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Category Archives: Malcolm Hulke

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

ambassadors-1“The Ambassadors of Death”  is perhaps Malcolm 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 of  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 script editor  Terrance Dicks decided that Whitaker was never going to be able to produce a satisfactory script:  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  quite relieved at being off the story.

Dicks  now 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  sent to the Probe from Earth  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 discovers  that the earth astronauts are on board. T he 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 a single  touch with intense radiation, and also kidnaps the Doctor when he returns to Earth.

Meanwhile Carrington is planning  a global television broadcast. 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?

The Doctor; Yes, General. I understand.

There  is  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 into 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, also shot in Marlow at the Little Marlow sewage works.

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 teenagers  in the 1970s were tougher than today…

Overall not a classic.

“This is our planet…”: looking back at the classic serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” by Malcolm Hulke, (1970)

“Doctor Who and the Silurians” was the first script by Malcolm (Mac) Hulke for the new team  now running Doctor Who, ie producer  Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. Terrance  and  Mac were old friends,  having worked together to  write episodes for The Avengers  in the early 1960s. Mac then wrote two serials for Doctor Who in the late 1960s: “The Faceless Ones” (1967)  and “The War Games” (1969), the final serial of the Patrick Troughton era. I have written about Mac’s career here.

In an interview Mac  commented that Doctor Who is “a very political show. Remember what politics refers to, it refers to relationships between groups of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean left or right…so all Doctor Who’s are political, even though the other group of people are reptiles, they’re still a group of people”. Mac says of this serial  that  he was asked to do something in caves,  and that in science fiction there are only two stories. ”They come to us or we go to them and I thought, they come to us but they’ve always been here.

silurians-5

In a previous post “the Doctor who fell to earth”  I have  written about the first Jon Pertwee serial, “Spearhead from Space”. This second serial it establishes his character  more firmly as a somewhat  brusque and patrician figure, impatient  with  authority in all its forms;  and also as a scientist, with the Doctor spending a good deal of time in the laboratory in this  serial. He is  also a man of action, acquiring a fast bright yellow retro car nicknamed  “Bessie”, and venturing into the caves several times on his own.

The story begins with UNIT being called into  investigate  unexplained incidents and  power losses at an experimental  nuclear reactor  beneath Wenley Moor, with the reluctant consent  of the Project  Director, Lawrence.  We eventually learn that these are being caused by the Silurians, a highly  intelligent and technologically advanced  reptile race race who once ruled the earth  tens of millions of years ago and who  retreated underground into hibernation  when they believed that the surface of the Earth   would be destroyed by an approaching small planetary body, possibly  the Moon.

Their technology failed them , and they did not revive until they were disturbed by the building of the  reactor.  The Doctor attempts to negotiate peace but fails, and hostilities commence. The  Silurians plant a virus among humans which spreads quickly until the Doctor finds a cure. He also defeats their attempt to use the nuclear reactor to destroy the Van Allen belt and make the earth uninhabitable for humans, but not  for Silurians.  At the end of the serial  UNIT blows up the Silurians’  caves.

Key  themes in  the serial are the Doctor’s  strong disapproval of the military mindset of shooting first, and  asking questions later, and  his attempts to broker peace between hostile forces. This  is surely inspired by the Cold War in which the West and the Soviet Union had vast  arsenals of weapons pointing at each other. By some miracle a nuclear war never took place. This  was a theme that Mac would return to in future serials for Doctor Who.

silurians-1In episode two,  as UNIT  head to the caves equipped with small arms and grenades,  the Doctor  comments  to  his companion Liz Shaw,“That’s typical of the military mind, isn’t it? Present  them with a new problem  and they start shooting at it” adding “It’s not the only way you know, blasting away at things.”

When he meets  a Silurian for the first time in Quinn’s  cottage in episode three,  the Doctor  offers his hand and says, “Look, do you understand me?… What do you people want? How can we help you?…unless you Silurians tell us what you want  the humans will destroy you”. He tells the Brigadier that what is needed is “a planned, cautious, scientific investigation of those caves. Not an invasion by a lot of big-booted soldiers.” Later in the episode he has an exchange with Liz after she has been attacked by a Silurian.

DOCTOR: Liz, these creatures aren’t just animals. They’re an alien life form, as intelligent as we are.
LIZ: Why didn’t you tell the Brigadier?
DOCTOR: Because I want to find out more about these creatures. They’re not necessarily hostile.
LIZ: Doctor, it attacked me.
DOCTOR: Yes, but only to escape. It didn’t kill you. It didn’t attack me when I was in Quinn’s cottage. Well, don’t you see? They only attack for survival. Well, human beings behave in very much the same way

In episode four when the Brigadier asks what weapons the Silurians have, the Doctor responds “spoken like true soldier” and says “so far they have only attacked in self-defence, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.” He goes to warn the Silurians that  the UNIT soldiers are coming, “I want there to be peace between you and the humans. This is their planet now.”  The Silurian leader  agrees to a peace, but is killed by his  younger subordinate who wants a war with the humans.

silurians-3In episode six,  as the Doctor races to find  a cure for the plague, he  is still hoping for a peaceful outcome, pleading  that “at all costs we must avoid a pitched battle.”  In the seventh and  final episode the Doctor tells the Brigadier that he wants to revive the Silurians one at a time,  “there is a wealth of scientific knowledge down here..and I can’t wait to get started on it.”.  But unknown to the Doctor , UNIT  has planted  explosives which  detonate as he and Liz look across the moor.

DOCTOR: The Brigadier. He’s blown up the Silurian base.
LIZ: He must have had orders from the Ministry.
DOCTOR: And you knew?
LIZ: No! The government were frightened. They just couldn’t take the risk.
DOCTOR: But that’s murder. They were intelligent alien beings. A whole race of them. And he’s just wiped them out.

Another theme of the serial is the danger of seeking scientific knowledge without  moral responsibility. The project  Director,  Lawrence,  continually complains about UNIT and the Doctor, demanding to be allowed to get back to running  the reactor and achieving his goal of “cheap, safe, atomic energy”. He refuses to accept any of the Doctor’s warnings,  and also refuses to accept the reality of the Silurian plague, even when he has clearly caught it himself.

Quinn, a scientist who works at the centre and who first discovered the Silurians, gives them  help because they have promised to  reveal some of their  scientific secrets. He imprisons one  of the Silurians  in his cottage to force it to give him their  knowledge, but it kills him.

silurians-4Finally the Doctor’s companion Liz  has been  given a bit of a makeover  from  “Spearhead from Space”, no longer quite as prim and proper,  now sporting fashionable  short skirts and longer hair.  She is  often the only woman in  a world of men  – soldiers, scientists, civil servants etc  – who frequently  patronise her,  and she  has to assert herself.  In   episode two  she objects to being left behind when the rest of them head off to the caves, asking  the Brigadier, “Have you never heard of women’s emancipation?” In episode  four she does go into the caves  with the Doctor. In episode six , when the Brigadier  asks  her to man the phones  Liz snaps back,  “I am scientist,  not an office boy.”   In 1970 the Women’s  Liberation Movement  was  beginning to make its voice heard, something that a writer as politically  attuned as Mac was  would surely  have noticed.

You can read Mac Hulke’s  script of this serial  here

 

Where have I seen them before?

Peter Miles who plays   Lawrence also appears in “Genesis of the Daleks”  as Nyder and in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (also written by Mac Hulke) as Professor Whittaker.

Paul Darrow (Captain Hawkins) played Avon in the long-runnning television science fiction series Blake’s Seven.