"I think we've done it, Harry. Pity about the scarf."
After 11 successful years on the air at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.), the popular science fiction show Doctor Who was about to go through its third change in lead actors. The actor then playing the Doctor, Jon Pertwee, had announced he was retiring from the role at the end of the season. At the time he chose to make that revelation, he didn't leave the producers much time to decide on a replacement.
After a process of suggesting and discarding various names (including Jim Dale, known to American audiences for his role as Doc Terminus in Disney's "Pete's Dragon"), it was an evening at the movies that revealed who the Fourth Doctor should be. The motion picture was "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad", and the role was that of Koura, an evil magician who pursued Sinbad and the golden tablet he possessed. Doctor Who producer Barry Letts called the actor the next day, and offered him the part of The Fourth Doctor. Needless to say, it was accepted, and Tom Baker went on to become what was arguably the most loved incarnation of Doctor Who, at least among American audiences.
The writers played the regeneration card again, which they had invented almost a decade prior, for the first Who transition from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton. This new regeneration occurred in the season eleven finale', titled "Planet of the Spiders", which had Baker appearing briefly at the end. After the changeover, the new Doctor moved onward to the first adventure of the twelfth season, accompanied by veteran companion Sarah Jane (played by Elisabeth Sladen). In that serial, "Robot", we meet the new Doctor's second companion, Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter). At the end of this exploit, the Doctor challenged Harry a Surgeon Lieutenant from the UNIT group to step into TARDIS and see for himself that a police box cannot travel through time or space. Unfortunately for Harry, the TARDIS indeed is no police box, despite outward appearances. After a wild ride caused by Harry's messing about with a helmic regulator (presumably a control on the TARDIS), they end up on space station Nerva, sometime at least 5,800 years in the future!
The DVD: "The Ark In Space"
Nerva is "The Ark In Space", where mankind's best have volunteered to live in suspended animation for 5,000 years. You see, in the 30th Century, Earth was about to be devastated by solar flares, and civilization would be wiped out. The inhabitants of Nerva were stored there; orbiting in space, along with all of man's collected knowledge (conveniently stored on microfilm, that oh-so-advanced technology!), along with cryogenically preserved animal and botanical life as well. All this waited for the day when Earth would be viable to sustain life again, and the crew of The Ark would reseed the planet.
But something went wrong, of course. The Wirrn, an alien life form with plans of their own for the orbiting space station, invaded Nerva, disrupting the systems that would automatically wake the crew as scheduled. It was up to the Doctor, his trusty companions, and a handful of brave Nerva crewmembers to set things right. This was the first of four serials that would eventually bring our heroes full-circle back to Nerva...though the nightcap took place in an earlier era, while everyone was still in hibernation. The adventure immediately following "Ark", titled "The Sontaran Experiment", was a two-parter filmed entirely on location, and a direct sequel to the events of this serial.
Space Station Nerva was built in the studio, using tricks like mirrors to make the ceilings appear taller, and rounded corridors that terminated just out-of-sight to make them seem longer. Many of the control panels were recycled from episodes of Gerry Anderson shows such as "UFO" and "Captain Scarlet" (both on DVD from A&E Home Video). Shop dummies were used to fill up every pod where humanity lay in slumber. The external shots of Nerva were physical models, blue-screened in against a stock space shot that included a portion of the Earth on the left side. On this DVD, an exclusive alternate version of the serial is available, where all external shots of The Ark have been replaced with new CGI effects, created just for this release by Mike Tucker and Nick Sainton-Clark of the BBC Visual Effects department. They are quite well done, definitely worth a look (perhaps when viewing the feature again with the commentary track turned on). However, being the stickler that I am, I recommend that you first view this show in its original form.
This DVD release of "The Ark In Space" features the four weekly chapters that make up production 4C, which was the second complete Tom Baker serial aired (but the third one produced). You can view any one chapter, view the entire serial in a row, or jump directly to one of five scenes in any of the chapters (or to any chapters' closing credits).
Giving this disc a high mark for it's video presentation is easy: it is bright, colorful, sharp, and clear. Blacks are black, reds are red, and impossibly long scarves are, well, impossibly colorful (if a bit dirty...but that's the cloth, not the video). In fact, there is not a blemish or artifact in sight. Even on my large high-definition television, this picture comes across clear and clean as a whistle. It's simply beautiful.
It is, of course, presented in it's original television format, with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio...and looking as good as the day it was first broadcast. This is due largely to the efforts of the splendid Doctor Who Restoration Team, a group of paid "volunteers" with full-time jobs, who restore Doctor Who episodes in their spare time. For "Ark", a pair of these fellows went over the original D3 videotape meticulously, spotting every flaw and dropout, and repairing them with the use of a DVNR system. They did a great job, resulting in a great, virtually flawless image.
In my review of "Doctor Who: Tomb of the Cyberman", I commented on how difficult it is to give any DVD a perfect rating in the audio category. "Perfection is hard to achieve", I said. How exactly does one achieve perfection, when the goal is to duplicate a monaural track broadcast over-the-air roughly 28 years ago? Why, the producers of this DVD's soundtrack would have to make it sound better than it did originally! That has been accomplished with "The Ark In Space".
"WHAT?" you ask? Let me explain: As described in more detail at their website (http://www.restoration-team.co.uk/), the Doctor Who Restoration Team's audio restoration expert, Mark Ayres, went about restoring age-based deterioration to the original studio recording's videotape by reversing dropouts and hiss. He went further, though, and removed problems that were present on the original broadcast: he smoothed out dialogue drop-ins, primarily in the first chapter, which was evident in the control room where the TARDIS first appeared...probably due to a faulty studio microphone, he says. He removed a number of static clicks throughout the first half of the serial, and also repaired the distortion that was present on the opening music cue. Finally, he took sounds from three other Doctor Who episodes of the era and used them to cover faults in the Space Sound effects shots in "Ark In Space".
