The Ambassadors of Death

Written by:
David Whitaker
Directed by: Michael Ferguson
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1970
Video Availability: Try

Well, whadda ya know? UK Gold are showing the colour episode one. I've already forwarded ahead and so I know that episode two, at least, goes to black and white, and I suspect they won't do the bw/colour mix of the VHS release. And no continuity announcement to explain it either.

This is actually the first time I've seen any colour footage from the story. For some completely inexplicable reason Ambassadors used to be regarded as one of Who's all-time turkeys, a fact which still baffles me to this day. I would say that the colour - making the CSO very obvious - dented its initial appeal, but then the video release has seen it only improve in fan approval.

One strange thing about this one is the first usage of a "TV Presenter" to deliver exposition straight to camera. It's always struck me as rather a dated affectation of the Pertwee years, and distracted me no end when I saw it for the first time in The Daemons. Here it's arguably better - or is that worse? - as it's played straight in a very straight story by Michael Wisher. In fact, Ambassadors is so po-faced that any such eccentricities stand out all the more.

Bizarre moments here include an incredibly slow docking procedure set to what sounds like Procul Harem recorded on a bontempi organ. While there is a bit of nonsense to pad out this establishing episode, most notably the Tardis teleporting scene, it is nice to see continuity achieved with the Doctor's anger over the Silurians expressed.

Last time I saw this story I really enjoyed it, so I feel at liberty to take pot shots at the first episode, knowing that overall I'll be raving about it. So here I can knock the cod Frenchman with his silly stuck-on beard, and the gratuitous (though refreshingly violent) UNIT battle at the warehouse that lasts for three minutes. I can slate the cheesy stock footage of satellite radar, and snide at the direction, which can be intelligent, but often looks stilted and staged.

Jon's Doctor again plays detective, which is a rewarding aspect of his early characterisation. Also entertaining is the sheer rude arrogance of the third Doctor in his first season. When Jon's performance got lazier, it became easier to assume that Jon was just playing himself - consequently you'd think Jon wasn't a very nice guy. (And certainly I've heard an audio interview with him where he's just as blunt and moody as he is on screen here). Yet in season seven it's clearly a performance, almost like what Colin Baker tried to do, accept here it's successful. So it is that the eccentrically dressed man is a genius who not only doesn't suffer fools but will be downright rude to them.
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You remember how I talked about incredulous scenes that should never have happened in my review of The Mind Robber? Well, we're presented with more of the same here in a completely ridiculous "transmigration of object" scene that defies logic. By contrast, the also-slated "anti-thief device" (sic) is quite likeable.

Carry On lovers might get a puerile snigger out of Jon saying to Courtney "I'll be back for re-entry - are you coming?" though should know better. My God, this episode is padded, though. I'm not saying they didn't have enough plot, but over four and a half minutes are without dialogue, and feature UNIT trying unsuccessfully to transport the shuttle pod across country. Having said that, it is nice to see a Who story with an excessive budget, and I did still enjoy the thing.
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This is the third time I've seen Ambassadors, and sadly I'm not terribly impressed on third viewing. It's not bad by any means, and is still just above average, but it's a step down after the superb Silurians, when I remembered it as a step up.

Maybe the problem is that I watched it more or less in one go last time, where the story began to emerge nicely. Seen in the purest essence of episode-by-episode and it's obvious how padded it all truly is. And after the prior story it also becomes clear that the characters lack the same motivations and complexity. Although heavily edited from his scripts, this is still a disappointing bow-out for David Power of the Daleks Whitaker.

As for episode three, then there's little to say to be honest, other than noting Liz looks like Brian Jones in that hat. And when she's running for her life all there is music-wise is a little reed pipe. Dramatic stuff. Come on, love, do you really think a mini skirt and high heels are the ideal dresswear for such an active lifestyle?
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Some cynics might claim that having the viewers know who the undercover villain is right from the first episode is a little bit of a wrong achievement. But that's overlooked here for an exciting episode where Liz escapes ... only to be recaptured again.

Whoever would have thought the English scientist Talunpronouncable would have recaptured her? What's that? He's not English? He's French? But only location he... oh, never mind. Perhaps sole amusement garnered from this one is the Brigadier saying, without any trace of irony, that Tartullian being killed is "another dead end."
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The archive quality of this episode is notably poorer than the proceeding four, giving it a darker, more 60s look. In fact, with the noirish lighting and Krotons sound effect (for the alien communicator - it makes the same noise as their snake robot thingy) it's one of the few reminders that this is the season after season six. Have any two concurrent seasons been so radically different in style?

One thing I haven't mentioned is the commendable realism in this one, with it all played straight and car/space journeys taking a reasonable amount of time onscreen. Though realism isn't necessarily narratively interesting, but there are some nice shots of a gasworks here.

Music is another thing. The light jazz/repetitive clangs jar a little, though this is of course the first story to introduce the end titles "sting". I also suspect that the model rocket take-off towards the end of this episode looked extremely crap in colour, but then I've no way of knowing for sure.

This is the best of the five so far, though still disappointingly less than I'd recalled. I actually found it better than The Silurians before - maybe I was drunk?
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I hadn't really clocked it before, but there's a shot in this one where Jon's wearing a bathrobe - the only Doctor to do so until Davison in Black Orchid? Anyway, there's some interesting stuff in this one, with a spacecraft that looks similar to the Axon craft (not a criticism). I strongly suspect it looks rank in colour, but as I'm watching in b/w it's passable.

The aliens aren't all that impressive, mainly being a hand-waving guy with dreadlocks who lives behind a venetian blind. But I won't complain. I won't even mention the fact that the UNIT guard on the gate was killed last episode, cos everyone always does, though the fact that things actually happen this episode does make you realise how padded it all actually is. The plot - aliens send ambassadors who get captured, causing the aliens to think we're hostile - is paperthin, and, even with the racial analogy (two in a row now) can't support more than four or five parts, let alone seven. There's an amusing shot in this one towards the end where the Doctor gets a look right up Liz's skirt - no wonder he soon comes round.
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"We must protect the world... it's our moral duty." Suddenly, with that one line, the serial has obtained a whole new topicality that it didn't initially possess. The story of a high-ranking man, Hell-bent on going to war no matter what argument is put before him? Hmmmm... It's things like that that almost gain the story - and certainly gain this episode - a four-star rating.

I dunno know about these aliens though, you know. Their touch (even through gloves!) can kill... so is their biological make-up so radically different not only any person they touch but any object can be rendered inoperable? Presumably it's an electric current, maybe static or something, but if even by touching inanimate objects then won't they generate the same current when they... you know... touch themselves?

Anyway, it's possible to misinterpret Jon's sorrowful, subtle condemnation of the General's "moral war", so ambiguous is his reaction. This is truly superb, a serial that treats its audience with respect, without having to spell it out in foot-high letters. Sadly this form of storytelling was almost completely abandoned for the rest of the third Doctor's era where even in entertaining fluff like Invasion of the Dinosaurs the "moral of the week" would be delivered like a sermon by Saint Jon.

There's some time-filling girl fighting from the Brig to pad out the end of this one, leading inevitably to the confrontational climax. Again, Jon doesn't get on his soap box, but shows understanding - not agreeance, note, but understanding - of the General's motives. No real villains, no black and white workings. Just one decent story that could have been even better.
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Well-meaning yet overlong, this is the weakest season seven story yet still no turkey. Sometimes I love it, others, such as on this occasion, I merely find it average or thereabouts. I guess that says something about the subjective quality of Who stories, particularly one as lengthy and padded as this.
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