CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Ambassadors of Death / DVD Review

On the strength of his script for The Enemy of the World, former series story-editor David Whitaker was commissioned by Derrick Sherwin, the incumbent script-editor of Doctor Who in 1968, to develop a storyline about Earth's first contact with aliens, initially titled Invaders from Mars.

As Whitaker developed the idea, the Doctor Who production office endured a script development crisis and some changes of the personnel running the series. The round of office musical chairs left Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin overseeing the series' transformation, in the aftermath of the departure of Patrick Troughton and his fellow actors Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury, and Terrance Dicks, Sherwin's assistant, promoted to script-editor. 

With the dust still settling on this arrangement and with many decisions now being made about the future of Doctor Who as it moved into colour and into the 1970s with a new Doctor, Dicks commissioned Whitaker in May 1969 for a seven-episode storyline breakdown. Now titled The Carriers of Death, this needed to encompass the format's changes such as the Doctor's exile, his new companion and the inclusion of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT.

Some two months later, this became a full script commission for seven episodes and already included a scenario featuring 'a gangster who takes advantage of some gullible but invulnerable alien ambassadors who were sent to Earth as a swap for humans who went to Mars'. (1) However, Whitaker struggled with the demands of a production which still hadn't defined the new Doctor and the Earth-based format. Jon Pertwee had only just been cast as the next Doctor and Caroline John, playing Liz Shaw, wasn't contracted until July. Sherwin wasn't happy with the first two scripts he had delivered and, in an attempt to show him what they wanted, asked script assistant Trevor Ray to perform a re-write on episode one which he then returned to Whitaker in August 1969.

'all the messing about he'd gone through'
Whitaker persevered with The Carriers of Death until October and was then confronted with a further shake up at the Doctor Who office. Sherwin and Bryant were sent, midway into production on the opening serial of the new season, Spearhead from Space, to rescue Paul Temple (1969-71), a BBC drama co-production with German TV. Their replacement, Barry Letts, was appointed as producer on 20 October, inheriting a production with barely any useable scripts and with one story about to go before the cameras.

Both he and Whitaker couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the three completed scripts of The Carriers of Death and Letts decided to cut his losses in November 1969. When Whitaker moved to Australia during the scripting process Letts and Dicks turned to Malcolm Hulke to rewrite the second and third instalments and write, from scratch, the other four episodes.

To enable Hulke more time, having just delivered the scripts for Doctor Who and the Silurians early and with filming already underway on Spearhead from Space, the transmission order of Silurians and what would eventually become The Ambassadors of Death was transposed. Whitaker was paid in full for the first three episodes and received credit on screen for all seven episodes, as recompense for what Dicks refers to on the DVD commentary as 'all the messing about he'd gone through', while Hulke, Dicks and Ray went uncredited.

With the scripts now reshaped, from the basics of removing characters and changing names to Hulke's own take on the first contact situation, filming commenced on 23 January 1970 under the direction of Michael Ferguson. Ferguson had already worked on the programme, beginning as an uncredited assistant floor manager threatening Barbara with a Dalek plunger for the climax of episode one of The Daleks and later directing The War Machines and The Seeds of Death, and was always intrigued by the visual potential of television.

He was intrigued enough by Barry Letts' studio test run of CSO on 3 January 1970 to confidently use the technique on The Ambassadors of Death, working with designer David Myerscough-Jones, to extend the studio sets and create the various screens in Space Centre, the futuristic British equivalent of Mission Control, and visualise the alien ship interiors using a combination of actors, models and props in studio. He also approached Letts and Dicks about inserting a sequence into the start of the first episode, showing the Doctor and Liz popping in and out of existence, to underline the versatility of the new video editing technology at the BBC.