The result is perfection, plain and simple. No, this isn't a DTS 5.1 soundtrack with great LFE and neato-cool things in the surrounds. This is Doctor Who, the way it was meant to be heard back in the day, and on this DVD it is represented exactly as it should be: faithfully. My thanks to Mr. Ayres...and my respect as well.
Note also that this feature is subtitled in English for the hearing-impaired. My thanks for including this (or Closed Captions) as a standard on all Doctor Who DVD releases.
Did you see where I gave this disc a perfect "10" rating on the Extras? It certainly earned it! Using the "How We Rate Extras" pop-up as a guide, here is the breakdown of this DVD's awesome set of supplements:
Commentary (75% or more): A 3-point play. 100% of "The Ark In Space" features a commentary track by Tom "The Fourth Doctor" Baker, Elisabeth "Sarah Jane" Sladen, and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. Although it can be a tad dry in places, you get all kinds of flashes of insight from these folk. Elisabeth expressing appreciation for co-star Ian Marter holding her dress down when the camera could have looked right up it, for instance. Descriptions of how they all went about making the show believable, and how the actors were held to high standards so as to carry the show properly. Many of the dialogue in-jokes are explained, too. It can, in places, cover ground previously gone over in earlier parts of the commentary. But it's well worth a listen.
TV Spots: The trailer for the first chapter of "The Ark In Space" in included on this disc.
A 16mm film reel, from a private collection, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the model effects used: various versions of the rocket launch from Nerva (both used and unused), the Wirrn crawling over the station's exterior, and other shots...many never before seen publicly!
A 3D Ark schematic, taking you through all the particulars of the design of Space Station Nerva.
Interviews: Two terrific interviews are included: One is with Tom "The Doctor" Baker himself, shot almost three decades ago on the set of "Revenge of the Cybermen", the 4th production of his rookie season. Here Tom Baker is discussing his new role and forthcoming celebrity. The other interview is an exclusive one with designer Roger Murray-Leach, created especially for this DVD, and discussing the creation of the ark Nerva.
Character Profiles: A Who's Who guide to the characters and creatures you will meet in this DVD's feature.
Production Notes: Pop-Up Production notes using the 2nd subtitle track, chock full of inside information!
Photo Gallery: Over 30 photos, some of them rather whimsical. A mixture of color and black & white shots.
As mentioned earlier, an alternate version of the serial can be played using updated CGI effect shots of the external views of Nerva. Quite a nice option, giving the feature an added dimension of reality. The only minus here is that the "cheesy" special effects that are part-and-parcel of Doctor Who are quite negated by the upgrade!
Unused Title Sequence: an alternate opening sequence that begins by centering on the TARDIS but was unused in favor of the normal one (which was tinted pink and blue-green for this one serial).
TARDIS-Cam: one of six short pieces, used at the official BBC website for Doctor Who. It is supposed to be a "TARDIS-eye view" of six different alien worlds. Others among the six will be on future DVDs.
An introduction by Howard Da Silva, taken from a previous VHS release of "Ark In Space".
Extra Extra Features...Easter Eggs: Can the ratings go to "11"? This DVD supplements the supplements with a couple of fun surprises:
Enter the "Episode Selection" screen from the main menu. Press UP on your remote, and the Doctor Who logo at the top left corner will turn green. Pressing Enter will take you to a brief but hilarious bit with Tom Baker, promoting a convention in Blackpool, England known as the "Doctor Who Exhibition".
At the end of the fourth chapter of "The Ark In Space", allow the closing credits to run their course without stopping the play or returning to the menus. Immediately after the credits finish, a second brief bit with Tom Baker, much like the first Easter Egg, will run. Short, but quite funny!
From the Special Features menu, highlight the Photo Gallery option and push LEFT on your remote. A green Doctor Who logo will appear in the middle of the screen. Press Enter, and you will see an Ark In Space title board, complete with 30-second counter built in, leading up to the start of the first broadcast. A standard BBC lead-in to a program start in those days, preserved here for you. The chalked information on the board includes tidbits like the serial's production number, which is 4C.
"The Ark In Space" is a very popular story, from early in the career of the very popular Fourth Doctor. The weekly installments earned average ratings of 11 million British viewers, and the second installment was ranked 5th in the weekly listings. It did an outstanding job of integrating the new team of Doctor and Companions, and setting them on the road to further adventures.
I cannot honestly claim, though, that I enjoyed this 4-part story as much as I did other Doctor Who releases on DVD, such as the "Tomb of the Cybermen" disc released on the same day as "Ark In Space". But, it is not my place to review the stories, as much as it is to review the DVDs themselves. Most of you reading this will have already seen "Ark", or are fans of "Doctor Who" in general, and are just wondering if this is a solid DVD.
It most certainly is! This is just about the most solid across-the-board television DVD I have ever run across. The people who produced this disc could teach Hollywood a thing or two about Special Editions. It excels on every level you can think of, and is well worth the asking price you will find in most stores and e-tailers. If you are a curious person, thinking about trying Doctor Who, and are wondering about which is the best story to start on, perhaps I should recommend the "Tomb of the Cybermen" DVD I keep mentioning another disc that lives up to high standards. It might maybe be a better place to start, as I consider it a more enjoyable story from earlier in the mythos (much earlier; it's black-and-white). But I don't want to take anything away from "Ark" with these comments. It is a fan favorite serial; an enjoyable story with a poignant ending...and the DVD that represents this adventure is certainly packed to please!