THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Dying Days
BBC
The Ambassadors of Death

Episodes 7 Who controls whom?
Story No# 53
Production Code CCC
Season 7
Dates Mar. 21, 1970 -
May 2, 1970

With Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney,
Caroline John, John Levene.
Written by David Whitaker. Script-edited by Terrance Dicks.
Directed by Michael Ferguson. Produced by Barry Letts.

Synopsis: After several astronauts disappear on a mission to Mars, a strange signal is transmitted to Earth, where the Doctor and UNIT discover a secret communication has been initiated between the Red planet and a deadly band of conspirators.

Note: Episode 1 survives in color. The complete story survives on b/w film.


Reviews

A Review by David Masters 26/7/97

Despite the fact that the amount of re-writing this story underwent is quite apparent in the finished product, I have a great deal of affection for it. It inhabits a similar world to that of the James Bond genre, more so than any of its predecessors or successors, and contains a number of the same flaws (such as the unclear motivation of some characters such as Taltalian) and the same sort of charm.

The atmosphere of menace generated around the alien Ambassadors, impelled to do the dirty work of Reegan, is especially effective, as is the build up to their appearance. The major flaw is the conceptual jump (likely a side-effect of the constant script revisions) in the final episodes as Carrington is, rather blandly, revealed to be the master villain. Although it was pretty obvious by then, the lack of dramatic flourish surrounding his "unmasking" is surprising, given some of the excesses in the earlier hijack action scenes.

Both Whittaker (the story's originator) and Hulke (who, unaccredited, finished the project) are writers always better suited to the longer stories as this allowed them to explore and breathe life into their ideas, and Ambassadors is testament to this. I dare say that it could have been cut down by an episode or three, but it would not have been quite the same.


The Final Proof That All of Season Seven Was Great by Tom May 7/5/98

The Doctor: "I don't know what came down in Mars Probe Seven, but it certainly wasn't human."

Upon finally settling down to watch a black and white copy of The Ambassadors of Death, I expected something good, but not up to standards of Inferno. I was wrong.

The Ambassadors of Death is a truly excellent epic narrative, detailing humanity's first contact with alien life, in the form of the alien ambassadors. The aliens aren't quite what they initially seem to be in the first four episodes.

There are classic scenes of the massive and eerie spacesuited ambassadors towering over Lennox (a familiar actor for those who know Tomb of the Cybermen), and of course, the guard in the famous scene with the sun behind the Ambassador as it marches onwards, oblivious to bullets. The musical theme for the ambassadors' presence is majestic and hard to explain. I seem to recall Dudley Simpson coming up with vaguely similar music towards the end of Fury From The Deep. The musical soundtrack for this should definately be commercially released, along with Inferno and Fury.

The characters, while not all superb (eg. Taltalian's unclear motives and changing accent, and the dull Ralph Cornish), are very nicely created by Whitaker, especially General Carrington, a subtle, different style of General than I'm used to seeing in Doctor Who. His motivations (xenophobia) are real and relevant today, and I simply adore the final scene where the Doctor delivers his verdict on Carrington.

The style of the story is unique, yet vaguely reminiscent of Bond movies, particularly in the amusing chase of Liz Shaw -- witness her outrageous fashion sense, and Part Three's vaguely literal cliffhanger. Caroline John is supremely convincing, intelligent and fanciable (for me, anyway), and as ever, has a good rapport with Pertwee's Doctor. Pertwee is on top form here, acting as a mediator -- and not so much as a "man of action," in this adventure- -- which is surprisingly considering the high action content. UNIT is in it's prime here, with the Brigadier unflappable, and a return appearance from Sgt. Benton. While the truly great scenes in this story all invariably contain the superb ambassadors, it's generally very easy to watch all the way through. While it is padded, the padding adds to the suspense and to the epic feel of the production.

I'd recommend this story wholeheartedly for anyone to watch, especially perhaps, someone new to Doctor Who. 9/10


Diplomatic Baggage by Andrew Wixon

If ever there was a candidate for the title of 'Forgotten Story', it's Ambassadors of Death. It's the runt of Season Seven's litter, goes popular opinion, rewritten beyond coherence and plagued by dodgy CSO throughout. Skip from The Silurians straight to Inferno, and save yourself the bother.

Rubbish.

This bears comparison with any of the stories around it and is quite at home in Season Seven. The script is entirely coherent and actually rather clever (the viewer is fooled into believing Carrington isn't the villain after all during episode three), and while the story does sag a bit in the middle episodes it picks up again as soon as the Doctor goes up in the space capsule. Its length allows Ambassadors of Death to indulge in a bit of everything - action sequences (the hijack in episode two is very well choreographed), model work, character development and fine dialogue.

There are several outstanding performances by the guest cast - from Ronald Allen as Cornish, who sadly doesn't have much to do in the closing episodes, William Dysart as Reegan (I love his 'make yourself at home!' after UNIT blast their way into his hideout), and of course John Abineri as Carrington, who goes convincingly over the edge as the climax nears.

Dudley Simpson contributes one of his finest scores, ranging from the strident UNIT theme, to the suspenseful drum motif used in several places, to the haunting flute theme for the alien astronauts. But the real star of the show is Michael Ferguson. His inventive direction was the only thing to keep Seeds of Death just about watchable, and here he gets a script worthy of his talents. The unique recap structure works well and even the most mundane of cliffhangers acquires real tension (most of them are good, but episode two's is great). The location scenes of the aliens on the move are truly eerie.

So why isn't this story better treated? Well, obviously there are a few flaws. Robert Cawdron's silly accent performance as Taltalian is a serious mistake. Some of the effects work isn't all it could be - from model shots to the fuzzy-CSO-blob alien captain. And while Nick Courtney is a fine actor and a genuine asset to the series, he's not exactly Steven Seagal when it comes to the fight sequences.

The fact that it only exists in black-and-white probably doesn't help its cause, either. Though this may be a blessing - God knows what kind of technicolour nightmare the alien ship interior must have looked like in colour. But I think Ambassadors of Death is so often forgotten because it has a tone and style unique amongst DW stories. It has aliens in it, but the threat comes from a human source. The ambassadors aren't monsters, or people in rubber suits, like nearly all other DW creations, but something truly unearthly. They're unseen and silent for most of the story, sealed in their spacesuits, and this gives them an enigmatic quality that the direction and score capitalises on superbly. With its only true SF element thus pushed into the background, the story has a downbeat, realistic quality, even moreso than the other Season Seven stories. It's about human failings and politics more than anything else.

