run out into the world, seek shelter in other places, and find allies who may be able to help you.  In space, that’s not the case.  And maybe – maybe! – you have a spaceship or escape pod you can use to evacuate but what if the creature hunting you follows??  Then you’re endangering whatever world you land on.

This sense of claustrophobia space (or the arctic or underwater) provides makes these sorts of horror films so scary.  There is nowhere safe to go, nowhere it can’t follow or find you.  It is always closing in.  It’s just a matter of time.

Unless you have the Doctor!  When the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry arrive onboard the Nerva humanity suddenly has a fighting chance.  Once the Doctor is with them, humanity has hope.  It is the presence of the Doctor which allows “The Ark in Space” to pivot from the feeling of claustrophobic horror to the other sort of space story – the one which celebrates our potential.  For all the frightening things humans have found on their spaceships – or on the planets they land on or even which have landed on Earth (think Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Aliens (1986), The Astronaut’s Wife (1999), Pitch Black (2000), Under the Skin (2013), or Annihilation (2018)) – the infinite reaches of space are also used to showcase new worlds, new peoples, new adventures, and new possibilities beyond our wildest imagination.

As the Doctor and Harry wander through the station, they come upon a series of rooms holding human beings in cryogenic sleep.  Never having seen anything like it before, Harry presumes it’s a mortuary. The Doctor corrects him, “These people aren’t dead, Harry.  They’re asleep.  The entire human race awakened to trumpet blast.”  Harry looks at one and says, “Dead as a doorknocker.”  The Doctor wanders into another cryofreeze room and, gazing around in awe, he says, “Homo sapiens – what an inventive, invincible species!  It’s only a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk.  Puny, defenseless bipeds and they survived flood, famine, and plague.  They’ve survived cosmic wars and holocausts.  And now here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life.  Ready to outsit eternity.  They’re indomitable.  Indomitable.”[4]

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The Doctor’s awe upon seeing the accomplishments of the human race in the Nerva‘s cryofreeze chamber. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

Ah!  Do you see why I love Doctor Who?!?  How can you not feel a rush – a sense of real pride – at being human with a speech like that?  When the Doctor is with us, we are constantly reminded of our own potential.  The Doctor sees the best in us and, with the Doctor, we can see it too.  His love of humanity is infectious.  As the Doctor wanders back into the room Harry’s in he exclaims, “It’s an amazing sight, isn’t it?  The entire human race in one room.  All colors, all creeds, all differences finally forgotten.”[5]

What a vision!  What a future!  Even while the Wirrn are stalking the ship, we get this shining example of the best of us winning out in the end and this helps mitigate the fear.  It’s not just that the Doctor is there to help save us, it’s that the Doctor offers us a vision of our own real potential.  If we’ve survived flood, famine, plague, cosmic wars, and holocausts, how can we not find a way to survive the Wirrn – to survive anything?  We’re such an inventive, invincible species!  If we come together, anything is possible.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though.  As other humans begin to slowly wake – Vira, the First Med-tech; Lazar (or, as he’s known to his crew, “Noah”), the station commander; and Dune, the station’s chief technician is found to be missing – the Doctor pieces together what’s been going on.  Something is crawling about the station.  Something severed most of the control systems, including the timers which would wake humanity.  Something is with them.  Noticing an egg sack in the pod Dune was in he says, “It’s almost too horrible to think about. [turning toward the corpse of the giant insect creature they found in a closet] The egg tube is empty.  The progenitor.  The queen colonizer.  Ever heard of the Eumenes?  It’s a genus of wasps that paralyzes caterpillars and lays its eggs in their bodies.  When the larvae emerge they have a ready made food supply.  Strange how the same life patterns recur throughout the universe.”  The Doctor also assures them it has “thoroughly digested” Dune’s knowledge.[6]  He realizes the Wirrn’s plan is, “Complete physical absorption [of the entire human race].  They’ll literally eat us alive.”[7]

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Noah at the second stage of infection (and the first stage with physical changes). / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

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Noah at the third stage of infection. I’m not going to show you stages four and five… / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

The Wirrn aren’t just scary in concept, they are physically frightening as well!  “The Ark in Space” falls into the category of body horror and it’s one of the creepiest episodes of Classic Doctor Who I’ve seen.  There are the insectoid creatures themselves but the real horror comes with the infection and transformation of their human hosts.  Dune is turned before the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry arrive.  Noah is infected early after he is woken from cryosleep.  As the Doctor and company begin to move about the station, these pulsing, slimy, glowing green creatures start appearing everywhere on the Nerva.  And, just as with Alien and The Thing and Life and Underwater and all those other films (which, incidentally were released after “The Ark in Space” in 1975), they have nowhere to run!  Sure, they can escape on the TARDIS but that leaves the future of the human race to be devoured by the Wirrn.

Doubling down on the body horror and the threat of these creatures, the script originally had, “a scene where, in the final stages of larval infestation, Noah’s head splits open and cracks in a torrent of acidic goo, that was cut because it was too graphic.”[8]  Though they do burst forth from their human hosts (as the Xenomorphs would do in Alien a few years later). The Wirrn are unrelenting in their pursuit as well.  As they work on a defense, Sarah says, “Those things are so venomous.  They’ll never give up.”  The Doctor tells her, “Neither shall we, Sarah.  What we’re protecting here is too precious.”[9]

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The Doctor and Sarah with the Progenitor of the Wirrn’s corpse aboard the Nerva. / Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

I’m not going to discuss what ultimately happens with the Wirrn.  Should this piece make you want to celebrate May the 4th by watching the Fourth Doctor, Sarah, and Harry’s adventure in “The Ark in Space” for the first time yourself, I can let the ending go unspoiled for you ;D.  And I needn’t discuss the ending to touch on what it means when the Doctor is with you.  When the Doctor is with us, it is easier to follow the Doctor’s lead – to be clever and kind – and it becomes easier to see what the Doctor sees in us and to live up to that potential.  Flashing a big smile at Sarah the Doctor tells her, “It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species.”[10]  When the Doctor is with us, it’s easier to see why.

