26 March 2017

Why don't people like The Ambassadors of Death?

There are a number of Doctor Who stories people just don't seem to have taken to and `The Ambassadors of Death` is high up that list. People says its too slow, that it doesn't have the same weight as it's contemporaries on the 1970 series. I say give it a chance! Without it that season would be a poorer place indeed. Whatever else you might think of it `The Ambassadors of Death` never looks silly. It may seem absurdly naive in its depiction of (literal) rocket science, it may take some liberties with its time frame and it may play out sluggishly for modern viewers but not once does it look silly. More than that though, at times, `Ambassadors` is hard as nails. It shows the sort of things that you’d probably not even be allowed to show at teatime nowadays and it does it with such panache that you can only doff your cap.

That the story turns out to be so coherent when it was written by three people is surprising. David Whitaker, Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks are such different types of script writers it is tempting to speculate which aspects of the story they penned. You can possibly best see Hulke’s work in the themes. There is a moral clash, a cultural misunderstanding at the heart of what is happening and we are given both sides of the argument. Whitaker is supposed to have supplied the overall concept and it may be his intricately detailed technical script that dominates the first third. As for Dicks it is likely he introduced more peril- I may be wrong but surely the whole Liz escaping and nearly falling into the weir is his? We’ll probably never know but the end result is that the script still appears to be the work of one writer. It may lack some pace though ironically some events are unbelievably truncated (how long does it take to prepare a rocket?) but it is never found to be wanting in coherence. Even obvious fillers impress; unlike `Inferno` for example this story never drags. You end up feeling the opposite, that it is rushed.
Whoever wrote which bit, it would appear all three writers took their cues from the then burgeoning thriller genre. The cast is full of untrustworthy types whether distinguished scientists like Taltalian or brutish career criminals like Regan; from the top to the bottom the criminal fraternity is out in force. It’s their motives that are different. Regan for example is so hard he doesn’t care whether the astronauts are really aliens or not, he just wants to rob banks. Taltalian and Lennox are both very clever but weak willed. General Carrington is simply doing his “moral duty”, a phrase he repeats  several times in the latter episodes and finally in defeat. 

The regulars’ part in all this is interesting. Liz Shaw is mostly sidelined in what is a very male story. The only other women we see are dull voiced assistants at space control. Their job is to read stats and make status reports but they wear eyeliner and make up more suited to a night out. Talented as Caroline John is you can see why Liz didn’t really work too well; she is too similar to the Doctor, too intelligent. The person who really benefits from the scenario is the Brigadier. He is a real character here and gets to act sensibly and successfully. His rapport with the Doctor is easy, casual and co-operative. It is possibly Nick Courtney’s best overall performance in the show. The Doctor himself is used as another piece of the jigsaw and seems more on a par with others. While he steps up to the plate to pilot a spacecraft, much of the action is left to UNIT. Still easing into the role, Jon Pertwee's Doctor seems more human than ever in many respects.
Of course, from this distance we recall many old stories from their best known moments and `Ambassadors` has plenty of impressive ones. The action set pieces are peerlessly shot with director Michael Ferguson adding a feature film grit to each. The factory shoot out and hijacking of the capsule are pinpoint sharp and full blooded. Ferguson’s cameras duck and dive with the action, zooming and sweeping about to give an impression of mayhem. The Havoc stunt team do a fantastic job too.
Completely different in mood is the way the aliens are presented. The iconic space suit look and steady walk is accompanied not by some spooky clanging as you’d expect but by a haunting few bars that might accompany footage of something pretty. In a similar way the capsules dock to the strains of a tune not unlike `A Whiter Shade of Pale`. The incidental music is exemplary throughout, introducing a sort of late 60s cool vibe to proceedings.

When released on DVD the story had been colourised so we finally discovered the charge that goes off when the aliens touch someone is red. Perhaps the best moment is when Liz is trapped in the room when one of the aliens removes its helmet. The whole thing is done in a series of sharp flashes with the camera simultaneously pulling in. The design of their face is, according to my notes, `melting blue cheese` and it’s a shame we don’t see it more than just this once. When we do the aliens on their own ship it is behind what look like window blinds and distortion effects. 
The sense of atmosphere is carried thorough in other subtle ways too. The calm in the space centre centred around Ronald Allen’s professional sounding Ralph Cornish can make us believe anything. We trust him so much that he can utter what is probably technical baloney and we believe it and in a story like this that is important. The criminals too have an air that makes them convincing. The story revels in small details and getting things right or at least looking right. It is ultimately this provenance that sells `Ambassadors of Death`, a story so confident in its delivery, so well put together and so well developed that its flaws melt away. 

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