This is the one with… Alien astronauts who can kill with a touch, UNIT helping British-manned missions to Mars, Liz Shaw getting captured and escaping and then captured again, conspiracies within conspiracies, and the Doctor going into space.
It is often said that Season 7 of Doctor Who, and The Ambassadors of Death arguably more than any other, most closely came to resemble James Bond. There are, after all, helicopters and space flights, murky layered conspiracies interspersed with elaborate shootouts in abandoned factories (Action by Havoc!), along with gadgets and gizmos created all too easily by impressive scientific minds.
Except it didn’t. Doctor Who doesn’t go James Bond here. We are instead watching something else, and part of that heady smell is due to an undeniable influence of Harry Seltzman’s The Ipcress File; a film that has previously here been referred to as inhabiting an altogether more rough and ready oeuvre than Broccoli’s overly stylised offerings. Its accompanying, slightly-contrasting top note, for anyone not familiar with ‘60s British spy-fi, is The Avengers; the long-running television show where a perfectly-dressed English gentleman is aided by a very able and glamorous young woman in foiling the improbable and outlandish plots of megalomaniacal conspirators. To labour all this perfumery nonsense slightly longer, a further British classic provides the strong base note in the form of the BBC’s 1953 The Quatermass Experiment, where astronauts thought lost to space return only to endanger the entire Earth.
Another key premise of Season 7, also largely abandoned in later Pertwee serials, is the temporal setting of this era as essentially ‘one minute into the future’. With a greater emphasis on science more so than fantasy, it’s a relatively ‘serious’ season, focussing on what perils may yet befall a 1970s audience in a version of a future both forward and potentially sideways in time where technology is pursued recklessly and without any heed given to humanity. It is somewhat ironic, then, that in this classic, now almost clichéd battle of head versus heart, it’s the alien Doctor who serves as the moral centre of events – particularly so as the Third Doctor’s character seems to be the most abrasive incarnation yet (at least until our own time).
From this milieu of militaristic spy-fi with a streak of charm mixed with apocalyptic science fiction with a strong moral core rises this neglected Doctor Who classic. Dark yet defiantly optimistic, The Ambassadors of Death is a series of memorable set-pieces and iconic series imagery than it is a perfectly-crafted story. Indeed, the blurred lines of authorship between David Whitaker, the show’s genius original script editor, who originally proposed the story for the Troughton-Hines-Padbury TARDIS team along lines closer to the original Quatermass serial, and extensive reworking by Malcolm Hulke, inter alia, for a more UNIT-defined era meant that the story could only ever have been a bit of a camel designed by a committee than a thoroughbred borne from the purest stock. It hardly matters – this is one beautiful camel, due in no small measure to the stylish directorial style of Michael Ferguson, who does action so well here as he did in The War Machines and will again in next season’s The Claws of Axos.
Chief amongst the strong visual kicks in this serial are the space-suited ambassadors. Never named, they silently and impassively stalk the narrative, appearing later in the piece than their titular billing may otherwise allow us to anticipate (as all the best monsters in the show do). Their advance upon British Space Centre later in the story is particularly memorable, killing the sentry on duty when their lethal charge is transmitted first from their hands, along the boom sparking all the way, and finally to their intended victim, who meets an agonising death (curiously, Max Faulkner’s character reappears at the gates in Episode Six, but it seems that this is a mistake and that the UNIT soldier was meant to die in Episode Four).
It’s tempting to consider Carrington’s well-meaning but doomed British-centricism as a metaphor for a certain institutionalised xenophobia against economic migration into the United Kingdom at a time when negotiations began concerning admittance to the European Economic Community.
The later meeting in space between their supposed leader and the Doctor is another key image from Ambassadors, with their peaceful natures at odds with a frankly eerie 1970 BBC visual effect incorporating venetian blinds that seems utterly more sinister and ‘other’ than a great deal of more sophisticated SFX seen in the series since.
