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Doctor Who (Classic): “The Ambassadors Of Death”

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“The Ambassadors Of Death” (season 7, episodes 12-18. Originally aired March 21-May 2, 1970)


To call “The Ambassadors Of Death” the weakest serial of Doctor Who’s seventh season is less of a knock against it than it might seem. Jon Pertwee’s first year as the Third Doctor was well above average as a whole, especially given the success of the gamble to drastically reinvent the show as an Earthbound, team-driven sci-fi drama of what we’d now recognize as the X-Files/Fringe/Torchwood format. There’s a pretty good case for calling it the series’ best season, period. (That’s a hard one to pick, though. Doctor Who has been so changeable over the years that it’s difficult to compare seasons, like apples and some fruit that doesn’t even grow on this planet. I’d vote for season 13, the second Fourth Doctor season, with its murderers’-row of “Terror Of The Zygons,” “Pyramids Of Mars,” “The Brain Of Morbius,” and “The Seeds Of Doom.” But I digress.)

“The Ambassadors Of Death” isn’t perfect, far from it, but nevertheless it has a lot going on that I really love, and which exemplifies what the creative team was trying to do with season seven—lure in a larger (and older) audience by blending the established “eccentric scientist fights alien monsters” sci-fi with slicker, higher-octane spy-thriller stuff that aimed for the less campy, more serious side of James Bond and The Avengers. The gloriously lavish action sequences here are the most blatant part of that, like a big neon billboard, but there’s subtler stuff percolating in the story too, particularly in the way it strives to suggest that its titular aliens might be truly out-of-this world, in the sense of perhaps being too strange for us to meaningfully communicate with or understand. And it also rests on a more-complex-than-usual motivation for its lead villain, General Carrington—arguably, he’s not a bad person, but a decent man twisted by his own inner trauma. (If only the presentation of that had been less murky, this could have been a much better story—but I’ll get to that in a moment.)


It begins, though, with Doctor Who’s best stock-in-trade: A mysterious spacecraft approaches Earth with the promise of terror and mayhem ahead. Even though the Third Doctor was grounded on Earth at this time, a story with astronauts as its central hook was still very much a natural fit for the show, since in real life the space program was at the height of its public glamour—Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk had happened less than a year before, and the Apollo 13 crisis happened the same day as episode four of this serial was first broadcast. (Ironic, given the storyline.) And like season six’s “The Seeds Of Death,” “The Ambassadors Of Death” spends a sizable chunk of episodes five and six with the Doctor piloting a rocket, painstakingly putting him through all the paces from pre-flight prep to post-flight quarantine in a wholehearted embrace of what in 1970 seemed like humanity’s next great collective adventure.

But the opening scenes of the story set up a much different, tenser and more foreboding mood. It’s the final stages of a rescue mission for Mars Probe Seven, the latest manned exploration of the red planet, which has been radio-silent for months after losing contact with Earth shortly after landing—maybe an equipment malfunction, or maybe something more sinister. The only thing that is known is that the Mars ship took off and is about to reach Earth again after a seven-month journey. But what’s inside? Is it a “floating coffin,” as one scientist suggests, with two dead astronauts inside? Or something even worse? When the airlock between Mars Probe Seven and the rescue capsule is opened, ground control hears nothing but an ear-splitting electronic scream, after which the rescuing astronaut is missing too. So, something worse, then. The Brigadier, who’s been monitoring the situation, sends for the Doctor. The Doctor, who's been watching on TV while trying to fix his TARDIS, has recognized the scream as a message, and is already on his way to help decode it.


To British audiences, the setup here would have  called to mind Nigel Kneale’s 1955 sci-fi/horror tale The Quatermass Xperiment, in which a returning astronaut is revealed to be a malevolent alien imposter. Inviting us to assume equally evil intentions on the part of these three astronauts, or at least the three things in astronaut suits, is surely a deliberate misdirection on writer David Whitaker’s part. They are aliens, sure, and they are deadly and destructive too, but the whole point here is that things aren’t always what they seem. Just as in the previous story “The Silurians,” the lines can’t be drawn easily, and don’t boil down to simple divisions of villains on one side, heroes on the other. The Quatermass homage is a red herring—the heart of ”The Ambassadors Of Death” has more to do with the message of The Day The Earth Stood Still, in which the arrival of an alien ambassador who means to bring peace instead nearly causes a catastrophic war because of prejudice and misunderstanding. Here, the plot is driven by a shadowy conspiracy to kidnap the alien astronauts and force them to commit acts of destruction to turn public opinion against them, while the Doctor, the Brigadier, and Liz Shaw of UNIT struggle to stop them.

Like many of the longer Doctor Who serials, this one spins its wheels on purpose in the middle episodes to draw things out, before returning to a stronger-paced finish. That lack of forward motion is not quite so bad considering that the sideways motion is excellent: “The Ambassadors Of Death” makes tremendous use out of the show’s new stunt team, HAVOC, to stage a plethora of gun battles, car/truck/helicopter chases, fist-fights and other excitingly violent crash-bangery. Director Michael Ferguson adds to this with a smart, quick-paced visual style that adds an extra boost of adrenalin and tension into every scene. While the sheer amount of this stuff adds greatly to the excessive running time, it's all mostly very enjoyable and I wouldn’t want to cut much of it, if any. The problem is not the fight scenes, but that the fight scenes are there to support an underlying story that doesn’t have enough meat on it for seven episodes, and is needlessly stretched and repetitious.


