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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death

“Something took off from Mars.”

I want to love ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ but find it so damn difficult.

It's certainly not for a lack of spectacle. For once it actually looks like the production team were allowed to spend some serious cash on the show, with action sequences that almost have an epic quality to them. In the first two episodes alone we have massive shootout in an abandoned factory followed by a truck hijack involving a helicopter. Doctor Who has never felt this big budget before. Even the model shots of the space modules, although pretty basic by today’s standards, aren’t as embarrassingly bad as a lot of the special effects on this show tend to be.

No, production-wise I can’t fault it. The script on the other hand...

Notoriously, it had something of a troubled genesis. Originally meant to feature Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe, David Whitaker struggled to rework his story to make it fit with the series’ new format and eventually gave up. The script was then handed from writer to writer like they were playing a game of pass the parcel resulting in the plot being a bit of a jumble.

With each new twist and double-cross the conspirators’ scheme eventually becomes so needlessly complicated that it stops being even vaguely plausible. There are far too many instances of characters not doing the smart or sensible thing because it would wrap things up too quickly. Take Lennox handing himself over to UNIT, for example. He could’ve easily told the Brigadier everything over the phone and ended it all then and there. Instead he decides to wait to see the Brigadier in person, allowing the bad guys plenty of time to kill him off in the most unnecessarily elaborate fashion. Seriously, a radioactive isotope? Someone obviously thought a gun or poison simply wouldn't be effective enough.

Humour is noticeable by its almost complete absence. Much like ‘The Silurians’ this is meant to be serious drama, taken seriously so there doesn’t appear to be any room for silly jokes and witty barbs. This is a shame because one of the great things about Doctor Who has always been its mischievous sense of humour. For the moment, that seems to have left with Patrick Troughton. Worzel gets a few good lines in now and then but they tend to be snippy rather than witty.

I know he gets better but so far the Third Doctor is turning out to be a generally unlikeable bastard. There’s little doubt that being exiled has turned the Doctor into an ill-mannered arse. He’s rude to everyone he meets, even nice people who don’t deserve it. Just look at the way he barges into the space centre, barking orders like he owns the place then insulting people because they don’t instantly give in to his every demand. Look, Worzel, I know you’re frustrated by not being able to fix the Tardis but that’s no excuse for being such a prat to everyone.

On the companion side of things this is a great story for the Brigadier with Nicholas Courtney given ample opportunity to demonstrate his action man credentials. Alas, fans of Caroline John will be left disappointed as Liz Shaw’s involvement is practically an afterthought. She has next to nothing to do for the first few episodes before spending the rest of the story being held hostage by Reegan.

Along with the high than usual production values 'The Ambassadors of Death' benefits from having such a tragic central villain as General Carrington, brilliantly played by John Abineri. Bad guys on Doctor Who rarely get to be as psychologically complex as Carrington. He’s more misguided than flat out evil. Towards the end it becomes increasingly clear that he must be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress following his original encounter with the aliens and the unfortunate death of his shipmate, Jim. Although it was an accident Carrington has allowed xenophobia and paranoia to convince him that the aliens mean humanity harm and will do anything to destroy them, repeatedly stating that it is his “moral duty”.

When he’s finally defeated the Doctor doesn’t whip out the biblical condemnation he usually reserves for his opponents, allowing the General to keep some semblance of dignity as he’s taken away. The Doctor can see that he’s no monster and while he doesn’t condone Carrington’s actions he can understand his reasons for doing what he did.

Notes and Quotes

--A British space program? Capable of sending manned missions to Mars? Now that really is science fiction.

--The Doctor is still a little bitter about the Brigadier destroying the Silurian base.

--Security at the Space Centre is rubbish. Reegan just waltzes in and out, causing all sorts of trouble and gets away without any bother.

--Loveable Benton is back, now promoted to Sergeant.

--John Abineri had previously appeared in the lost Second Doctor story ‘Fury from the Deep’. He’s probably best known as Herne the Hunter on classic 80s series Robin of Sherwood.

--UNIT soldiers appear to have the marksmanship of a drunken, one-eyed Imperial Stormtrooper who should've gone to Specsavers.

--If you happen to know what accent Dr. Taltalian is supposed to have please don’t hesitate to share with the rest of the class.

--David Whitaker got sole writing credit and a full fee because script-editor Terrance Dicks knew he’d been messed around by the establishment before and deserved it.

--I don’t think Carrington seriously thought his plan through. After all, would nuclear weapons have any effect on a race that lives off radiation?

--The producers decided to play around with title sequence for this story. After the logo, there is a reprise of the previous episode's cliffhanger before the opening titles resume with the first part of the title: "The Ambassadors". Then the words "of Death" zoom in, accompanied by the familiar sting.

--Bessie has an Anti-Theft force field. Downside is there’s not much battery life. Best invest in some Duracel. Doctor.

--The reporter is played by Michael 'Davros' Wisher. This was the first of nine appearances on the series.

--Although all seven episodes still exist in the BBC archive they don’t all exist in colour. Some episodes even randomly flip back and forth between colour and monochrome (it’s like watching If...). A restored DVD release was planned for later this year but was delayed due to technical issues.

The Doctor: “I don't know what came down in Recovery 7, but it certainly wasn't human!”

The Doctor: “The man's a fool. How can I possibly tell who the message is from until I know what it says? Let me explain this to you in very simple terms!”

Reagan: “This Doctor must have nine lives.”
--13, actually... or 507.

The Brigadier: “I think the general's a bit overwrought.”
Cornish: “I think he's insane.”

General Carrington: “I had to do what I did. It was my moral duty. You do understand, don't you?”
The Doctor: “Yes, General, I understand.”

Two and a half British space programs out of four.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.

1 comment:

  1. Another long one. It's another one that I like but don't love. It's hard to really dislike a story with both Michael Wisher and Ronald Allen. Much like the Silurians, it's a deeper story, even with its faults. One worthy of a watch to be sure.

    The General and his co-conspirators are somewhat sympathetic as the Doctor acknowledges in that last portion with the general that you so rightly point out. We may not agree with his reasons or his state of mind, but this was no power grab or wish to destroy, regardless of how we may (or may not) disagree with his methods.

    And yes, we love Benton! One of my all time favorites!


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