Cruelly, however, and echoing this season’s recurring tension between humans’ quest for material progress and the very qualities that best exemplify and ennoble us, the ambassadors are the victims of unscrupulous, vicious men. Quite how unscrupulous and vicious becomes apparent when Reegan, Carrington’s off-sider in the conspiracy and, it later emerges, leading a conspiracy of his own whereby he plans to use the ambassadors for his own criminal ends, arranges the abduction of these aliens for his own purposes. He thinks nothing of killing the soldiers and scientists whom Carrington had previously stationed in their secret laboratory so as to ensure the vital supply of radiation to the ambassadors.
The ‘burying’ of these bodies under mounds callously heaped upon their still forms by Reegan at a vast gravel pit on a miserable, rainy day that is accentuated by the black and white print of this episode is a narrative detour that is allowed for by virtue of this being a seven-episode adventure. We are also treated to the entirely unnecessary but altogether gratifying moment of Reegan changing his van’s licence plates and lettering – which is admittedly very Goldfinger – all at the press of a button so as to further suggest the story’s near-future setting. The result is that Reegan is allowed to inhabit the true central villain role far more effectively than he would otherwise have been thumbnail-sketched over four episodes.
Carrington, the treacherous general who leads this conspiracy and played so well by John Abineri, is the head of the newly-formed Space Security Department and himself a returned Mars Probe astronaut. By direct contrast to Reegan, his motivations stem from his experience on Mars, where his fellow astronaut, Jim Daniels, was accidentally killed by the same aliens who were unaware that their touch was lethal to humans.
Carrington’s intentions are couched in a ‘moral duty’, as he is later unreticent to make clear to anybody who will listen, that compels him to act in order that he may save the world from an external threat that, alas, does not exist. It’s tempting to consider Carrington’s well-meaning but doomed British-centricism as a metaphor for a certain institutionalised xenophobia against economic migration into the United Kingdom at a time when negotiations began concerning admittance to the European Economic Community, particularly as he conspires with that other symbol of government, Minister for Technology Sir James Quinlan (who is killed so memorably in his office by an ambassador at the end of Episode Four, played by Dallas Cavell).
The “What is the capital of Australia?”, “How many beans make five?”, and “Right, cut it open!” lines that provide Episode Two’s cliffhanger (now complete with sting) is an early and memorable ‘hero’ moment for the Third Doctor, taking charge of a situation already out of hand.
(Incidentally, and for the interest of the football fans amongst us – yes, we can be fans of both – the ‘Little England’ theme can also be seen to be obliquely reinforced through the astronauts, Van Lyden, Michaels, and Lefee, who watch what they believe is England play in an international match while they wait hypnotised in extended quarantine. England are initially 0-1 down in this fictional match, before scoring an equaliser. It should be remembered that England were holders going into the 1970 Mexico World Cup, which is still a few months away from kicking off. It is to be English football’s last moment as the dominant force on Earth. In the quarter final match against West Germany, England go 2-0 up before Sir Alf Ramsey substitutes Bobby Charlton in his last match for his country before going out 3-2. It’s a powerfully symbolic moment in time, and England must wait another 30 years before beating Germany again, while the wait for the next international cup triumph continues to this day. Up until this time, it mustn’t be forgotten, the audience at home has never, ever seen a German side beat England…)
A note, also, on some of the legion of characters that populate this story. Robert Cawdon’s wonderfully baleful Taltalian is always enjoyable to watch, in spite – or perhaps because – of that obviously fake French accent, while Ronald Allen is the wonderfully Jeff Tracy-like Professor Ralph Cornish trying to hold it all together back at ground control. The UNIT regulars aren’t so regular yet, with the Brigadier given to do whatever the Doctor demands, while Sergeant Benton is pushed well into the background (a result of John Levene not having yet been entirely conferred ‘series regular’ status), but bizarrely failing – intentionally or not – to adequately lock a cell door before later carting Carrington away at the end of the serial.
Criminally, Liz Shaw is wasted as the perpetually escaping and recaptured assistant, although Caroline Johns always performs well throughout regardless. Her scenes with fellow-scientist Lennox (Cyril Shaps, everyone!) hint at the kinds of ‘ethics of science’ conversations she may otherwise have more regularly had with the Doctor had the role of Professor Elizabeth Shaw been better realised. (Geoffrey Beevers, later to play The Master but already married to Caroline John, is also present, but blink and you’ll miss him as Private Johnson.)
