The Ambassadors of Death
"Their speech transmitter's probably gone altogether now, but I could Just try ...
Hello ... hello: This is Marsh speaking. I'm Just outside the rocket. Are you receiving
"... There has been no further announcement concerning the two men missing from
the British rocket vehicle which landed last night on Wimbledon Common."
- THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT
A reappraisal of the status deserved by The Ambassadors of Death among the Doctor Who
canon Is long overdue. Generally regarded as an obscure, overlong yawnathon, rewritten
well beyond the outer limits of narrative coherence, Ambassadors wins at least one
reviewer's vote as the best story of Jon Pertwee's first season and possibly even as the
best story of Jon Pertwee's five seasons. Throughout each of Its seven episodes
Ambassadors is never less than interesting, and at Its best is quite magnificent.
Surely few other Doctor Who
stories have had such a gripping opening - a triumph of acting, direction and incidental
music. Once the title sequence and music have unexpectedly faded out after the appearance
of the "Doctor Who" logo, we are introduced to the convincing interior of
Charles Van Lyden's "Recovery Seven" space-capsule. His voice realistically
distorted, the astronaut's terse conversation with Space Control on Earth sets the scene
and builds up the tension: what has happened to the crew of "Mars Probe Seven"
since the loss of radio contact seven months ago. "They took off from Mars manually -
they must have been alive then," observes Space Centre Controller Cornish.
"Something took off from Mars," murmurs Van Lyden ominously - at which point the
title music and visuals crash back in, and we learn this story's title for the first time.
Streaking out of the screen towards us come the words "The Ambassadors",
followed by "of death" appearing underneath to a crescendo in the theme music.
Even before the pulsating diamond of the title sequence fades from view, a dramatic,
pounding score leads us into a long shot of the superb, gleaming Space Control set. The
whole might be a textbook example of how to hook and land an audience.
Nor does the rest of the story fall to live up to this promising opening. Veteran
Michael Ferguson's direction Is exceptionally classy, peaking with the various
"moments" such as Van Lyden's entry into the linked capsules' dark connecting
tunnel or the famous shots of the aliens silhouetted by the sun. (Is this a trademark of
Ferguson's? He treated the Ice Warriors similarly In The Seeds of Death.)
Ferguson shows especial skill when It comes to the episode endings. In this story, a
cliffhanger banal on paper turns out to be riveting on screen: take Taltalian's pulling of
a gun on the Doctor and Liz at the end of episode one, or Carrington's identical threat
five episodes later - and just compare them with TTOATL. "Du sublime au ridicule II
n'y a qu'un pas," as Boney once put it ... And if a dull cliffhanger becomes good on
screen, a good one is transformed into pure gold, namely that of episode two: repeated
attempts to contact Van Lyden, apparently inside his safely-landed capsule, meat with the
same eerily-repeated request for re-entry. Lightning reaction-shots of Cornish, Liz, etc.
build up the tension relentlessly, climaxing with the Doctor's snapped command,
"Right - cut it open!" I know stuff like this is Just the minutiae of the story,
but it's highly enjoyable all the same.
Likewise the various fistfights, gun-battles and helicopter hijacks that pepper
Ambassadors. They may be largely padding, but they're fun to watch for all that. Nor are
they totally gratuitous, serving as a striking contrast to the Doctor's approach to
matters. The Time Lord constantly strives for peace and non-violence, urging the alien
ambassadors not to harm anyone as they break into the Space Centre in the last episode,
and it is not until Inferno that the third Doctor becomes in any way physically involved
In the action. The paranoid and xenophobic General Carrington, on the other hand, has no
qualms about hiring mercenary thugs like Reegan In the pursuit of the greater end of his
"moral duty". There is even a contrast with the Brigadier, who, in keeping with
the overall style of Season 7, Is a quite hard and ruthless figure at times, despatching
leaden death to several of Reegan's gorillas, if he doesn't flatten them with his fists
first. This contrast Is reinforced by a reference to the Brigadier's blowing up of the
Silurians, which the Doctor sourly makes in episode one.
By his third story, Jon Pertwee's Doctor had already developed several clearly
recognisable character-traits. Apart from his intensely moral stance, Ambassadors also
developed his semi-humorous contempt for officious civil servant-ism and bureaucracy;
witness his unorthodox entry Into Space Control: "My dear fellow, I simply don't
happen to have a pass! ... Because I don't believe in them, that's why - take your hands
off me, sir!" Another nice moment occurs when Sir James Quinlan and Carrington try to
do a Watergate on the mystery of the missing astronauts by spinning an unlikely tale about
"contagious radiation" necessitating extreme Governmental actions. The Doctor
pretends to accept the story with good humour, ruefully remarking that his own
investigations just led to "a question of the right hand fighting the left."
