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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part four)

This is the second story in a row where the director found a chance to shoot the alien menace of the month in front of the sun, resulting in big lens flares. Timothy Combe, last time, and Michael Ferguson, director of this story, really have enjoyed the BBC’s move to color. But you’ll forgive me not illustrating it; the chroma-dot recovery that restored the color to most of this serial (episodes 2-4 and 6-7) is wonderful but imperfect. The screen grabs from the video interiors, while still flawed, look much better than the orange-and-purple smeared 16mm exteriors.

Ferguson is a great director whether on location or in the studio. I love the way he composed this shot at the cliffhanger. The Doctor has found the body of the Civil Servant of the Month, killed by one of the aliens wearing the astronaut suits, and, as he’s trying to see whether Sir James has been injured or killed, the alien, with its touch of death, comes up behind the Doctor.

Our son thinks that the Doctor will be okay, suspecting that the Doctor’s people have a much higher resistance to radiation. He also still thinks that the aliens are just animating the suits. Perhaps they’re disembodied and they need radio impulses to understand commands because they don’t have ears?

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part three)

Michael Wisher, who plays the TV commentator, is not in this episode, but Cyril Shaps, who made a career out of playing frantic and nervous scientists, is. We last saw Shaps playing a different frantic and nervous scientist in “The Tomb of the Cybermen.” Now, he’s being menaced by one of the astronauts… or is he? The Doctor has determined that the Earthmen who went into space cannot survive the amount of radiation these guys have absorbed.

Our son’s theory is that these are actually empty spacesuits. They’ve been animated by the radiation. Maybe we’ll find out whether he’s right in tomorrow’s episode.

I’m enjoying this more than I remembered. It’s got an entertaining Capricorn One meets Quatermass vibe, especially once we see that the well-dressed villain from the previous episodes is actually General Carrington, a former astronaut himself who is now in charge of Britain’s space security program. He appears to be on the side of the angels and working against the Brigadier for national security reasons, and is baffled when the three astronauts are abducted by a third party. But then General Carrington and the Civil Servant of the Month start conspiring again, to prevent the launch of another recovery capsule. After all, if the human astronauts didn’t come down, they must still be up there, right?

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part two)

I’m really impressed with the work of the Restoration Team on this episode. Rebuilding the lost color signal from these black and white prints is more than just neat new technology, it’s a real labor of love.

As for the content of the show, this is much as I remember it. There are lots of actors at Space Control reading numbers out loud from various consoles and a big map instead of special effects like a modern audience would demand. The episode is built around another big action centerpiece, as the troops led by the mysterious well-dressed man played by John Abineri attack the convoy that’s carrying the Recovery 7 capsule. The criminals use these strange “hair dryer” stun guns, technology that’s never again seen in the show.

It’s a fun scene, and I’m sure the stuntman enjoyed the challenge of making his fall from a helicopter look great, and our son certainly enjoyed it, but it’s all a bit pointless since the Doctor retakes the truck and delivers the capsule to Space Control. It’s really an example of that frequent “escape and run around just to get recaptured” padding, but it’s entertaining to watch as it’s unfolding.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part one)

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.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part seven)

Our son really enjoyed the ending of this story, as well he should. It’s a great climax, with the Silurians chased back into hibernation by a runaway nuclear reactor, and then the Brigadier – possibly acting under orders from the Ministry – destroys their base completely while the Doctor’s back is turned. Over the next few years, the Brigadier will become more of a second banana than an independent character with his own motives and agenda. When people talk about the “UNIT Family” that will emerge, it’s a family without a place for a character like this more ruthless military man.

There are two farewells in this episode. First, it’s a darn shame that Paul Darrow’s Captain Hawkins gets third-eyed by a Silurian. I believe we’re meant to assume that he is killed; he’s never mentioned again and his fate is not specifically disclosed. In a perfect world, Hawkins would take a few months to recover and become a regular in the following season instead of the new character of Yates. I’m not saying this because Hawkins is a particularly interesting character, but because Paul Darrow is such an interesting actor. I highly recommend his many fans check out the BBC’s 1973 adaptation of Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. He’s terrific in that.

