The Ambassadors of Death

2 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

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dvd-ambasadors‘Exile’ is too grand a description for the sentence handed down to the Doctor at the end of his original trial. Aside from changing his face – which admittedly could be argued to be a form of capital punishment – all the Time Lords really do is wheelclamp the Doctor’s ship and so deny him access to his favourite of his usual four dimensions. However, while our hero can no longer trip through time, his new incarnation still thrusts out unceasingly in every remaining direction. The first thing he does is to take a vehicle without the owner’s consent – a crime for which he has form, to say the least – after which he barely sits still for a moment. And in the seven-episode adventures that dominate his first year on Earth, we see him explore, in turn, all three dimensions still available to him. To meet the Silurians, he plunges down into the ground. Later, he’ll shimmy sideways into a parallel reality. And this week – to meet the Ambassadors of Death – he rockets straight up into the sky.

These three seven-parters are some of the most measured and mature Doctor Who you can find for your money, although there’s no denying that Ambassadors is the least of them. In being obliged to do more than merely vamp their way to a deferred climax, these longer-than-usual adventures each bridge, like a sonata, to a middle development section that takes us somewhere new; into a darker, minor key. Think of The Silurians and Inferno, with their sidesteps into plague and fiery apocalypse. Ambassadors flips the form. Much of the story is as gloomy and grounded as Doctor Who gets. But in its central digression, it’s all spaceships, hypnosis, trippy Chromakey and a wafty alien who means well but is tragically misunderstood. At this point, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks must have shared a look of mutual understanding. The counterpoint for Ambassadors goes on to become the major repeating refrain for the rest of the Third Doctor’s era.

We have to be careful about describing any Doctor Who adventure as realistic, especially if it tells the story of manned missions to Mars launched from Hampshire in the depths of winter, controlled by a staff roughly the size of that you’d find in a Tesco Metro. But Ambassadors was imagined as taking place a good decade after the time it was made; and in 1970, the idea of delivering an Englishman to Mars would not have seemed so wildly optimistic. Sadly, the world has rather let us down on that score, but the vision of the day-after-tomorrow offered by this adventure remains more readily believable than the T-Mat network, the Gravitron or UNIT’s flying flagship Valiant. Indeed, Ambassadors would prove plausible in an immediate and unique way. On the 13th of April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded on board the service module of Apollo 13, the USA’s third manned mission to the moon. The world held its breath as Commander James Lovell and his crew fought to improvise a new air filtration system and bring the command capsule safely back to Earth. Episode 5 of The Ambassadors of Death, broadcast five days later, saw the Doctor blast off into space, and to his seemingly inevitable death in a sabotaged capsule. These days, it would be surely pulled from the schedule for too closely mirroring a real-life tragedy. It’s a peculiar tribute to Ambassadors’ spirited struggle for realism; a struggle that gives this story a special charm, and makes it a refreshing diversion from Doctor Who’s more familiar forays into the fantastic.

This struggle for realism isn’t shared by every aspect of the production to quite the same degree, however. Take British Space Command for example, where controller Ralph Cornish is in charge of the Recovery 7 mission, dispatched to rescue the crew of the ill-fated Mars Probe 7. Cornish is played by Ronald Allen, who become better known in the 70s as Crossroads’ dishy David Hunter; a performance that would go on to inspire the character of Mr Clifford in Victoria Wood’s tribute to TV melodrama, Acorn Antiques. And so it is that one can’t help but relish a retrospective whiff of Mr Clifford about Mr Cornish (“Did you get bored of Geneva, Brigadier? Or did Geneva get bored of you?”). While issuing commands, Allen keeps his eyes fixed on some distant horizon, as if in steadfast expectation of a bus that’s never going to come. Later in the story, when choosing fuel for his rocket, he has to say: “What about reducing the G by mixing K and M3?” and Allen is so endearingly earnest, we truly believe he’s formulating the next giant leap for mankind. Somewhat less convincing is the mission’s chief scientist, Dr Bruno Taltalian, who comes with an outrrrageous Franche eggsant and facial hair so evidently false that when he first removes his glasses you expect his beard to go with them.

