It seems to have taken me forever to watch The Ambassadors of Death, so my apologies for the delay in getting this review out.
This story marks the final involvement in the series of David Whittaker, the show’s original script editor and writer of classic adventures such as Power of the Daleks and The Rescue.
I learnt something new about this story today, and that is that it was originally written for the Second Doctor, Jamie & Zoe and was meant to be set a lot further into the future…which makes a lot more sense when you think about it.
Doctor Who – The Ambassadors of Death Review: What’s This One About
To quote The Doctor, “I don’t know what we brought down in Mars Probe Seven…but it certainly wasn’t human”
I think that sums it up nicely.
Thoughts – The Action Adventure
I’m not sure whether it’s true or not, but you could argue that the Seventh Series of Doctor Who was used to try out a variety of different story ‘types’. We’ve had the Alien Invasion, then we had the Quatermass one and now we’re into the Action Adventure.
In amongst the plot and dialogue of this story are many fight scenes, chases and other bits of location work. The first episode has a fight scene in a warehouse that goes on for five
looooooong minutes, and then the second episode has another one, which mixes fighting with ‘exhilarating’ shots of a UNIT convoy moving incredibly slowly along the English countryside while jaunty incidental music – completely juxtaposed against what’s going on on-screen – plays in the background.
And this is followed up by a ‘chase’ scene involving Liz Shaw and a bunch of hired goons that seems to go on forever towards the end of the third episode. And while I’m on that subject, her line of thinking seemed very strange – “I can’t evade them by car, so I’ll get out and run. That’ll do the trick”. Er…ok.
Beyond the third episode it calms down a bit and settles into the groove of being about Liz and later the Doctor trying to communicate with the Aliens while the nasty Reegan goes about his business as a one man lynch mob and espionage expert.
Still though, in my opinion there are too many fight scenes in this one. It seems to be more like an advert for the HAVOC stunt team than a Doctor Who story. Having said that, I suppose if the alternative was more monotonous scenes in the Space Centre control room then I think we can count our blessings.
The Disappointing Conclusion
One thing that does this story down is the poor ending. Even the most naive of children would have worked out that General Carrington was the man behind it all from quite early on, so the reveal that it is him at the end of Episode Six is underwhelming. Then his reasoning for the whole situation is so unimaginative that it sadly becomes quite plausible.
Up until the seventh episode there had been some promise of things beginning to kick off, but it just fell a bit flat in the end. Rather than having the Alien Invasion happen – something which could have extended the story by some way in the same vein as the Siluarian story could have worked as a stand-alone series – it gets called off simply because UNIT confront Carrington about it. It just fell a bit flat to me.
Black & White & Colour
Away from the story itself, watching The Ambassadors of Death is an interesting experience because of the changing between colour and black & white. Thanks to the same lovely people who decided to wipe many of the 60s Doctor Who stories, this story no longer exists fully in colour, but only in part. So what happens throughout this story is that it switches between the two at regular intervals. I don’t mind this at all since the early colour TV shows don’t look all that great as I’ve said before.
It works in both mediums, though I have to say that if there was one bit I wanted to see in colour it was the part where the Ambassador takes off his helmet to reveal his natural form. And wouldn’t you know it, that bit is only available in monochrome.
Still…that might work in its favour.
Snappy Episode Endings and Interesting Reprisals
This is the first Doctor Who story to feature the traditional ‘sting’ sound that begins the end credits. It’s also the first and only story to have a sting during the opening credits. In each episode there is a reprisal scene from the previous episode during the opening credits. If you’ve seen it you know what I mean, but if you haven’t, it’s like they do half of the opening credits then show the cliffhanger of the last episode and then do the second half of opening credits.
As a dramatic device it’s hit and miss. There are some short, sharp and exciting cliffhangers here that work well with that format, the best being the one at the end of Episode Two (‘Right, cut it open’) which is my brother’s favourite Dr Who cliffhanger ever. On the other hand, other ones such as a stuntman in a wig pretending to be Liz Shaw climbing over a bridge didn’t work with it at all well.
So it was an interesting experiment, but one that would have necessitated sudden sharp conclusions to every episode – something that just doesn’t work long-term.
Wait…Britain Has A Space Programme?
I mentioned earlier on that this was originally intended for the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe, which makes sense.
The UNIT stories are a source of great consternation among people with far too much time on their hands, but even I have to question when they are supposed to be set when Britain has a Space Programme that can send a rocket to Mars at a moment’s notice.
