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60 Years of Doctor Who. Part 4: The Fourth Doctor

By Matthew Kresal

Harry, Sarah, and Tom Baker. The Iconic Doctor Who. In my opinion.

Picture courtesy Big Finish.

Ask a Doctor Who fan when the show’s golden age was during its original run, and the chances are they’ll tell you it was Tom Baker’s first three seasons in the role. From a ratings and creative point of view, it certainly a point that’s hard to argue with, as the series moved firmly away from the Earthbound format of the Pertwee era and into darker, arguably more science fiction territory. An early example of that came just two serials in to Baker’s era with The Ark in Space , a story written by writer (and then the series script editor) Robert Holmes that combined elements of horror in the form of alien possession with humanity’s indomitable persistence in the face of disaster. It was an instant classic with one of the archetypal (no pun intended) stories in Doctor Who’s canon. Yet The Ark in Space started out as a different tale by another writer, and now, after nearly half a century, fans can discover the original for themselves on audio .

To be technical, The Ark in Space started as not one but two other stories. The first was by an up-and-coming writer named Christopher Langley, who was commissioned in January 1974 to srite a serial under the working title of Space Station. Langley delivered his scripts weekly from 19th March through 9th April to Holmes. What happened once they arrived remains unclear, but the outcome was that Langley’s four scripts went unused. Needing a replacement, another writer with a history writing for Doctor Who received the commission: John Lucarotti.

Having first written for television in the 1950s, Lucarotti’s contributions to Doctor Who had come in its early years. For its debut season, he had written two notable “pure historical” serials, Marco Polo and The Aztecs . His third serial, 1966’s The Massacre , another “pure historical” focusing on the lead up to the 1572 St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, had been a difficult experience due to conflicts between the writer and then script editor Donald Tosh over rewrites to the script. In the years after The Massacre, Lucarotti had moved away from the series, but he contributed to numerous other series, including Gerry Anderson’s Joe 90 and the thriller Paul Temple. It was his scripts for the BBC’s near-future sci-fi drama series Moonbase 3 (produced by Barry Letts and script-edited by Terrance Dicks, the production team during the Pertwee era) that led to his coming into Doctor Who’s orbit again, receiving the commission to replace Langley’s Space Station on the 5th of June, with scripts due in mid-July, putting the story into a safe pair of hands.

Or so one might have thought. Lucarotti left London for his home in Corsica, setting about work on the scripts from a storyline agreed to between himself, Letts (as Doctor Who’s outgoing producer), and Holmes. The first script arrived back in London on 23rd June and immediately ran into problems with Letts and Holmes, who noted that its scope and content weren’t what they had been looking for. A letter was duly dispatched to Lucarotti to attempt a mid-course correction before he completed the remainder of the serial. While the letter was in transit, a postal strike hit, delaying the letter’s arrival until after Lucarotti had completed and posted the final three episodes, which were in turn delayed in arriving at the Doctor Who production office until 12th July.

By the time Letts, Holmes, and incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe read the scripts, it was apparent significant rewrites would be necessary. With postal issues still playing havoc between the London production office and the writer’s home in Corsica, Hinchcliffe made his first difficult decision as the series producer. Lucarotti would be paid for his four scripts, and another serial penned by Holmes, based on the same premise due to the serial sharing sets with a Cyberman serial later in the season (whose own alternative version is discussed here ), would take its place. Lucarotti, in turn, would agree to receive no on-screen credit for what became The Ark in Space and no residuals from repeats or merchandise based on it (though he is mentioned on the copyright page for the subsequent Target novelisation of the serial). Lucarotti would, perhaps in the light of the experience, be somewhat dismissive of his unmade scripts, an attitude that carried over in fan perceptions of it, though no-one had read the script since 1974.

At least, that was the case until Doctor Who historian Richard Bignell uncovered the script decades later, by which time Doctor Who’s unmade serials were receiving new attention. In 2008, Big Finish Productions (the UK-based company producing Doctor Who audio dramas and spin-offs since 1999) began a new range of releases under the banner of Doctor Who – The Lost Stories . Initially focusing on unmade stories from the era of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, the company’s attention soon turned to the unproduced scripts from other Doctors through 2013. The range became recurring in 2019, leading to the most recent pair of releases in summer 2023, including Lucarotti’s The Ark, adapted for audio by veteran writer Jonathan Morris.

