VHS... How quaint.
I've never really understood the bad rap that AMBASSADORS OF DEATH gets. Sure, it's in the middle of a good season, but I've never felt it was the weakest of Pertwee's first year. I'd much rather watch this again than view THE SILURIANS (I like the idea of SILURIANS much more than the actual story itself). AMBASSADORS is a straightforward romp that I found very enjoyable. When my copy arrived, I planned to watch the first tape one night, saving the second for the next evening. But I was having such a blast, I viewed the whole thing in one long sitting.
A lot of the time we fans find ourselves laughing at the show as often as we laugh with it. Time has not always been kind, and aspects of this serial show their age. Television and film were still new to the idea of portraying space travel realistically; it's amusing to see the production crew simulating weightlessness by turning the camera upside-down and running everything in slowmo. Gender equality is also something that the producers may have attempted, but, amusingly, Britain's Space Control Centre is staffed by a substantial number of pouting, miniskirted scientist-babes.
The story begins with the British Space Programme (well, it was the early 70s, and they were rather optimistic back then) mounting a rescue mission to discover what happened to their latest Mars Probe. When the capsule docks, contact is lost while a loud alien sound screams across the radio. The Doctor believes the sound is an alien message. Some time later, mysterious space-suited figures that can kill by touch are seen committing petty thefts, stealing radioactive isotopes and scientific equipment.
My review is more a series of isolated thoughts. This is an entertaining romp, and deep, serious analysis wouldn't be particularly fruitful. My initial thought is that this is probably the story where the James Bond influence on the Pertwee era is the most apparent. The Doctor pulls gadgets from nowhere. He faces an earthbound menace with access to the latest military hardware. Gun-battles and chase scenes abound. There are even jazzy musical cues to punctuate the action.
On the subject of the music, I just want to say that I really dig the incidental score, occasionally inappropriate as it is (to me, action sequences don't scream out for flute solos). Of particular note is the piece played whenever the Ambassadors initiate their raids. Dreamy and atmospheric, I loved it the first time; multiple viewings have not diminished my appreciation.
Action by Havoc! Yes, the stunt-work in this one is impressive. AMBASSADORS relies on its action sequences and the team is more than up to the challenge. The battles are smoothly executed and sharply directed. Something that I found amusing (and I'm probably alone) is that one of the stuntmen reminded me of Stan Laurel. This presented me with very entertaining imagery. Stan Laurel shooting bad guys. Stan Laurel's rifle shot from his hands. Stan Laurel thrown from a helicopter. I guess life after Hardy was rough on the little guy.
The script contains quite a number of nice little moments. Reegan is particularly villainous, casually ordering his two lackeys to their deaths and then attending to the disposal of their bodies.
Visually, the story is strong. The blank faces of the space-suited aliens are as chilling as any other villain Doctor Who would produce. It's an effective way of highlighting the alien's fundamental otherness by placing the unfamiliar inside the familiar. Removing the face completely dehumanizes the aliens. It's a much more effective way of displaying their unsettling nature than if they had relied on cheap makeup.
The film sequences are fantastic -- a world of difference from the rather static studio portions. The shot of the Ambassador slowing walking towards the UNIT guard with the sun behind him would look at home in a smooth, atmospheric movie. Even the chase-scenes are inspired; note that stylish shot where Reegan races through metal walkways. He steps briefly into a puddle and the camera focuses on the reflection in the water as the ripples soften, allowing us to continue to see his progress. Cool stuff and not what one expects in a three-decade-old television production.
Towards the end, I was struck by the thought that the cliffhangers seemed unimaginative. Rather than having the episode build towards them, they just seemed to happen at whatever point in the story was up after twenty-five minutes. Wouldn't it have made more sense to move the episode five cliffhanger a few minutes so that it occurred as the alien spacecraft appears to smash the two capsules, rather than when the ship has merely appeared on the scanner?
In the later episodes, the story begins dragging. Liz gets very little to do, and her escape attempt adds nothing but time. The aliens are poorly realized outside their spacesuits. When the Ambassador removes his helmet, the director very wisely keeps the shots to a minimum, only showing the face either for a few moments, or from behind foggy glass. Unfortunately, he doesn't employee the same subtlety for the leader on the mothership, so we're treated to the sight of an alien made of oatmeal waving oven mitts at Jon Pertwee from behind a Venetian blind.
The restoration on the video is excellent. It's a pity that there was no alternative to fading between monochrome and color footage, but the transitions aren't especially jarring. The demonstration placed at the end of the second VHS tape really drives home how superior the cleaned up version is.
There's a funny cheat in episode seven where Cornish explains that they can't obtain a good look at the alien spacecraft because radioactivity is blotting out cameras. That'll save a bit of money from the effects budget! But I have to forgive AMBASSADORS its cheats because it's just so damned entertaining. And while there are figures of power in the world willing to launch pre-emptive military strikes, this story will always be relevant.
Although Season Seven is generally regarded as being a strong one, fans seem to be only talking about ‘Spearhead From Space’, ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’ and ‘Inferno’ when they sing the season’s praises. ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ must be one of the most underrated Doctor Who stories of the Pertwee era. This is a shame, because much as I like the two previous stories, ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ is one of my favourite Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories.
The first reason that I like ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ so much is its gritty, adult feel. Since ‘Spearhead From Space’ the series has felt somehow more grown up, and ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ continues this trend but manages to take it a step further. In terms of production, it looks much better than ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, partly because it avoids the use of monsters that are obviously men in rubber suits, but mainly because of the tight direction by Michael Ferguson. Although the previous story is sufficiently good that it carries suspension of disbelief beyond the rubbery Silurian costumes, the tactic used here, of keeping the aliens disguised in space suits, is startlingly effective. The three aliens are very sinister, due to a combination of their blank, impassive faceplates, eerie incidental music (something from which this Season as a whole benefits greatly), and some superb camera work as typified by the alien astronaut advancing towards the UNIT sentry out of the sunlight in episode four. But of course, we also do get to see an alien unmasked. The alien space captain doesn’t really count; he wears his own costume complete with mask, and is seen only through a screen, the picture deliberately obscured. Then, in episode six, we get what remains one of my favourite scenes from the entire season. Liz enters the chamber housing the three captive aliens, and is cut off from the exit. One of the aliens unclips its helmet and removes it to reveal a distorted, alien face, which is utterly inhuman. This sounds straightforward enough written down like that, but the genius of the scene is in the camera work. To pulsing, eerie music, the camera image of Liz starts to pulsate, then flicks between Liz and the alien, giving us a brief, shocking glimpse of the alien’s misshapen lumpy features. It is a genuinely creepy moment and all because of the way it is shot. This is the real strength of this story, and is filled with inspired direction that makes a decent story into a forgotten classic. The model work is also generally very good. Even the CSO used in the alien spaceship looks OK.
Direction aside, the story itself stands up well, despite the complex writing and rewriting process it underwent at the hands of about three different writers. This is no bog-standard alien invasion as we are initially led to believe in the early episodes. These are not invaders collaborating with a human traitor to launch a secret invasion like that of the Cybermen in ‘The Invasion’. This is something much more complex. The plot twists and turns impressively, keeping the viewer guessing, until finally it is revealed that the three aliens are ambassadors, invited to Earth by the woefully misguided General Carrington so that he can use them to convince Earth that an invasion is underway, hopefully prompting the united nations to destroy the alien spacecraft in orbit. His motivation? The accidental death of a friend and fellow astronaut years previously at the hands of one of the aliens, who didn’t realize that its touch would kill. Carrington is a character that evokes a great deal of sympathy; he is not evil per se, just psychologically scarred a past encounter with another species and genuinely believing that what he is doing is his “moral duty”. The Discontinuity Guide describes the ending as one of the series’ finest, as the Doctor allows Carrington to keep his dignity; it is a valid observation. The Doctor’s expression is full of sympathy and pathos as he tells Carrington that he understands his motives.
The advantage of this plot is that it allows for a good deal of misdirection as we are kept guessing as to who the villains are. Carrington is clearly not a full-blown villain from the start, as he orders his Sergeant not to kill the UNIT troops in the warehouse. This adds to the intrigue as both the viewers and the Brigadier are given cause to wonder why the Sergeant doesn’t shoot Lethbridge-Stewart in episode one. With Quinlan and Taltalian thrown into the mix, the plot becomes even more convoluted as co-conspirators start to crawl out of the woodwork. We finally get a real villain in the form of Reegan, although he is clearly not the mastermind behind the kidnapping of the aliens. Reegan is a refreshing villain; he’s genuinely nasty and murderous, but he’s not a typical Doctor Who megalomaniac, he just wants to use the aliens to rob banks. This in itself makes for a pleasant change, but Reegan works even better because he is genuinely charismatic villain. William Dysart imbues his character with a certain charm, but this is not the smarmy, oily charm of Tobias Vaughan. Dysart’s performance is quietly understated, yet convincingly intimidating when the situation calls for it. Reegan is one of the series best, and most overlooked, psychopaths. His final scene, as he sits quietly with an air of resigned amusement having been captured at gunpoint by the Brigadier, sums up the character; Reegan is man who takes advantage of existing situations and just before he is lead away, he suggests to the Brigadier and the Doctor that they use the aliens to break into Space Control and defeat Carrington, thus probably saving the world. He cheekily tells them not to forget that this was his suggestion as he is led away.
The rest of the guest put in decent performances, especially John Abineri as Carrrington, Cyril Shaps (who seems born to play nervous and twitchy scientists) as Lennox, and Ronald Allen (previously Rago in the ‘The Dominators’) as Cornish. The latter is an interesting character, because despite the usual initial friction between the Doctor and another scientist who is also an authority figure, they quickly build up a mutual respect and show considerable rapport throughout the remainder of the story. I also feel compelled to point out that Cornish is occasionally a very sinister character, which seems to be unintentional; I get the impression that this is how Ronald Allen acts! The regulars do very well out of the script. The Doctor is crucial to the story’s resolution, and gets a key role throughout as he takes a trip into space via more conventional means than usual. Pertwee is still on very fine form, and the Doctor remains a commanding figure. He also gets a classic Third Doctor rant as he snaps at Cornish in episode one. His friendship with the Brigadier is initially still rather strained by the events of ‘Doctor Who and the Silurians’, but regains its strength during this story, which shows them working together rather well as a team. Liz gets her best outing to date, separated from the Doctor and kidnapped by Reegan, she stands up to thugs and deals with a stressful situation admirably well. Her defiant attitude with Reegan shows her refusal to be cowed, even by a murderous psychopath and is a reminder of just how strong a character she is.
There is one problem with ‘The Ambassadors of Death’, and it annoys me every time I watch it. How does Lennox die? Putting an isotope in his cell wouldn’t kill him like that. It would cause massive chromosomal damage that would probably result in cancer eventually, and it might cause radiation sickness that could kill him in a matter of days. It’s a minor plot hole, and the rest of the story works so well that I can forgive it, but it is irritating. In summary, ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ is an overlooked classic; it even convinces me that Britain had a space program in the 1970s and that we landed astronauts on Mars!