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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
BBC Worldwide Entertainment
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Michael Ferguson
Jon Pertwee
Caroline John
Nicholas Courtney
Ronald Allen
John Abineri
Bottom Line: 

This curious but entertaining adventure, which forms the centrepiece of Jon Pertwee’s Earth-based and UNIT-orientated first season as the flamboyant third Doctor, is mainly the result of David Whitaker (formerly the show’s very first script editor back in 1963) finding himself unable to get a handle on the brand new format which had been recently devised by out-going producer Peter Bryant and his replacement Derrick Sherwin during the period of turmoil that coincided with Patrick Troughton’s departure and a certain degree of uncertainty regarding the ailing show’s future. The new series would leave the Doctor exiled on Earth, and his two former companions would be replaced with scientist’s assistant Liz Shaw, played by Caroline John. After rejecting several drafts of Whitaker’s first two scripts, the team sent him a sample draft of what they really had in mind; but by the time Terrence Dicks had taken up his new position as series script editor and Barry Letts joined him as producer on the newly formatted show, it had become obvious to all that Whitaker’s work was not going to come up to scratch. Dicks decided to allow him to retain sole writer’s credit and bought Whitaker off, assigning the story to his own former writing partner Malcolm Hulke instead, who had, fortuitously, just turned in the finished script for his “Doctor Who and the Silurians” (the preceding serial in this season run) early.

What we get as a result of Hulke’s and Dicks’ endeavours at patch-up is a lengthy seven-part story that’s quite unlike any other attempted in the show’s history, before or since. On the accompanying commentary and in the ‘making of’ documentary which can be found on disc two of this recently released two-disc DVD edition, Dicks remarks that“The Ambassadors of Death” ‘is great … but it’s not “Who”!’ It’s easy to see where he’s coming from, but in fact the show’s overall main strength has always been located its ability to encompass – at least in the short term -- almost any genre or style, and find a space for each one within what is a hugely wide remit (a quality the show continues to demonstrate to this present day). This story takes the “Quatermass” themes and tropes that initially defined Jon Pertwee’s third Doctor in his role as scientific advisor to UNIT, and trusts them down an explosive, all-action route that feels like its fallen mid-way between one of the Pop-tastic ITC dramas of the era and something much more gritty, dour and hard-hitting. When the series last attempted a space travel adventure just the year before, for instance, with “The Space Pirates”, the result was still noticeably stuck in the “Flash Gordon” adventure rut of the 1930s. Here Hulke’s influence, combined with the chutzpah of director Michael Ferguson, helps deliver a highly complex espionage-inflected tale of missing space probes and kidnapped astronauts; of gangland mobsters conspiring with the military establishment --and risking Armageddon as they do so.

One of the difficulties with stories like this which depended on more than four episodes, was that they tended to sag a little in the middle. Letts and Dicks were more aware of this fact than most, since they had been lumbered with a total of three seven part adventures by Bryant before he left the show , to make up most of season seven --a commissioning structure originally conceived as part of a necessary cost-cutting exercise. Hulke and Dicks get around it here, simply by reinventing the plot every other episode or so. Of all things, the story structure shares a lot in common with recent modern continuing series such as “24”: where character motives are constantly being re-aligned, what we think is occurring at the start of the story turns out not to be the case and trustworthy personnel often turn out to be playing a double or triple game. This is a complex story; and with its extra complexity comes the first big indication that Letts and Dicks were now pitching this show unashamedly to an adult audience, and merely letting the kids come along for the ride if they wanted to.

The story starts off with UNIT at space centre monitoring the progress of the rocket Recovery 7 as it prepares to space-dock with the seven months-missing manned Mars Probe 7, after its recent mysterious reappearance in deep space. However, an alien signal suddenly then issues from the Probe, and an even more mysterious answer signal from somewhere nearby on Earth appears to presage the beginnings of an Earth invasion. The Doctor’s interest is soon piqued and we then get plenty of examples of this third incarnation’s complete lack of patience for authority time and time again, here,throughout the adventure, as he clashes with just about everybody with a desk to sit behind at some stage -- from mild-mannered mission controller Ralph Cornish (a subtle and considered performance from Ronald Allen – a far cry from his turn in the Troughton story “The Dominators”) to smarmy Minister of Technology Sir James Quinlan (Dallas Cavell), head of the dubious Space Security Department; and not forgetting a particularly untrustworthy French space scientist called Taltalian (Robert Cawdron) — who looks as if his fake beard is always just on the verge of coming unstuck. This tale is particularly blessed with a host of memorable supporting characters, and it’s notable that despite its ‘alien contact’ theme, we only catch the merest slither of a glimpse of one on a couple of occasions during the whole of the seven episode run.