Location filming, which commenced on 23 January 1970, was overseen by BBC film cameramen A.A 'Tubby' Englander and Tony Leggo. Initial sequences were shot at the Little Marlow Sewage Treatment Works, as background for the raid on the isotope store in episode seven, and Folley's Gravel Pit at Spade Oak was used to film Reegan's disposal of the irradiated bodies of his henchmen. The following week Reegan's sabotage of the fuel variant at the Space Centre was completed at the Southall Gas Works and then filming for the warehouse attack on UNIT took place on 27 and 28 January in the familiar surroundings of the abandoned TCC factory in Acton. Then owned by the BBC and used as a costume store, this is where UNIT had had previous engagements with Cybermen and Autons in The Invasion and Spearhead from Space respectively.

At the end of January, the exterior of Heldorf's quarantine lab was filmed at Wycombe Air Park, Marlow was used as the backdrop for the car chase and pursuit of Liz on foot to the weir, with Caroline John and Roy Scammell swapping skirt, wig and hat for the stunt driving and falls, and Beacon Hill became the exteriors for Reegan's base. In early February, the battle for the Recovery 7 capsule, complete with helicopter, jeeps and motorcycle outriders was mounted in Aldershot and the entrance to Space Centre was provided courtesy of the Northfleet Blue Circle Cement works. (2)

Recording for the story took place in Television Centre Studios 3 and 4 between 13 February and 27 March. The rapid intercutting between cameras in episode one, when Van Lyden enters Mars Probe 7 and everyone is assaulted by the alien signal, was a Ferguson motif last seen in The Seeds of Death (as was his penchant for filming monsters in silhouette against the glare of the sun). As Martin Wiggins' production notes reveal, this cutting was achieved in studio, during live recording, by using a RACE box attached to the vision mixer's console to switch rapidly between cameras.

The cockpit for Recovery 7 was a set built and jointly financed by the Doctor Who and Doomwatch (1970-72) production teams to reduce costs. Dicks notes that the Doomwatch team had sent a memo to them regarding storylines, suggesting they both confer about upcoming episodes to avoid reproducing themes and ideas, but nothing further came out of that mooted collaboration. Overseen by the two designers working on these episodes, Ian Watson and David Myerscough-Jones, the set debuted in the Doomwatch episode, Re-Entry Forbidden. This was recorded two days before The Ambassadors of Death which subsequently used a modified version of the set that also included an airlock.

Model effects were handled by Peter Day and Ian Scoones, with Scoones returning to Doctor Who after working for Hammer Films and Gerry Anderson and assisting, as an outside contractor, on the effects for The Space Pirates. Costumes were designed by Christine Rawlins and, to achieve the look of the alien ambassadors, she contributed the padded space suits, eventually seen again in Colony in Space and Planet of the Daleks, and recycled a number of space helmets from Hammer's ill-feted 'space-western' Moon Zero Two (1969).
... monsters from outer space walking down the high street
The Ambassadors of Death is a grim tale, perhaps lacking some essential humour, that emerges out of the 'first contact' brief given to David Whitaker and from Mac Hulke's own political slant on the subject. The story sits at the heart of Sherwin and Bryant's rebuff to Harold Wilson's now infamous trumpeting of unfettered progress through science and technology and the vision of a 'Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution [that] will be no place for restricted practices'.

The series' developing format, a heady brew of Quatermass, The Avengers (1961-69), George Orwell, Department S (1969-70), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and James Bond, certainly fetishes this vision but also acknowledges that the cracks are beginning to show in a world buffeted by political scandal, environmental disaster, inflation and an oil crisis.

The unmasking of initially friendly aliens and revealing them to be aggressive subversives is a theme that often appears in Doctor Who, with The Claws of Axos as the following year's example minus many of the moral issues of xenophobia raised here. Ferguson makes their silent, blank advance, with the sunlight casting them in silhouette, a visual symbol of the uncanny in Doctor Who, an overt representation of the ‘other’ in the physical form of monsters from outer space walking down the high street, and a projection of the decade's internalised fears about misguided science, immigration and cultural change.

The radioactive alien ambassadors are a metaphor for the not-so-white heat of technological progress, their presence mirroring the super heated funnel that delivered the Nestenes and their affinity for plastics, the Silurian's Derbyshire hot house created via the Cyclotron and Project Inferno's world of untapped, new forms of energy engulfed by red hot lava. It's a vision of Britain in thrall to the 'white heat' of technology but also one that questions where it will lead us politically, socially, psychologically and economically. 

