Now That's Diplomatic Tension

Review of The Ambassadors of Death (#53)

DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 12
Original Air Date: 21 Mar - 02 May 1970
Doctor/Companion: Three, Liz Shaw, the Brigadier
Stars: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney
Preceding Story: Doctor Who and the Silurians (Three, Liz, the Brigadier)
Succeeding Story: Inferno (Three, Liz, the Brigadier)

It's been a Three-rich environment around here lately, what with taking G through his era and the DVD releases for October and November both starring this particular Doctor. It's a good thing I quite like him, or I'd be in trouble.

As far as what I've seen, Ambassadors is the penultimate story of Three's tenure. (The final one is The Mind of Evil, which is being painstakingly colorized by the ridiculously talented Stuart Humphryes, aka BabelColour, and is due out on DVD some time next year.) I was plenty surprised, then, when the opening titles kind of stopped halfway through, cut to a short "pre-titles sequence" and then finished the titles. That format was never used again (which explains my surprise), but I thought it was kind of a cool, interesting way to go about it. (It's also fun to note that this it the first story to use the "sting" into the closing credits.)

Given the way space travel was just getting underway with the Apollo program at the time these were filmed and broadcast, I found it primarily interesting from a historical perspective. As the astronauts had trouble with their Mars Probe 7, I couldn't help but wonder how far from Apollo 13 (in which a malfunction endangered the lives of three American astronauts) this was produced. The extras (see below) answered that question - Apollo 13 launched the day Episode 4 aired, encountered its famous "problem" three days later, and splashed down safely the day before Episode 5. That had to have made things awfully weird for the viewers.

Even putting that aside, much of the audience at the time must have been just as strongly reminded of The Quatermass Experiment as I was. The Doctor's comment that "I don't know what came down in Recovery 7, but it certainly wasn't human" pretty much sealed that deal. But it's different enough - at least for someone like me who's only seen the extant episodes of the original Quatermass once - that it wasn't immediately obvious what was going on. "What do these human blokes have to do with a clearly alien threat?" I wondered.

So it was nice to have that revealed relatively gradually, with big hints dropped throughout. One of the major plot points comes in Episode 6, and the big reveal - where all true motivations of the players are made clear - is saved for the final episode.

A few things were irritating, though. For instance, the writer's insistence on using the term "isotope" to mean "something that emits radiation harmful to humans/that is deadly after short-term exposure" drove me to distraction. (Quick science lesson: an "isotope" is just an atom that has a different number of neutrons in its nucleus than other atoms of the same element - e.g., carbon-12 v. carbon-13. Not all of them are even radioactive, let alone dangerous!)

Also, I know Three is all about trying to get his TARDIS working again, but it felt really weird to watch him solve the problem and walk away, letting others actually implement his plan. I suppose if we look at it in those terms, that's what he often does when he visits a new place or time, before gallivanting off across the universe again. I think the difference here, though, is that we know he can't go off anywhere else now. Maybe this is how he always operates, but I found it jarring to have it demonstrated to me so blatantly.

The only other thing that specifically bothered me was actually more amusing than anything. Clearly they put some thought and effort into depicting space flight as accurately as they possibly could, attempting to simulate weightlessness, the effects of rapid acceleration, and even the way the media covers such events. But did no one tell the woman playing the space center flunky who read out the various flight statistics that she wasn't just voicing a computer? Even when things got dodgy, and there were lives at stake, her voice never modulated beyond bored statement of fact. What, exactly, the heck?

But at least we got to watch Liz (or, OK, sometimes her male stunt double) kick ass and take names. I love the subversive way she foments rebellion in Lennox (played by the same actor who was Viner in Tomb of the Cybermen; I guess they know who to call when they want a slightly hapless scientist), and later how she fearlessly mouths off to the thug. Muscle: "Don't try anything." / Liz: "It's all right. I won't hurt you."

One of the best things about this story, though, is that it's not yet another alien invasion. I won't spoil it any further, except to say it's nice every now and then to see a kinder, gentler depiction of a non-human intelligence. We could stand a few more of those.

DVD Extras (highlights)
Mars Probe 7: Making The Ambassadors of Death
Given how this piece started - with actual footage from coverage of the Apollo 13 disaster and a comparison with the timing of the broadcast of this story - I was actually rather disappointed in it. Aside from going into a bit more detail on the stunt performers, it was mostly the same ol' same ol' for a making of. I suppose since it didn't claim to be anything else, I shouldn't have expected it, but I'd really hoped there might be some discussion of the unwitting parallels between story and real event. Oh well.

Tomorrow's Times - The Third Doctor
The final installment of the series on how the media reacted to Doctor Who during any given Doctor's era is included here. It is presented by Peter Purves (former Companion Steven, and upcoming Gallifrey One guest) and covers things like what's an appropriate amount of "horror" or violence for the intended audience (which reminded me again what a different approach the UK and the US seem to take in our approaches to science fiction on TV and who it's "for"), how former star William Hartnell viewed the changes to the show, and what the reaction was both to Pertwee's arrival and to his departure.

I wouldn't say that Ambassadors stands out in my mind as anything particularly special. However, its inadvertent correlation with Apollo 13 adds a certain something to it for me. It's certainly a decent enough story, though it's nowhere nears as good as Inferno, in my opinion. Or is that not a diplomatic thing to say?

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Comments

PaulGreaves's picture

...as always. If any of your readers want to hear our review, can I plug TimeVault? :) http://thetimevault.wordpress.com/2012/03/09/25-doctor-who-the-ambassado...

By PaulGreaves --

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http://thetimevault.wordpress.com

mrfranklin's picture

I've no problem plugging TimeVault! You're among my "favorite links" in the sidebar already! :)

By mrfranklin
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