7.3 – “The Ambassadors Of Death”
The British Space Exploration Programme has lost contact with the astronauts on their Mars Probe. A shuttle is sent to find out what happened to them, only for the BSEP to lose contact with them as well. When the shuttle does return to Earth, the astronauts aren’t who they seem to be and The Doctor, Liz and UNIT are on hand to deal with the consequences.
The third story in the Third Doctor’s era had started life as an adventure for the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe. Re-worked to suit the new era, it was much edited/added to by Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and Trevor Roy, after David Whittaker had trouble re-writing the story for Pertwee and the UNIT team’s time and setting. Whittaker was left as the only credited writer and it was his last story for the Doctor Who.
In some respects, it’s another fine example of the strengths of this season. The contemporary setting and Earth-bound situation work well with the budgetary constraints. The use of then current space programme technology makes it seem realistic and the effects aren’t a stretch of the imagination. The eerie, impossible astronauts provide a proper creepfest. And we even get Sgt. Benton (first seen in “The Invasion” in 1968) returning to the UNIT fold.
It is heavily indebted to The Quatermass Experiment, following its storyline of astronauts returning to earth and bringing peril with them after an alien encounter but, even with the heavy lift of a storyline from an earlier science fiction classic, “The Ambassadors Of Death” proves to be a solid tale. The Doctor is in the thick of the action from the get go; getting involved with Space Programme leader Cornish, piloting the search probe, locating the original astronauts, getting gassed and kidnapped before finally negotiating the release of the astronauts once the alien ambassadors are returned home.
The main issue with the story is that, after a promising start, it becomes a meandering and dragged-out 7 parter. So what would have made a snappy and classic 4 parter struggles to live up to the solid beginning due to a lack of material to justify the 7 episode format. With stories from this period, its sometimes difficult to say whether this is a general issue that was evident at the time, or whether its more down to feeling slow and plodding compared to the modern feel of faster paced television generally. Judging by the issues the production team had in the execution of the writing and filming, that does seem to have caused the plod in this instance.
Interesting casting of note, a pre-Master Geoffrey Beevers is here as a UNIT’s Private Johnson. Ronald Allen returns as Cornish after having appeared in “The Dominators”.
“The Ambassadors Of Death” is a good offering. A solid and interesting story with lots for The Doctor, Liz and UNIT to get their teeth into, but its let down by being a bit over-long and losing out on the initial pace of the story, slowing to a bit of a plod. The good bits are good (even if they are a bit derivative of Quatermass) and its worthy of a watch, just not quite as good as it should be. But then, it can’t be “Spearhead From Space” every week. A watchable 6/10.
Written and edited by Gavin Dunbar