With other authors, they have certain "trademarks" that give away who the writer is even if you don't see the name (ie: the Terrance Dicks scripts oftentimes have a sort of "classic Hammer Horror film" feel to them). And although Holmes did sometimes write scripts that were very similiar to each other in certain ways (ie: "Power Of Kroll" and "Caves Of Androzani" or "The Krotons" and "Mysterious Planet"), it is almost spellbinding to view all the stories he wrote and realise they were by the same man. Just because those stories could be sometimes be so radically different from each other.
"Ark In Space" is an excellent example of a radically different Robert Holmes script. It focusses on being creepy and clausterphobic. With characters who are actually doing their best to not be colourful. There are no "double acts" either. Holmes isn't even trying to make some kind of symbolic outcry against eating meat or the British tax system. This is just pure, undiluted, fantastic storytelling. And it's Holmes just about at his very best here. Probably the only script he's written that beats this one is "Deadly Assassin". In my books, at least.
There's a lot of praise to heap on this story and it's rather difficult to know where to start. One of the things that I definitely like is that it's radically different, in tone, from the previous story. If "Robot" was to be an indication of what the new season would be like, we would be expecting a whole bunch of "leftover Perwee" stories. But, as we finish up this tale and suddenly go off to Nerva Beacon, we see that the show is definitely moving off in a different direction. A direction it hasn't gone in in a while. This hard-core space opera again - not some earthbound UNIT story with the Doctor toiling away at a scientific device that will save the day while soldiers clamour about uselessly. And I, for one, am glad this radical change was occurring. The Pertwee era is not one of my favourites.
It is interesting to note how much the Doctor suddenly seems to "settle down" for this story. In Robot, he's eccentric to the point of near-insanity. But, suddenly, he's become calmer and more reserved. This trend continues for the next few stories and throughout most of the early seasons of Baker's tenure. Only as we near the end of his travels with Leela does Doctor Four start to really go for the laughs. Although I had little problems with the funnier days of Tom Baker - I am, at least, thankful that he played the role so straightly for the first little while. It shows that he did take the role seriously. Which, admittedly, is something one is not so sure about during some of the debacles of the Key To Time or Season 17.
Anyway, enough comments about the show itself. Let's move on to the specific story.
We begin with a very nice series of opening shots showing the death of the Wirrn. Only, we haven't been told what these shots really mean yet. Thus creating a very wonderful sense of intrigue. A great way to start the story that got me interested, right away, in what this whole montage of scenes was supposed to mean.
Then the TARDIS lands. The story, admittedly, does take a bit of time to really get rolling. But, given we're the second story into a new Doctor, this works in this context. And Holmes was smart enough to inject a sufficient amount of intrigue and danger into the mix to keep us interested. In a matter of minutes, the TARDIS crew nearly suffocates, then gets attacked by an auto-defence device whilst poor Sarah gets T-matted away to a cryogenics chamber. It's a crackling pace, in some ways. Whilst, at the same time, "filling in some time" nicely until we can get to the real plot.
As we finally reach the cryogenic honeycombs, we start to really get the gist of what's going on. Earth has gone to bed to avoid a catastrophe. But, just like those "crazy Silurians and Sea Devils" all those many years before, something went wrong with the plan. They've overslept. And while they slept, a proverbial cuckoo bird has moved into the nest to push their eggs out.
Even with the limitations of budget, there's some amazingly creepy and dramatic moments that take place as the story progresses. The eye in the solar stack or Noah fighting his own transforming hand are just a few of the better examples of this. They effects look horrifically cheap, but still inspire some level of legitimate horror because of the way the actors seem to overcome the cheapness of those effects.
We also get one of the best monologues in the series history with the famous "Homo-Sapiens" speech. Colin Baker's "In all my travellings throughout the universe I have always fought against evil" speech is still my all-time favourite. But, once again, Ark In Space is ranking a very close second place.
Robert Holmes also shows off that he doesn't need to populate his stories with eccentric characters in order to make the plot interesting. Both Earthlings and Wirrn are highly functional characters that evoke both menace and pathos at various times throughout the plot. This is probably what impresses me the most about his writing style in this particular story. It's almost like he's trying to be "anti-Robert-Holmes" (which, of course, cannot exist in our universe unshielded!) and he does a very good job at this. Thus proving that he is an amazing writer by resisting all the various nuances that made him so well-liked as an author and focussing on telling a story in a style he's never tried before. And, as the story progresses along, I can only be amazed at what he's able to do even when he's writing in a completely different style.
The clausterphobia of the last two episodes moves to unparelled creepy heights. Those Wirrn costumes really do look pretty unconvincing. Yet still, as they try all kinds of nasty tricks to wipe out the few conscious humans, we really find ourselves caught up in the threat of it all. And Holmes ends things in a very unique way as we see the Doctor couldn't totally save the day on his own. It took that last shred of humanity in Noah to truly resolve the conflict.
Finally we get some nice story-to-story continuity as the Doctor begins the adventure by yelling at Harry for what he did in the last minute of Robot and then gets the transmat working so that they can head off to "Sontaran Experiment". Also a nice touch that he really does grab a piece of the inspection hatch that will save his life in the next story. I love nice little touches like that. And that's what makes Ark In Space another "classic" Who tale. It's just chocked full of nice little touches. Collectively, all these "little touches" come together to present a gorgeous overall theme and storyline that truly takes one's breath away at how inventive the series can be with what could have been a bog-standard "space station/base under seige" plotline in anyone else's hands but Robert's.
Let's face it, the late Mister Holmes was just-plain amazing and Doctor Who was truly blessed to have had him write so many stories for the show. And Ark In Space is an excellent example of that blessing. Especially since it shows off just how incredible of a range this man had. I still get a bit sad that he's gone. No other writer left quite the mark that he did.