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The Ambassadors of Death

Review by Paul Bowler

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When contact is lost with three astronauts on board the Mars Probe 7 mission, a second capsule is sent up to investigate, but when Recovery 7 also stops transmitting the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Liz (Caroline John) join the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), Sgt Benton (John Levene), and the UNIT forces at Space Control to try and help Professor Ralph Cornish (Roland Allen) save the astronauts and discover the truth behind a strange extraterrestrial transmission.

On returning to Earth, UNIT and the Brigadier find themselves pitted against a secret organization who tries to forcibly take possession of Recovery 7, but with the Doctor’s help the capsule is returned safely to Space Control – only for them to discover that the astronauts have been kidnapped. The capsule actually contained a trio of alien ambassadors (Steve Peters, Neville Simons, and Ric Felgate) on a peaceful mission, who took the place of the astronauts, but their captors are only interested in their immense power and force the radiation dependant aliens to work for them.

Deciding to take a solo flight in Recovery 7, the Doctor is ready to dock with Mars Probe 7 when a gigantic alien vessel intercepts his capsule and drags it inside. The Doctor discovers the original astronauts safe and well onboard the alien spacecraft, they are hypnotised into believing they are still on Earth, leaving the Doctor free to negotiate with the alien captain – who states he will destroy Earth if the ambassadors are not returned immediately.

The alien captain allows the Doctor to return to Earth, but he is captured and taken to a secret location, where he joins Liz who is also a prisoner, together they learn that General Carrington is behind the conspiracy to discredit the alien ambassadors. The Doctor builds a device to communicate with the aliens, and together with the Brigadier’s help, he escapes with Liz and the ambassadors – returning to Space Control in time to stop Carrington’s broadcast and thereby prevent the world powers from firing on the alien spacecraft. After the Brigadier and the UNIT troops storm Space Control, war is averted, and General Carrington is led away in disgrace. The Doctor leaves Liz to help Professor Cornish arrange the exchange of the ambassadors for the human astronauts with the alien spaceship while he returns to his work on repairing the TARDIS.

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The Ambassadors of Death (1970) is the penultimate adventure of Season Seven, featuring Jon Pertwee as the third incarnation of the Doctor, with Caroline John as his companion Liz Shaw. The third Doctor seems to be adapting well to his exile on Earth as UNITS scientific advisor, although he is still upset by the way the Brigadier destroyed the Silurians underground base. Dashingly dressed in his frilly shirt, cape, Jon Petwee brought a real sense of action to the role of the Doctor, with the Time Lord adept in using martial arts and sharing the actor’s love of gadgets, motorbikes, and cars. The Ambassadors of Death offers the Doctor plenty of great action scenes, he also gets the chance to blast off in a rocket and venture back into space, as well as using his diplomatic skills to try and resolve the impending threat of Armageddon by ensuring the ambassadors safe return.

Caroline John also plays a significant role as Liz Shaw, helping the Doctor analyse the alien transmission, and later, after being involved in a car chase, she is captured fleeing across a bridge over a weir by armed thugs. Liz is taken to where the alien ambassadors are being held by Reegan (William Dysart), where she is forced to work with another scientist, Dr Lennox (Cyril Shaps), to help keep the aliens alive with radioactive isotopes. Liz also manages to escape but is quickly recaptured when she mistakenly gets into Dr Taltalian’s car. Dr Lennox also tries to get away and seek help from the Brigadier and UNIT, but while he waits in protective custody a radioactive isotope is delivered to his cell, killing him before he can reveal General Carrington’s plans.

Reggan is Carrington’s right hand man, ruthless and calculating; he carries out raids with the ambassadors to gather more isotopes, and later uses them to kill Sir James Quinlan (Dallas Cavell) the head of the Space Programme. He also tricks the treacherous double agent Bruno Taltalian (Robert Cawdron) into planting an explosive briefcase near the Doctor, but Reegan alters the timer, setting it to explode as soon as Taltalian arms it – killing Taltalian and wounding the Doctor.

