Well, this is a huge treat to finally watch. “The Ambassadors of Death” is another of the Jon Pertwee serials that was syndicated in black and white because that was all that existed for a long time. I didn’t actually enjoy it very much when I first saw it in 1987-ish; I haven’t watched it at all – I haven’t owned a copy! – in twenty-five years. Actually, the first episode survived the wipings of the seventies and the BBC’s team did an amazing job making it look all DVD-presentable; I’m looking forward to seeing what magic they worked on the black-and-white material over the next week or so.
If you’ve been following along as we’ve watched Doctor Who, it should be obvious that 1969-70 was a madly chaotic time for the show. Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin had developed a format where the Doctor was exiled to earth a few years in the future, but this was reined in to something closer to the present day, and “The Ambassadors of Death” kind of falls in the crack. If this is set in the mid-eighties, then it means Britain started to develop an amazing space program in the early seventies. If this is set in 1970ish, then it means that they did so around 1958. This is just about the only time that the “present day” of Doctor Who is so far advanced of our own. Another example comes in the 2005 episode “The Christmas Invasion,” David Tennant’s first one, which is also about landing some astronauts on Mars for the very first time. You can’t embrace Who without embracing some contradictions.
Anyway, this uncertainty was one of a hundred problems behind the scenes. The original story, commissioned by Sherwin, was written by David Whitaker. He got the final credit, but the serial was completely rewritten and rebuilt. Part one was rewritten by Trevor Ray and the other episodes by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. It was directed by Michael Ferguson and the impressive guest cast includes John Abineri and Michael Wisher, who would each appear in two future Who serials, and Ronald Allen, who had appeared as one of “The Dominators” in the previous season.
Episode one’s high point might come when the Brigadier leads his can’t-shoot-straight troops in a big battle against some armed and well-trained villains in an abandoned warehouse. Our son completely loved this fight scene, and to be sure, it is a great one. But I loved the Doctor’s amazing rudeness to Ronald Allen’s character. Allen is all louche and dismissive as the head of mission control, and the Doctor has absolutely no time to be polite or diplomatic to him. A lot of fun in the Pertwee years comes from watching him barely suffer fools.
But the other scene that our son loved was a brief comedy bit around the TARDIS console, when a faulty circuit keeps sending the Doctor and Liz a couple of seconds into the future, before the other has arrived. He got a really good laugh out of that. Incidentally, fanon has always suggested that the Doctor has unpacked the TARDIS console and taken it into an oddly nice-looking lab for repair – that’s what is specifically shown in the next adventure – but that’s not actually stated onscreen here, is it? Marie said “The Doctor’s changed the inside of the TARDIS,” and I wonder whether she might be just as right as anybody who says that room is the Doctor’s well-furnished and colorful workshop.