But perhaps more sadly, it’s goodbye to Jon Pertwee’s forearms and his snake tattoo. After this, Barry Letts made certain that the Doctor would never again be seen either nude or in short sleeves, so that Pertwee’s tattoo, a trophy from his days in the navy, would stay covered up. I understand that there’s a fan theory to explain how, when the Time Lords changed the Doctor’s appearance, he got that tattoo as well as a new face. Well, of course there is.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part six)

The guest cast starts getting whittled down pretty massively by this point. The Silurians’ plague claimed Major Baker in the previous episode. This time, both Geoffrey Palmer’s and Peter Miles’ characters die from it. I enjoyed the location filming, which was done in late 1969 around Marylebone train station in London, and sees lots of commuters succumbing to the virus after Palmer’s character senselessly takes a train back to his ministry office despite what he’d learned in the previous episode.

Our son was very attentive this morning, and that’s a little surprising considering how very measured and slow this episode is. The scenes of the Doctor and Liz working in the lab are quite long; you can’t imagine modern television spending so much time on quiet scenes of characters mixing drugs and testing them on blood samples under a microscope. They really work; Jon Pertwee and Caroline John really sold just how heavy and critical their work is.

Still, a little levity was needed after such a dark half-hour. Having received a fright when the Silurians attack the Doctor to stop the spread of the cure he’s found, he’s kicking back in front of the TV with something much lighter now: Disney’s cartoon Robin Hood.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part five)

Another reason I think that Carey Blyton’s music for this story is the second worst in all of Doctor Who – his score for “Death to the Daleks” is even lousier – is that it completely and totally undermines the drama in a critical scene.

Here’s the situation: some of the regulars get to be bored in the conference room waiting for news from the caves, while the Brigadier, Captain Hawkins, and some men wait in a trap, and the Doctor negotiates for peace with the Silurians’ old leader. Meanwhile, a young and hotheaded Silurian decides to just infect Major Baker with a virulent plague that the Silurians used, hundreds of millions of years ago, to wipe out apes, and let him go.

The scenes of Norman Jones being cornered by the shadowy, clawed reptile-people are incredibly well-shot, especially for Doctor Who, where the unflattering and harsh studio lighting and unforgiving videotape often show off all the cracks and flaws. This should have been a scene that, like the occasional attacks in caves from Sleestak in Land of the Lost, would have had our son hiding behind the sofa.

But it isn’t, because the music in the scene tells the audience “this is a comedy.” Timothy Combe has the actors standing in menacing shadow preparing to give children nightmares, and the music is some clown with an oboe playing Yakety Sax. Our son laughed and laughed. We talked afterward about what was happening, in case the threat of the plague went over his head – it kind of did – but it was that stupid music. Nothing’s a threat with music like that.

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Doctor Who and the Silurians (part four)

Our son has grasped the main conflict in this problem very well. He even used an appropriate word: extinct. He says that the humans and the Silurians want to make each other extinct before the other wins. He sees that the Doctor is trying to make peace between the two sides, but he also has the mind of a six year-old who’s seen every other alien life form in this show trying to blow humanity up, and so he’s rooting for the Brigadier to get down there and blow up the Silurians first. But this episode ends with the Doctor thrown into a cage by the Silurians and one of them using its strange third eye to give our hero a psychic attack.

You may have noticed that my screencaps from this story show off some very woeful color. As was standard in the seventies, the BBC routinely wiped their color videotapes of stories, and this is one that was never returned in the old 625-line PAL format in color. The BBC retained 16mm black-and-white films for export, and an inferior 525-line NTSC color copy was returned in the eighties. In 1993, they mated the two, putting the color signal from the poorer copy into the better-resolution black-and-white print.

Fifteen years later, they improved on it somewhat, but it’s still notably below the quality of most of the other Pertwee serials. I believe that episode four is the poorest of the seven. There are lines of yellow across the red walls of the conference room throughout, and there’s a scene in the cyclotron room where Peter Miles is yelling at a technician, and the poor guy is under siege by a blue band of color on the wall behind him that is attacking his hair.

Episode four is also notable for introducing Geoffrey Palmer to the story. Like Fulton Mackay in the preceding episodes, Palmer was a very recognizable face to TV audiences in 1970, but his biggest roles were ahead of him. As Mackay became a big star with the sitcom Porridge later in the decade, so did Palmer, with the sitcoms The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Butterflies. Palmer plays the first of several civil servants and government types whom the Doctor, over the course of the next five seasons, gets to chew up and spit out.

We’ll take a quick break from this story and resume it over the weekend. Tomorrow night, more mean cave monsters.

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