This is Doctor Who coming as close to a 'straight' contemporary thriller as it ever has - the most 'realistic' story in the most down-to-earth of seasons. It's a fascinating, largely successful experiment, and can hold its head up alongside the stories to either side of it. Don't believe everything you hear - this story deserves your attention.


A Review by Richard Radcliffe 16/1/02

The gritty realism that the producer was seeking is achieved with this Mars Rocket tale. At 7 parts it does drag, but there is sufficient interest to engage the attention most of the time. Watched over 7 separate Saturdays, it was probably difficult to keep interest at a high – but over a few days, 2 episodes a day, it’s not so bad.

Pertwee is great. He seems at home with gadgets and science, and he gets involved with the ultimate gadget made by Earth – the Rocket. The Space Project was very relevant back in the early 70’s, it was a talking point in most houses – nice then that Doctor Who gives its take on it all.

Pertwee shows throughout what a very good actor he is. Amazing that the producer wanted him for his Comedy originally! He does serious Sci-Fi very well indeed.

The rest of the cast fare less well. Liz Shaw might have been a good idea at the outset, but her character lacks a charm a lot of the other companions possess. Her scientific background only materialises once or twice. She gets captured, escapes, only to get captured again. Her intellect is one-dimensional it seems. There was one nice surprise though – the tender scene between the Doctor and Liz towards the end of the story.

The Ambassadors of the title are one big plus of the story. The very fact that we only see their faces fleetingly provides and X-Files-like mystery. The accompanying music when they are on the move is also worthy of note. Top of the supporting Human cast is Reegan. Doctor Who has had its fair share of Hired Gun characters, but I put Reegan right at the top of that list. The rest fulfil the needs of the story – no more.

The Brigadier gets to do lots of army stuff in this, but he also spends a great deal of time standing pretty with that whacking stick of his (or whatever it is). The gun battles are well depicted, but I am glad they didn’t become too much the norm.

I am also glad the seriousness and strait-laced approach did not continue too far either. Doctor Who is remembered for a lot of things. Humour was one, and this story had none at all.

This is an interesting story, featuring a very Outer Limits style monster and concepts. Whether it’s the best format for Doctor Who though – I don’t think so. 6/10


Strong ideas, slight script problems by Tim Roll-Pickering 23/5/02

The Ambassadors of Death is rooted in some very strong ideas but it is let down by a rather rambling script and some weak execution. The result a rather rambling story that at times appears to take a pause in the action whilst elsewhere too much information is given at once, making it difficult to follow what is going on.

The story starts out well, picking up on the contemporary Apollo Moon Landings programme and projecting it to a point where Britain is sending several expeditions to Mars. More so than virtually any other story this one successfully utilises the UNIT setting of 'the near future' to tell a tale that would be more problematic were it set in a contemporary environment. The story plays on human fears of what a 'first contact' with aliens might be like and also on the possibility of a space programme going wrong, with the initial transmission of the story beginning barely a month before the events aboard Apollo 13 gripped the world's attention. Against this backdrop is a strong conspiracy within sections of the government to exploit the alien ambassadors, albeit with differing objectives for the different conspirators. The story deals strongly with the theme of xenophobia, showing how the real threat comes not from without but from within. It is unfortunate that some defects in the script unbalance and weaken the story as it is otherwise strongly conceived and makes an excellent effort to bring to life many of the characters, showing them to be more than mere ciphers.

The story features some action sequences though these are let down through the music (or lack of) accompanying them in many cases. Consequently there are several places in the story where the right tone is missing and so the protracted chases and fights seem to be consuming time rather than developing the plot as much as they could.

The cast is generally strong in this story, with Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney continuing to ensure that their characters are not always in agreement on key matters such as actions as priorities. Caroline John does well as Liz Shaw even when weighted down by some difficult technical dialogue. Of the guest cast John Abineri gives a good performance as Carrington, making him seem truly like a man who believes he is doing what is right, whilst Ronald Allen makes Ralph Cornish extremely likeable and a good source of support for the Doctor. Cyril Shaps appears as Lennox, a character who is not that much different from his role as Viner in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but he manages to win the viewers' sympathies. However there are some weaker performances, with Robert Cawdron failing to inject much into Taltalian and using a hideous accent. Whilst the script is a little inconsistent about this character Cawdron's performance does him no favours either.

The production is competent given the elements the story requires, with all the spaceship scenes coming across as particular effective. Although the music weakens the action sequences it does enhance the modelwork no end. The direction is strong and gritty, most obviously in the warehouse fight in Episode One that doesn't feel at all cosy.

The story now survives either as a complete black and white version or as an incomplete colour copy and so it's difficult to assess the effectiveness of some scenes. However the recent BBC Video release has done its best to provide as complete a colour copy as we may ever get, short of finding vast sums of money to pay for computer colourisation, and it works well. The changes between colour and black and white feel effective and improve the story's standing no end.

The Ambassadors of Death is ultimately a very good story that only has a few weaknesses in script and music but is otherwise a strong tale that deserves many re-viewings. 8/10


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 28/7/02

For once The Ambassadors Of Death offers the viewer a story with an episode length that is justified. The best way to describe the plot is multi-layered and with it comes a varied cast, who are by and large talented and portrayed to a great degree. The regulars are great here, Nicholas Courtney and Jon Pertwee possibly at their best, although Caroline John`s Liz Shaw is hampered by being a captive for much of the story. Of the supporting characters, only Taltalian`s varying accent detracts from them; indeed they are the highlight of the tale particularly Cornish and Carrington - a "villain" who doesn`t die. What also works well is the mixture of studio and location work;the latter giving the tale a James Bond feel something often associated with the Pertwee era. If I were to find a weakness it is that two cliffhangers are identical - a gun is pulled on the Doctor, but this is a minor quibble in an excellent tale, now enhanced thanks to BBC Video recent release of the story partly in colour.


"It WAS my moral duty" by Joe Ford 3/8/02

Everybody must be aware of season's sevens overwhelming popularity. I subscribe to the opinion that it is realistic, gritty, intelligent and exciting too. However there is always one story per season that doesn't quite cut the mustard and this is seasons seven's. However, considering the quality of the season as a whole that still makes Ambassadors of Death a very good story.

It appears to me that everyone involved was trying their damnest to make this as serious and as powerfully real as possible. And to be as confusing as ever. I would say that was it's biggest flaw and greatest achievement. Doctor Who doesn't thrive on humour but it always peppers it's story with amusing moments to keep you chuckling through the slow bits. The only real humour from this story comes from our over arrogant Doctor who doesn't care who he's insulting to get things done, Jon Pertwee as ever playing his condescending dandy to the hilt. There are times in this story when he crosses the line however and does seem merely petty which is a shame because they seem to get the balance between his irritatability and lovability just right after this story (Inferno, the next story is a good example). So even through the really slow bits and at seven episodes it has it's moments we have to just watch all the serious goings on (I'm sure all that stuff with the Doctor going up in the rocket is accurate but it goes on FOREVER!).

