"Ambassadors of Death" might be the most action-packed Doctor Who story of all time — it's the first one when the show had access to a whole crew of professional stuntmen, thanks to the stuntman agency Havoc, and the director went way overboard with crazy action sequences. It's also one of the most splashy stories from the classic series: director Michael Ferguson (my favorite) went completely nuts trying to punch things up so that this lengthy seven-part adventure wouldn't flag too much.
I've always had a huge soft spot for "Ambassadors." It packs in tons of creepy imagery and huge Apollo-inspired spaceflight sequences, and the baddie honestly believes he's doing the right thing. But also, the action. It's the most James Bond-y that Doctor Who ever became, and you could easily imagine this being a late Sean Connery or early Roger Moore film.
Alas, the BBC's infamous policy of throwing out classic Who stories affected "Ambassadors," and most of the story only existed in grainy black and white film, massively reducing its impact and making it look more like an old-timey movie than the Technicolor blockbuster that Ferguson and company created.
So it's amazing news that the wizards at the Doctor Who Restoration Team — who really deserve knighthoods at this point — have managed to restore the whole of "Ambassadors of Death" to bright, bold color at last, for its new DVD release. The result doesn't look entirely pristine, but it's miles better than what they managed on the VHS release a few years back. And the story looks a million times better than the black-and-white version you probably saw on PBS back in the 1990s. Isn't it time you established diplomatic relations with the Ambassadors of Death?
In "Ambassadors of Death," a Mars Probe is sent to take the first humans to Mars — Brits, of course — and the crew goes missing in space. A Recovery Probe is sent up to try and rescue the crew, and its lone crewman, too, seems loses contact. But the Recovery Probe returns to Earth, with three astronauts inside — only the astronaut suits don't have people inside them. They have... something else. There's something quite effective about all the scenes of the astronaut suits walking around rural England and zapping people with their death touch. And meanwhile, the Doctor and his trusted friend the Brigadier investigate a huge, sweeping conspiracy that seems to have sabotaged the Mars mission.
It's not a bad idea for a story, and it helps that the regular cast are in top form here. Especially Jon Pertwee, who's only just found his perfect balance of authority and whimsy as the Doctor, and hasn't yet started losing his edge. And Nicholas Courtney is just perfect as the stone cold, resolute version of the Brigadier, who shoots like three people in one quick fluid motion during the fantastic "warehouse fight scene" sequence in episode one. And soon afterwards, the Brigadier gets into a John Woo-worthy standoff with a baddie, where they're both aiming guns at each other, and the Brigadier's sang froid is impressive and yet you can tell he's worried underneath. Also, this might be the best Liz Shaw story, since she gets to be important to the plot as a real scientist, and she has some really neat interactions along the way.
So let's talk about the elephant in the space capsule: the script. It's not very good. Or rather, it's very good in parts, but it doesn't entirely hold together and the "conspiracy" stuff, in particular, doesn't quite make sense. Round about episode three or episode four, the stuff where General Carrington is a baddie pretending to be a goodie pretending to be a baddie (but really deep down he thinks he's a goodie) gets really head-scratching. The story doesn't entirely run out of steam, because there's enough excitement around Liz being taken captive and the Doctor heading into space to keep things zooming along. But it does start to wobble considerably.
And devout Who fans probably already know that this story had a troubled genesis, even by the standards of late 1960s-early 1970s Who. It's the final story by David Whitaker, who was the show's first script editor and wrote many of the all-time classic 1960s stories including "The Crusades," "Evil of the Daleks" and "Power of the Daleks." It's impossible to understate the importance of Whitaker to the show's longevity, since he came up with many of the ideas that made it work, and he also deserves buckets of credit for making the Daleks more than just a one-off monster, since he developed tons of the Dalek mythos in the 1960s.
Sadly, Whitaker was treated pretty shabbily by the production team by the time he came to write "Ambassadors" — or so script editor Terrance Dicks says. Dicks, who's never averse to trash-talking his predecessors Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant on DVD featurettes, says that the production team in the late Patrick Troughton era treated Whitaker shabbily, making him rewrite the same episodes three or four times and sending them back each time. The producers felt that Whitaker's old-school approach wasn't suitable for the newly sophisticated version of the show they were creating — which may well have been true to some extent — and wanted something more grown-up. In the end, Dicks made a deal to get Whitaker paid and finished the scripts himself, with the help of stalwart Malcolm Hulke. (And Whitaker was so heartbroken by his mistreatment, says Dicks, he ran off to Australia. There may have been other reasons for him leaving the country, however.)
In any case, the "Ambassadors" scripts are clearly a mixed bag, with some brilliant ideas jostling around next to filler and some ideas that just didn't pan out. The first couple of episodes are crackerjack, and then it gets a bit uneven towards the middle. But the good news is, Whitaker's preferences for a mischievous Doctor and a ton of small incidental details which fill out the minor characters both shine through. And Hulke's penchant for three-dimensional villains who think they're doing the right thing adds a lot of life to General Carrington, especially in the later episodes.
"Ambassadors" drinking game: take a shot every time the Doctor is rude to an authority figure. Take a shot every time Ralph Cornish, the space director, looks like he's about to cry. Take two shots every time Michael Wisher, as a TV announcer, sounds like Davros (a part Wisher also played.) Take a shot followed by a beer chaser every time the Brigadier shoots somebody without any change in his "stone cold badass" expression. And take a huge swig from the bottle every time General Carrington says, "It's my moral duty," which becomes his catch phrase.
So yeah, the story is a bit of a mess, but it's still loads of fun. And this is the most pure UNIT story of them all. It's purely Earthbound, except for the Doctor's space flight, and the baddies are mostly human. The Master hasn't arrived yet to make things more Time Lord-y, so it's just the Brigadier and his men shooting lots of people (and aliens) while the Doctor snaps at everybody and acts eccentric and goofy. (There are some lovely gags in this story, including the Doctor and Liz sending themselves a few seconds into the future via the TARDIS console over and over, until Liz is throroughly confused. And the Doctor's "anti-theft device" on his roadster, Bessie.)
And most of all, this is a story where everybody involved with it is pushing as hard as they can to make it fresh and different. Dudley Simpson provides one of his most offbeat scores, full of boppy little jingles and weird electronic buzzes — if you think Dudley Simpson's scores all sound the same apart from "City of Death," this will change your mind. (And you'll be humming the "Liz Shaw gets chased" tune for days.) This is also the story that invents the "Sting" — the sinister-sounding WHZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ sound that goes into the theme tune as each episode's cliffhanger reaches its scariest moment. Michael Ferguson talks in the special features about how he pushed for that, to punch up the scariness of the episode endings — and now, whenever he sees a Doctor Who that includes that, he feels a moment of pride.
Also, I didn't realize that "Ambassadors of Death," with its story of astronauts getting lost and the space program running into trouble, aired right during the Apollo 13 crisis, when a NASA crew nearly died. That's kind of an insane coincidence, right there.
I feel very comfortable saying that "Ambassadors of Death" is massively underrated — mostly because it has a terrible reputation, down there with "Timelash" and "Delta and the Bannermen." If you've only ever seen the horrid-looking black-and-white version, the full color restored version will be a bit of a revelation. Just, you know, don't try to watch the whole thing in one sitting.