"It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favorite species."
The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen), thanks to new companion Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), are flung far into humanity's future.
There they land on a space station housing the cryogenic remnants of the human race. A space station that is not as deserted as it has been made to appear by its monstrous invaders...
No, my very first exposure to Doctor Who was a brief look at what turned out to be a Third Doctor serial that was airing on the local PBS station. This look was so brief, I do not know if I would be able to identitfy the serial segment I had glimpsed if I watched it today.
All I remember from it was some people running around, a kindly grey-haired man that seemed to know something about what was going on that the others did not, and then an unexpected, and terrifying, monster (that I do not remember) showed up. I got scared and, as I did whenever I got scared during Chiller Diller or TV44's Monstrous Movie, I changed the channel, to watch something else while I calmed down.
Because I did this without making note of what channel the show was on, I could not find it when I was ready to go back and start watching it again.
It would take several years, a (now vaguely remembered) issue of Cinefantasique, and reading some of the novelizations reprinted by Pinnacle books, until I was able to identify that scary, soap opera looking show as Doctor Who. When that happened, I was hooked on the show. For life.
This is where Tom Baker's fourth Doctor, producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and The Ark In Space come into play. It was this serial, the first of the Hinchcliffe Era, and all that followed it - up to, and including, Horror of Fang Rock, the first of the Graham Williams era, and a personal favorite of mine - that ushered me into, educated me about, and imprinted upon me what the glorious, chaotic, and frightening universe of Doctor Who was all about.
Because of this, my preferred style and content of Doctor Who will always be those serials from, or those that drew from the creative vein of, the Hinchcliffe Era. Even if my first Doctor was the third.
The tone of the story is deathly serious. Even with it taking place in a white, sterile environment, the visual atmosphere is dark and gloomy (foreshadowing the memorable turn toward Gothic Horror that the Hinchcliffe produced serials would be taking).
The Wirrn, the episode's monstrous threat, manage to be grotesque and frightening, even though it is clear that the baby Wirrn are nothing more than wads of bubble wrap painted green and the adults are lifeless and cumbersome looking costumes. It is the manner in which the threat is presented that mades the Wirrn so unsettling and horrifying.
Commander "Noah" (Kenton Moore) is attacked, infested, and eventually absorbed by the Wirrn. His story arc, pun NOT intended, honest, does not hold back on how painfully unpleasant the gradual decay and ultimate loss of his humanity is.
This, and a memorable moment where an unfortunate human is gobbled up by a nasty Wirrn grub, is where The Ark in Space works best. My attention began to drift a tad, when the final chapter dovetailed into the standard race against time to stop the enemy from achieving its nefarious goal. It's not bad, but it does not reach the heights that later Hinchcliffe Era episodes would.
While Doctor Who already had a reputation as a "children's show" that could frighten and upset its audience. The Ark in Space seemed to (and, in retrospect, clearly did) push that ability to disturb and terrify to another level entirely. That level was maturity. Hinchcliffe wanted to make this "silly little children's show" frightening to older children and young adults. History has shown that he succeeded in doing so.