Monday, December 22, 2014

"The Ambassadors of Death"

Aired Mar. 21 - May 2, 1970

7 Episodes

Story 53

Written by David Whitaker

Directed by Michael Ferguson


The British Space Programme has lost contact with their manned mission to Mars. Space Control has had no contact with the astronauts on board Mars Probe 7 for seven months, and as the craft makes it way back to Earth's orbit, the Recovery 7 rescue mission is sent up to meet it and uncover the problem. When the astronaut on board Recovery 7 links up with Mars Probe 7, contact is again lost, and the Brigadier calls in the Doctor to assist with the investigation. 

Recovery 7 does manage to return to Earth, seemingly with all of the astronauts inside, but they are kidnapped after landing. Examining the capsule, Liz notices that the Geiger counter is reading at maximum.

The astronauts have been abducted by henchmen working for General Carrington, a xenophobic ex-astronaut in charge of space security. Constantly kept in their space suits within a sealed chamber, the trio need radiation to survive, and their touch is both destructive and deadly. Carrington's men have abducted Liz and are using her to study the trio, and even work out a way to force them to do their bidding. 

Making a solo flight in Recovery, the Doctor docks with Mars Probe 7, which is then overtaken by a huge alien spaceship. Taken on board, the Doctor discovers that the three Earth astronauts are being held unharmed. The trio sent to Earth are, in fact, ambassadors from an alien society. The aliens' Captain threatens to destroy the Earth unless they are released.

The Doctor returns to Earth, and Space Control, discovering that General Carrington wants to discredit the aliens and convince the world to attack them. The Doctor and UNIT are able to thwart his plans and arrange the safe exchange of ambassadors for astronauts.

The Ambassadors of Death, like the first two stories in season 7, is a very different animal from what viewers had come to expect from Doctor Who over the series' first six seasons. This is immediately made clear by how the story generates its tension and suspense. The scripts by David Whitaker (with substantial uncredited rewrites by assistant editor Trevor Ray, Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke) are structured very well, with an adult tone that relies on atmosphere and sharply drawn characters to create intrigue. Director Michael Ferguson wisely picks up on the strengths of the material and chooses to pace the story more slowly than Doctor Who typically did, but he avoids the story becoming dull by slowly and steadily ratcheting up the tension and suspense. And it is a hugely tense story, even though I'd have to say the plot is relatively simple and direct. But the story is packed with enough interesting and diverse characters who are all well-performed, and it's directed so well, that only intermittently are you aware that there isn't really a lot of incident.  

Yet, while the story feels in keeping with this season's attempt to turn the series into a more adult and sophisticated show, it is still wholly Doctor Who in many ways.  The ambassadors are classic scary monsters for most of the story, but, in the new style, are revealed to not be sinister at all, merely pawns. There are villains in this story, but not only are they human, they all have clearly defined, relatable, motivations, which is quite remarkable for a series that had previously relied on simple characters that did evil because they were “evil”.

As much as I loved the story, I can concede that it would be possible for someone to find it boring. But I think that's a result of modern storytelling expectations mixed with preconceived notions of what Doctor Who stories "should be." If you can come in with an open mind, The Ambassadors of Death is one of the most rewarding stories out there. 

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