The Ambassadors of Death are also perhaps representative of the growing obsession with the paranormal and UFOs that emerged in the early 1970s, epitomised by the Uri Geller and Erich von Däniken effects. The Letts era of Doctor Who regularly taps into these cultural phenomena (see the ancient astronauts, magic and science stand offs and the Atlantean flavour in The Daemons and The Time Monster respectively) and here it pre-empts Geller's night club act in the Doctor's apparent 'transmigration of objects' conjuring trick with the computer tapes when he's held at gunpoint by Dr Taltalian.

Francis Wheen also notes that 'the history of UFOria in the second half of the twentieth century certainly indicates a remarkable correlation between extraterrestrial sightings and periods of political and economic paranoia.' (4) To top it all, in 1970, two Readers Digest journalists were also trying to convince the world that the Soviet Union were conducting serious research into psychic and paranormal powers to gain the upper hand over the materialist West. 

While on the one hand we have a British space programme launching missions to Mars and a fetishism for technology and gadgets of all kinds, on the other we also see a Britain entangled in the struggle between rational pacifism and paranoid militarism. The Ambassadors of Death powerfully articulates the era's paranoid style: 'Conservatives feared that the very fabric of the state was under imminent threat' and radicals had a 'mistrust of political, military and business institutions'. (5) In the space of one serial we have an ex-astronaut, General Carrington, who uses the criminal underground to kidnap foreigners from outer space and who hoodwinks a government minister into believing the aliens are invaders, rather than the emissaries they really are, by linking them with the anti-democratic activities of 'foreign' powers.

It clearly signifies the escalating mistrust that industrialised societies now had in their respective governments and the military/industrial complex at the end of the 1960s. Carrington drags politicians, scientists and mercenaries into his conspiracy to exploit the alien ambassadors, with various consequences and outcomes for all the parties involved. The xenophobia of governments and individuals is a central theme that ties in with Wilson's 1966-70 term that witnessed growing public concern over the level of immigration to the UK. This tension was clearly dramatised by the infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech by the Conservative politician Enoch Powell, where his warning against the dangers of immigration was affecting enough to convince workers, who would neither consider themselves as 'racist' nor rabidly agree with his politics in general, to march in support of him.

Carrington, a figurehead for these concerns, is, ironically, also made very human by John Abineri’s skillful playing and is portrayed as a man who believes he’s doing the right thing. His 'moral duty' to protect the planet by starting a war is a repeated echo of history that is still relevant today. Hulke's view of the character runs parallel to the similar figures in Doctor Who and the Silurians, in the misguided scientist Dr. Quinn, the paranoid civil servant Lawrence and Carrington wannabe Major Baker. Much of this exploration of the extremes of left and right would also flavour Hulke's Invasion of the Dinosaurs in 1974.

Carrington convinces minister Sir James Quinlan of his opinion of the aliens who, as Minister of Technology in the story, is surely an analogue for Tony Benn's role in what was referred to as 'MinTech' during the Wilson government between 1966 and 1970. He also has a number of very ambiguous figures on his payroll, including scientists Lennox and Taltalian (whose motivations aren’t entirely clear), and he collaborates with the mercenary Reegan, certainly one of the nastiest characters in this season and wonderfully played by William Dysart. 

Carrington's attempts to blame 'foreign powers', argue the 'moral duty' is to blast the aliens out of the sky with nuclear missiles, and to try and question the Doctor's own authority and role, is sensitively handled in the final scene. The Doctor confronts Carrington and then allows him to surrender with dignity, demonstrating that he sympathetically recognises Carrington as a rational human being whose irrational hatred, a consequence of misunderstanding and miscommunication, has sent him down a moral dead end. He is the victim of circumstances beyond his understanding.
... an impressive performance from his false beard
The action-adventure aspects of Season 7, with the Doctor as action hero in the middle of political conspiracies, alien invasions and the schemes of mad scientists, reach new heights in The Ambassadors of Death, emulating The Avengers (think of The Positive Negative Man as an influence here) and the plethora of glossy ITC series of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Not only do we get HAVOC and Michael Ferguson pulling the stops out on some standout action sequences but we also stray into James Bond territory. The dynamism and grittiness of these ‘action thriller’ elements, given credence by the various gun battles, chases, dives off buildings, tumbling into weirs, brief case bombs, disguised bread vans and gas guns, which are present as strong Bondian elements, reposition the series as ‘action-adventure’.

