Friday, 6 April 2012

53: The Ambassadors Of Death - A Bumpy Take-Off & A Flat Landing

Written by: David Whitaker.
Companions: The Doctor, Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, Sergent Benton.
Monsters/Villains: Astronaut aliens, General Carrington, Reegan.
Brief Synopsis: The Doctor discovers that the astronauts on a Mars probe have been replaced by Aliens.
Rating: 6/10.

Hello, sorry I've been AWOL of late, I've been working a lot of overtime and auditioning a bit too, but I am back with my full report on The Ambassadors Of Death. This one took me a while to watch...

And oh no, it's mad old David Whitaker back at the typewriter, or at least that's how it started. In 1968 the originally titled 'Invaders From Mars' was written by Whitaker for Patrick Troughton's Doctor. In 1969 the script was reworked for Jon Pertwee and renamed 'The Carriers Of Death.' The scripts were handed to Terrance Dick's assistant Trevor Ray who reworked episode one. After going through three different producers, Peter Bryant, Derrick Sherwin and finally Barry Letts, Whitaker was unavailable and or uninterested in reworking his scripts further so episodes two and three were rewritten by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke, and Four-Seven by Hulke alone. This complicated process sadly reflects on the finish product.

Ambassadors of Death is one of few Doctor Who stories still only available on VHS, and due to the great BBC wiping, the story no longer exists fully in colour, meaning that through the VHS presentation we are constantly flicking back and forth from colour to black and white. A DVD was scheduled for release in 2011, but was postponed due to ongoing restoration issues. All issues were finally resolved in November 2011 and the DVD should see release late 2012/early 2013.

Look at what restoration can do.
The story clearly draws very heavily on the 1953 tv serial The Quatermass Experiment, where an astronaut returning to earth is  replaced by an alien life form.

The Quatermass Experiment (1953)
After the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969, this story jumped ahead to man landing on Mars (something now considered impossible). The day that episode 4 was being screened on BBC 1 on Saturday 11th April, was also the day that the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon-landing mission launched in the USA. In the days that followed the world was gripped as NASA did everything in their power to return the three marooned astronauts to earth. They were successfully returned on the 17th April just one day before episode 5 was screened were life would appear to imitate art, as that week the Doctor was on his own mission to rescue some stranded astronauts on an ill-fated space mission.

The story starts when Recovery 7 is sent to rescue the astronauts aboard Mars Probe 7 with witch there has been no contact since they departed the red planet 7 months ago. When Recovery 7 returns there is apparently no one aboard. We then learn that the astronauts were removed before the Doctor and UNIT could open the capsule and that the three beings inside are in fact aliens. This story illustrates the lengths to which some people are capable of going in their irrational hatred of other races. The aliens are manipulated into killing by General Carrington, who wants to create world panic, inciting the world into attacking the aliens in the name of protecting the earth.

John Abineri a surprisingly sympathetic villain.
The Doctor pilots another rocket to discover the whereabouts of the real astronauts and is taken aboard an alien spaceship. The alien captain informs him that they will hold the astronauts safely until their ambassadors are returned. The aliens are not planning an invasion but seeking peace and it is General Carrington and his cadre of helpers who are the villains of this story. It is interesting to see a Doctor Who story that relies on  humans as the villains instead of monsters.

The Doctor with the astronauts aboard the Alien ship.
We only get to see the unnamed aliens very briefly. We first glimpse them on a blind-like screen and then spy them again when Liz sees one in the radiation room. It is unknown why the aliens make hardly any appearance, perhaps their make-up was deemed unsatisfactory or perhaps it was an active choice to minimise the focus on aliens and place it on the human 'baddies.' If that is true surely it would have been a more powerful gesture not to show the aliens at all.

A brief glimpse of the unnamed aliens.
In the end it is the aliens who save the day by breaking into the space centre and averting General Carrington's telecast planned to urge the world into attacking the alien ship. Carrington is arrested and it is here where you can really see writer Malcolm Hulke's hand. Like all villains in Hulke's writing the General is certainly not an out and out "bad guy" stating that he was just trying to do his "moral duty." His reasons seem depressingly plausible. The end of the story is a little weak and very flat, there is practically no conclusion and we don't even see the alien ambassadors returned to their ship or the astronauts sent back to earth.

There is a worthy message in The Ambassadors of Death but you have to drudge through quite a lot of padding to find it. Judging by David Whitaker's track record I can't help but think the stronger parts of this story are down to Malcolm Hulke's extensive rewrites. There are some good performances by John Abineri as General Carrington, William Dysart as Reegan and Cyril Shaps as Lennox but sadly the story is overburdened by too many unnecessary and over long action/stunt sequences. This is one of the rare times where I would have preferred the structure of the New series of Doctor Who. This would make a great story if it were condensed and speeded up a little. There are parts of The Ambassadors Of Death that are great but overall the story is hit and miss. I think it is fair to say that a large part of that was due to it's rocky conception.

Join me next time for the end of season 7 with the classic story Inferno...

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