However its grit is just compelling in other places. The warehouse shoot out is one of those moments where you could put anyone in front of the show proudly, it is a superbly edited scene and the Nick Courtney is just perfect when the Brigadier loses his gun and has to TALK his way out the situation. In fact all of the action sequences are just superb, the attack on the recovery capsule looks great and all the bits with the Ambassadors attacking are tense and shocking thanks to Mikey Fergeson's incredible direction.

All the stuff with traitors in UNIT ranks is brilliant giving the story a real atmosphere. Who can be trusted? The two prison cell scenes, first letting the 'sergeant' free and later with Lennox and the isotope are just great...a far cry from the unbelievably safe haven of later UNIT stories. Those scenes really send a chill down my spine.

Another thing the show does REALLY well is constantly surprising you with new dangers for our motley heroes. Just when you think they are getting somewhere Liz Shaw is kidnapped (in a perfectly executed scene) or Quinlan is killed or Regean has injected too much fuel into the rocket the Doctor is going up into. I realise a lot of this is just padding but it's pulled of with such verve and it certainly revs up the excitement meter!

Caroline John is the unsung hero of this story, how innovative it was to have a brave, clever, helpful and pleasant companion. Although she is often firmly in the background I really appreciate the inclusion of this enjoyable companion. Nick Courtney comes a close second. You can tell he's really getting into his regular status now and having such fun running about with a big gun barking orders. His 'escape' in episode seven and the subsequent scenes with chunky rifles poking out of Bessie are some of my favourite scenes in the whole show!

Watching recently I realised just how scary a heavy Regean is. What a sadist! Killing his own men! And Lennox! Nasty. He proves to be as phsyical as he is mouthy with tense scenes of him infiltrating mission control. Some part of me wishes he survived this story and grew to have a horrible vendetta against the Doctor, maybe becoming Delgado's Master's henchman (woah that would be cool). He was so uncaring about everything it made him one of Doctor Who's most frightening baddies yet.

As I've said Fergeson's direction is top notch and I hate to think what this show would have turn out like with a less steady hand on the camera. As it stands I think Ambassadors of Death with it's sophisticated themes of betrayal, moral duty and trust deserves much praise for what it accomplishes. I just wish it could have been a couple of episodes shorter to iron out some of the slower bits.

Eight out of ten.


The Future is Now by Mike Morris 15/8/02

The Ambassadors of Death is probably the least-discussed story of Season Seven. And oddly, I'm not sure I've ever read a negative review of it. The most barbed comment that springs to mind is that, if watched in one go, it can be slightly boring, and there's a simple solution to that - don't watch it all in one go. It was designed to be watched over a forty-nine day period, after all.

It might be good, but it's somehow the least-liked story of the season. It doesn't feature in many top-ten lists. At the time - I gather - it wasn't wildly popular, and the show's ratings fell away drastically when it aired. The reasons aren't immediately obvious, although the lack of any real adversaries is probably a big factor.

This overlooks something important. I won't argue that the Ambassadors is the most entertaining story ever - but it is, perhaps, one of the best, when one bears in mind when it was made.

Let's look at that period. There's a sizeable anti-Pertwee front out there these days, and given the utter crapness of a large quantity of the stories who can blame them? The "cosiness" of the formula is a reason, but side-by-side with that is the pro-authoritarian nature of the show; the Doctor a paid-up member of the army, with a boss, a lab, and possibly even a salary.

This is not a conscious decision on the part of the production team, it's simply the prevailing attitude of society, or at least the section of society that made and watched television. Punk hadn't happened, and neither had Watergate. The Civil Rights movement hadn't been happening long, and there was still a view that people in authority really did have our best interests at heart. I'm not saying it was universally held - but it was worlds away from the widespread belief in Britain today, that "you can't trust any of them".

As someone said of Pertwee's Doctor in Rags, "Tom probably would have joined in." By 1974 postmodernism had taken hold, and it was accepted that multiple ideas could be equally right - and, more so, that they were desirable. Tom Baker's Doctor is more anarchic because the era that gave birth to him was more anarchic. In 1969, Anarchy was nowhere near the UK and Johnny Rotten wasn't even shaving.

What makes The Ambassadors of Death so astonishing is the basic premise of the story; that trusted figures of the British establishment should lie, cheat, kill, and recruit petty thugs. This was unheard of. Star Trek was spreading peace, justice and the American way throughout the galaxy, and at the same time Doctor Who was spreading the royal family, the death penalty and, well, the British way. Then, lurking in the midst of all this is a tale of cover-ups and ambitious politicians. Nowadays it's hard to understand how brave it was that a Knight of the Realm should be a liar. Think of the shock at the relative innocence of the Profumo scandal and you'll see what I'm getting at. Army generals and knighted politicians were simply not bad-guy material.

Perhaps this is why the story didn't set the world alight. What people wanted then was to see the jolly good old British army defeating the bad aliens, who were all kind of like Communists (Spearhead from Space is based on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the no-individual-existence aliens are rather similar to those pesky Russians), and instead we got no monsters and the army fighting itself. The gun-battles were replaced by political wrangling and the audience fell away.

Nowadays, meanwhile, this most modern of stories seems somehow more dated than any of those surrounding it. The X-Files has been running too long for us to be shocked by this stuff and what inhibits our enjoyment is the lack of conflict. It's not until the end of episode two that aliens are first mentioned; before then there's a lot of guns being pulled but no plot in the nice, concise, Doctor Who sense of the word.

It's entertaining, particularly if watched in two-episode segments, but not Who-ish enough. At times the Doctor seems out of place, his theatrical presence spoiling the plausible edge to events happening around him. We all know that "Doctor Who has no formula" - well, maybe not, but what stops Ambassadors being heralded as great is that it doesn't feel like a Doctor Who story. It's atypical, yes. But other atypical stories (Warriors' Gate, The Celestial Toymaker, The Mind Robber) remain Who-ish because it's hard to see how they could have been made by any other programme. Ambassadors, meanwhile, could be and has been. The fact that it precedes similar shows by at least ten years isn't enough.

