Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death
This review is dedicated to the memory of Caroline John (1940-2012)
Mars Probe Seven, with two astronauts inside, has been missing since it took off from the Red Planet. Recovery Seven is sent to make contact with the probe but when the pilot docks with it, contact is lost and a piercing sound is heard, which The Doctor interprets as a coded message. Something took off from Mars...but was it human?
Although Terrance Dicks was the script editor throughout and Barry Letts the producer for all except the first, for Season Seven they were working to the template created by their predecessors Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant. These included the reduction in episodes to twenty-five from the forty-four of Season Six, the exile to Earth with the Doctor working for UNIT as their scientific advisor and the use of longer stories (three seven-parters out of four stories) for reasons of cost. And of course the show was now made in colour, BBC1 having started broadcasting colour in November 1969. Letts and Dicks found many of these restrictive. The seven-parters were the first to go, with no story longer than six episodes after this season. (That doesn't of course count season-long story arcs like The Key to Time and Trial of a Time Lord.) And eventually they were able to send the Doctor back in time and space again.
Dicks, quoting his friend and sometime cowriter Malcolm Hulke, summed up the limitations of an earthbound setting as there being just two storylines: mad scientist and alien invasion. The Ambassadors of Death is of the latter type, but this time it's an invasion by stealth. The aliens are kept low-key and we only see one of their faces once, just for a few seconds. David Whitaker (the show's first script editor) was commissioned to write the story (then called The Carriers of Death) by Sherwin and Bryant. What Whitaker envisaged as a Second Doctor story with Jamie and Zoe as companions turned into something else with the changes in the story format, and rewrite after rewrite proved unsatisfactory. Whitaker wrote only the first three episodes. Assistant script editor Trevor Ray rewrote the first episode. Finally, Dicks arranged for Whitaker to be paid in full and he and Malcolm Hulke rewrote Episodes Two and Three and the remaining four from scratch from Whitaker's outline. Whitaker kept sole onscreen credit, his last work for the programme. He died in 1980, aged fifty-one.
The Ambassadors of Death does show signs of this complex production history, and it has tended to be overlooked in favour of the three other stories in what was a very strong season. Yet I would suggest that it's their equal. By now Pertwee was getting into his stride – and with a companion closer to his intellectual level there's less of the patronage that many find irksome – and Nicholas Courtney has become a fine foil to the Doctor. This story is also a strong showcase for Liz Shaw. She didn't fit into Letts and Dick's vision for the show (and Caroline John was pregnant, though Letts was not aware of that when he didn't renew her contract) but I'm not alone in finding her one of the best, if short-lived companions, and her successor, the more “identifiable” Jo Grant, more than a little irksome. Michael Ferguson's direction is top-notch and he makes good use of a generous location filming allowance with some first-rate action sequences involving Derek Ware's stunts organisation HAVOC.
The Ambassadors of Death tells a complex story in a more adult way than would often be the case for Who, but it does it well. Two stories later, at the start of Season Eight, there would be a new companion and a new regular villain, when Dicks and Letts's vision of the show began to bear fruit. I can't complain, as that was the era I started watching Who and without that I wouldn't be here writing this. But if Season Seven proved to be something of a dead end as far as the show's longterm future, as dead ends go it could hardly be bettered, and The Ambassadors of Death is an integral part of it.
2 Entertain's DVD release of The Ambassadors of Death comprises two discs, the first dual-layered and encoded for Regions 2 and 4, the second single-layered and encoded for Region 2 only. Both discs have audio-descriptive menu options.
The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.33:1. That's the easy part to write, as this serial has one of the most complex restoration histories of any Who story, which is partly a reason why this comes out close to the end of the line of DVD releases. (It was originally due to be released with The Sun Makers as a “Solar System” box set, but was delayed due to technical reasons.)
From the beginning, Who was prerecorded on video (originally 405-line, then 625-line black and white, then 625-line colour). Location footage was shot on 16mm film and played in during the studio recording session. The result was edited and then broadcast from two-inch Quad tapes (one-inch from 1984). There are some exceptions to this – some episodes were shot on video but captured and edited on and broadcast from 35mm film, and Spearhead from Space was originated on and broadcast from 16mm film throughout – but that was the procedure right up until the show first finished in 1989. However, videotape was expensive and was routinely wiped after use, but 16mm telerecordings were made for overseas sales, and all surviving First and Second Doctor episodes do so on 16mm or 35mm. With the coming of colour, black and white telerecordings continued to be made, though this practice declined and in the case of Who discontinued in 1974 due to the increasing number of foreign television stations broadcasting in colour. PAL and standards-converted NTSC videotapes were sent abroad for overseas colour broadcasts, and many of these have been returned to the BBC thus reproviding us with Pertwee episodes in colour when the original tape had been wiped.
