Working my way through Season 7, (see Spearhead from Space and The Silurians) I arrive at The Ambassadors of Death a story of which I have little recollection (it was broadcast March – May 1970). Rewatching it, despite a number of flaws (many of which are also mentioned in the Radio Times review) I think it is fabulous and definitely on my list of favourite Third Doctor stories. It’s also a great way to mark what would have been Jon Pertwee’s one-hundredth birthday (7 July 2019).
The Ambassadors will see you now (or at least sometime in episode 7)
Like Silurians, this is another epic seven-part story, though where that had a clear mid-point and second half sub-plot, this story is much more of a spiral, layered with intrigue, espionage and deception.
I intend to discuss three broad areas (so this post is rather long):
- Ambassadors of Death as an archetype
- Some of the many good bits
- The not so good.
Ambassadors of Death as an archetype
From the first scene it’s bold, confident story-telling. We know what’s going on, everyone is assured and (for the most part) we feel there is a space programme happening. There’s a mix of science, exploration, UNIT, politics, space security and everything else that in my mind sets this story out as the template for Doctor Who meets Quatermass. It’s interesting to see the Brigadier as the man in the middle, hampered by his military honour and also open to the reality of the situation, no matter how extreme it might seem.
There’s also a look of the future (in a Gerry Anderson’s UFO) kind of way, even including whatever they’ve done to Liz Shaw’s hair. If the brief is UNIT stories are set a little in the future, this story does it with room to spare.
As the various layers of deception and conspiracy unwound I was also put in mind of where I thought the Big Finish Counter Measures series was heading, and I wonder how much this story might have influenced the writing of that series.
Regardless of the behind-the-scenes writing issues reported in the Radio Times review (see top paragraph), I feel this gets things right and David Whitaker needs credit for that (as do others).
Some of the many good bits
Let’s take it from the very start. Cue opening credits. Cue title DOCTOR WHO. THE AMBASSADORS. Pause. OF DEATH. You can almost see the double exclamation mark, hear the voice over artist intone the final two words. It may be minor, but it sets the mood.
Almost at once I was impressed with the performance of Ronald Allen as Ralph Cornish. If ever a voice was designed to work the microphone at mission control, that was the one. In every episode he delivers, compels and his character also has the ability to grow.
Against him is the entirely mad General Carrington (John Abineri) and even if the role is linear, his performance is spot on. Some of the other villains are also credible characters though we do have the usual set of extras just hired to look tough and get shot.
Credit also goes to Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney both very assured now in their respective roles.
I liked the way getting the Doctor in space wasn’t trivialised (and I mean you, Seeds of Death). I also didn’t mind the length (though six episodes might have been tidier).
There are subversive elements as well:
- As the Doctor walks through the tunnel to the light at the start of episode six there’s a discontinuity when he finds the astronauts alive and well enjoying TV. It’s all very Kubrick in my mind, and just needed them to be in a hotel room
- The very end has the story wrapped apart from the need to get the ambassadors back to space, get the astronauts then work out what the aliens wanted. The Doctor doesn’t care, job done he strolls out. Wonderful.
In general (some exceptions noted) the sets are decent and the use of the then latest special effects mostly works. And it marks John Levene, returning as Sgt Benton – at least one UNIT soldier who can shoot straight!
The not so good
I’ve mentioned Liz’s hair and it’s fair to say this story does hint at Liz getting more and more sidelined. UNIT soldiers are awful shots and their general approach to security is poor. I have to remind myself this show was aimed at a younger audience and less demanding than today’s.
I was amused at how the various locations at the set had rubbish printed labels on pipes so everyone knew what was happening. Exposition gone mad!
I realise location filming and exteriors are expensive and cost money, but I do feel some sensible trimming would have cut this to six parts from seven.
I was also amused how Dudley Simpson seemed to be channeling Jethro Tull for the Bessie driving sequences! Entirely incongruous!
Really I could go on for thousands of words. There’s a lot I could say about this adventure, and it’s been a great way to celebrate Jon Pertwee’s contribution to the show.