This referencing of other cultural texts by the series reflects the way that the Bond franchise itself would shift into a parodic structure, 'playing on popular memory by referring to the earlier Bond films and to the more general figure of Bond [and] referring it to more influential genres within the contemporary cinema'. (6)  However, the filmed sequences of the attack at the warehouse and the car chase with Liz Shaw also anticipate the groundbreaking all film action series The Sweeney (1975-78).

These scenes and the gritty male severity of Reegan, with his cold despatch of the radiated corpses in the gravel pit, match the much harder, realistic thriller elements of the villains and gangsters in such seminal British films as Get Carter (1971). He epitomises a more amoral, crueler masculinity prevalent in the gangster sub-cultures of the UK that would feature in such films and television shows but he's also a gangster with an enterprising, free market attitude towards the aliens whom he believes he can use to rob banks and, ironically, à la Goldfinger (1964) break into Fort Knox.

This striving for realism goes further and Ferguson has Michael Wisher’s reporter directly addressing the camera to relate the events at the Space Centre in much the same way audiences would have seen or heard Apollo missions described in the early 1970s and is perhaps a pastiche of James Burke who had been covering Apollo on the telly. These faux pieces of reportage would crop up again in later seasons giving the series a verisimilitude that has been revived again recently in the new series. Wisher, playing the reporter John Wakefield, also 'acted' as if reading from a newsreaders autocue when the autocue machine the team had hired for that job had broken down. That's dedication to your craft.

Dedication permeates much of The Ambassadors of Death, with Ferguson eliciting serious performances from the supporting cast of Abineri and Dysart, the equally good Ronald Allen as stoic mission controller Ralph Cornish, Cyril Shaps as twitchy disgraced scientist Lennox, and committed work from Pertwee and Caroline John. In fact, John gets a huge amount to do across the seven episodes and Hulke's scripts manage to give her a fiercely independent streak where she can properly spar with the likes of Dysart.

The only other element letting the side down, apart from Liz Shaw's costume homage to Brian Jones and the magic trick with the computer tapes, is Robert Cawdron as Taltalian. His French accent errs towards the comedic and half the time he's battling against an impressive performance from his false beard. It should also be noted that this is John Levene's first appearance as Benton since The Invasion, making a last minute appearance in the story, and Geoffrey Beevers pops up as Private Johnson, a full eleven years before he makes his mark as the Master in 1981's The Keeper of Traken.

Ferguson produces some very slick work in studio, going for quick cuts, interesting profile and overhead shots, extending sets with CSO and generally trying to get cameras, equipment and effects to do interesting things. He also establishes the now iconic sting that will go on to scream into every cliffhanger until 1989 and provides a cracking set of said endings to show how well it can be done. With much of Season 7 still in shakedown mode, like many of his colleagues he can't resist mucking about with the series' titles and actually splits the opening titles with an episode reprise and declares the story's title with a less than successful electronic burp to announce the 'of Death' bit.

Dudley Simpson also contributes to the successful merging of sound and music in The Ambassadors of Death where he contributes a poetic and lyrical piece of incidental music to accompany the space suited aliens silhouetted in the sunlight as they carry out Reegan’s orders. He also provides the homage to 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Jacques Loussier, depending on your view, to Ian Scoones model sequences. There’s a strident theme for UNIT and some single plucked bass motifs to rack up the tension amidst more flurries, from the Radiophonic Workshop, of bizarre sonic messages from outer space, humming and throbbing noises coming from the Space Centre, its environs and Carrington’s secret laboratories.