TheAmbassadorsofDeath1-7avi_0001704The Doctor is watching the Recovery 7 mission on TV at UNIT HQ. He’s ripped out the TARDIS’s control console for a good tinker in his laboratory. Or at least we assume this is the case. The more whimsical might note that there’s nothing to say that this isn’t a new design of the TARDIS control room. With its flock wallpaper, stained glass and Meissen porcelain, it has a Jules Verne, fin de siècle decadence that rather suits our time traveller. It’s certainly a more homely environment for the Doctor than the TARDIS’s current TV incarnation, which looks like the inside of a migraine. Also offering a new look is his assistant Liz Shaw, who this week is exhibiting a wig of such extravagant proportion she could surely be slingshot head first into the offside of the Hoover Dam and walk away unscathed. Without doubt, Liz is the most glamorous research scientist ever to have graced the corridors of Doctor Who. One of her five degrees from Cambridge must have been in Applied Funky Fashion. After she’s kidnapped later in the story, the Brigadier reports: “I’ve issued Miss Shaw’s description to every police force in the country.” That must have been some conversation. “What’s that? Any distinguishing features? Well. A huge white hat. Miniskirt. Knee-high white boots… Yes, like Yoko Ono on her wedding day. Last seen in the sort of car you find the clowns driving at the circus. Oh, and she can look surprisingly mannish from a distance. And did I mention the big ginger wig? Hello? Are you still there?”

A screeching transmission from Mars Probe 7 brings the Doctor to Space Command and straight into the story’s best scene – well, its best non-action scene – as the Doctor insists that the signal is a coded message, and bullies Cornish through to the logical conclusion that a second signal must be a reply from Earth. The Doctor is so wildly pompous you want to stand up and cheer, and the Brigadier gets to play what will become Jo Grant’s role, hinting to the Doctor that he might get further by at least feigning some manners and respect for the local hierarchy. Set against the resolutely modernist backdrop of the control room, the Doctor seems positively reactionary. “I never did trust those things!” he huffs about Taltalian’s computer. And when the Frenchman – revealed to be a double agent – demands a vital data reel, the Doctor even seems to call upon supernatural powers, as the tape vanishes before our very eyes. “Zis is no time fer conjerin’ tricks,” insists Taltalian, and you can’t help but agree. “That was simply transmigration of object,” smarms the Doctor. “There’s a great deal of difference between that and real science, you know.” It’s one small moment, but so contrary to the spirit of Doctor Who that it makes you want to climb into your television set, crawl back 40 years, and give everyone involved a firm slap about the face with a stiff halibut. What’s especially galling is that Episode 1 has already offered a plausible set-up for this tomfoolery, thanks to a faulty TARDIS component which has the Doctor and Liz vanishing and reappearing in exactly the same way. Couldn’t the Doctor have had that in his pocket?

Perhaps this was a detail lost in the serial’s troubled journey from story to screen. The scripts for Ambassadors are the work of four writers – the credited David Whitaker, plus Malcolm Hulke, script editor Terrance Dicks and his assistant Trevor Ray. It’s thanks to Dicks in particular that the thing coheres at all, but due to this troubled development Ambassadors never quite comes into focus, never quite builds a momentum. But while it fails to make the most of its potential, it certainly delivers its share of kinetic energy, principally in three wonderful action sequences cooked up by director Michael Ferguson and Derek Ware’s stunt crew Havoc.

In Episode 1, UNIT tracks the source of the transmission to Mars Probe 7 to an abandoned warehouse. The baddies, though briefed not to kill anyone, come out all guns blazing, and soon bodies are crashing through tea chests as stuntmen boldly trampoline hither and yon. Somewhere in the Home Counties must be found the Tomb of the Unknown UNIT Soldier; a massive cenotaph topped by a simple relief of Pat Gorman. Meanwhile, as bullets ricochet around the Brigadier, he falls into a kind of blood frenzy, blasting away in all directions, before it all ends in a wonderfully butch and sweaty stand-off. This probably wasn’t the evening when the Brigadier went home, bounced daughter Kate on his knee and told her his hippy idea about letting the science lead the military.