General Carrington’s xenophobic stance towards the aliens becomes clear when we learn how the ex astronaut first encountered them during the Mars Probe 6 mission, where the aliens accidentally killed his fellow astronaut Jim Daniels. His elaborate scheme to trap the aliens and use the media – fronted by television reporter John Wakefield (Michael Wisher) – shows just how Carrington’s first contact with the aliens has damaged him psychologically. General Carrington ultimately comes across as a tragic figure, a man broken by his own warped convictions and misguided prejudice.

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The scripts for The Ambassadors of Death are a little uneven in tone, probably because David Whitaker was just one of a number of writers involved with this story, with Malcolm Hulke and Trevor Ray also contributing but unaccredited for their work. Although Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant were only involved with the first part of Season Seven they were instrumental revamping the programmes format: they cast Jon Pertwee, exiled the Doctor to Earth where he joined UNIT, introduced Liz Shaw, and originated a series of sophisticated adventures set against the industrial landscape of the not too distant future. Although the format works well in concept, their incoming successor, Barry Letts, would eventually refine these themes, and with Terrance Dicks staying on as script editor, along with the great bond between cast and crew, would see the UNIT family becoming an intrinsic part of the third Doctor‘s era.

This story packs in a number of action packed set-pieces over the course of its seven episodes, with director Michael Ferguson making full uses of the HAVOC team to realize a brutal shootout in a disused warehouse, some daring chase sequences, and blowing a sizable hole the budget with the spectacular hijacking of Recovery 7 whilst UNIT is transporting it back to Space Control. The scope and scale of the stunt work involved in the hijacking sequence is more akin to something you might see in a Bond film: with the convoy coming under attack by a helicopter, which lands and deploys villains armed to the teeth with futuristic weaponry that easily overpower the Brigadier’s troops, taking out motorbike outriders whilst stealing the truck carrying Recovery 7. One brave UNIT troop even leaps at the helicopter while it hovers just above the ground, hanging on for dear life as he tries to get inside, before losing his grip and tumbling down a slope.

The aliens themselves are one of the most mysterious races the Doctor has ever encountered. We learn from Carrington that they came from another galaxy and were on Mars before manned space missions arrived at the red planet, but other than their dependence on radiation and their ability to kill with just a single touch we learn little about them. Encased in the humanoid space suit’s the ambassadors are quite sinister in appearance, a uncanny hissing sound crackles around them, and their space helmets are fogged up making it impossible to discern any features. We only get a brief glimpse at one of the ambassadors when it removes its helmet in front of Liz, who recoils in horror at the misshapen face beneath, and the Doctor’s close encounter with the alien spaceship leads to a short conversation with the alien Captain (Peter Noel Cook) on a screen that also obscures our view.

By using the aliens sparingly throughout the story, director Michael Ferguson manages to build up the tension, so when the space suited creatures do appear their misted up helmets and slow lumbering walk makes them seem even more menacing. When the Doctor finds Sir James Quinlan dead in his office he rushes over to the body, unwittingly turning his back on the astronaut hiding behind the door as it advances towards him, its deadly hand reaching towards him. This is just one of a few iconic scenes that feature the astronauts, but the one that sticks in the memory most is where another lone astronaut walks towards the entrance of Space Control – its body silhouetted in a gleaming halo of sunlight as it approaches the terrified guard.

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The Ambassadors of Death may have been part of the first season of Doctor Who to be shown in colour, but it was some years before it would ever be seen again in all its glory. Sadly the BBC wiped the original colour version of Episodes 2-7 in the late 70‘s, leaving only the black and white filmed episodes in the archives. A partially re-colorized version of the story was released on BBC Video in 2002 that utilized some off-air colour NTSC videotape found in America, the end results saw 90 minutes of colour restored to the story, with the rest remaining in black and white. The Ambassadors of Death was released on DVD in 2012, with the latest techniques employed to finally restore colour to the entire story in a two disk set that was packed with extra features.

With its superb action scenes, excellent model work for Recovery 7 and Mars Probe 7, and intriguing plot The Ambassadors of Death is one of the best adventures from Season Seven. It shows just how versatile the new format of the show could be, making good use of UNIT and the earthbound setting,  to pave the way for even greater things to come.