Doctor Doctor Who Guide

The Ambassadors of Death
Written by David Whitaker
Directed by Michael Ferguson
Broadcast on BBC1: 21 Mar - 2 May 1970
DVD release: 1 October 2012 (UK)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

When I first watched The Ambassadors of Death back in the 1980s I remember not being terribly impressed, finding the story overlong and a bit boring. Watching it now I can hardly understand what that teenager was thinking as there is plenty of action and intrigue to appreciate throughout the seven episodes!

I'm going to assume that people coming to this story will be aware of what the story is about, but briefly it surrounds the attempts by a deluded former astronaut to make people believe that there are hostile aliens intent upon invading Earth, and how the Doctor has to negotiate in order to avoid an all out war between the two as alien ambassadors are held hostage.

One of things I really like about Ambassadors now is the way in which the story unfolds is so "matter of fact" and played very straight. Like The Silurians before, UNIT have become attached to an important project to provide security, and again the Doctor decides to help out the Brigadier on his own terms only once he becomes intrigued by what's occuring, and then (in this case literally) walking off and leaving them to it once he's "done his bit".

The Doctor here continues to show his disdain for authority figures and those who fail to comprehend how clever he is(!). Liz, who does, continues to display her own scientific credentials throughout - not to mention her courage in trying to evade those eager to kidnap her and in facing radioactive aliens!

The Brigadier depicted throughout this season is a gritty, open-minded individual, and the mutual respect between him and the Doctor shines through (it's a shame he became more of the stereotypical 'military mind' in later seasons). The UNIT of this season is also clearly a serious military outfit rather than the "family" it became in later seasons; in fact it is so formal that when Benton makes his appearance in episode five without hindsight it's hard to tell whether he's going to be a goodie or a baddie! The extensive use of stuntmen serve to make the action sequences worthy of huge-budget movie battles (kudos to director Michael Ferguson and stunt coordinator Derek Ware/HAVOC).

General Carrington as the main protagonist makes for an ambiguous character, flitting between being the leader of the kidnappers and an military ally to the Space Control investigation until his ultimate paranoia comes to the fore in the later episodes. Like many 'real' characters, he sits firmly in that grey area of neither good nor evil, but totally convinced that he is in the right over the intentions of the aliens he had encountered on a former Mars mission. You cannot help but feel pity for him at the end when he craves understanding from the Doctor. All-in-all, a compelling performance from John Abineri.

Like the Silurians previously, the "monsters of the week" here aren't inherently bad but are simply dealing with the environment they find themselves in. The "Ambassadors" have arrived on Earth in good faith, unaware of the delusion Carrington has of their intentions, and are forced to act as radioactive 'weapons' (the "Carriers of Death" as the original story title describes them). However, those on the spacecraft orbiting Earth are quite happy to wipe out the planet should their delegates not be returned, and those held 'hostage' seem happy enough to murder others when carrying out their tasks, so perhaps Carrington wasn't quite as off-the-mark as one might think ...

In spite of the nitty-gritty activity, there's still time for some fun in the story. The Doctor and Liz do some time-travel shenanigary at the start which much as I hate to say it validates a similar scenario with the Doctor and Peri in The Twin Dilemma! (Terrance Dicks also relates this to the opening and original closing scenes in Day of the Daleks). Then there's Jon Pertwee's chance to use his "doddery old man" voice in episode two as the Doctor re-recovers Recovery Seven. There's also inside jokes with the Hayhoe/Silcock van signs to appreciate, as well.

Though it is (probably) unintentional, I find all the labelling within the story rather amusing, too - the space vehicles are emblazoned with their identity just in case any passing space travellers need to know which is the Probe and which is the Recovery vehicle, briefcase explosives are handilly labelled as such, and even the Doctor's "anti theft device" is clearly displayed on the dashboard! Little touches like that serve to remind us, of course, that this is still a family show and not now focussed on being an adult-oriented series as some critics might have suggested at the time.

Finally, music-wise, I do like a bit of Dudley Simpson with my seventies Who, and he is in fine form here as composer of a number of memorable themes - notably, there's the grand "space" music during episode one, the jaunty theme to accompany UNIT, plus the 'unearthly' theme that followed the Ambassadors around.

The DVD

If course the real 'selling-point' for this DVD is the colour restoration for episodes two to seven, so was it worth the delay since its original announcement for last year with The Sun Makers? From a purely objective point of view, there is a noticeable drop in quality between the first and second episodes, and at times the colour seems ropey and occasional strobing peeks through; overall, it reminded me a lot of how The Daemons looked on its restoration in 1993. However, of course, the important point here is that Ambassadors is being presented IN FULL COLOUR and is a vast improvement on the previous BBC VHS release, let alone the swirly patches of occasional colour intermixed with black and white that we were treated to on dodgy VHS copies and even on UK Gold's broadcasts! Many of us won't remember the story in colour anyway, and it doesn't take long to adjust to quality change at all - certainly anybody used to VHS playback won't have a problem. Full marks to the restorers Peter Crocker and Richard Russell for what they've been able to achieve with the material they had to work with.

The commentary team for each episode were 'themed'; so for example episode one included Terrance Dicks discussing how the script developed from David Whitaker's original outline and director Michael Ferguson's obsession with the then new CSO techniques; episode two, meanwhile focussed on the stunt team with Derek Ware's reasoning behind the creation of HAVOC, and fellow stunt men Roy Scammell and Derek Martin recollecting their experiences. The cast popped in and out for episodes, too, and it was bittersweet to hear Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John and Peter Halliday recount their experiences on the show during the course of the story - the 2009 recording helps to make it feel as if they are still here to regail us with their tales. Geoffrey Beevers joined the team for the final episode (and immediately asked by compere Toby Hadoke how he got the job in a story alongside his then pregnant wife Caroline!), and the team as a whole spoke about the family atmosphere Doctor Who created.

The production notes are as comprehensive as ever, so if you ever wanted to know the names/locations of all the various tracking stations seen in episode one, the reams of narrative originally planned for Wakefield (as played by Michael Wisher in his first appearance in the show!), and who/what "Grimnod" relates to, it's all there to find within the text!

One gem included Whitaker handing episode two over on the day Armstrong set foot on the moon, and this wasn't the only connection with real-life space history for the story. The main extra on the second disc is the making-of documentary, and its opening 'scene' reflected how sometimes fantasy and reality aren't so far apart as, during a story surrounding the recovery of a space probe, NASA had to undertake a similar feat with Apollo 13's disaster (which occured in April 1970 between the broadcasts of episodes four and five). As one might expect, the documentary delves into how the story was made, expanding and clarifying some of the commentary observations by the production team on the main disc.

Other extras on the disc includes an instalment of Tomorrow's Times focussing on the media coverage of the Third Doctor era (presented by Peter Purves in a manner reminiscent of John Craven on Newsround!), a contemporary trailer for the story (which highlights the action-oriented elements), and the usual collection of images from the story and PDF copies of Radio Times listings.

Next Time

It's the Third Doctor again, one year on - how have our favourite characters developed since we met them in Ambassadors ... find out in the special edition release of The Claws of Axos!

LinkCredit: Classic Series, DVD 
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