Listening to the serial’s opening minutes, it’s quickly apparent why Lucarotti’s scripts received the reception they did in 1974. From each episode having an individual title to the characterisation of the leads, The Ark feels less like the mid-1970s Doctor Who than it does the Hartnell era in which Lucarotti originally wrote. The former, for example, was standard practice until very near the end of Hartnell’s time in the role. Indeed, it’s Hartnell’s Doctor that Lucarotti seems to have written for, coming across as much older, dottier, and less physically able than Tom Baker (or, indeed, his predecessor). Companions Harry Sullivan and Sarah Jane Smith (played on TV by Ian Marter and Elisabeth Sladen, respectively, and on audio by Christopher Naylor and Sladen’s daughter Sadie Miller) likewise come across as fitting Hartnell-era archetypes, with Harry being the man of action, and Sarah the: “What’s that, Doctor?” audience stand-in. The former fits the character, given the original intentions behind Harry, but the writing for Sarah never feels like the already established character that had been appearing on-screen since the previous season, even if the script here does give her more to do than the TV serial.

The Doctor, Harry, and Sarah-Jane. One of the best combinations in Doctor Who history.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

That feeling of the Hartnell era carries over elsewhere into The Ark. Lucarotti’s experience of a time when the series was finding its feet and the ambitions of those making Doctor Who chaffed at the limits of budget and technology is apparent in the presentation of the titular space station, which is presented more as a vast orbiting complex at odds with what the production team needed it to be (and the design featured on the CD cover art), including a massive hydroponic garden. The latter episodes featured an extended spacewalk sequence set on the Ark’s exterior, involving Harry and other characters, which makes for fantastic audio but would have been an expensive sequence to do for the series at the time. It all helps explain the decision Hinchcliffe made at the time, given the scope of the rewrite required to make it all work. Ultimately, like Bill Strutton’s The Mega (a Lost Stories release for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor), The Ark feels like a Hartnell-era script full of the ambitions and tropes of those formative years trying to fit into a new era and not quite making the grade.

None of which is to say that The Ark is a write-off. There remains a solid story here, with the seeds for Holmes’ The Ark in Space present throughout. Some set-pieces from the TV version appear in different guises, including Sarah in the Ark’s ventilation shafts. The insectoid alien Wirrn and the body horror of the transformation of the character of Noah into one aren’t here, with Lucarotti focusing on Narib of the Delc, a disembodied alien head who has used spores and a giant amoeba to possess Noah and other revived humans aboard. The change of villain also leads to The Ark having a far smaller body count than its TV counterpart, with an ending quite different in tone. That change of tone is present throughout the entire serial, being less horror-thriller and more in the adventure serial vibe of earlier Doctor Who eras. It’s a different experience, even with the same basic building blocks. In the CD extras, Morris discusses the adaptation process and how he strove to keep the audio version as faithful as possible to the original TV scripts, even if it might not be the instant classic that Holmes’ script ultimately became.

Some bubble wrap and Hey! Presto - one Wirrn transformation.

Picture courtesy Tardis Fandom.

The difference is also felt in the performances, particularly that of Tom Baker. Baker, having returned to the role of the Doctor for Big Finish more than a decade ago, has come to relish playing the role that made him an icon, but perhaps never more so than here. Baker fully embraces the very different writing of the character by Lucarotti, with his performance offering an alternative Fourth Doctor, one that brings in the lighter aspects of Baker’s later time as the Doctor on TV but also the older, intelligent but sometimes forgetful elder characterisation present in the script. If the CD extras are anything to go by, Baker had a whale of a time recording The Ark, and it’s apparent in the energy he brought to his performance.

There were also the other two regulars. Christopher Naylor and Sadie Miller have settled into their roles as Harry and Sarah since their debut in Return of the Cybermen, something that is apparent here. Naylor nails Harry as a man of action, throwing himself into the lengthy spacewalk sequence (complete with a well-placed pop culture reference in the dialogue). While the writing for Sarah never lets either character or performer shine, Miller does a fine job with the material she’s given, capturing much of the spirit that her mother famously brought to the role. It’s a compliment to both that there are certain lines when you forget you aren’t listening to performers who passed away years before. Combined with a solid supporting cast (including Terry Molloy, best known for playing Dalek creator Davros in three TV serials across the 1980s and subsequently on audio for Big Finish) and a music score from Nicholas Briggs that wonderfully pastiches Dudley Simpson’s scores for the era, the experience really is like stepping into the timeline where this was made on-screen.

Indeed, as adaptation producer Simon Guerrier says in the CD extras, another production team might well have made the script as it was. After all, the history of Doctor Who is full of such serials, some better regarded than others, where production teams went with what they had in a time crunch. As presented by Big Finish, The Ark sits alongside Return of the Cybermen and Daleks! Genesis of Terror as visions of the early Tom Baker era that might have been, with an older Doctor and a younger male companion taking up the slack of the physical action. And, in this case, with an ambition harking to its formative year that made it unfilmable in 1974 but now offers an interesting listening experience nearly a half-century later.

You didn't think there'd be an article about the Fourth Doctor without my using a picture of Leela, did you?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Matthew Kresal is author of the SLP book Our Man On The Hill.

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