(& TREVOR RAY, TERRANCE DICKS & MALCOLM HULKE, ALL UNCREDITED)
THE INVADERS FROM MARS & THE CARRIERS OF DEATH
'THE AMBASSADORS OF DEATH' DVD (BBCDVD2616)
RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER 2012.
Something has gone seriously wrong with Mars Probe 7. With no contact from the astronauts since the rocket started its return journey from Mars, Space Control is now extremely worried about the fate of the crew. A rescue mission recovers something – but whatever it is, it certainly isn’t human. To find out what has happened to the astronauts, the Doctor must head into space without the TARDIS...
21ST MARCH 1970 - 2ND MAY 1970
Back in the day, it was fashionable for TV critics to draw parallels between The Ambassadors of Death and seminal television serials such as The Quatermass Experiment of the 1950s; the increasingly-popular James Bond movie series; and even Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed 2001: A Space Odyssey, all which this seven-parter pays palpable homage to. But time has proven that the third Doctor’s third televised adventure was every bit as forward-looking as it was retrograde. As I watched it again on DVD, finally restored to full colour, I saw haunting echoes of The Impossible Astronaut’s lingering images; a military base that looked very much like Stargate SG•1’s Cheyenne Mountain; not to mention a handful of alluring production innovations, many of which would go on to become a part of the series’ fabric. With more than forty years retrospect, it’s hard to imagine a Doctor Who cliffhanger without that suspense-fuelling musical howl-out, or a UNIT red-shirt that doesn’t look uncannily like Derek Ware or one of his team of HAVOC stuntmen. Ambassadors even dares to violate the inviolate, its distinctive division of the show’s opening title sequence to create a false cliffhanger evocative of the tantalising pre-title sequences that still ensnare a nation today on a Saturday night.
Indeed, this serial’s greatest strength may well be its sense of style. Despite originally being written for Patrick Troughton and his younger audience, Ambassadors is the most overtly adult story of Jon Pertwee’s first season. The Quatermass vibe is all-pervading, and Michael “It’s a director’s job to spend money; it’s a producer’s job to stop him” Ferguson’s direction is avant-garde and edgy, not to mention aberrantly lush. This serial’s set pieces blow away most others that you’ll find in the Pertwee era, much to the detriment of the series’ still-green producer Barry Letts and his decimated budget. The first episode boasts an epic siege, the third showcases a cinematic car chase, missiles are hijacked – and, indeed, re-hijacked – and members of HAVOC are even tossed into fast-flowing dams and thrown from helicopters. It’s incredibly ambitious stuff for a teatime telly serial, even by today’s standards. As Terrance Dicks quite rightly points out through, little exchanges of dialogue such as “What happened to the missile?” / “It got hijacked!” would still have got the job done, albeit with far less panache. Such an observation embodies The Ambassadors of Death’s strengths and weaknesses concurrently, as its spectacular traits come very close to papering over the logical holes and narrative cracks in what was, in truth, a complete botch of a script.
If you look behind The Ambassadors of Death’s captivating central conceit – three astronauts going up into space human, and coming back down to Earth alien – you’ll only find quite a routine plot that’s been stretched well beyond its natural running time, plagued by incessant re-writes and too many cooks spoiling the broth. After the umpteenth draft, original writer David Whitaker lost patience with it, and so Trevor Ray had a bash at salvaging the first episode – but only the first. Ultimately it fell to script editor Terrance Dicks and his redoubtable cohort Malcolm Hulke to “do another War Games” with the story’s final six episodes, but by that point their brief was damage limitation. It’s a testament to the talents of both men that The Ambassadors of Death is as compelling as it is. For all its narrative flaws, there are flashes are finesse - I don’t know whose decision it was to introduce the story’s human threat, for example, but to me it reeks of Hulke. Without this villain’s blind xenophobia and rampant paranoia, this serial couldn’t have convincingly rounded out four episodes, never mind seven.
As I’ve mentioned above, this serial’s DVD presents it for the first time since its original broadcast in full colour. Whilst Episode 1 – Doctor Who’s earliest surviving episode in its original format, incidentally – has always existed in colour, for decades Episodes 2 to 6 have only been available as monochrome film recordings and poor quality, interference-ridden NTSC video tapes. Back in 2002, the Restoration Team were able to recolourise much of the serial for its VHS release using the NTSC recordings, but a number of substantial chunks of the production couldn’t be colourised well enough to meet the Beeb’s commercial standards. Even now, to the naked eye, and on a television far bigger than they were ever intended to be displayed on, the latter six episodes presented on this DVD seem to have more in common with the “best endeavours” recolourisation of Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ first enigmatic instalment than they do some of the better-known Pertwee era recolourisations. Whilst I’m of the trenchant view that it’s sheer magic to be able to enjoy this serial in a form that’s so close to its original, those less forgiving than I am should be mindful that the picture quality here is far from pristine.
The episodes are, as ever, accompanied by an optional commentary track that I gather was recorded back in 2009 with Toby Hadoke serving as peacekeeper. Caroline John; her husband, Geoffrey Beevers; the now-late Nicholas Courtney; Michael Ferguson; Peter Halliday; Derek Ware; Roy Scammell; Derek Martin; and Terrance Dicks are all on hand to share their insightful recollections here, which broach topics as sundry as an accident on location and the closeness of the HAVOC boys (it may be my dirty mind, but the tales of them visiting saunas together and “seeing each other’s girlfriends” raised an eyebrow).
A handful of the abovementioned contributors join assistant floor manager Margot Hayhoe in the release’s centrepiece documentary, Mars Probe 7, which is narrated by Carl Kennedy. In keeping with the main feature that it complements, these twenty-five minutes are incredibly stylish, often putting me in mind of the dynamic vignettes that you often see played in modern museums and attractions. As well as focusing on the making of the serial, this programme offers a real flavour of the period as it charts Ambassadors’ production and broadcast through reference to NASA’s ill-fated (and serendipitously contemporaneous) Apollo 13 mission.
The other bonus feature of note is the third Doctor’s long-awaited edition of Tomorrow’s Times. Peter Purves is chosen as the erstwhile Who companion to serve as newsreader for this edition, discussing the press’s violent backlash against the series’ forays into more adult territory which were even backed by his Doctor - original star of the series William Hartnell. The untimely death of Roger Delgado and the tributes paid to him – “The villain whom it was hard to hate” – and the series’ most recent stage production are also duly documented, but oddly Season 9 is skipped over entirely, which I find extraordinary given the media frenzy surrounding the Daleks’ return at its start. This is made up for, though, by the image conjured of the now über-wealthy and grandiose Terry Nation “gesturing with a chicken drumstick” as he muses about his creations’ sensational success.
The remainder of the bonus material comprises the usual rundown of accoutrements, but, remarkably, is one of the few releases these days that dares to juxtapose a decades-old BBC trailer for Doctor Who with one of 2|entertain’s slick and vibrant “Doctor Who on DVD” coming soons. It’s hard to believe they’re plugging the same series, so far apart are they.
And so whilst neither its panic-written script nor its colour restoration come even close to excellence, and its many electrifying set pieces do little to serve its painfully-protracted plot, to those like me who remain besotted with the UNIT era decades after the event, The Ambassadors of Death in colour on DVD is something of a dream come true. For the bespectacled, bearded, and surprisingly human-looking Davros, on the other hand, it’s an outlandish, journalistic nightmare…
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2012
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.