Episode One of The Ambassadors of Death has the distinction of being the earliest in the show's history to survive on its original transmission tape. That sadly is not the case for the remaining six parts, which exist as black and white telerecordings. A US fan had recorded the story in colour from a 1970s broadcast, but unfortunately the recording was plagued by rainbow interference. The colour signal from the useable parts was combined with the black and white telerecordings for the 2001 VHS release (which was my first viewing of this story). Along with the already-colour first episode, this meant that the whole of Episode Five and sections of Episodes Two , Three, Six and Seven could be restored to colour, in total about ninety minutes of the full two hours and fifty-two minutes. The remainder, including the whole of Episode Four, remained in black and white. However, the advent of chroma-dot recovery (see my discussion of Episode Three of Planet of the Daleks) gave a further chance to restore this serial, and so it has happened. The colour on Episodes Two to Seven is softer – particularly so on the location scenes – than the native PAL of Episodes One, and you can tell the difference. That said, we are watching on far less forgiving equipment than we would have been in 1970 – and most people would have been watching in black and white then – so this is as good as we are likely to get with this material. It certainly bodes well for the eventual DVD release of The Mind of Evil, the one Pertwee serial which until now has only been available in black and white throughout since its original broadcast. Screengrabs follow, first from Episode One, then from a later episode.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well balanced. Subtitles are available for the hard of hearing on the episodes. Also available are the ever-useful information subtitles, which will tell you more than you probably ever wanted to know about this serial. On this release they are the work of Martin Wiggins.
The audio commentary is moderated throughout by Toby Hadoke. Seven episodes makes for a lot of space, which this commentary makes use of. With hindsight, there's an inevitable melancholy about this commentary, given that it was recorded in 2009 and three of the participants – Peter Halliday, Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John – have since passed away. We begin with Michael Ferguson, Nicholas Courtney, Terrance Dicks and Derek Ware. Ware continues on Episode Two, whose commentary is a stuntmen's special as he is joined by Roy Scammell (who doubled for Caroline John) and Derek Martin. Caroline John, addressed as “Carrie”, joins them for Episode Three. They all leave for Episode Four, which reunites us with Ferguson, Courtney and Dicks. For Episode Five we have Ferguson, Ware, Dicks and John. Peter Halliday (who provided the alien voices, as well as many other alien voices in previous serials) joins Ferguson and Courtney For the final episode, Ferguson and Courtney are rejoined by John and Geoffrey Beevers (who played Private Johnson and was Mr Caroline John in real life). Although some of the more-frequently-used commentors do bring out some well-worn anecdotes, as always the banter is very entertaining. It's like eavesdropping on a meeting of old friends, and it's sad that not all of them are still with us.
Over to Disc Two, and “Mars Probe 7: The Making of The Ambassadors of Death” (25:52). This is presumably more recent than the commentary, as Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John are noticeably absent. However, Terrance Dicks, Michael Ferguson, Derek Ware and Roy Scammell are on hand, their reminiscences overlapping with the commentary. Also present is assistant floor manager Margot Hayhoe (who found herself namechecked on the side of a van in the story). Much is made of the story's topicality, with a real-life story of stranded astronauts, namely the Apollo 13 mission, taking place around the time of broadcast.
Next up is a trailer (1:29), with specially-shot footage of Jon Pertwee speaking to camera. This has been seen before, most recently on the Beneath the Surface box set, as it was first broadcast after the final episode of Doctor Who and the Silurians. There's a noticeable difference between the soundtrack of the trailer and the voice of the continuity announcer, evidently recorded off-air.
Tomorrow's Times: The Third Doctor (13:08) continues the series which looks at how Who was discussed in the press, presented Points of View style by Peter Purves. He covers the press reactions from Pertwee's debut in the role to his departure, taking in the arrivals and departures of companions Liz Shaw, Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith and the untimely death of Roger Delgado, with even William Hartnell joining in with concerns about the show's preceived levels of violence. You have to wonder how much not being invited to Doctor Who's tenth anniversary party rankled, as Purves makes a point of mentioning it.
The extras are completed by a self-navigating stills gallery (4:27), Radio Times listings for the serial in PDF format and a Coming Soon trailer for the Special Edition of The Claws of Axos (1:05)