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Monthly Archives: January 2017

We come in peace: Looking back at the Doctor Who serial “The Ambassadors of Death” by Malcolm Hulke (1970)

ambassadors-1“The Ambassadors of Death”  is perhaps Mac Hulke’s least  satisfactory contribution to Doctor Who.  Originally called “The Carriers of Death,”  the serial  started life as a commission  for David Whitaker in 1968.  Whitaker was Doctor Who‘s  first story editor, overseeing some 51 episodes in the series’ first year. He also wrote a number serials,  including “The Crusade” (1965), “The Power of the Daleks” (1966)   and  “The Wheel in Space” (1968).

Despite this pedigree Whitaker’s script on the theme of aliens landing on Earth was  deemed unsatisfactory by the production team: his rewrites even less so. Eventually Terrance Dicks decided that Whitaker was never going to be able to produce a satisfactory script  and it was agreed in November 1969 that he  would be paid for his work and a new writer brought in.  Whitaker would still be credited as the writer, which seems quite generous. According to Dicks, Whitaker was relieved at being off the story.

Terrance Dicks called in his old friend Mac Hulke, with whom he had worked on The Avengers in the early 1960s  and  on “The War  Games,” a  10 week serial  which  they wrote together at great  haste in early 1969,  and featured Patrick Troughton’s final appearance as The Doctor.  It seems that  Terrance and Mac  worked together on this seven part serial,  now renamed “The Ambassadors of Death.”

ambassadors-2The story centres on a British spaceship Recovery Seven,  sent into space to investigate what has happened to the previous  Mars Probe  Seven.  It locates the  ship,   but then stops communicating. The Doctor and the Brigadier  are called in,  who  succeed in tracing  a mysterious signal to the Probe to a warehouse where a gun battle takes place with a number of military men commanded by a General Carrington.

Probe Seven returns to  Earth  with three occupants, who are  seized by Carrington’s men  in a dramatic scene. Carrington tells the Doctor and the Brigadier that it was neccessary to put the astronauts into protective custody as they had been infected by radiation. However, the Doctor believes that they are not the human astronauts. They  are now seized by Reegan, a man working for Carrington,   and  kept in a sealed  room where they are fed radiation.

The Doctor goes into  space and is taken into an alien ship where he learns that the earth astronauts are on board:  the astronauts on Earth are in fact   ambassadors from the aliens, who  threaten war unless they are returned.  Reegan kidnaps the Doctor’s assistant, Dr. Liz Shaw,  and makes her  work looking after the astronauts. He  forces the aliens to carry out raids, killing people with one touch with intense radiation, and also kidnaps the Doctor when he returns to Earth.

Meanwhile Carrington is planning  a global television. We learn  that he was on a previous Mars probe when his fellow astronaut was  killed by a touch from the aliens, and he believes  that they are a threat  to the whole world. He intends to show them on television  and call on the world to destroy the alien ship. The Doctor and Liz are rescued by the Brigadier and stop the broadcast. Carrington is taken into custody: the aliens will be returned to their ship.

One of the familar themes in Mac Hulke’s work, derived perhaps  from his membership of the Communist Party,  is  the notion that what we are being shown or being told is not really what is going. His work for Doctor Who often features a conspiracy which  is manipulating  events from behind the scenes; in this  serial  and in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” it’s soldiers, politicians  and scientists;  in ” Frontier in Space” it’s  the Daleks; in “Colony in Space”  it’s the IMC mining expedition.

The Doctor plays much the same role as he did in “The Silurians,” seeking to mediate and prevent conflict.  He tells the alien commander; “Now let me go back to Earth and I will give you my personal l assurances that your ambassadors will be retuned to you.” And  is often the case in Mac Huike’s work even  the anti-hero Carrington is shown driven  not by personal greed or adesire for power,  but a mistaken belief  in an alien threat.

CARRINGTON: I had to do what I did. It was my moral duty. You do understand, don’t you?
DOCTOR: Yes, General. I understand

There seems  quite a big nod  to the first Quatermass serial The Quatermass Experiment (1953)  in which a space expedition returns  to Earth with a single astronaut instead of the three sent into space; it transpires that an  infection  from space has merged them tnto a single alien  entity. The idea of the astronauts carrying out raids and killing with a single touch harks back to two Avengers serials:  “The Cybernauts” (1965)  in which a robot created by Dr. Clement Armstrong (Michael Gough) is sent to kill his business rivals; and The Positive Negative Man (1967)   in which a scientist (Ray McNally) harnesses  electricity within a human body  and sends out  a man to kill with a touch.

ambassadors-3What  might have worked as a four part serial becomes quite threadbare when stretched over seven parts, leaving the viewer sufficient to time to ponder on some of the more improbable aspects of the  plot. Why is  the space control centre in charge of  the Mars probe expedition run by just four people? If the aliens are so powerful judging by the size of their ship, why not simply swoop down and rescue their ambassadors? Why is Reegan single-handedly able to run rings around UNIT, kidnapping and killing  at will? Why is  the space scientist Taltalian, who holds the Doctor and Liz Shaw  at  gunpoint in episode 2,  allowed to carry on working there and the incident  forgotten, after which he plants a bomb and tries to blow up the Doctor? And finally where did Liz Shaw buy her stylish hat?

The  serial enlivened by the set piece action sequences ie the gun  fight in the warehouse  and the seizure of the capsule in which Havoc, the stunt company run by Derek Ware,  pulls out all the stops and turn the scenes  into something resembling a James Bond film on a fraction of the budget.  Liz Shaw (or rather Roy Scammell, a stuntman standing in for Caroline  John, is dramatically  chased by villains  across Marlow Weir. The outdoor scenes with the astronauts shot against a low sun, with accompanying eerie music,  work well.

I was surprised on watching it again at the level  of casual violence  in a children’s tea-time serial. For instance  two of Reegan’s  operatives die  from radiation  when they get into a van with the aliens  and are just dumped in a gravel pit. Perhaps we children and teenagers  in the 1970s were tougher than t0day…

Overall not a classic.

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