Nowadays, though, with the novels throwing the Doctor everywhere, pretty much anything can be a Doctor Who story. Perhaps what's amazing is just how modern The Ambassadors of Death is. Long before Loz Miles wrote Interference, Ambassadors threw the Doctor into someone else's adventure. This world of guns, back-stabbing and petty criminals is not the Doctor's world. Venusian Aikido is no good here; there are no guards to fight, just a faceless bureaucracy, and the endless computers and offices seem to constrict the Doctor somehow.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, this is the most satisfying portrayal of the Third Doctor bar none.

It's warts-and-all, certainly. When the Doctor first enters the Space Centre we see a bizarre collision of two worlds. It's wonderful to see the Doctor being rude to Ralph Cornish, but that scene remains strange because I'm not certain who we're laughing at. The Space Centre staff seem rule-bound and robotic, maybe... or maybe the Doctor really is a ludicrous old fogey, not carrying passes because he doesn't "believe in them", trying to get a map of London, ordering people about without even bothering to explain who he is. He's funny, but he's a monster, and an outdated one at that.

It's a pattern throughout the story; the Doctor's presence is often at odds with everything else around him, and in a way that makes him look dated. The transmigration of object trick, or Bessie's "force-field", are strange amid a story whose energy derives from its plausibility. We also see the Doctor's arrogance (his "by exercising my intelligence" comment), his pomposity ("the less haste the more speed, Mr Cornish") his unwillingness to work with anyone reasonably, and his impatience ("if you'd hurry up with those parts I ordered"). His behaviour towards Taltalian is disgusting - pretending to poke a gun in his back, calling him obstructive and then accusing him point-blank as a traitor with no proof at all; one feels sorry for Taltalian in these scenes.

Until, that is, it turns out that the Doctor was right all along. Throughout the story, he wins. He negotiates with the aliens, stops Carrington, allows him to keep his dignity, and then walks away when he feels he has contributed all he must. What makes his achievement greater is that this undoubtedly isn't his fight, and diplomatic relations with aliens aren't his responsibility. The finale is magnificent, his lie of "Yes General, I understand," is beautiful, a gesture that was unnecessary and so merciful. The Doctor is a hero in spite of his shortcomings, so much so that we don't mind having the shortcomings pointed out.

Oh, and then there's the story's other great asset: Reegan.

Reegan doesn't want to take over the world. His lack of ambition is chilling; he probably wouldn't even bother walking into Fort Knox, a nice little high street bank would do him. He's intelligent, occasionally charming and incredibly dangerous, as we sense when he pulls a gun on Liz Shaw so aggressively. Reegan gives the story its grittiest moments; when I watch two lackeys being buried at a gravel pit I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm still watching Doctor Who.

Reegan was a character the likes of who we haven't seen before or since, with the possible exception of Scorby in The Seeds of Doom. Reegan, though, is more balanced and more dangerous than Scorby is. He doesn't feel the need, generally, to point guns at people - whereas Scorby is actually quite insecure ("you're not complete unless you've a gun in your hand"), Reegan is self-sufficient and self-assured. When he finds out that Lennox has gone to UNIT his actions are unbelievably clinical, and the way he holds a gun to Liz's throat is all the more frightening because he is still very much in control of himself. His murder of Taltalian is similarly controlled, and even when he's captured we see him being unruffled ("make yourselves at home!"), intelligent and constantly planning his survival. It's the little touches that make him so memorable - best of all is that he never, ever gets angry. It's great that he doesn't get killed, too; at the end of the day he's a small-time criminal and jail is where he belongs.

Also surviving is Carrington. The games the script plays with him are great. He's dressed up as a villain, a good guy, a villain again and is then finally revealed a madman. It is, of course, a cliche that a Doctor Who villain should be mad, but Ambassadors gets away with this by understating Carrington's madness so well. His military facade is exposed because it never breaks; his talk of "moral duty" is terrifying because of its nobility. He contrasts well with the other bad guy, Sir James Quinlan. We only really find out the extent of Quinlan's duplicity after his death; whereas Carrington does what he does to save the world, Quinlan is only in it for himself. As Tom would say much, much later; typical politician.

Brilliant, too, is the direction. The quick intercuts, the location shots of the Ambassadors, the close ups of all and sundry and the bravery of giving us only a glimpse of the Ambassador's features (with a muted Liz Shaw scream and weird sound-effect)... they're all wonderful, pressing home the drama of the story brilliantly. A word for the music, too. Not only is it tremendous but its variation is amazing, from the off-kilter theme for the Ambassadors to the early, hefty tune as we track the space launch. The entire production of that side of things is glossy, and more in tune with 1970's political thriller than a SF show. More than once I find myself thinking of The Taking of Pelham 123.

The story is accused of being slow sometimes. Well, yes. But we Doctor Who viewers place too great a value on quickness, brought up as we are on worlds being created in an hour and forty minutes - witness our obsession with "padding". Yes, concise, quick plotting has a beauty; but the slowness of Ambassadors has something as well, giving the story a weight that other stories don't have, asking the viewer to be patient and revel in the details of mundane procedure, and establishing a believability that makes the concept genuinely frightening. The "padding" is somehow the story's main asset, an even, detailed reconstruction of a world against which the brilliance of isolated scenes pulsates. The gentleness and tautness of the final scene is aided immeasurably by the slow-moving, almost uneventful way that the Doctor and the Brigadier reclaim the Space Centre aided by a couple of space-suited aliens immediately beforehand; and the lengthy gun-battles, hijackings, and talky sequences (such as when the Brigadier tells Cornish of all the dead-end clues he's investigated) are a key part of the mix, connecting the story to real life in a way that Doctor Who rarely achieves.

Slow? Yes. But perhaps that's not a bad thing.

In terms of pure achievement, The Ambassadors of Death is certainly one of the best stories ever. It's the only Pertwee-era story to really make the Doctor live in the real world. It shows up the various limitations of the other (excellent) stories of that season; the lack of substance in Spearhead From Space, the shallowness of The Silurians and the limited scope of Inferno. It's an addictive concoction which improves with each viewing, and it's got more to say than other stories with a higher entertainment value.

When I first read Interference, I couldn't believe just how big it was. Ambassadors can make a similar boast; it's simply huge. It's a real epic, and all the performances, bar Taltalian and his varying accent, are excellent. The visuals also hold up extraordinarily well. It feels more like a mini-series than a Doctor Who story. The Ambassadors of Death is a strange, wonderful beast and if you haven't revisited it already do so now. Oh, but if you buy the video, turn the colour down on your television; the thing looks far better in black and white.

And, hint hint, I bet it would clean up brilliantly on DVD...