The core of the problem, I think, is that a significant chunk of the drama is hidden away, iceberg-like, by the lame attempt to keep the identity of the mastermind a mystery. Keeping Carrington’s true motivation a secret until the cliffhanger of episode six is a terrible choice, because why Carrington is doing all this is the story. It’s a frustration of mine with a lot of shows, not just Doctor Who: A sudden, shocking revelation or plot twist can be powerful, sure, but don’t do it at the expense of actually telling what you came here to tell. Call it the Shyamalan Mistake.


Carrington’s treachery is obvious even in the first episode anyway, when he escapes out a window after the Brigadier’s UNIT platoon attacks his base. Although the story throws more red herrings out to lead us to think that perhaps he’s a stooge for someone else, the apparently-meant-to-be shocking revelation is, well, not shocking at all. Who else would it be? There’s no mystery here, since the only other characters who might have been the leader of the villains have been killed off on Carrington’s orders. Well, there’s also the criminal thug Reegan, but he’s repeatedly shown taking orders over the phone from his supposedly mysterious boss, and scheming to use the alien prisoners for his own advantage. The needless mystery comes at a price: There’s almost no screen time devoted to Carrington’s back story with the aliens other than a brief mention that besides being an army general, he was the leader of the last Mars Probe mission. Although his plan has meant keeping quiet about the fact that he has already met the aliens, we learn surprisingly late in the story that Mars Probe Six is widely known to have also gone tragically wrong, with the death of Carrington’s partner. Nobody thought that might have been a significant clue? It was an accident, but the tragedy combined with the sheer unearthly weirdness of the aliens themselves has driven Carrington into a paranoid frenzy.  He’s so disturbed by his experience that he’s become insanely determined to prove to the Earth that the ambassadors are evil—even if he has to force them into being evil against their natures. Carrington’s so consumed by his xenophobia that it doesn’t occur to him that he’s actively trying to cause the catastrophe he is desperate to avoid.

That encounter, I think, really ought to be been put down on film, told in flashback somewhere around episode five, at the same time that the Doctor is on the alien ship himself. A first-contact scenario gone tragically wrong could surely have been a great scene on its own terms, but it also would have clarified the psychological trauma that motivated Carrington, which made the reasons behind his plan more complex than his repeated insistence on “moral duty” suggests. Why does he bother to kidnap the alien ambassadors at all? The simple answer, which he gives, is that he thinks they’re evil and must be destroyed—he’s wrong, of course, but let’s roll with it. If that's true, then the simpler plan would have been just to kill them—let them starve and die without their radiation, or just attack their ship and blow it out of the sky with a nuke, which he suggests only toward the end when everything’s falling apart on him.


What Carrington actually did, even though he doesn’t seem to realize it consciously himself, is more personal. It’s not merely the elimination of a military threat, a violent but (to him) rational decision.  This is payback: the humiliation and torture of the aliens as a way of dealing with his unintentionally horrific experience at their hands. When the Doctor finally reaches the astronauts of Mars Probe Seven and finds his rescue efforts stymied by the fact that they all think they’re on Earth watching football on the telly, the aliens tell him that they’ve regretfully had to resort to mind-control for the astronauts’ own health, ostensibly because the alien environment would otherwise drive them crazy. Left unspoken in that scene, but clearly motivating Carrington, is that when he encountered the same aliens on Mars Probe Six, the same thing must have happened to him—and, quite possibly, Carrington cracking up then is the reason that the aliens are concerned for the sanity of their current visitors now.


Stray observations

• For years, only the first episode of “The Ambassadors Of Death” survived in color—the other six episodes had been destroyed, and only existed in black and white. The DVD released in October on BBC Video, though, features beautifully restored color on the entire serial.


• Two notable Doctor Who actors show up in minor roles here. Michael Wisher, who plays TV newsman/toadie Wakefield, is best known as Davros in “Genesis Of The Daleks.” And Geoffrey Beevers, who was Caroline John’s husband, appears here as the UNIT radio operator, Private Johnson. There's a joke to be made in that sentence, I just know it. Beevers was better known for playing the decrepit Master in “The Keeper Of Traken.”


• It seems likely that the story shortcomings of “The Ambassadors Of Death” spring out of its troubled script development. Although David Whitaker (Doctor Who’s founding script editor) is credited as the sole writer, he actually only worked on the first three episodes—perhaps significantly, given Whitaker’s love of incorporating magical touches into his stories, those are also the only three in which the Doctor is depicted not just as a scientist-hero but as someone who uses science to make himself a kind of trickster magician. The accidental small-scale time-jumping, the force-field anti-theft system, and the legerdemain with the tape reel are all classic imaginative Whitakerian moments, and the Doctor’s explanation of the latter—calling it a “transmigration of object” and not “pure science”—suggests that it may literally have been magic. I don’t think the other writers involved—Malcolm Hulke and Trevor Ray, with further changes by Terrance Dicks and director Michael Ferguson—were nearly as fond of those fanciful touches. I don’t know what Whitaker’s original plan was for the final four episodes, but I’m guessing the change in writers probably didn’t help the story in the long run, despite that Hulke and Dicks were excellent Doctor Who writers in their own right. This was Whitaker’s last writing credit on the show, and he reportedly found the finished version disappointing. No wonder, with that many cooks involved.

• “Geoffrey Beevers as Private Johnson.” The UNIT operator, you know.

• Upcoming schedule:
Jan. 20: “Warriors’ Gate”
Feb. 3: “The Caves Of Androzani”
And on deck, “The Ark In Space.”