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From Mars With Love
on 4 October 2014
There was always a hint of James Bond about the Third Doctor and `The Ambassadors of Death' has more than `a hint'. It's a budget-busting science fiction action thriller showcasing all that was best about the UNIT era of `Doctor Who' and Jon Pertwee's first season as the Doctor.
If you've already seen `Inferno' and didn't like it, then you might choose to make a diplomatic excuse and avoid this story. But if you enjoy the unique style of season seven as much as I do, then I'm sure you'll give this ambassador from 1970 a great reception. 5*
Mars Probe 7 is almost home from the Red Planet, in total radio silence. The recovery pilot meets it in orbit - then a scream, and silence again. Something landed back in England - but something not of this world. So where are the three astronauts? And if there were aliens in the landing capsule, where are they now?
As a seven-parter, this is a long and complex story, as was the story of its creation from a Patrick Troughton era show by David Whitaker via multiple rewrites and three more authors, Trevor Ray and Pertwee-era legends Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. There are a couple of moments when the plot leaves a loose end but overall it's a remarkably good result.
Episode 1 was remastered from the original colour materials and looks superb. The remaining episodes are a technical triumph, re-coloured by merging the surviving mono film with residual colour signal that was left within the mono material - much as the Doctor extracts a hidden message from the alien radio signal in this story! A huge amount of work must have gone into producing such a great result, with fine details and well-balanced colour. It looks as though episode 3 was the most difficult to restore, the colour is relatively faded for a moment or two compared with the rest, but even here the results are still very good. An amazing restoration, it's wonderful to be able to watch this whole story in colour and the soundtrack is also excellent.
This review has turned out almost as long as the story so thanks if you reach the finish! I knew almost nothing about this story and had the pleasure of watching it `fresh', split over two evenings - and finished the first session in a state of some confusion! But that's a compliment - this is a convoluted thriller that keeps you guessing for a long time.
Alien invasion? Government cover-up? Misguided patriots? Rogue elements? Foreign agents? Criminals? All of these? I don't envy the original audience trying to keep track of this story, spread over seven weeks, but viewed over a much shorter time from this DVD release it's great fun following the Doctor's and Brigadier's investigations. Jon Pertwee and Nicholas Courtney could have shared star billing for this story, with two splendid performances as usual. From an edgy start (the Doctor is still angry about the Brig's military solution to the Silurians), it's a pleasure to watch their friendship and mutual trust developing over the course of seven episodes. If the Brigadier needs the Doctor's scientific genius again, in this story the Doctor more than ever needs the firepower of UNIT to back him up.
Matters aren't helped by General Carrington (a former Mars Probe astronaut himself) conducting what appears to be a `turf war' between his national space security agency and the international team from UNIT. John Abineri gives an excellent performance, with ample time for the character to develop over the long story. Another notable guest performance is William Dysart as Reegan, a very professional villain who is utterly immoral and ruthless but who is strangely hard to dislike - almost a human preview of the Master who would feature so strongly in the next season. I noticed the commentary also picked up on this similarity of characters, but didn't comment on whether it was a coincidence or if Reegan inspired the Master's creation in some way?
Caroline John has a good strong script for Liz Shaw and makes the most of it, with her own action sequences and sub-plot which keeps her separated from the Doctor for much of the story. Yes, she is held prisoner (the job of a companion!) but within that traditional role Dr. Liz Shaw the scientist is very active, helping the Doctor and UNIT from within the villains' lair and giving us an inside view from their perspective. Cyril Shaps is a wonderfully troubled (ex-)Dr. Lennox; in this story even some of those on the villains' side have consciences.
In many ways the real stars of `Ambassadors' are director Michael Ferguson and the stunt team. Filmed in the bleak midwinter, with misty views, low sun angles and industrial landscapes, this story has some of the best location filming ever in `Doctor Who', and lots of it. And where there's a location, there's a stunt - the stuntmen of HAVOC make their first combined appearance in the show and what a spectacular one it is! Every episode has its action sequence and they're first class. An unusual two-part title structure has the recap before the story title and there are some terrific cliff-hangers - the one for episode 4 is likely to send a shiver down your spine at any age! - and each is highlighted by the now-famous `scream' of the closing music, first used in this story.
While UNIT try to keep things under control on Earth, the Doctor has to head into space himself - and with no working TARDIS he's forced to use our primitive technology. The rocket sequences are impressively done with very good model work and music, and clever filming to create `weightless' conditions. The space capsule, mission control and techno-chat are convincing, as are Ronald Allen as unflappable mission controller Ralph Cornish and Michael Wisher as the TV newsman. And they needed to be convincing - this series was broadcast at the height of the Apollo missions when real-life spaceflight regularly appeared on TV. Incredibly, as the DVD documentary points out, the Doctor's rescue mission in this story was broadcast exactly coinciding with the actual rescue-from-disaster events of Apollo 13: you couldn't make it up!
As this is `Doctor Who', there are of course real aliens; so alien that not even the Doctor can understand them without a translating device, mysterious, almost invisible behind fogged-up visors and actually quite creepy - fear of the unknown is a strong theme in this story and for once not everything is explained, named or neatly tidied away. Viewed from the outside, the alien spacecraft is not convincing but the sequence of the Doctor's arrival within the alien craft is excellent and imaginative.
The ending seems quite abrupt, but it needs to be seen in the context of this season, the Doctor's first in exile. If he sometimes seems quite short-tempered and in a hurry to get back to his own lab, he is! To him, everything that has happened is just a tiresome nuisance, a distraction from his own work - to fix the TARDIS, break free from the exile imposed on him by the Time Lords and return to his travels. And with Liz Shaw and UNIT to tidy up the loose ends he knows he's leaving matters in safe hands.
Their Excellencies `The Ambassadors of Death' are another five-star class act in the DVD range and well worth giving an audience to. 5*
DVD Special Features:
The enjoyable commentary manages to sustain interest through all seven episodes, thanks to the great line-up of contributors. Director Michael Ferguson is joined by Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Peter Halliday (who voiced the aliens), Geoffrey Beevers, script editor and co-author Terrance Dicks and (with some of the best anecdotes) three stars of the HAVOC stunt team; Derek Ware, Roy Scammell and Derek Martin.
`Mars Probe 7: Making `The Ambassadors of Death'' - does what it says on the space capsule and does it brilliantly. In 25 minutes the `making of' story is told with emphasis on the superb location work, direction and stunts that rightly make this story famous. I really enjoyed this one.
`Tomorrow's Times - The Third Doctor' - 15 minute feature looking at press coverage of the Jon Pertwee era, well presented by Peter Purves.
Finally, the Photo Gallery includes some excellent informal pictures of the stars on location (around Marlow I think) and special mention must be made of the attention-grabbing DVD cover illustration.