And it’s not even a new thing either. Based upon General Carrington’s age and the fact he’s been to Mars as part of a previous Mars Probe, it must have been going on for far more than a decade.
But we’ll just sweep all that under the carpet.
Convenience and the Ambassadors’ Touch
The biggest flaw in this story surrounds the inconsistency when it comes to the Ambassadors’ deadly touch.
The idea is that if they touch you, you die. And if they touch anything else, whether it be a safe or a car park gate, it’ll blow up.
Well…that’s the idea anyway, because that only seemed to be the case when it was convenient.
How come, for example, the Ambassador that entered Sir James Quinlan’s office managed to open the door to it without any sort of explosion, yet by merely touching the safe it was trying to get into it blew the door right off?
And why is it that their touch is so deadly anyway when they are wearing gloves? And how is it that people can touch them to pick them up off the floor etc and not be killed? And why is it that is doesn’t kill everyone it touches?
The answer again is that it’s convenient to the plot. And that’s something I hate.
It bugs me that when some random Private gets shot, he gets shot dead, but when the Brigadier gets shot, it just so happens to be by a stun gun.
It bugs me when people have no reason not to kill a main character but decide against it just because that character can’t be written out, such as the numerous times the Doctor had a gun pulled on him.
This is not something exclusive to this story or to Doctor Who – it happens in everything from James Bond to 24 to Lost, and it’s bugging.
Incidentally, on the subject of the Ambassadors’ touch, why did that one kill Sir James anyway? And why is it that the Ambassadors moan about being ‘forced’ into killing people by Reegan? It seemed to be that they were asked to, maybe even given a detailed brief, but they didn’t have to. Why did they not just touch and kill Reegan?
- I’ve not yet said much about the cast or the acting levels. Some were good (Cyril Shaps and William Dysart deserve a mention), some disappointed a bit (John Abineri and Ronald Allen have both done a lot better in other Dr Who roles) and some were dreadful (the bloke that played Taltalian)
- I have to make my obligatory mention of the music that sounds like A Whiter Shade of Pale at the beginning of Episode One. Great stuff.
- I like how by this point the Doctor is becoming a right cranky bastard. It’s interesting to note that when other actors playing the Doctor had unlikeable traits (such as William Hartnell in An Unearthly Child or Colin Baker in almost all of his stories) fandom criticises it, yet here the Doctor is a rude and arrogant swine and it goes without mention.
- One particular scene I want to praise is the one where the Doctor and the Brigadier are questioning Carrington’s ‘heavy’ after the protracted fight scene in Episode One. The way the Doctor makes the guy stand to attention by barking orders like an Army officer is brilliant. I want to try that on an ex military man to see if it’ll work, though the chances are I’d get punched in the face. Pity.
- This story was obviously written at a time when a computer was still something exotic; something to be feared.
- I know everyone mentions this when talking about things that don’t make sense in this story, but Taltalian’s bomb…how was it supposed to work? The bomb went off while the Doctor was standing less than a metre away and he came away with only a plaster on his face, yet it managed to kill Taltalian. Again, it comes down to convenience.
- Another thing people often mention is that the BBC spent a lot of their budget for this story on the van that was able to change its own number plate. Well that was worth it…
- Locked in a room with an isotope – what a way to go. And to heap further praise on Cyril Shaps, his ‘fear’ was totally believable.
- It’s bad enough that one man pretending to be an engineer was able to infiltrate a high security, top-secret base and mess with the fuel supply of a rocket and then escape. It’s simply ridiculous that the same man was able to get back in a matter of hours later pretending to be a baker and sabotage the air supply. And so it once again comes back to convenience.
- Oh yeah, and since it’s been over a week since I’ve watched Episode Two, I almost forgot…What the hell is all that crap with the Doctor being able to send things into the future like some kind of magician? What was the point and how did it work?
Doctor Who – The Ambassadors of Death Review: Final Thoughts
This is a story of hits and misses.
There are many aspects of this story to enjoy, including a good concept, some nice performances and exciting cliffhangers.
But as you’ve gathered from reading this review, my big issue with The Ambassadors of Death is the amount of things that happen that don’t really make sense, but are convenient to carrying on the plot.
Yes, that happens in almost every Doctor Who story, but there are just so many examples of it here that it sullies what could have been a great story