Where “The Ambassadors of Death” truly excels is in director Michael Ferguson’s copious use of Derek Ware’s stunt team HAVOC which creates all the prolonged fight scenes and loud shoot-outs, involving numerous stunts and pyrotechnics throughout. The first of these comes about when Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) sends his UNIT men off to do battle with the covert cabal apparently secretly communicating with the aliens from a nearby abandoned factory. With its violent, noisy, highly choreographed and tightly edited action, such material, as Dicks mentions, feels a million miles away from the standard “Doctor Who”approach, and, indeed, seems more like the kind of thing usually encountered on“The Sweeney” -- and even more convincingly realised at that. Ferguson took advantage of Barry Letts’ newbie status in the role of producer to max out the budget and make sure the action looked as cool as possible. When Recovery 7 is brought back to Earth, there’s an even bigger action set-piece when General Carrington (John Abineri) and a team of his own military men take on UNIT in an effort to kidnap the three astronauts apparently inside. We get helicopters, motorcycle crashes, smoke bombs and gas-mask wearing soldiers galore, felling the Brig and his team with ammonia-spraying guns! This story really is Nicholas Courtney’s finest hour: the Brig gets to take part in several torrid gun battles, several punch-ups and to stage a daring escape and a getaway. It’s also very pleasing to see Caroline John’s Liz Shaw getting plenty to do here, even if she is being doubled by stuntman Roy Scammell for a’ Bessie versus Ford Capri’ car chase scene (more gritty crime drama fare then!) and a sequence in which Liz is forced to hang off the side of a raging weir after having been chased across a muddy rugby field by some pug ugly-looking characters in donkey jackets who're in the employ of the conspirators. Perhaps the necessity of this stunt doubling accounts for Liz’s dress sense suddenly taking a detour into fashionable ‘60s boutique stall territory here, which also conveniently serves the dual purpose of obscuring the decidedly un-ladylike features of Scammell during such doubling scenes: wide-brimmed hats, big hair, flouncy blouses and white knee-high go-go boots make her look like she should have been going out with a “Performance-era” Mick Jagger rather than being kidnapped and forced to assist a deranged military General and a sharp-suited London gangster in their efforts to exploit a trio of unsuspecting, smurf-faced alien ambassadors for their own warped ends!

The tougher quality attached to elements of this tale becomes even more apparent in grim scenes such as those depicting radioactive bodies being dumped in slurry by these gangsters whomGeneral Carrington has aligned himself with as part of his end game. All such drama and punchy action come sound-tracked and are often off-set by a Dudley Simpson score which is a million miles away from featuring the sort of catch-all identikit cues that became ubiquitous in his work for “Doctor Who” and Blake’s 7” in the late seventies: we get a folksy cue that sounds like it wouldn’t have sounded out of place in an episode of “Joe 90”, jazzy ‘70s funk stabs and the eerie ambient bell-drones which accompany the somnambulant roamings of the radiation-fed aliens who have been forced to murder while under the control of Carrington and his henchmen.

Besides the military and space-set intrigue, the intricate plotting and full-on action, and as well as the sight ofPertwee’s dapper Doctor having to get dressed up in a rubber romper suit and be catapulted into space for a rendezvous with the Mars Probe 7 astronauts and their captors -- there are some great supporting characters on display here, such as disgraced Oxford scientist Lennox (Cyril Shaps) and Reegan (William Dysart): a Harry Starks-meets-Jack Carter hard man who forms an unlikely alliance with General Carrington so that he can use the aliens (who are impervious to bullets and can kill with just a single touch) to rob banks. Former astronaut Carrington is himself delineated as a complex character with a xenophobic hatred of this Martian race because they accidently killed his colleague during his original first contact with them. John Abineri delivers a nuanced performance and is given a respectful send off when his attempt to spark all-out war between Earth and the Martian race is thwarted, the Doctor allowing him the face-saving belief that he acted out of moral duty as the Brigadier relieves him of his command and has him escorted from the base in the final scenes.

“The Ambassadors of Death” is certainly an atypical serial, but it is also one of the few of the seven episode-long variety that fills its extended running time with enough varied incident to remain engrossing throughout, while also still benefitting from lots of excellent supporting performances from the likes of Ronald Allen, Abineri and Dysart. It’s emergence on DVD is cause for celebration since the Restoration team have worked wonders and managed to get a broadcastable full-length colour version of every single episode (including episode 4) for the first time. They vary in quality, but never enough to seriously affect the viewer’s enjoyment. The amazing results of the team’s efforts more than make up for the long wait for this adventure on DVD.

DVD Extra features:

Toby Hadoke hosts a lively commentary track featuring director Michael Ferguson, script editor Terrence Dicks, actors Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Peter Haliday and Geoffrey Beevers; as well as stunt co-ordinator Derek Ware and stunt performers Roy Scammell and Derek Martin.

“Mars Probe 7: Making the Ambassadors of Death”  Director Michael Ferguson, Terrence Dicks, Derek Ware, Roy Scammell and assistant floor manager Margot Hayhoe reminisce on the making of the serial, including the incident of the stunt bike accident -- from back in days when health and safety regulations were non-existent!

Trailer – the original BBC trailer for the story.

“Tomorrow’s Times – The Third Doctor”  This ongoing series features Peter Purves narrating a featurtte that looks at the press coverage of the show during Jon Pertwee’s tenure in the role of the Doctor.

Photo Gallery – production, design and publicity stills accompanied by Dudley Simpson’s cues.

Radio Times Listings – in Adobe PDF format

Production notes – the usual detailed catalogue of every conceivable fact relating to the production of this story.

‘Coming Soon’ trailer More Pertwee madness with “The Claws of Axos” special edition!

Commentary and documentary provide a concise overview of the commissioning and making of this underrated story which gives us a glimpse of a murky, espionage-orientated WHO world aimed as much at adults as it was at children. This brilliantly restored DVD version provides us with the best possible representation of it current restoration technology will allow, and it should surprise the many who’ve not seen it before with just how watchable the serial remains after forty years.


Read More from Black Gloves at his Blog - Nothing but the Night!

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