My Long-standing “Bromance” with The Doctor (and His Cheaply Built Insectoid Enemies)

With Doctor Who due to return tonight – in 3:13:43 according to BBC America while I’m typing this – I thought it might be an opportune time to share some thoughts on my favorite television show of all time. Granted, I’m only one of many who’ve had the same thought this weekend. And the thought honestly didn’t even cross my mind until I read two other posts on the subject: Satis‘s Movie Night: Doctor Who and the Aztecs and L. Palmer‘s Presents of Easter – Some Whovian Change. The former was somewhat of an ode to the original series and both a description of and a gut reaction to the writer’s first exposure to a William Hartnell serial. The latter was a brief description of a much anticipated Easter ritual…one that might end up superceded by excitement over tonight’s premier.

I can relate to both.

I grew up watching the original series on Channel 11 (Chicago’s PBS affiliate). It aired late on Sunday nights, so my mother would record episodes for me on VHS. As I got a little older, I was allowed to stay up and watch for myself in the summertime and on three-day weekends. The VCR was always running, though. As a kid, I rarely made it through a full 90-minute broadcast without passing out. And, even when I did, I would almost always end up rewatching that week’s episode a few days later (sometimes even on Monday). It wasn’t until a few years ago – after my wife and I had a few anniversaries under our belt and she finally felt safe broaching the subject – that I was finally forced to throw out my original recording of Remembrance of the Daleks. I had watched it so many times that the video was little more than a series of poorly animated, amorphous blobs. The dialogue and sound effects were barely audible under a ponderous, dull buzz that sounded like a bad hangover. In short, it was unwatchable. But I still insisted on buying the episode on DVD before parting with my old tape.

When the revived series came to America in 2005, I was reborn. How often do we really get a second chance to enjoy one of our favorite childhood experiences? Although my wife’s exposure to the classic series is very limited, she does share my near-religious devotion to the new episodes. Since 2009’s Planet of the Dead, the Easter weekend premier has been a ritual in our house (only 2:43:26 to go!).

So, my wheels got turning. As much as I love the new series, all of my favorite memories of the show – and most of my favorite episodes – come from my childhood and the classic series.

At the top of the list? The Ark in Space.

This was the first episode I ever bought on DVD, and it’s the one I have the most vivid memories of watching when I was young…mostly because it scared the hell out of me. Still does.

The story takes place on a long-forgotten space station full of cryogenically frozen humans who were sent into orbit to escape an extinction event and eventually repopulate the earth (hence the title). The Ark has been invaded by one of the last surviving members of a race called the Wirrn, an insectoid species that was nearly wiped out by the incursion of human explorers. The Wirrn want to use the Ark to repopulate their own species, ultimately allowing their young to feed on the humans. And only the Doctor stands in their way.

In a lot of ways, the episode is almost an early precursor to Alien. It’s a survival story pitting a small, mostly unarmed group of humans (and one Time Lord) who are stranded in space against a single, unknown alien entity that is single-mindedly bent on their destruction. The production values are nil – the Wirrn itself is borderline laughable if you allow yourself to stop and really look at it – but the resulting sense of claustrophobia that comes from the handful of tightly enclosed sets the episode is restricted to up the ante on the intensity. It all adds up to some of those rarest of moments in the Doctor Who pantheon: Scenes with a genuine sense of peril. There are moments when you’re willing to believe that one or more of the Doctor’s companions may not survive this adventure. More significant, there are even times that you start to wonder if the Doctor himself is going to make it.

Perhaps more remarkable is the fact that this story is only the second serial of the Tom Baker era. And in this episode, you can see Baker’s iconic portrayal of the Doctor already taking shape. He is alternately wizened and exuberant, sometimes serious but often eccentric, occasionally selfish but mostly selfless, and usually a pacifist but willing to be an ass-kicker when pressed. Ultimately, he would be the Doctor against whom all others are measured (yes, even David Tennant).

The Ark in Space is dark, it’s atmospheric, and it’s genuinely creepy. It’s balanced by a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek humor and moments of biting wit. And it includes one of the earliest attempts I remember at true morality play in Doctor Who. Low budget 1970’s special effects aside, you could easily mistake it for one of Stephen Moffat‘s early gems in the Russel T. Davies era (by far the best episodes of the revived series).

If you’ve got the time, check it out. You can get the DVD on Amazon.com or watch it streaming on Netflix. It won’t disappoint.

Two Side Notes:

If you want to see the Doctor wrestling with the single greatest moral dilemma he’s ever faced (or ever will), check out Genesis of the Daleks. Probably my second favorite episode of all time and easily the best Dalek story still in existence, maybe ever. It’s the fourth serial of Baker’s first season (it was a doozy of a season) and is part of a loose story-arc with The Ark in Space. If I have the time and I’m feeling saucy in the near future, I may have more to say about it.

Also, for a pretty damn comprehensive collection of all things Who, visit Shannon Sullivan’s A Brief History of Time (Travel). It’s an extensive archive of information about every episode of Doctor Who through the 2010 season, complete with pages dedicated to its recent spin-off series. And it’s put together with the obvious love and dedication of a true fan.

So…do you have a favorite episode of the classic series? Or are you looking for advice on where to begin with it? Let me know your thoughts!

1:49:36 and counting.

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