Doctor Who and the Ambassadors of Death!
Starting with Doctor Who’s anniversary in 1999, the DVD range of the classic program has grown in leaps and bounds. So quickly has this expansion been that there is a noticeably small number of stories remaining to be released. There are 6 remaining complete Hartnell stories, just 2 Troughtons, 12 Pertwees, and 11 Tom Baker adventures. With an expected box set called Kamelion Box (containing King’s Demons and Planet of Fire), the Peter Davison era only has 4 stories left. The Colin Baker era is complete and the Sylvester McCoy era has a scant 6 stories remaining. In the next few weeks, I plan to take a look at the last 42 remaining (complete) classic Doctor Who stories waiting to be released on DVD.
If Doctor Who has any golden eras, the seventh season has to be one of them. Exiled to Earth and teamed up with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, the Doctor was besieged by aliens from without and from within the planet itself week after week. Shifting from a fantastic approach to a more action/adventure mixed with a distinct Quatermass feel, this was an entirely new program. Currently there is only one story unreleased from the 1970 season, The Ambassadors of Death.
The 7-part serial initially entitled “The Invaders From Mars,” the third story in the series’ seventh season was written unusually by David Whittaker (Evil of the Daleks) and Malcolm Hulke. Work began on the script by Whittaker during Patrick Troughton’s reign as the Doctor, but due to the program being massively overhauled, the entire story needed to be reworked. The task of adding new story elements such as U.N.I.T. and new companion Liz Shaw proved difficult for the production staff so Hulke was called in to polish up the first few episodes and also supply the remaining three from scratch. Rumor has it that Ambassadors of Death was one of Whittaker’s least favorite scripts, but this may be down to the numerous issues with rewrites and the awkwardness of accommodating a program that was essentially completely different to what anyone knew before as Doctor Who. I say this because it such a smashing story and full of so many excellent concepts that it remains one of my favorite Doctor Who programs.
It is also one of the few stories of Doctor Who to receive a trailer!
Beginning with an unusual ‘sting’ at the end of the title sequence announcing the danger of the story, the Ambassadors of Death concerns the missing astronauts of a Mars Probe recovery mission. A piercing sound breaks the radio silence from the astronauts and only the Doctor recognizes it for what it is, a message from an alien race. When the space capsule finally returns to Earth, it is carrying something far different from the brave astronauts who initially piloted the craft, alien creatures who can destroy with but a touch. A foreign power attempts to utilize the alien ambassadors as a death squad and only the Doctor and his friends at U.N.I.T. have a chance at stopping the steadily rising death toll by communicating with the aliens.
Ambassadors of Death was one of the first stories to enlist the aid of HAVOC, the stunt team that became associated with the Pertwee era (hence all the fight sequences, motorcycle chases, etc). The sudden inclusion of a gun fight in Doctor Who must have been quite startling, but viewers might have recalled that this was attempted the previous year with the ‘dry run’ for the new era called ‘The Invasion’ which featured U.N.I.T. troops battling Cybermen. The new approach worked as viewing figures soared from week to week.
Pertwee really shines in these first stories and you can just imagine how shocked the production staff must have been to see a song and dance man take the part so seriously. Aside from the stage magician crossed with Jimi Hendrix costume, Pertwee’s Doctor was a serious action hero, something that the Doctor had not been up until that point.
The addition of U.N.I.T. also brought in a new element that appealed to the super spy craze popular at the time, but the synergy between the Doctor and U.N.I.T.’s leader Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart also spoke volumes to the younger generation’s revolt against authority. The constant battle between the Doctor and the Brigadier was evocative of the struggle to move forward as a people and embrace change crippled by its inability to let go of its fear of the unknown.
Also, viewers got to see soldiers blow things up and shoot down aliens each week while the Doctor desperately tried to stop them… usually.
For all these accolades, I have to admit that the first time watching these stories it took me ages to warm to the Pertwee era as I was more of a fan of the later stories. The slow pacing and attempt toward realism of the 7th Season was just wasted on me. I wanted Daleks, alien spaceships and goofy monsters. All of these things would come for the Third Doctor who later embarked on some of the more outlandish stories to explore these trappings of the program. But for a brief period of time, Doctor Who was a sophisticated intelligent sci-fi series determined to tell compelling adventure tales.
Due to the fact that several portions of the color print have been lost to Ambassadors of Death, the DVD release may be a long way off. But when it does finally arrive, I encourage fans of the classic program to give it a shot as it is a glittering jewel in the annals of Who-dom.