The Ambassadors of Death ****

This atmospheric story instantly evokes the world of my childhood: the Space Race, derelict warehouses, gasometers and creepy aliens in Doctor Who...

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Ambassadors of Death ****

Season 7 – Story 53

"Somebody's using these creatures, Brigadier. They're not free agents. They were brought to Earth for some purpose" - the Doctor

Storyline
Unit is overseeing events at the UK's Space Centre, which has lost contact with a manned mission to Mars. Three astronauts are eventually brought down to Earth, but they're highly radioactive and are abducted by General Carrington, the head of Space Security. The Doctor discovers the human astronauts are actually still in space, aboard an alien vessel, while their spacesuited counterparts on Earth are alien ambassadors being manipulated against their will by the deranged Carrington.

First transmissions
Episode 1 - Saturday 21 March 1970
Episode 2 - Saturday 28 March 1970
Episode 3 - Saturday 4 April 1970
Episode 4 - Saturday 11 April 1970
Episode 5 - Saturday 18 April 1970
Episode 6 - Saturday 25 April 1970
Episode 7 - Saturday 2 May 1970

Production
Location filming: January/February 1970 at Blue Circle Cement, Northfleet, Kent; TCC Condensers, Ealing; Marlow weir, Marlow, Bucks; Southall Gas Works, Middlesex; various sites in Aldershot, Hampshire
Studio recording: February/March 1970 in TC3 (eps 1-5), TC4 (ep 6) and TC1 (ep 7)

Cast
Doctor Who - Jon Pertwee
Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart - Nicholas Courtney
Liz Shaw - Caroline John
Sergeant Benton - John Levene
Ralph Cornish - Ronald Allen
General Carrington - John Abineri
Bruno Taltalian - Robert Cawdron
Charlie Van Lyden/Alien ambassador - Ric Felgate
John Wakefield - Michael Wisher
Reegan - William Dysart
Sir James Quinlan - Dallas Cavell
Miss Rutherford - Cheryl Molineaux
Grey - Ray Armstrong
Collinson - Robert Robertson
Dobson - Juan Moreno
Corporal Champion - James Haswell
Joe Lefee/Alien ambassador - Steve Peters
Frank Michaels/Alien ambassador - Neville Simons
Heldorf - Gordon Sterne
Lennox - Cyril Shaps
Masters - John Lord
Unit soldier - Max Faulkner
Flynn - Tony Harwood
Private Parker - James Clayton
Private Johnson - Geoffrey Beevers
Control room assistants - Bernard Martin, Joanna Ross, Carl Conway
Unit sergeant - Derek Ware
Technician - Roy Scammell
Alien space captain - Peter Noel Cook
Alien voices - Peter Halliday

Crew
Writer - David Whitaker (uncredited Malcolm Hulke)
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - David Myerscough-Jones
Script editor - Terrance Dicks
Producer - Barry Letts
Director - Michael Ferguson

RT review by Patrick Mulkern
The Ambassadors of Death (AoD) is the only Pertwee story for which my memories are hazy, but watching it - and any other serial from this period - instantly evokes the world of my childhood.

In 1970, the Space Race and scientific endeavour seemed to be constantly in the news; it was also a time when derelict warehouses, wartime shelters, gasometers and belching refineries peppered the landscape. Decades before the Nanny State, these were our playground and fired our imagination - as well as that of the makers of Doctor Who.

But AoD doesn't pander to a child audience in any way; indeed it takes itself very seriously. Almost every character is a scientist, soldier or thug. The themes are first contact and top-brass duplicity, with a splash of xenophobia. It tastes like a sophisticated cocktail but, swallowed whole, makes for a queasy brew.

Numerous scripting revisions caused an uneven plot. David Whitaker has sole writing credit, despite penning no further than episode three. Assistant script editor Trevor Ray rewrote part one, while Malcolm Hulke developed the remainder. Their narrative feels extemporised, a bumpy, sometimes thrilling ride, but one with no clear end in sight. That's not necessarily to AoD's disadvantage, although it does leave the motivation of the villains Carrington, Taltalian and Reegan less than clear. Another hiccup comes when the alien captain abruptly broadcasts to Earth in English, undermining the six-week slog to develop a translation device.

Barry Letts' enthusiasm to experiment with new video technology results in a brazenly avant-garde production. Hence the daft but deftly edited time-jumping scene for the Doctor and Liz, added by Terrance Dicks at a very late stage. After a brief flirtation with CSO in The Silurians, here the sets are designed to capitalise on the process - notably video screens at the Space Centre and the organic interior of the alien spaceship. It's an impressive showcase for the time and is perhaps why the BBC preserved episode one - the earliest Doctor Who to survive in its original videotape form.

Perhaps more startling are the sight of the green Tardis console adrift in the Unit lab, Liz peeping out from a strawberry blonde wig, and the execrable episode titles reprise, underscored by a cacophony of stings and thunderclaps. More satisfyingly, AoD sees the signature tune adopting its (now so familiar) screeching sting and final zhoozh. Dudley Simpson told me they were added by the Radiophonic Workshop's Brian Hodgson to lend the closing credits some shape and oomph.

Most of the cliffhangers are effective. Ep 3 has thugs (including stuntman Derek Martin - now better known as EastEnders' Charlie Slater) chasing Liz along Marlow weir, until she tumbles over into the torrent. For such film work, director Michael Ferguson engaged AA Englander, a respected cameraman whose credits stretched back to Quatermass.

The Unit v thug battles, astronaut raids and Reegan's sabotage missions all look extravagant. In studio, Ferguson shows no fear of extreme close-ups or fast cuts between zooming cameras. The ep 2 cliffhanger (beside the space capsule as the Doctor snaps "Right. Cut it open!") is a masterclass for multi-camera directors.

Jon Pertwee plays the Time Lord with confidence. He's hilariously rude to Space Centre director Ralph Cornish ("The man's a fool... Let me explain this in very simple terms") yet compassionate to Carrington at the end, with a meaningful "Yes, General. I understand." The Brigadier is at his most assured - and violent. He shoots thugs with abandon during a gun battle and even engages in a hand fight. Sergeant Benton (a corporal in The Invasion, 1968) was a last-minute but welcome addition to the team in the later episodes. Actor John Levene was a protégé of director Douglas Camfield and lined up for a big role in Inferno.

Caroline John delivers her intoxicating blend of warmth and froideur. Grasped by one of Reegan's henchmen, Liz says: "It's all right, I won't hurt you." We only see her panic once when shut in a cell with the aliens. One "astronaut" removes its helmet and at last we glimpse its hideous blue lumpy mush. Ferguson edits these shots so rapidly they're almost subliminal. The rendering of the alien captain is similarly freaky - an arm-waving radioactive mummy who only appears via a slatted portal.

Among the guest cast, Ronald Allen is rather good as the suave Cornish, which may come as a surprise to anyone who remembers his subsequent 14-year stint as a zombie in the ITV soap, Crossroads. Robert Cawdron (Taltalian) uses an English accent on film but is "European" in studio. John Abineri has the thankless task of playing General Carrington, the principal villain but an underwritten part, whom by part six someone has decided to characterise - and exonerate - as insane.

The story ends on an anti-climax, albeit with admirable subtlety. The Doctor leaves Carrington under arrest but with his dignity intact, and entrusts the mopping up, and the return of the ambassadors, to Unit and the scientists. In a lovely wide shot - fringed by a model that suddenly makes the TC1 set look huge - the Pert strides out of the Space Centre as casually as he strode into it seven weeks earlier. Job done.

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RT billings  episodes 1-4   episodes 5-7

[Available on BBC DVD; soundtrack available on BBC Audio CD]

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