The Ambassadors of Death is underrated. Terrance Dicks feels it isn't quite what Doctor Who should be and to an extent that's true as the thriller elements tend to dominate. The biggest problem is sustaining the story for the length of seven episodes and by episode five it does flag as the gears of the story, the conspiracy within a conspiracy element, become all too evident. The narrative does feel as if it is being pulled in various directions - alien encounter, spy thriller, space adventure, paranoid conspiracy - and that may be down to the various authors pitching in on the scripts. However, there is an awful lot to admire here and Ferguson's direction is often inspired and, combined with some genuinely good performances, he copes well with the bumpy narrative and hybrid genres.

(1) Tat Wood with Lawrence Miles, About Time 1970-74 / Seasons 7 to 11
(2) Shannon Patrick Sullivan, A Brief History of Time Travel, The Ambassadors of Death
(3) Michael Seely, - Re-Entry Forbidden review
(4) Francis Wheen, Strange Days Indeed - The Golden Age of Paranoia
(5) Ibid
(6) Christoph Lindner, The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader

Special features
Mention must go to the most special of features - the full restoration of colour to The Ambassadors of Death which previously existed as a mixture of black and white prints, off-air colour NTSC recordings and the only surviving colour PAL 2" quad tape, of episode one.

The VHS release could only present 90 minutes of additional colour using the off-air and 16mm black and white recordings but the advances made by the Colour Recovery Group and the Restoration Team have enabled the patterning that affected the Betamax recordings to be more or less overcome and better colour to be recovered from the chroma dots of the black and white 16mm films. Some of the painstaking work here is astonishing when you stop and think where the colour was recovered from.

Recorded in 2009, moderated by the ever reliable Toby Hadoke, and featuring actors Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Peter Halliday and Geoffrey Beevers, director Michael Ferguson, script editor Terrance Dicks, stunt coordinator Derek Ware and stunt men / members of HAVOC Roy Scammell and Derek Martin. Sadly since this was recorded we've had to say goodbye to three of the actors - Carry John, Nick and Peter - so this is often a bittersweet listening experience.

Dicks covers the Bryant and Sherwin format for the show and the 'troubled genesis' of the story, discusses the way the story was cobbled together by him, Trevor Ray and Mac Hulke. Ferguson reflects on casting, the new techniques he was able to employ - everything from the then 'brand new' CSO to lightweight, hand held video cameras, kicking video disc machines and the influence of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey on the music and model shots. Later, he recalls the expansion of a relatively minor scene ('a bicycle and a copper') into the action packed hijack and the recce and stunt work at Marlow Weir. He, Dicks and Courtney also pay their respects to producer Barry Letts and Jon Pertwee.

Ware takes us through the warehouse battle in episode one ('I think I get killed seven times') and is joined by his mates Roy Scammell and Derek Martin for a very amusing commentary on episode two. He explains how he came up with the idea for HAVOC - 'specialists in hazards' - and, after founding it in 1965, how the team worked with actors and directors on the show, including the practical jokes or the 'wind ups' as Derek Martin calls them. Ware notes how the advances in visual effects are now to the detriment of stunt work, placing human bodies in situations that defy gravity or laws of physics. Listen out for the lovely stories about 'gentle man' Ronnie Allen, the self-parodic style of John Levene ('his stand up is a sight to behold') and the late Alan Chuntz's kung-fu connection to the Krays. They all take us through the hijack of the capsule, the stunts and the mishaps on location and still manage to get some little digs at each other.

Carry John joins them in episode three to 'dilute the testosterone' and chat about the stunt sequence at Marlow Weir, her escapades driving Bessie and the dynamic between her, the other cast members and the stunt team. She also recalls watching the famous stunt by Roy Scammell in Inferno and Ware similarly remembers having to talk Pertwee into avoiding vertigo during the filming of that scene. John comments that the inclusion of more action sequences, the earthbound setting and the use of colour upgraded the series, making it more than a 'kid's show'. Pertwee was apparently very keen the acting should be top notch and advised John 'just use a four letter word, duckie' if she wanted to do a scene again.

