Doctor Who: The Ambassadors Of Death REVIEW

Doctor Who, "The Ambassadors Of Death".
Release Date: 1 October 2012
1970 | U | 172 minutes | £20.42
Distributor: BBC Worldwide
Director: Michael Ferguson
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, John Abineri, Ronald Allen

It’s long been the Doctor’s philosophy that aliens should be given the benefit of the doubt, and that xenophobia is the greater danger – despite the fact that non-human races invariably do turn out to be out to destroy humanity! “The Ambassadors Of Death” is one of the rare stories that validates his approach.

This Third Doctor seven-parter begins very much in the Quatermass mould, with a space capsule unexpectedly returning from Mars, mysteriously remaining incommunicado. Once it’s landed, it becomes clear that whatever’s inside the spacesuits of the three astronauts, it can’t be human; not only are they bullet-proof, but their touch packs a deadly dose of radiation.

Bashed off in a dash by then-script editor Terrance Dicks and trusted collaborator Malcolm Hulke after the credited author’s script was written off, “The Ambassadors Of Death” is pretty hit and miss. On the one hand, it often comes across as a gritty near-future thriller. That’s particularly the case in the opening two episodes, which feature some stirring stunt setpieces: a warehouse shoot-out (in which half of UNIT appear to get gunned down!), and an attack on a missile convoy (albeit the world’s slowest moving missile convoy – they might as well have a man walking in front waving a flag) featuring motorcycle outriders and a genuine not-stock-footage helicopter! Here, instead of standing in for alien planets, gravel pits are a place for ruthless criminals to dump irradiated corpses. The use of a TV reporter speaking to camera to deliver exposition (Michael Wisher, later to play Davros) feels rather modern too.

Unfortunately, for all its moments of hard-edged grit, during which it almost feels like Who is anticipating more adult-orientated, late-’70s fare like The Sweeney or The Professionals (or at the very least, 1976’s surprisingly hard-boiled “The Seeds Of Doom”), “Ambassadors” is also terribly silly at times. Guffaw, as a thuggish criminal casually demonstrates the know-how required to sabotage a decontamination chamber, or a rocket take-off! Gasp with incredulity, as it all climaxes in a laughable scheme to broadcast live to the entire world on television, with about five minutes’ notice!

As a four-parter, the story might have flown; at seven episodes there simply isn’t quite enough plot to go around. After two or three very promising episodes, the interest level assumes a downward trajectory, after the three aliens (who, we eventually discover, look like psychedelic mummies hiding behind Venetian blinds) are basically locked up in a shed, and only occasionally taken out for a deadly walkies. There are numerous nagging questions. Why don’t these advanced aliens communicate straightforwardedly in English from the start? Why do they decide to make first contact wearing stolen spacesuits?

Dicks and Hulke try to maintain our interest by drawing character after character into an overarching conspiracy – at times, it seems like the Brigadier is the only person who isn’t in on it! But eventually, trying to keep track of who’s a saboteur, who’s being manipulated and who might be a puppet-master simply becomes tedious and confusing.

Extras:

This story came out on VHS a decade ago as a patchwork of colour and black and white, pieced together from different sources. Technical advances since mean that it’s now been restored to full colour. The quality is still pretty variable, but the majority of it is no worse than a VHS copy, and it’s certainly perfectly watchable.

The commentary (moderated by Toby Hadoke) has been sitting on the shelf waiting for that technology to catch up for some years. It features a revolving cast of director Michael Ferguson, script editor Terrance Dicks, three stuntmen (who get the action-packed episode two to themselves) , and – movingly – two actors who are no longer with us: Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) and Caroline John (companion Liz Shaw). John is also accompanied by her actor husband Geoffrey Beevers, who played a UNIT private.

Making Of “Mars Probe 7” (26 minutes) is unusually focused, concentrating mostly on HAVOC, the stunt team behind some of the story’s most memorable moments. Derek Ware and Roy Scammell (resplendent in a piratical shirt even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen might balk at) entertain with anecdotes about dragging up to double for Caroline John, and a motorbike crashing into a camera assistant, and there’s a cheeky bonus: some HAVOC sauna footage featuring a glimpse of their stunt-bums!

The final entry in What The Papers Say-style series “Tomorrow’s Times” (13 minutes) looks at press reaction to the Pertwee era, with much fretting over whether the show had become too scary for kids. Text commentary, a photo gallery, a trailer and PDFs of Radio Times listings complete the package.

Ian Berriman twitter.com/ianberriman

Read our feature on the ten best Doctor Who companion departures.
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