A Review by Paul Rees 16/8/03

I've always slightly preferred Season 7 to the rest of Pertwee's tenure as the Doctor. The stories seem to have greater depth, the characters are better realised and the UNIT set-up is much more believable. All of these factors work in Ambassadors of Death's favour.

Ambassadors is also lucky in featuring one of the Doctor's most capable and well-rounded travelling companions - Liz Shaw. She reminds me of the later Romana in that she is almost the Doctor's intellectual equal here. Clearly uncomfortable in the militaristic UNIT set-up, she demonstrates a natural affinity with the Doctor and, at times, a thinly-veiled contempt for the Brigadier. The Brig is himself much more well-realised here than he would become later; he exerts solid, military discipline albeit with a light touch - although I still find it mildly shocking to see him shooting his adversaries without a second thought, which he does quite a bit here.

The fight scenes are well choreographed and - unusually for Who - believable. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about Ambassadors is that it doesn't get anywhere very fast. At 7 episodes long a poorer story would have really dragged; here, despite the odd lag, it allows the tension to be built up - and we also get to see the Doctor foray into space for the first time since his exile to earth. Pertwee has clearly settled into the role by now; indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone else playing the Doctor, so assured is his performance. His pithy put-downs to those in authority who refuse to co-operate with him are wonderful.

There are weaknesses to this story, however. In particular, Robert Cawdron's performance as Taltalian is simply awful: before he was identified on-screen as being French, I had wrongly assumed that he was supposed to be Italian. The rest of the supporting cast are OK, but there is nothing special here.

There are also certain elements of unbelievability in terms of plotting - for example, the spacecraft that has just returned to Earth is rather too easily snatched away from under UNIT's noses. The premise itself, however, is extremely interesting: the villains are not the aliens (who remain unidentified) but rather are the misguided humans who wrongly see them as constituting a threat. In its unwillingness to give the aliens a 'back story' or even to reveal them physically, this story is perhaps a precursor to the X-Files. The effects are also impressive: the interior of the aliens' spacecraft has an eerie, psychedelic feel and the sequences involving the Doctor being launched into space are also very effective, being somewhat more naturalistic in approach.

Overall, then, a very good story but not a great one. Certainly worth a look. 7/10


A Review by Brian May 12/9/03

Jon Pertwee's third adventure continues the season seven trend of strong, well made stories with a more realistic and adult approach to Doctor Who. In my review of the story directly preceding it, Doctor Who and the Silurians, I emphasised the point that the seven part stories of the Pertwee era, all from this season, were less padded and ultimately higher quality productions than many of the six episode stories that would follow. The Ambassadors of Death is another example of this trend.

The original story is written by David Whitaker, who penned two of the best Dalek stories, Power and Evil, and the underrated but interesting The Enemy of the World. Combine that with the input of Malcolm Hulke, who rewrote the story extensively, and you have a tale with impeccable writing credentials. The Ambassadors of Death has been criticised for being too confusing; an accusation I cannot understand. The story is not complicated; in fact it is quite straightforward. The complexities of the story are mainly character related - people come and go, some reappear, some vanish. Carrington is merely a shadowy character in the first two episodes - in part three he becomes General Carrington, he explains his motivations (partly) and is now a major player. His subordinate in episodes one and two, Grey, is never seen again. Collinson, the sergeant who surrenders to UNIT, is freed (by Carrington?) and, likewise, vanishes for good. Reegan and Lennox suddenly appear in episode three; Taltalian vanishes in episode two and turns up again in episode four. There is a large cast and lots of shuffling. Perhaps that's what all the confusion is about?

Plotwise, the story has Malcolm Hulke stamped all over it. As usual, he avoids the standard invasion of Earth and gives us benevolent aliens, albeit fundamentally lethal to humans, whose power to kill is abused by a misguided human, Carrington. It is not appropriate to call him a villain, for he is genuinely insane. This is not his fault and he is portrayed sympathetically; his arrest at the end of the story allows him to bow out with dignity, reinforced by the Doctor's gentle, understanding words to him. It's also good to see a story that avoids simply having the chief antagonist - I won't use the word enemy - killed off in a nasty or ironic way. Carrington deserves to be rehabilitated, and we know this will happen to him. John Abineri, who has appeared in Doctor Who several times, before and after this story, gives his best performance here, stealing the show.

Strong characterisation, another facet of both Whitaker and Hulke, is also evidenced in Reegan, Carrington's mercenary employee. He is less likable than Carrington - he is a thug and a murderer, but you can never hate him. He is not merely a henchman, but a believable individual. Like Carrington, he is arrested, not killed. Personally, I would have liked to have seen more of Reegan after this story. Perhaps he could have been given the option of joining UNIT for undercover activities in lieu of prison.?

There are other strong characters and performances in The Ambassadors of Death. Space centre boss Ralph Cornish (Ronald Allen), the ambitious and misguided civil servant Quinlan (Dallas Cavell), the nervous, twitchy, disgraced scientist Lennox (Cyril Shaps), who assists Reegan but is ultimately a decent man in the wrong situation. Even Robert Cawdron as Taltalian is good, despite his outrageous - and varied - accents. A professional ensemble cast.

Ambassadors is by far and away the most padded of the Pertwee epics, but, to be honest, this isn't really a criticism, as it's not noticeable until after viewing the story as a whole. The most obvious bit of stretching is episode five, with Reegan's attempts to sabotage the Doctor's shuttle, but there are other long scenes - the fight in the warehouse in episode one; the hijacking of Recovery 7 in episode two; the car chase that beings episode three to a climax - they are all brilliant action set pieces, but they are also moments of padding, yet don't seem like it at the time. (Compare these to the yawn inducing chases in Invasion of the Dinosaurs and Planet of the Spiders and you'll see what I mean.) The story is not excessively long; it does not have the slow build and plot development of its preceding story, Doctor Who and the Silurians, nor does it have the rushed, frenzied pace that makes the following tale, Inferno, practically fly through seven episodes, but it meanders pleasantly. And unlike Silurians, which ran out of ideas, the last episode is a nail-biting race against time.

Not only does The Ambassadors of Death reflect the general quality of season seven, it also reflects its maturity and daringness. The experiment performed with the opening titles of each episode is enjoyable. The space models are superb. Some of the deaths are inventive and dramatic - Taltalian's scream when he is blown up is one such example, with a brilliantly edited sequence that cuts away just before getting too nasty. Lennox's death by isotope is as startling as it is unnerving. The identity of the alien race is never revealed, leaving a sense of mystery to the proceedings. UNIT and the Brigadier are still believable - they are efficient and dignified. The scene in episode seven when they have to use Bessie to rescue the Doctor and Liz is a genuinely humorous moment, not a scene intended to make them look comical, as would be the case at the end of the Pertwee era.