Peter Halliday joins the commentary for episode six and he regales us with his work on the show, originally providing the voices for the Silurians, and then for the aliens in this story. He had of course previously appeared in The Invasion with Pat Troughton, as Tobias Vaughan's henchman Packer, and would go on to appear in Carnival of Monsters, City of Death and Remembrance of the Daleks. Geoffrey Beevers (Mr Caroline John) takes part in the chat on the final episode. 

Mars Probe 7: Making the Ambassadors of Death (25:52)
This nicely links the transmission of the story, and the series' own aim for more realism, with the real-life drama of the Apollo 13 accident that could have claimed the lives of astronauts Jim Lovell, John Swigert and Fred Haise when an oxygen tank exploded on the service module as they made their way to the Moon. Episode four went out on 11 April 1970, the day the mission launched from Kennedy Space Center and episode five had been shown by the time they returned to Earth on 17 April 1970. A case of art briefly mirroring life. 

Chris Chapman's excellent documentary then charts writer David Whitaker's attempts to produce a workable script just as the whole series underwent a revamp - new producer, new script editor, made in colour and with the Doctor earthbound. Terrance Dicks illuminates us on how he and Mac Hulke then contributed to the rewrites and pulled the serial into shape. 

Director Michael Ferguson outlines the production of the serial and the potential for action and how he developed the working relationship with Derek Ware and his stunt performers, HAVOC. Look out for some fantastic archive clips from what looks like a documentary, Dying for a Living, featuring a very buff Roy Scammell, Alan Chuntz being shot at, AFM Margot Hayhoe avidly describing motorcyclist Marc Boyle in his black leathers and some shower and sauna scenes with the lads. Is it warm in here? 

Ware and Ferguson describe how they put together episode one's big warehouse shootout and dragged up Roy Scammell ('he had extremely good legs') to double for Carry in the sequences at Marlow Weir where Liz almost ends up in the river. Margot Heyhoe also remembers that the crew had no idea that Carry was pregnant at the time, the trouble they had with space helmets steaming up and the legendary laundry-cum-bread van (named after her and director's assistant Pauline Silcock). And then there's that hijack of the space capsule where Ferguson and HAVOC have a field day at the expense of Barry Letts' nerves and budget and culminating in an unforeseen visit to hospital for Pauline Silcock.  

There's also a brief look at Ferguson's work in studio and how they simulated G-force on Pertwee's face, the highly effective model work and his manipulation of the cliffhangers and opening titles. Ferguson concludes that 'it was the most enjoyable times of my career' and this documentary is a particularly lovely tribute to him, to Derek Ware and the HAVOC stunt team and how they enjoyed 'playing' on Doctor Who.

Trailer (1:29)
Restored television trailer that plays like Quatermass meets James Bond and was transmitted just before an edition of The Debbie Reynolds Show.
Tomorrow's Times - The Third Doctor (13:08)
This edition is presented by Peter Purves and covers Pertwee's casting and the initial coverage of his stories ('he looks like Danny Kaye and sounds like Boris Karloff'). The suitability of the series for children is also mentioned, especially the controversial Terror of the Autons, as is the alleged violence of the show. There's also a look at the response to the 10th anniversary.
Photo Gallery (4:27)
Generous selection of colour and black and white material that covers official BBC publicity shots (some used on jigsaws in the 1970s, I recall) of the Doctor, Liz and the Brigadier with Bessie and the helicopter used in the action sequences, shots of the production and visual effects teams, set designs and candid on-location material.
PDF Materials
Radio Times listings for all seven episodes
Production Information Subtitles
Very well researched and written set of notes from Martin Wiggins that are chock full of facts and insights into the making of the story. A fascinating read.
Coming Soon
'Axos calling Earth!' Yes, the special edition of The Claws of Axos is on its way.

Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death
BBC Worldwide / Released 1 October 2012 / BBCDVD 3484 / Cert: PG
BBC 1970
7 episodes / Broadcast: 21 March – 2 May 1970 / Colour / Running time: 2:52:09

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