There’s more action, and better, in Episode 2. Recovery 7 has crashed back to Earth – supposedly with the rescued astronauts aboard – but the villains hijack the UNIT convoy taking the capsule back to Space Command. A helicopter swoops in. Smoke bombs boom and belch. Riders are thrown from motorbikes as they slew sideways in the mud. A soldier briefly clings to one of the skids of the chopper and, while in flight, tries to wrench open the door – but then drops and tumbles down a ravine. In our modern era, Doctor Who, with generous budgets and all the artistry and processing power of The Mill, delivers many a thrilling action sequence. But we still know green screen when we see it – in 2012, just as in 1970 – and so it is that no one else, to this day, has managed to convey the same sense of true and present danger as Havoc at their most fearless. In Episode 3, Liz Shaw is chased pell-mell across a rugby pitch by two heavies, and then, played at key moments by stuntman Roy Scamell, along a weir. For the cliffhanger, Liz tumbles to her seeming-certain doom in the torrent of water below. It all looks mind-bogglingly dangerous, and we shall never see its like again. It’s also the moment when Liz Shaw proves herself a premier league assistant; by keeping her hat firmly jammed on her head throughout, and for giving one of her pursuers a proper wallop of a backhander.

But for all that Ambassadors enjoys getting out and about, it certainly chooses some gloomy terrain. It’s all mist and mud, slurry pit and slag heap. In one chilling scene, two grey-faced corpses are taken to a concrete works, dragged from the back of a van and slowly buried under a landslide of mixed aggregates. However, despite all this gritty action, even by Episode 4 there’s barely been enough plot to fill an egg cup, and what there is seems to pull in every possible direction. The villain of the piece is revealed to be the cold fish General Carrington, who is at times underplayed almost to nothing by John Abineri, which is what makes him so forgettable. The General, we learn, was part of the Mars Probe 6 mission – presumably to investigate the effect of zero gravity upon toupee tape – and saw his crewmate killed by aliens. Exactly how the cause of this death was explained away is anyone’s guess; certainly UNIT knows nothing about it.

originalCarrington has gone on to kidnap three alien ambassadors as part of a plan to provoke Earth into launching a pre-emptive strike against what he believes to be possible invaders, but who the Doctor knows to be essentially benign. Carrington’s chief lackey is Reegan – a more engaging performance from William Dysart – whose principal ambition seems to be to use the alien ambassadors as history’s most high-maintenance team of bank robbers. Quite why Reegan and Carrington cart the space-suited beings back and forth in a van just to commit the odd murder is entirely unfathomable, but it does give us the story’s signature visual moment as one of the ambassadors stalks towards us out of the low evening sun, the light flaring and spotting across his sinister silhouette. Michael Ferguson had pulled the same trick with an Ice Warrior on Hampstead Heath a year earlier, but here he nails it. It’s as beautifully contrived a shot as any you’ll find in the whole history of Doctor Who.

The disconnection of motive and action is, again, the result of the fractured writing process. It’s also why time seems to move at different speeds in different places. At one point, Liz escapes her captors merely to run straight into Bruno Taltalian, who has just appeared in the previous scene, set many miles away. But here he is in a car, suddenly dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and with nary a hint of a French accent.

When the end comes, it comes in a rush, and not with a bang but a whimper. Carrington is poised to unveil his aliens to the world, until the Doctor and UNIT pile in to stop him, and then the General simply hands over his gun and submits himself for arrest. His motivation turns out to be madness brought on by extreme xenophobia – or possibly vice versa – and though this might explain his wildly illogical scheme, it’s not exactly satisfying. From the aliens themselves we don’t hear another peep. And although our hero shows suitably Doctorish compassion toward Carrington, even he seems entirely indifferent as to what might happen next, and casually saunters off the side of the set.

This lack of engagement with the emotions of its characters is why only the swagger and flash of  Ambassadors tends to linger in the memory. Or perhaps it’s the fact that so much of the story features hopeless conspirators waving guns and shouting things like: “I need you to raid a number of isotope stores!”

Ambassadors is a fundamentally schizophrenic adventure. With its guns and gangsters on one side, and rocket ships and exploding briefcases on the other, it can’t seem to decide if wants to be The Ipcress File or Joe 90. But, in much the same way as The Mind Robber, The Happiness Patrol, Love & Monsters, or any of our other favourite eccentrics, The Ambassadors of Death pushes at the boundaries of what we might normally expect of Doctor Who, and should always be cherished for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

deathSHIPLINK-1The production documentary, Mars Probe 7: Making the Ambassadors of Death, opens to urgent strings and stock footage of Apollo 13, and seems set to investigate this adventure’s historical context. You’re braced for Dr Matthew Sweet stalking the corridors of the Science Museum in Dr River Song’s spacesuit; but, alas, we are denied that pleasure. Instead, the highlight is footage from a 1970 documentary about Havoc, which, accompanied by new interviews with the boys themselves, delivers a dizzying whirl of masculinity, derring-do and – let’s be frank – unexpected homoeroticism. After a hard day on the Doctor Who set, the Havoc boys would enjoy a right old rave-up. They’d drink together, go dancing together, or merely share a shower and a sauna. Footage from those communal ablutions allows us to carefully assess Derek Ware’s claim that “Roy Scammell has extremely good legs”, and much more besides.

The stuntmen are also the stars of an excellent commentary, where they take centre stage for the action-heavy second episode. We learn that Alan Chuntz – who spent much of the 70s disappearing head first over Jon Pertwee’s left shoulder – also taught kung fu to the Kray twins, had an uncanny resemblance to Charles Aznavour, and drove a London taxi in his spare time. Come to mention it, this section of the commentary, so thick with avuncular Cockney charm, is rather like finding yourself discussing Doctor Who with your cab driver.  “These days, they’re defying the laws of physics with all that CGI, ain’t they?” opines Derek Ware from the driver’s seat, or possibly hanging from the front bumper. You nod in agreement. This is from a man who knows how important it is to respect the laws of physics. They’ll always get you in the end, especially if you’re tumbling head over heels for Jon Pertwee.

Toby Hadoke moderates the commentary with his customary skill and insight. We must be grateful for whatever quirk of scheduling led to it being taped so far ahead of release. The fact that three contributors – Nick Courtney, Caroline John and Peter Halliday – have died since its recording is a sobering reminder of the great blanket of silence that is slowly unrolling over the history of Doctor Who. And then Terrance Dicks refers to The Sarah Jane Adventures in the present tense, and your breath catches once more.

Ultimately, however, the great, great joy of this release is to see The Ambassadors of Death returned to full colour for the first time since 1970. The sharp little cruelty of this story is that while the first episode survives in perfect condition, the rest has had to be recoloured and reassembled from a wide range of lesser material by the Restoration Team and associates. This task required astonishing ingenuity and invention, and untold hours of tedious amendment and correction by hand. The results can never be perfect, and the finished product is, by necessity, a patchwork. In Episode 3, for example, Liz Shaw’s wig gives off a comforting golden glow, like a Belisha beacon on a foggy night. But it’s nothing short of a miracle that there’s colour here at all. And it’s a shocking omission – scandalous, in fact – that those responsible are not credited anywhere on the DVD or the packaging. And so: thank you, Richard Russell, for your dedicated work on colour recovery; thank you, Peter Crocker, for the painstaking effort required in pulling it all together; thank you, Jonathan Wood, for the final grading; and thank you, Mark Ayres, for your exacting sound restoration.

As all these wonderful episodes are restored to us, one is left gawping open-mouthed in awe at quite how bloody clever people can be.

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3 Responses to “The Ambassadors of Death”

  1. Nick January 2, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    Thank you for uploading this! It cheered me up no end on my first day back at work. Even had me laughing out loud, which was unexpected today. More, please…!

    • Gary Gillatt January 2, 2013 at 11:03 am #

      Very kind of you to say, Nick! Thanks so much!

  2. paulfcockburn January 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    For years, Ambassadors of Death was the story I remembered best from Season 7, thanks to repeated listening to an audio recording of episode five made by my big brother on his reel-to-reel tape recorder. I now have absolutely no idea why it was that particular episode rather than any other that was recorded — perhaps I wasn’t going to be at home in time to watch it, or maybe he was just “experimenting”?

    Anyway, the Doctor’s line about the aliens’ motivation — “Conquest?”, “Possibly. Or is that what we’re supposed to think?” struck me as so grown up and intelligent! (Be gentle; I was a young Doctor Who fan at the time, so was naturally wanting the show to be all serious and grumpy so that I wouldn’t feel ashamed of loving it.)

    All I’ll say is that it was a genuinely disconcerting experience, years later, watching that particular episode with visuals that were quite different from the ones which had matured in my imagination. (My budget was somewhat higher, for a start!)

    The Doctor’s vanishing trick with that computer tape still niggles, though. Perhaps, even then, the Doctor’s pockets were bigger on the inside?

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