May the 4th be with you, dear reader!  And for that matter, may the First, Second, Third, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, War, Fugitive, Morbius, Meta-crisis and Grand Moff Tarkin Doctors be with you, too.  I…huh?  Wait.  Hold on.  What?  Why were you expecting Star Wars content on May the 4th?  It’s “May the 4th be with you” day!  Naturally it’s all about the Fourth Doctor!  Star Wars Day is May 25th.  If you don’t believe me, click here to see why (or click here, too). So grab a bag of Jelly Babies, wrap up in a big ol’ scarf even comfier than it is long, and may the 4th be with you, always :D.

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Photo Credit – BBC Studios’ Doctor Who

[1] “The Ark in Space (TV story),” TARDIS Data Core: The Doctor Who Wiki

[2] Ibid.

[3] I’ve seen this listed as Tom Baker’s favorite to film on TARDIS Data Core, the Doctor Who Fandom Wiki (in the above link) and on several TV trivia sites.  But I’ve not been able to track down any quote or interview where Tom Baker actually says this.  On the one hand, I get it.  It’s a great serial!  And the TARDIS Data Core is normally a very reliable and well researched source.  On the other, I’m skeptical that of allllllllll the Doctor Who that man made over his seven years on the show, his favorite episode was his second serial.  So take this li’l factoid with a grain of (skeptical) salt.

[4] Rodney Bennett, dir. “The Ark in Space: Part One,” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 5, BBC, 1975.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rodney Bennett, dir. “The Ark in Space: Part Two,” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 6, BBC, 1975.

[7] Rodney Bennett, dir. “The Ark in Space: Part Three,” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 7, BBC, 1975.

[8] “The Ark in Space (TV story),” TARDIS Data Core: The Doctor Who Wiki

[9] Rodney Bennett, dir. “The Ark in Space: Part Four,” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 8, BBC, 1975.

[10] Rodney Bennett, dir. “The Ark in Space: Part Three,” Doctor Who, season 12, episode 7, BBC, 1975.

9 thoughts on “May the 4th Be With You! – Finding Hope and Fear on “The Ark in Space”

  1. Happy May the 4th Doctor be with you! Yes, the 4th Doctor is my favourite! He’s the Doctor I remember growing up and I love this era of the show show so much. The Ark in Space is such a classic, it clearly signposted the darker gothic direction the Hinchcliffe Holmes years would take, and the Wirrn were such a creepy monster as well – I’m surprised they’ve never returned in the new series. I love Doctor Who, new and old, but the 4th Dr will always be my favourite. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wait…WAIT…why haven’t the Wirrn returned?? That would be so exciting! Now I want to see that, too! I can see why the Fourth Doctor is your favorite. He left such an imprint on culture I knew who he was (this wild character with a big scarf, floppy hat, and curly hair) before I knew his name or even heard of Doctor Who. I saw him all over when I was younger. As a result, I was so excited when I finally got to his episodes in my Classic Doctor Who viewing! I had heard so much and I knew he was so many people’s favorites and the episodes haven’t disappointed. In fact, I’d say they’re even better than I thought they’d be…which is saying a lot!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Would be amazing to see the Wirrn return, imagine how they could be realised on screen now with modern techniques! The 4th Doctor’s era is so iconic and features many of the classics that have ensured the programmes longevity to the day I think. I rewatch classic Dr Who a lot, and the 4th’s stories are usually the one’s I go for as well because I enjoy them all so much 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Doctor Who has always loved playing with the horror genre and bringing the Wirrn back has the potential to affect modern viewers like the Weeping Angels or the gas mask kiddos. It could be so creepy!

        The Fourth Doctor stories are so rich! And many of them could be used as inspiration for new stories which, if done right, could be brilliant. Speaking of Fourth Doctor adversaries, I always felt Morbius would be an interesting character to revisit. What if his consciousness survived? What if he’s still out there somewhere, somehow? I think the return of a foe who’s a cross between a Time Lord war criminal and Frankenstein could open a lot of story possibilities.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. You certainly have something there. The body horror aspects of stories like Ark in Space and Brain of Morbius are really compelling and would be fascinating to revisit them in a new way in modern Who.


    1. I do, too! I wear both out from time to time. Admittedly, I wear just the scarf a lot more. It’s become a regular part of my wardrobe this winter! But the handful of times I’ve worn just the hat out…I’m not sure I can pull it off XD. Like, me in the scarf at Wegman’s works in its own way. It’s a conversation piece! It gives me a bit of a bohemian vibe. But when I just wear the hat…uhh, I feel a lot more odd at Wegman’s. Which is probably the exact opposite of what people would expect!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve perfectly captured why I love Doctor Who! The show celebrates the possibility of humanity and never stops believing that humans will choose and do good. I’m off to see if the library has a copy of this episode, as it seems both delightfully scary and just plain delightful.


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