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.
The Doctor later discovers a high radiation reading from the capsule, which indicates that the astronauts should've been dead, but upon further investigation, finds a log discovering a 2 million rad count, leading him to make the opening quote of my review. His attempts to find the astronauts is met with delay, espionage, sabotage, coverups, a hijacking which the Doctor foils in a very clever way, astonishing the Brigadier, and eventually, murder, in the Space Centre. As the story progresses, more people are discovered to be part of the conspiracy, be it ordinary thugs, scientists, and even politicians.
Apart from UNIT, the only person who seems to accept his help is Dr. Cornish, the head of the Space Centre. Then there's General Carrington, head of the military Security Service, whose motives from the get-go are very suspect, even though he tells the Doctor that the astronauts were suffering from a self-sustaining, highly contagious radiation, and he had national security in his interest. However, the concept of moral duty comes into question, as depending on one's frame of mind, moral duty can mean whatever one wants it to mean.
Episode 5 features the first appearance of John Levene (Sergeant Benton) in the Pertwee era, having made his appearance in The Invasion (1968). Caroline John is still great as Liz, but I doubt if real Cambridge Ph D graduates wear miniskirts that short. Two Who guest star alumni include John Abineri (Carrington) later to come out in Death Of The Daleks (1974), and Cyril (Dr. Lennox), Viner in Tomb Of The Cybermen (1967), Dr. Clegg in Planet Of The Spiders (1974), and the Archimandrite in The Androids Of Tara (1978). Michael Wisher (John Wakefield) came out in many Who stories, including Davros (Genesis Of The Daleks).
The times play a big part in this story. The image of the Recovery 7 probe docking with the Mars Probe not only brings reminders of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 (1968) but also David Bowie's "Space Oddity" (1969). I half-expected to hear "Ground control to Major Tom." And John Wakefield's TV narration gives a sense of the impact of TV, as this story was made a year after the first landing on the moon.
Before episode 1, there is the original trailer that was shown on BBC1 for this story. While this is playing, a message scrolling at the bottom explains that although made in colour, only Episode 1 was maintained in its original form--the other copies being accidentally junked in colour, survived as b&w film recordings, with incomplete colour recordings recovered from the U.S. in order to restore the story to colour. Hence there is a mix of colour and b&w, and as the brightness in restored segments plays havoc with the image's visibility, one can see the decision to leave 81 of its 171 minutes in b&w. So, here's a rundown:
Episode 1-all in original colour
Episode 2-first few minutes in colour, then b&w all the way
Episode 3-about 10 minutes in colour, rest b&w
Episode 4-all in b&w
Episode 5-restored colour
Episode 6-b&w for few minutes, colour for couple minutes, b&w for couple minutes, colour for rest
Episode 7-first third in colour, second third in b&w, last third in colour
Yes, it may be an episode too long and contains some continuity errors, but what carries this story is the espionage and suspense, especially as the action goes into a continuous plot W, the Doctor gains the upper hand, only to end up one step behind when someone with information is killed or goes missing, and etc. This is one of those thoughtful stories that requires repeated viewings on a lazy weekend.