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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part seven)

Many Doctor Who episodes suffer from being a little padded, but the conclusion of this story is one of the worst examples of a serial running out of plot and running in place. It certainly isn’t rushed; with maybe ten minutes of story left – ten good minutes, mostly – we have to suffer through about three instances of people, including Michael Wisher, returning after a few weeks away as the TV journalist John Wakefield, asking the insane General Carrington whether he’s absolutely sure he wants to make a live TV broadcast unmasking an alien and showing the world what’s out there, risking worldwide panic.

Now one problem here is that sometime midway through episode six, John Abineri stopped playing Carrington as a controlled and subtle villain and made him unhinged, and the script repeatedly gives him a stupid catchphrase. “It’s my moral duty” might have been chilling if used once, and repeated when he has lost, but it makes the character look foolish when he can’t say anything else. Frankly, his hired goon, Reegan, is far more competent and threatening than Carrington, and all he wants to do with the aliens is have them rob banks.

Another problem is with this worldwide live telecast. There’s one school of thought that somebody must have yanked a plug and nobody at Space Centre knew the feed was cut, otherwise there could have been a mass panic; in any event, the audience in the Who universe saw at least the beginning of some program about an English general claiming the existence of aliens. Another theory, put forward by Tat Wood in a volume of the entertaining About Time criticism, is that anybody who did watch this quickly dismissed it and forgot about it like people in our world did when they saw Alternative 3 or an alien autopsy movie in the 90s, or Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County.

I honestly think it’s more likely that the network was just humoring Carrington and never broadcast anything. How in the world did this guy convince anybody at any television channel in any country to stop what they’re doing and let him have control of their airwaves for a live feed? I think the BBC sent Wakefield since he was familiar with Space Centre, and Wakefield had a quiet word with his boss, and they recorded all of this just in case there was something to it. But come on, nobody at the American networks, let alone any relay station in Jos, cut away from anything to hear somebody claim to be ready to unmask a space alien. My suspension of disbelief stopped right about there.

Well, nitpicking at length is the way of Doctor Who fans. I really think this story’s finale was a disappointment overall, but when it was good, it was really good. There’s a terrific bit, pictured above, when the Doctor shouts “What kept you?” at the Brigadier, because he wanted to be rescued earlier. Some of the stunt work is especially amazing, including one fellow who goes down a flight of stairs backward, and the direction of the on-location scenes is very good throughout the show and there are some really good moments in the last episode. I think the conclusion is disagreeably stagy, but that Space Centre control room set is an awfully theatrical set in the first place; it was probably unavoidable.

Our son, meanwhile, loved the story more and more with each installment. He was super-excited this evening, and responded to every new plot complication with “This is gonna be so cool!” When the Doctor and the UNIT gang bring the ambassadors to the Space Centre, he was just about ready to pop. While it was good, this was not one of my favorite adventures, but I think it’s definitely one of his.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part six)

Pictured above, Jon Pertwee steps out into an alien environment created by blue screen / chromakey. This won’t be the last time. The BBC called this blue screen tech – the antecedent of modern green screen – “Color Separation Overlay.” It was used for the first time in the previous serial and there will be quite a lot of CSO in Doctor Who‘s seventies.

It turns out that the aliens are not empty suits as our son predicted, but hideous blue-and-black creatures that we only glimpse very briefly. And it also turns out that General Carrington is behind all the villany. Our son claims that he’s known that the whole time, but I’m not certain I believe that claim.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part five)

Throughout this serial, we’ve seen a large, full-scale space capsule for the actors to climb in. I was interested to learn that this prop was built in a shared-cost budget with another BBC drama, Doomwatch. This allegedly “sci-fact” show about civil servants saving the world from dangerous new technologies and ecological disasters was created by a pair of former Doctor Who‘s regular writers, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. It debuted the week after “Doctor Who and the Silurians” began, and the capsule was used in episode six, “Re-Entry Forbidden,” which was shown five days before the first episode of this serial. I wonder whether anybody watched both shows in March 1970 and noticed.

After watching part four, I showed our son a picture of John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton from “The Invasion” to refresh his memory, because Benton, now a sergeant, resurfaces in this episode. There’s a neat story about how this character got promoted to semi-regular. He was one of many good guy military characters in “The Invasion,” which Douglas Camfield had directed. Camfield was in line to direct the next serial, “Inferno,” and since there was room in the script for a Sergeant Anybody character, he asked whether they could rehire John Levene, as he enjoyed working with the actor. The production team reasoned that there was also a Sergeant Anybody in this story, and so it might make a little sense to start using some familiar faces in UNIT rather than a revolving bunch of guys in beige uniforms. That worked out quite nicely. Everybody likes Sergeant Benton.

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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: The Enemy of the World (parts five and six)

Unfortunately, our son is so unhappy with this story that we went ahead and wrapped it up tonight rather than aggravate him any longer than necessary. Nothing really satisfied him with it, though I’m pretty sure the next one we watch will please him more. I honestly didn’t think he’d be wild about it, but the level of his boredom was still a little surprising to me.

For grownups, this really was a pleasure, happy to say. There’s another good twist at the end, and the climactic fight with Salamander is, while far too brief, nevertheless thrilling. I’m fairly sure that Salamander is the first villain to ever make his way inside the TARDIS, and you really feel that sense of occasion and weight, as Patrick Troughton plays both characters, each injured, with gravity and anger. It’s a terrific moment.

In fact, the only thing not to love about this story is the awful performance of an actor named Adam Verney in the role of Colin, one of Salamander’s stooges. There are worse – way, way worse – to come, but wow, is he ever theatrical.

An oddball little note about coincidences and actors: as we’ve watched this story this week, I’ve also been watching a 1972 ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web, and my wife and I have slowly been making our way through the black and white series of The Saint. I’ve been enjoying Milton Johns in the role of Salamander’s sadistic deputy Benek, and there he was this morning in episode seven of Web. Two nights ago, we watched a Saint called “The Invisible Millionaire” which guest-starred Mark Eden, and there he was this afternoon in episode eight of Web. I love it when that happens.

Anyway, “The Enemy of the World” was the last Doctor Who story produced by Innes Lloyd. He went on to be in charge of several prestigious programs at the BBC, including Thirty Minute Theatre, Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, Alan Bennett’s acclaimed Talking Heads, and many of the sort of pipe-smoking critically acclaimed human dramas that don’t have things like Cybermen and Ice Warriors in them. He oversaw some great times for Who, even though it clearly was not the sort of program he really wanted to make. He died in 1991.

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