Past Galaxy 4, the third season so far has been a relentless bloodbath, with the majority of the guest cast of each story dying, and a revolving door policy in the TARDIS. Step forward The Ark, which promises to thrill with its tame, conventional sci-fi plot and characters.
It wasn't what I expected. The premise of a generational ship taking humans to a new world doesn't tell me much - there's so much you can do with that premise it can go either way. Fortunately the writers were full of ideas, most of them good. For once, the cliffhangers are used as plot twists, rather than coming out of nowhere because the episode is about to end. For the first time, the TARDIS returns to somewhere it's already been, but hundreds of years later, so we can see the long-term consequences of the Doctor's actions, something that the show hasn't dealt with before. At least these show that even in the more traditional sci-fi stories, experimentation is going on.
We're still getting to know Dodo Chaplet as the story begins. I'm afraid I'm not endeared to the character - by this stage in the series, I thought we were moving past the Susan surrogate figure, and Dodo strangely seems more like a direct Susan replacement than Susan's actual replacement, Vicki, did. Dodo looks more like Susan and isn't given much personality to distinguish her, other than that she's not too bright. It's slightly unnerving that she doesn't have that 'adjustment' period that companions have when they first meet the Doctor and see the TARDIS - she takes everything in her stride and nothing seems to faze her. Why? It makes no sense. The redeeming feature of her joining the TARDIS crew is that the Doctor and Steven react to her odd behaviour appropriately. Of course it only highlights how odd it is, but I'm glad it was at least addressed.
The TARDISeers land in a jungle inhabited by animals and plantlife usually found in opposite parts of the world, and are surprised to find they're on a ship. After meeting the ship's inhabitants - some typical futuristic humans (ie. somewhat two-dimensional) and the servant Monoids, the Doctor discovers that the humans have no protection to Dodo's cold and it's fatal to them if they catch it. Although it doesn't sound like exciting enough material to build a story on, it's surprisingly interesting, perhaps because it's not allowed to be drawn out, with each episode playing a particular part in the story - "The Steel Sky" is the introduction, and "The Plague" is about, erm, the plague. The human characters were a little more interesting than I expected, for once they were interesting enough that I remembered a few of their names for instance, which I hardly ever do. Also, them imprisoning the TARDISeers and their hostile behaviour towards for once is completely understandable - given their clothing and appearance, I was dreading that they would follow the Thal mould, in that they're trustworthy, cardboard cutout good guys.
By this point, one expects a twist. Surely the whole story can't be about the plague? The Doctor is allowed to work on a cure and test it on Steven, who is now afflicted, and very quickly succeeds, and the TARDISeers don't hold a grudge against the humans who mistrusted them, which was good. After an explanation of the statue the humans are working on, which will take 700 years to build, we're back off to the TARDIS and onto the next adventure.
We've had two-parters before, but if this was one it would be the only one to have a fully developed story and characters, with a premise that was only touched on, and critically we didn't see it to its conclusion. The only way viewers would be satisfied at this point would be if the plague was the most interesting aspect of the story, which it wasn't. However this leads to possibly the best cliffhanger the series has given us yet - the TARDIS lands in the same place! The Doctor, Steven and Dodo return to the Ark and find it empty, but the status is now completed, and it has the head of a Monoid. I wasn't expecting that! So much for a return to the same old, same old.
The third episode plays out like no episode before, except perhaps the first episode of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, in that its a search for missing backstory, an explanation of what happened in the years the TARDISeers didn't experience, although it's obvious from the Monoid statue - the humans are now the slaves, and the Ark is about to reach the new planet, Refusis. It was interesting to have monsters that for a while didn't want to conquer the Earth, so it's disappointing that we no longer have that, but the Monoids aren't terribly interesting as villains, except for their striking one-eyed appearance. As it turns out, the story's greatest strength (that cliffhanger) turns out to be its greatest curse, as nothing that happens afterwards is very exciting. The human characters we meet now, obviously entirely different from the ones in the first two episodes, are faceless and interchangeable, and this time I didn't remember any names. Oddly enough, as the story reaches its conclusion, it doesn't feel like it's going anywhere.
As we reach Refusis, some Monoids travel down with the Doctor and Dodo. The planet is inhabited by the invisible Refusians, who turn out to be good guys, leading some of the Monoids to change their minds about settling on the planet (while planning to blow up the Ark to get rid of the humans). It's not clear why the Monoids didn't simply kill the Doctor and his companions when they showed up, but that is an issue in so many stories that I'm inclined to dismiss it.
Anyway, there is nothing particularly wrong with how the conclusion comes about. The Doctor finds allies in the Refusians, and while the Monoids battle each other, the Refusians travel up to the Ark and get rid of the bomb. It all makes sense, it's logical, but it's just not very exciting. There was more drama to be had from the plague subplot than the threat of mass death, partly because the TARDISeers are key players in the former, but they only either stand by and watch the plot unfold (Dodo and Steven) or ask others to solve everything for them while they sit around doing nothing (the Doctor). The crisis is solved by aliens who can't be seen. Overall, the conclusion is a damp squib on a largely superb story.
The Ark was well worth a watch. Dodo impressed in that it already feels like she's been there forever, but to honest she didn't impress in any other way - she caused the plague, and didn't show much intelligence throughout the story. Steven didn't have much to do, in fact in Episodes 3 and 4 he might as well not have been there, but I did far prefer the first two episodes anyway, in fact until some way through Episode 3 I would have gone for 10/10, but it went wrong through a combination of boring human characters, bland villains the Monoids, and plot progression that was lacking the spark that made everything up to the second cliffhanger so interesting. It wasn't a total loss - it was all very entertaining, but it definitely began better than it ended.
Horror quotient - The Monoids, perhaps? The kids might have been scared by them.
Comedy quotient - Okay, so it's not a comedy, but it doesn't veer as far into humourless territory as many stories. This is mainly down to the Doctor, as Hartnell seems to be in a lighthearted mood.
Drama quotient - Different sorts of drama as the plot twists, some better than others. The most interesting drama was anything not involving the Monoids.
Probably the highlight of the First Doctor non-Dalek sci-fi stories. It's latter half is flawed, but overall it's an enjoyable, imaginative story.