Doctor Who: The Ark

Doctor Who: The Ark December 19, 2011

The title to the Doctor Who episode “The Ark” immediately hints at a Biblical reference, and in the episode, when the Doctor, Stephen and Dodo realize that they are on a spaceship that has rescued humans and animals from a dying Earth, Dodo actually asks whether they brought two of every animal, like in the Biblical story. But the Biblical story has apparently been forgotten. Those on the ship do not understand her allusion.

One could argue that that is perhaps the most controversial thing, from a Jewish and Christian perspective, that the show Doctor Who has ever done with respect to religion in its entire history.

In other episodes there have been tongue-in-cheek hints that things might have happened differently than people believe or than the Bible suggests, and suggestions that things perceived as supernatural have a scientific explanation.

But to simply and succinctly depict a future in which the Bible and its stories have been forgotten – that seems to me something far more challenging from the perspective of the traditional human religions in question. To be argued against in the future, or by a time traveler, is expected, as a variation on what one already encounters in history. But to suggest a future in which Christianity and Judaism presumably are no more, and their stories have been forgotten. is quite another matter.

What do others think? Am I right to think that this is potentially more challenging and more controversial than a direct attack on Christian claims about history, doctrine or the cosmos might be?

The story “The Ark” is an interesting one from a number of other perspectives. The story is a very cool “double story” in which the time travelers attempt to leave at the end of the second episode, and reappear 700 years later, thus witnessing the beginning and ending of the ark’s journey.

“The Ark ” is one reason why fans of the classic series are annoyed about the post-hiatus series, which features a different end to the earth.

The episode also explores an important postcolonial theme, as in the first part we learn that the humans on the ark have taken on board another race, known as monoids because of their single eye. The monoids are treated as inferior by humans and made to do menial work. In the second part, the monoids have rebelled and the situation has reversed.

When they reach their destination, the planet Refusis II, it is inhabited by invisible beings who demand that the humans and monoids make peace if they are to live there. Another appearance of seemingly godlike beings, with a scientific explanation of sorts offered. The Doctor observes that the revolt of the monoids was unsurprising given how they were treated when offered protection by humans. Now they must find a way to live together as equals. The message for the former imperial powers on Earth and their colonies seems clear. But the first part of the story may also have been intended to remind of the way colonial powers often brought with them, and encountered, new illnesses, with catastrophic effects.

The Ark is a fascinating episode for a number of reasons, and like so many early Doctor Who episodes, it had an epic story that could not be adequately depicted using the technology and special effects of the time. The episode also made clearer than ever before that the Doctor, however much he might say that he cannot or dare not change the course of history, does not fail to leave his mark on the times and places that he visits – such as when Dodo inadvertently brought potential doom to the ark, since she had a cold, and those on the ark had no resistance to such diseases any longer, since they had been wiped out long before.

A great classic story, from a number of perspectives, including for those particularly interested in the relationship between religion and science fiction.

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  • Of course it could also be seen as a criticism of increasing secular thought.  For some reason these people need an ark again, maybe it is because they forgot the original story.

    Have you seen the MGM Christmas cartoon “Peace on Earth?”  It is a post apocalyptic story about what happens when men forget the commands of the Bible.  In it people have (not directly shown but it is implied) forgotten what the Bible said and the consequences involve the end of human life on Earth.

    • Gary

      I must say, the “Peace on Earth” video is well worth watching, to the point that I have bookmarked it. Context, pre-WWII. Biblical, makes you consider translations of the bible post WWII, like NIV (Thou shall not murder, but kill is perfectly OK).

    • Sorry it took me so long to reply. I hadn’t seen this – thank you so much for sharing it!

  • Admiral Mattbar, I am starting to think about the episode more and in interesting ways thanks to your comment. After spending 700 years in the ark (a multiple of a Biblical number) the humans and monoids essentially make a covenant with an invisible entity in order to live in peace in the post-ark world they hope to inhabit. There is something quite Biblical about this story of people who have forgotten the Bible.

    In “The Ark” it isn’t a human-caused apocalypse but the final plunging of the Earth into the sun that is the reason for humanity taking to the ark. But of course, the flood in the Biblical account is not caused by people either.

    Lots of interesting food for thought here! I will make a point of watching the video you linked to, once the semester’s grades are submitted!

  • Justin Adkins

    These aren’t necessarily the most prominent secular instances within classic who in my opinion. I felt that the two episodes dealing with Agathor the Beast of Peladon were prime examples. Granted this is one of the few times that the secular future of humanity is really explored. but the message of rationality over religious oppression is very present in all of the early series. Another thing of note is that in an early episode, I’m really sorry for not remembering the episode name, but it was a Hartnell (edit: I think it’s a pertwee actually now that I’ve thought about it.) episode and the second appearance of the Daleks I believe, they had convinced a human outpost that they were human inventions (much like War Machines, a more recent episode.) which would propel mankind into a new technological era. In this episode that I reference, two men make reference to their husbands and it’s implied that they mean each other. So a lot of Classic Doctor who has very modern themes. But really isn’t the 60’s where many of the issues we consider ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’ really gained popular momentum.