I cannot review this story without commenting on the incidental music. It is superb - Dudley Simpson surpasses himself with a score that deserves to be released on a soundtrack by itself. There is the action sting, straight after the titles of episode one; the gorgeous piano driven UNIT theme; the distinctive timpani beat that accompanies most of the control room scenes - and then breaks into a catchy action theme during the car chase in part three. But the piece de resistance has to be the gentle strumming (is it a harp?) that accompanies the alien astronauts as they walk. It is haunting, evocative and simply magical.

This leads to another of the story's strengths - the photography. All the location shooting is wonderful - it is mostly made up of the aforementioned astronauts' walking scenes and the action pieces, but they are all stunningly filmed. I find the constant changes between monochrome and colour on the video release rather annoying. My first viewing of the story on television was entirely in black and white, which added to the atmosphere. It's a story best viewed this way - perhaps the loss of the colour episodes is a blessing in disguise?

I love this story. 9/10


Another Doctor Who and the Silurians by Mike Jenkins 27/9/03

Alien mayhem and militaristic xenophobia find their way into this brilliant but slightly overlong script. Outside of that, the story deals with aliens, mankinds involvement with other species, and the Doctor wanting to 'peacefully resolve' the situation. Instead of uncooperative directors of important research establishments and egotistical scientists (Doctor Who and the Silurians) we have alien-weary soldiers and scientists with nothing better to do then offer their services, as a scientist to alien weary soldiers. Doctor Who and the Silurians, Ambassadors of Death, and Inferno are basically the same recipe:

  1. Armageddon
  2. Implications of what some call 'first contact'
  3. The follies of Humanity
  4. Moralism, Moralism, Moralism
Variations do not hide similar themes. The dialogue is gritty and cliched. However, there are no talented actors as in Silurians and Inferno. Tatalian, the aliens, Carrington, his cronies, the space crew and the journalist are searingly painful to watch. Pertwee, Courtney, and Caroline John manage to keep their wits about them though the talent is wasted on half baked scripts and ideas. What it does have going for it is mind blowing ideas, interesting film techniques and some damn good cliffhangers. I enjoy the novelisation much more.


VHS... How quaint by Andrew McCaffrey 12/1/04

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.


"With this, Ambassador, you are really spoiling us..." by Richard Tarrant 20/1/04

Here's a quick question to ponder while you sit back with that lovely cup of tea: How many times has the planet Mars been referenced in Doctor Who?

Of course, we're experiencing an outbreak of Mars fever at the moment, with the sadly ill-fated British Beagle 2 and the conspicuously more successful American Spirit probes. It is more than likely that the next major space race will be between the USA and China to land a man on the surface of the red planet during the 2020s, at a cost of something like $100billion. But this is nothing new: Mars fever also peaked in the late 1960s (becoming the natural "next step" after a moon landing) and the early 1970s, with the Mariner and Viking probes photographing the surface of the planet. These images have kept the more credulous amongst us in conspiracy theories for years - What is the nature of the gigantic "face" and "pyramids" that appear on the Cydonia Plain? Why do the measurements and alignments of the pyramids conform to every mathematical constant and appear to mirror the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico? Why is the USA the only nation to successfully photograph and land on the planet surface, despite numerous efforts by Russia and others?

Naturally, it could all be nonsense, but the debates that raged at the time would have profoundly influenced sci-fi writers, and among them DW contributors who included Mars references in their storylines (Brian Hayles and Bob Holmes in particular). And it was the race itself that influenced David Whitaker, but wasn't he optimistic, bless him? Britain at the forefront of the space race, having completed at least one successful Mars mission by the 1980s! A quarter of a century on, all we can get together is a spit-and-string probe, and even then we have to piggyback it on someone else's rocket.

I love that certainty about early 1970s DW, you know; that Britain would pioneer the next generation of space travel and do the most brilliant research on new technologies, be the focus for any alien invasion and the base for international military organizations. And it's matched by a supreme confidence in the new format of the programme, with its gritty, adult storylines, exceptional direction, and a cast of regular characters that worked well enough together to hold your attention for 25 straight weeks. I know I'm not alone in believing 7 to be strongest single season in the show's run, but I'm in a considerably smaller group in believing Ambassadors to be the best single story in that season.

Only by a whisker, mind you. Inferno runs it mighty close, and I think these are best consecutive stories until Robots and Talons six years later. Ambassadors is so good that, on the last two occasions I watched it, I sat through all seven episodes in one go. I can honestly only find one real fault with it, which is of course Taltalian's appalling accent - Is he French? Is he German? I guess he's supposed to be French, but I don't want to tell them; that accent is a casus belli, and they'd be justified in nicking the Channel Islands in retaliation at the very least.

But every other aspect of the story is pretty much perfect. The model work for the scenes in space is fabulous, worthy of "2001"; the incidental score complements the action like no other Pertwee story; the direction shows some really beautiful touches (another reviewer mentioned the rainwater reflection, and the silhouette of the ambassadors); the "Action by HAVOC!" is unusually convincing, bar the occasional pulled punch; and UNIT actually looks like a coherent and effective military organization (the Brig actually pre-empts the problem this time and gets to shoot the gun out of a man's hand!).

Pertwee's on superb form, veering from the charming to the downright rude, and Caroline John again shows why dropping Liz for Season 8 was a real mistake (and what a skirt!). The sometimes-maligned Ronald Allen is, I think, just right as Cornish - yes, he's bland, but he's the Head of Space Control; if you got a problem, you want somebody calm and measured to solve it, not someone who'll press all the panic buttons at once. John Abineri is great as Carrington, though the unnecessarily "appropriate" way of killing Lennox struck a slightly sadistic note.

And then there's Reegan, the Tony-Curtis-a-like bad boy. Comparisons have been drawn with Scorby, but I think Reegan is unique - has there ever been (or since) a villain so capable? Always in control, and absolutely ruthless. This character is no by-the-numbers henchman; he adapts his plans according to the situation, even making helpful suggestions at the end in the hope of leniency. He is deliciously bad: resetting the timer on the briefcase bomb was a great moment, and the bomb actually explodes. It actually injures the Doctor. Reegan actually kills; you see him do it, and you get the impression his pulse doesn't increase a beat while he's doing it. Just a great, great character, and perfectly realized by William Dysart.

So that's Ambassadors the best story of the best DW season. In my all-time top five and a richly deserved 9.5/10.