All this, together with Dudley Simpson’s perfect score throughout (at times utterly menacing and at others more suited to an act appearing on Louis Balfour’s Jazz Club, via The Fast Show), we cannot help but put us in mind of Ipcress; a story involving a conspiracy between a rogue senior army officer who heads up a hush-hush unit, and a self-serving, freelance criminal looking to make illicit financial gain from the abduction of very valuable people.
On a more personal level, however, it is Pertwee who, through a handful of scenes, is more synonymous with the serial in my memory’s eye than anything else, save the ambassadors themselves. The “What is the capital of Australia?”, “How many beans make five?”, and “Right, cut it open!” lines that provide Episode Two’s cliffhanger (now complete with sting) is an early and memorable ‘hero’ moment for the Third Doctor, taking charge of a situation already out of hand. In doing so, it ranks alongside Hartnell staring down a War Machine, cloak billowing behind him, and Troughton insisting in The Moonbase that there are terrible evils from the darkest corners of the universe that must be fought.
The Doctor’s single-handed recapture of Recovery 7 earlier in the same episode, where he activates Bessie’s sadly forgotten anti-theft device, is another, but the Bowie-esque rocket sequence, with Pertwee as Major Tom sitting in his tin can, gurning against the G force, is the real film clip moment in the story. Space seems so adventurous and exciting to us as children, but I distinctly remember this scene – along with Space Oddity that came with my increasing love for the Thin White Duke – beginning to hint to my young mind that hadn’t quite yet twigged to the fact that it’s also a place that’s incredibly lonely, dangerous, and very far from the safeties of an after-school television show and its Target novelisations.
The story’s resolution is also a perfectly Doctor-ish moment, and detractors from the Pertwee era who cite that our hero’s willing collaboration with the military, a mechanism of violence, as a significant argument against the merits of this era in the show’s history would do well to see how the climax is handled in the expert pacifist hands of Hulke. The Doctor here, unlike the ending to Doctor Who and The Silurians, works with UNIT towards a peaceful resolution, politely asking the Ambassadors to not touch anyone in Episode Seven as they storm in to retake Space Control while equally imploring Carrington’s men to not come into contact with the astronauts in return. In the end, the baddies are gaoled and the peaceful aliens are allowed on their way.
The Ambassadors of Death is the second to last story of Season 7, and of its kind. After it, we essentially leave Doomwatch in favour of Sherlock Holmes. That isn’t to say, however, that this narrative experiment was a total failure, and that we inevitably had to track back from an evolutionary blind alley in telling Doctor Who stories (despite the fact that spy-fi as a genre had largely spent its course in popular culture by the late ‘60s, let alone the early ‘70s).
Doctor Who could well have continued in the spirit of gritty seven parters of this ilk; in fact, we get just that with The Mind of Evil the following year (albeit with one less episode and as more of a throw-back than a glimpse of things to come). Rather, the fact that it left this tact behind acts as a testament to the sagacity and implicit understanding of the show’s stagecraft exercised by the script editor and producer team of Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, who were able to tell a season worth of stories like this one before recognising that it was time to move on.
In that regard, Ambassadors – like the bright but brief burning white heat of ‘60s British spy-fi – is a perfect reflection of what Doctor Who was then, and may even be in some parallel version of our universe (though more on that in the next column of Doctor Who @ 50)… but is no longer.
Soon the cold, harsh pseudo-futuristic dystopian scientism of Season 7 will give way to a more folksy and familial fantasy that feels very contemporaneous with its early ‘70s production, and the mechanical hum of British Space Control’s manned missions to Mars will be replaced by the earthy feel underfoot of a patchy village green on the outskirts of Tarminster, where Rossini’s Circus and an other-worldly visitor come to town – but that’s another story altogether…
It seems that it really is true that any story can be a Doctor Who story, and this one of Quatermass, The Avengers and The Ipcress File meets Doctor Who and UNIT both serves to prove it as it simultaneously leaves the tapestry richer for having been told.