Amid general laughter, Carrington pleasantly says that he hopes everyone's minds are now
put at ease by his explanation. "Well It hasn't eased mine!" replies the Doctor,
his pretence of acceptance now replaced in a flash by a steely scepticism, much to
Carrington's obvious fury! Again, it's a trivial example, but It does serve to illustrate
Pertwee's consistently strong acting throughout this story. Nor is he the only example of
strong acting in Ambassadors. Caroline John has expressed a fondness for this story, as it
gave her a rather more active role than usual. Certainly Dr Liz Shaw Is "not just a
pretty face" here, treating Reagan with asperity and contriving escapes from her
bunker-like prison. Her initial abduction was no easy matter, either: one of the hapless
thugs pursuing her received a hefty knuckle sandwich for his pains, almost knocking him
into a weir!
Apart from the ever-excellent regulars, we also have Ronald Allen's Ralph Cornish, a
man desperately concerned for the safety of his three astronauts above all; the icily
efficient mercenary Reegan (William Dysart); and the oily television reporter John
Wakefield (Michael Wisher), whose maddeningly persistent enquiries so infuriate Professor
Bruno Taltalian (despite the cod French accent, a good portrayal by Robert Cawdron of
outward bluster masking Inner weakness), but who cringingly acquiesces to Carrington's
insane plans for provoking an Interplanetary war in the final episode.
General Carrington Is by far the strongest of the supporting character; and Is all the
stronger for being played by John Abineri as a sympathetic figure, rather than as a mere
ranting, Mosleyesque basket-case One almost finds oneself nodding understandingly as he
passionately tells the Doctor of his "plan to save the world" from the alien;
even though he is quite prepared to kidnap peaceful ambassadors and murder any who get in
his way to prevent the (non-existent) invasion from succeeding:
CARRINGTON - "it was the only way. You do understand that, don't you Doctor?"
DOCTOR - "Yes ... yes, I understand. You had to do what you had to do."
CARRINGTON - "Exactly.' We must protect the world - it's our moral duty."
It is hard not to feel sorry for the General, struggling to retain his dignity as they
come to take him away at the end. The Doctor cannot bring himself to disagree when
Carrington again pleadingly insists that "I had to do what I did - it was my moral
duty. You do understand, don't you?" "Yes, General. I understand," replies
the Doctor, sadly.
Apart from the acting, there is much else to enjoy in Ambassadors. For a start, there
is Whitaker/Hulke's deliciously involved and convoluted but not incoherent or inconsistent
script (shades of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"!), which is happily adept In its
handling of the pro-toleration theme inherent in the story, mercifully resisting all
temptations to ram the moral message throatwards, as The Silurians was wont to do.
Dudley Simpson, returning to his second and last story of this season, provided some
marvellous incidental music: his arrangement of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of
Pale" in part one's space sequences; his rousing UNIT theme, used on various
occasions; and his "ambassadors" theme, which manages to be both frighteningly
eerie in the scenes where the aliens go on their compulsory killing sprees (their features
sinisterly hidden by their opaque, tinted space helmets, a particularly ominous touch),
and hauntingly beautiful once their true natures are revealed, as in the scenes of the
Doctor on board their giant oval UFO (a very good special effect, that).
No Doctor Who story is flawless, of course, and Ambassadors does have its sore points,
from the gimcrack treatment of the aliens' radioactivity, to the cringeworthy resolution
to part one's cliffhanger, with the Doctor magically causing the computer tape to vanish
and reappear through something called "transmigration of object". And why did
the alien who revealed itself to Liz in the radiation chamber (poor man's Joseph Merrick)
bear little resemblance to the mother-ship captain seen by the Doctor earlier on (fuzzy,
featureless "thing")? But such trifling matters are completely overwhelmed by
the overall air of stark docu-drama realism, exemplified by Wakefield's TV broadcasts, and
by the scenes of the UNIT troops swarming into Carrington's warehouse hideout ... In fact,
In both script and direction, Ambassadors is perhaps the most "adult" of Doctor
Who stories. Everything is taken absolutely seriously, with the more fantastic elements
presented In a very downbeat manner, and there are no concessions to the kiddy audience.
Indeed, to fully appreciate it, it is perhaps best to approach Ambassadors as a gritty
mystery-thriller, which happens to involve space capsules, rather than as a piece of
On the debit side, I would concede that some of the main characters are pretty
stereotyped In conception (eg. ex-Doctor Lennox, the standard Discredited Scientist Turned
Half-Hearted Villain), but the generally high standard of acting (Cyril Shaps In the case
of Lennox) manages to transcend this handicap with ease. And although, at seven episodes,
the story has the odd slow patch, It is never boring.
To put it simply, The Ambassadors of Death is a piece of vintage Who, easily at home in
perhaps the best season ever. How it got saddled with Its reputation as one of the weaker
Pertwees Is beyond me. It may not have the horror of a Spearhead, the haunting creepiness
of a Silurians or the raw, powerful intensity of an Inferno, bet, to my mind, it has a
certain something which raises It above even these three masterpieces (though only just).
It is a great shame that while many frankly unworthy stories are constantly drooled over,
this one remains relatively unknown, for if any Doctor Who tale deserves the label of
"classic", it is this one.
Issue one index
Five Hundred Eyes index