A Review by Thomas Tillier 7/2/06

On the face of it, Ambassadors of Death appears to be the weakest of Season Seven and its late arrival on video seems to back that claim that. Ladies and gentlemen, I have come to say how rubbish that claim is.

The direction of this story illustrates some of the best work ever done on Doctor Who (I liked Michael Ferguson's work on The Seeds of Death as well), some characters are very believable (especially Wakefield, a typical journalist!) and Jon Pertwee's performance is one of his best. (See the complete difference from Troughton in his taking into account Carrington's actions in episode 7.)


The Carrington Fiasco by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 29/7/07

The Ambassadors of Death is by far the most underrated story of Season Seven and one of the most underrated stories of Jon Pertwee's entire era. It is quite highly regarded in its own quiet way, but it deserves far more praise than it actually receives. It tends to get forgotten because of the two hugely popular stories either side of it although I feel that this is somewhat unfair because it can certainly match The Silurians in terms of moral depth and Inferno in terms of grand scale and spectacle.

It's certainly not short of action. This is a grim, gritty thriller with guns, conspiracies and hired thugs, foreshadowing The Mind of Evil in many ways. Right down to the fact that it now exists (mostly) in black and white. James Bond was clearly exerting an influence on Doctor Who at this time, exemplified by the high content of espionage and paranoia, setting the characters against one another and ensuring that nobody can really trust one another. Just look at the gadgetry on display as well. Reegan's van with the changing number plates a la 007's Aston Martin DB5 and the advertisement on the side which changes from Hayhoe Laundries to Silcock Bakeries. Or is it the other way round? Then there is Taltalian's bomb in a briefcase and the gas cylinders in the back or Reegans's said van. Gosh, this must have pleased Jon Pertwee no end.

As this is still early on in Pertwee's Doctorship, it's quite impressive how he seemed to nail the character down so quickly. A feat that would be repeated in 1974 in spectacular fashion by a man in a long scarf. For me, this is Pertwee's story in many ways. Of course you could say that all of his stories are his stories; he is the leading man after all, but there is something about his performance in this one which really impresses me. All the Doctors may get to grips with their portrayal of the character fairly quickly but it's usually a few stories in where they really set the part on fire. Pertwee does that for me here. His previous two performances were first rate, naturally, but this is where he becomes the Third Doctor that we all know and love. Well, that most of us love.

He is frequently one step ahead of those around him, he figures things out quickly and over the course of seven episodes he really is on a roll. Just look at the way that he casually says to Liz "I think the General knew all along." He is completely unsurprised to find that Carrington is the man behind everything and it's a wonderfully cool delivery. Then of course there is his famous line "I simply don't happen to have a pass. Because I don't believe in them!" It's a common criticism of Pertwee's Doctor that he was too much a part of the establishment while all the other Doctors frequently displayed open contempt for the establishment. In one way it's a perfectly justifiable argument. But at the same time this Doctor didn't really have much choice. Stranded on Earth with no way to leave, the most practical thing for him to do was to assist UNIT. And it's not as if he enjoyed the frequent interference of the Insufferable Gits from the Ministry. He never hid his dislike of them and everything that they stood for. Just look at his raging at Chinn in The Claws of Axos. He may have to live with these people but he certainly doesn't believe that he has to follow their rules.

He's constantly defiant and arrogant towards the villains in this. Well, towards most of the characters actually, villainous or otherwise. Just look at his facial expression and general manner when Taltalian pulls a gun on him and demands that he hands over the tape. He doesn't look worried or afraid in the slightest. He looks annoyed. He looks like he can't believe the cheek of this foolish, so-called scientist, actually daring to threaten him. It's that wonderful, dignified, very English style of self-conduct. Act like you own the place and everyone in it and you'll be fine. And in my opinion, absolutely nobody pulls it off better than Pertwee. Many people dislike the fact that he was often rude or dismissive to those around him but it fits completely with his character. He is extremely frustrated at "being tied to one planet in one time". His attempts to override the TARDIS console and escape frequently come to nothing. He is vastly more intelligent than everyone around him. And as much as he loves humans, they also infuriate him greatly. So really, is it any wonder that he is so stroppy with so many people?

Another great moment is when he storms into Space Control and very quickly takes charge of the situation. Pay close attention to his facial expression when the Brigadier tells him that he should respect Cornish's authority as he is the man in charge. It's subtle and brief but it's absolutely priceless. We also have a superb collection of supporting characters. Liz Shaw should have stayed on for longer than she did. It annoys me to think that in the next season, this intelligent, independent woman will be replaced with an airhead. I do like the character of Jo Grant, it's just that she isn't the brightest star in the night sky. The Doctor patronises Liz far less than Jo and quite rightly so. She also looks stunning in a mini skirt. And note her reaction when Taltalian throws her to the floor and runs off. Her first concern is that the Brigadier might hurt him. Genuine concern or non sequitur? You decide. It's certainly strange, given that he's just menaced her with a gun. She's also cool under pressure. Look at the way she says "It's alright, I wont hurt you" to Reegan's thuggish comrade.

The Brigadier really is at the height of his powers here. These were the glory days of UNIT. Compare this Brigadier with the idiot of later stories e.g. The Three Doctors or Planet of the Spiders. Are they really the same character? Here he gets shootouts and fisticuffs. In later stories he's reduced to fisticuffs with the UNIT budget. Ralph Cornish is superb. There is something very subtle about Ronald Allen's performance. The character is somewhat more genial than Rago from The Dominators and he comes across as very likeable, if strangely haunted and he has very good chemistry with the rest of the cast.

Reegan is incendiary. He is a petty criminal interested in bank robbery, not world domination and he is all the more realistic for it. Vicious, cold, well-dressed and opportunistic. Very nasty. I love that shot of him on the walkway reflected in the puddle. Very tasteful. And what a sadistically hilarious line when he's showing the bomb in a briefcase to Taltalian and he says "we can't have you taking risks". Oh, if only all Doctor Who henchmen were of this quality.

Lennox is the tortured scientists and Cyril Shaps carries it off with aplomb. There have been many novel methods of murder in Doctor Who but this one has to rate highly. Putting an isotope in his cell was deliciously ironic. Very novel, very original. Sadistically amusing. Oh yes. Even Taltalian and his "accent" are perfectly serviceable. French? I think so but when he stops his car and pulls a gun on Liz (again) he sounds distinctly British. Oh well. His reasons for doing what he does are never fully explained which is either good for establishing a sense of mystery and realism or very annoying. Depends on who you ask. His line about being ordered to do things by General Carrington doesn't ring true. He's a civilian after all; the General would have a hard time ordering him to do anything. But then later he appears to be cooperating with Reegan quite willingly, almost as if he's a part of all this of his own accord but as I say, his motivations aren't explained.

