The Ambassadors of Death

Britain’s Mars Probe 7 returns to Earth after a mysterious communication breakdown and its crew are kidnapped by a gangster. These returned astronauts can kill with a simple touch. The Doctor and Liz Shaw soon discover that whoever the silent astronauts are, they can’t possibly be human. What has happened to the original human spacemen? Who is behind a government conspiracy to cover up the UK’s first official alien contact? Why does someone want to provoke Earth’s first interplanetary war?

Jon Pertwee’s era as the Doctor has two distinct periods. The latter involves the UNIT ‘family’, where the Doctor becomes fairly avuncular, his assistants Jo Grant and Sarah Jane have quite young outlooks and personalities and the whole feel of the show is warm. However his first season has noticeably more serious attitude and possibly a more mature one. Pertwee himself is testier, more aggressive and his outfit is mostly sombre colours. