Something took off from Mars…
Charles Van Lyden
The Doctor and Liz join the investigation regarding Mars Probe 7, which has not communicated with Space Control since setting back from Mars seven months ago. A further vessel, Recovery 7, is encountering similar problems. When Recovery 7 returns to Earth, the ship is found to be crewed by three alien ambassadors…
Sadly, and perhaps understandably, Ambassadors of Death is a bit of a mess, and certainly the worst story of Jon Pertwee’s first series as the Doctor, although, considering the standard of the stories around it, this is certainly not shameful. I still enjoyed this one, although it does suffer with pacing issues and it definitely feels as though it needs a couple of episodes for the story to really get started. However, there are some superb examples of model work in the space scenes, whilst there are some great moments of tension and the episode is perhaps notable for a sympathetic portrayal of Carrington’s madness, along with benevolent aliens. There is some fantastic model work in this story and Dudley Simpson’s score is simple but really effective.
The Ambassadors (OF DEATH) is an episode which features no overtly hostile aliens, with the titular aliens instead being vilified by humans such as Reegan and Carrington. The species of aliens are capable of killing with a single touch who encountered General Carrington on a previous Mars mission and accidentally killed his partner, triggering a xenophobic grudge between them and the new head of the Space Security Department. Despite being benevolent, the Ambassadors really look sinister, especially in the spacesuits with blacked out visors, and certainly feel like a threat, although they are being exploited by humans. The idea of a simple touch being able to kill is particularly effective and helps with the fear factor. A particularly good example of this is the scene where the three Ambassadors surround Liz in their containment cell. We only get brief glimpses at one is under the helmet, which makes them all the more spooky. Carrington’s xenophobia, paranoia and madness increases as the story goes on, culminating in his reaction when the United Nations refuse to sanction the nuclear first strike on the Ambassador’s ship and his decision to arrest UNIT as being alien collaborators. I think what makes the conclusion all the more effective is the fact that the Doctor actually gently tells Carrington that he understands why he did what he had. This is by far the most effective part of this story and sold by the performance of John Abineri.
Jon Pertwee delivers another assured performance as the Third Doctor, and I particularly enjoy his facade of being a doddering old man in the scene where he reclaims the stolen truck carrying Recovery 7. I also appreciate the fact that at the beginning of the story, the Doctor is still harbouring resentment and bitterness towards the Brigadier for his actions at the end of The Silurians. This story does go some way to mending this relationship, with the Doctor and the Brigadier’s scene when they say goodbye to each other before the Doctor goes into space, which also shows their mutual respect for one another. The Third Doctor, despite being quite an establishment figure, really prickles against figures of authority such as Quinlan, and demonstrates that beautifully here. The Brigadier demonstrates that he is one to shoot first and ask questions later, especially towards the end where he acts effectively when moving to rescue Liz and the Doctor. Additionally, Liz gets some good scenes, especially with her attempted escape from Reegan’s men and helping Lennox escape, although this is ultimately futile.
Sadly this story does suffer from pacing issues and does feel very heavily padded to get it up to seven parts. The opening episodes of the story feel particularly slow and padded, with the gunfight at the end of part one really goes on a bit too long, as does Liz’s chase and the sequence around the retrieval of Recovery 7. There are also a number of elements that feel like they are unnecessary, such as the presence of Taltalian sabotaging the Doctor’s initial efforts to help Cornish, which feels unnecessary – and not just the actor’s strange French(?) accent. That being said, it is perhaps notable for being a story in which the Doctor and the Brigadier are almost consistently one or two steps behind their adversaries for the entire course of the story. The scenes in space are quite gripping and the model work is really well done, especially with the docking sequence, evoking a sense of apprehension. I also feel that every Doctor Who story requires a bearded newsreader sitting in the corner of the studio explaining the story!
Verdict: A good if not exceptional story, which does suffer from some pacing issues. I like the aliens and the handling of Carrington’s madness though and the model shots and general idea are good. 7/10
Cast: Jon Pertwee (The Doctor), Caroline Johns (Liz Shaw), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), Ronald Allen (Ralph Cornish), Robert Cawdron (Taltalian), John Abineri (General Carrington), Ric Felgate (Van Lyden), Michael Wisher (John Wakefield), Cheryl Molineaux (Miss Rutherford), Ray Armstrong (Grey), Robert Robertson (Collinson), Dallas Cavell (Quinlan), Bernard Martin (Control Room Assistant), Juan Moreno (Dobson), James Haswell (Corporal Champion), Derek Ware (UNIT sergeant), William Dysart (Reegan), Cyril Shaps (Lennox), Gordon Sterne (Heldorf), Ric Felgate, Steve Peters and Neville Simons (Astronauts), Max Faulkner (UNIT soldier), John Lord (Masters), Tony Harwood (Flynn), John Levene (Sergeant Benton), James Clayton (Private Parker), Joanna Ross (Control Room Assistant), Carl Conway (Control Room Assistant), Roy Scammell (Technician), Peter Noel Cook (Alien Space Captain), Peter Halliday (Alien Voices), Steve Peters (Lefee), Neville Simons (Michaels), Geoffrey Beevers (Private Johnson)
Writer: David Whitaker
Director: Michael Ferguson
Behind the Scenes
- This is the last story written by former script editor, David Whitaker. It is also his least favourite. Whitaker originally started writing the story for Patrick Troughton’s Doctor but proved incapable of adapting it for the new format and cast that had come in with Jon Pertwee. Eventually, Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and Trevor Ray rewrote the story but agreed to give full credit (and the fee) for the story to Whitaker.
- The story depicts the first occasion on which the Doctor travels to space without his TARDIS. It is also the first story to show the TARDIS console in colour, with the Doctor having disconnected it from the machine and put in a study at UNIT H.Q.
- This story marks the first appearance of John Benton since The Invasion.
- The UNIT uniforms worn by everyone other than the Brigadier are solely seen in this story.
- There are two actors who appear here who would return in more significant roles later. Michael Wisher would go on to be the voice of the Daleks during the Third Doctor’s era, as well as going on to reappear in Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters, eventually going on to be the first actor to play Davros. Geoffrey Beevers would go on to play the Master in The Keeper of Traken and for Big Finish.
- By a strange coincidence, this story was being broadcast during the Apollo 13 crisis.
- This is the first and only time that the opening credits would be interrupted for a recap of the cliffhanger, to be followed by the story’s title. It is also the first to feature the now common sound effect at the cliffhanger.
Pertwee’s acting as the doddery old man is a personal highlight, but I also enjoy the cliffhanger with the Ambassador reaching out towards the Doctor as he inspects the body of Quinlan.
My dear fellow, I don’t have a pass! (pause) Because I don’t believe in them, that’s why!