Speaking of accents, how could we forget Professor Heldorf? I presume he's supposed to be German but his accent is on just as shaky ground as Taltalian's. This week's Insufferable Git from the Ministry is Sir James Quinlan. He fulfils all the criteria for being an Insufferable Git but he isn't actually that annoying. And unlike most of the Insufferable Gits from the Ministry, he is killed in the course of the story. Given the touch of death by one of the Ambassadors. It must have seemed very postmodern having John Wakefiled doing his coverage of events at the Space Centre and the same trick will be repeated with Alex MacIntosh in Day of the Daleks. He isn't really important to the plot but Michael Wisher gives a very nice performance.

And of course there is Carrington himself. A man driven to the edge of sanity (and beyond really) by his moral duty. A man who very nearly starts a war that Earth cannot possibly win because he believes that it's the right thing to do. In many ways this story is still relevant today. We live in a world of fanatics, doing the things that they do because they believe it is their "moral duty". They have to do what they have to do. It has been repeated throughout history; World War One, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Russian Revolution. And in today's world we have Islamic Fundamentalism, the invasion of Iraq and the BNP. Deep rooted beliefs leading to terrible actions and even worse consequences. Racism and xenophobia are essentially Carrington~Rs motivation. And as usual, they are completely unfounded and irrational.

The ending of episode seven has become a famous Pertwee scene and quite rightly so. He tells Carrington that he understands the reasons why he has done what he has done. As far as he is concerned, the General has been stopped and war averted, it isn't necessary to humiliate him further. He seems to recognise that he is a decent man whose irrational hatred has led him astray. He accepts this and allows the General to keep his dignity. A very unusual ending and all the better for it.

The Ambassadors are quite unusual creatures. For once they aren't the villains as such. The villains in this story are all human. But by God they're creepy. They don't speak, they don't make threats, they can kill with a touch and they aren't stopped by bullets. They simply march inexorably on. The scene where one of the Ambassadors marches towards the Space Centre silhouetted against the sun is nothing short of iconic. This scene works so well in black and white. Who knew that spacesuits could be so creepy. I think that it was a very good idea to keep them a mystery, only revealing their appearance ever-so briefly. It adds to the mystery in spectacular fashion. The organic nature of their spacecraft foreshadows The Claws of Axos.

One of the complaints that is often levelled at this story is that it is padded and too long. Yes, it's slow moving but I like it. It makes full use of its length and doesn't rush to get where it's going. It's very twisty and turny throughout, revealing its plot twists one by one and I don't think that it drags at all. Right from the start it establishes a palpable sense of mystery with the Mars Probe 7 and Recovery 7. That really is great line when Van Lyden says "something took off from Mars". The Space Centre set is very nice as well. There is another very stylish shot in episode three involving Bessie. Just as Reegan's van leaves the hideout where the Ambassadors were being kept, the Doctor, Liz, Carrington and the Brigadier comes zooming round the corner in Bessie, stop right beside the camera and the Doctor turns to Carrington and gives him a disparaging look. Gorgeous shot.

This story also has a very good music score. The UNIT theme crops up again in The Mind of Evil. Which is also quite a gritty thriller. Which also exists only in black and white these days. Hmm. The Curse of the UNIT Theme? Any story in which it is used will have all its colour tapes wiped? Who can tell? The charming Hammond organ music used when Recovery 7 is approaching Mars Probe 7 is completely inappropriate but wholly wonderful and very quaint. It's vaguely reminiscent of Procul Harum. I wonder what was going through Dudley Simpson's head at the time.

One thing about this story that I've never understood is quite why the TARDIS console is in some kind of living room at the start of this story. Obviously it's some part of UNIT HQ but it seems quite odd. Perhaps UNIT HQ is now in some kind of stately house. The HQ seemed to move around that much that it seemed to be in a new location every story. The Brigadier is clearly very fickle about where he thinks HQ should be. Oh well, nothing is ever perfect.

This is one of Jon Pertwee's absolute best. Definitely in my top ten. If you have the video release which keeps switching from colour to black and white than turn down the colour on your TV and watch it purely in black and white. The story takes on a whole new atmosphere and enjoyment increases even further. Highly recommended.


A Review by Terrence Keenan 20/10/08

"The man's a fool. How can I possibly tell who the message is from until I know what it says. Let me explain this to you in very simple terms!"
Conventional fan wisdom (CFW) gave this serial the shaft for a long time, until it turned up on video, and since then it's gained a reputation (like the rest of Season 7) of being one of the better Who stories. And although I'm not a big believer of CFW, I have to agree on this one.

The Ambassadors of Death is a James bond/Spy/Action Thriller with the Doctor tossed into the mix to see what happens. Spread over seven episodes, we get some interesting twists, a dissection of politics and strong character development. This is about as stripped down as Who ever got, with no science being too out of the ordinary for its time. If any serial can link itself to the Quatermass serials of the past, this one is it.

We'll start with the regulars. The Doc is acts like a complete bastard early on, giving Cornish an earful and almost bollicking everyone in sight. But he calms down, starts showing the charm, and by the end is quite Doctorish. Big Nose Pertwee shines throughout. Nick Courtney is still playing the smart, pragmatic Brigadier, and plays it well. It's a shame this didn't afterthis season. And then there's Caroline John as the Mighty Liz Shaw.

Given another meaty part, Miss John keeps Liz in the mix, even when she spends half the story under capture.

The two main villains are wonderful contrasts. Carrington, the chief instigator of the the plot, is Jack D. Ripper toned down. He's paranoid and scared and determined at all costs to do what he thinks is right. Yet, he's still quite a sympathetic character, and gets quite the dignified exit.

Reegan, his chief enforcer, is my favorite. He's that very rare henchman who actually gets things done. And even though he understand what potential for mayhem the ambassadors have, he just wants to rob banks with them. If he loses a lackey, or a scientist, he just snatches another, no big deal. Even when he gets nicked at the end, he takes it all in stride. My own personal opinion is that Reegan found a way to escape and is planning his next job somewhere.

Michael Ferguson does an exceptional job as a director. The creepy space-suit ambassadors are always shot for maximum impact. There's a scene at the end of part 4 when a solo ambassador marches on the gate to the space center. He's shot with light flares in the lens and from below, for full scariness. Ferguson moves the camera well, keeps things moving and gets the best out this cast.

This one's a fave-rave. A great way to spend a rainy afternoon.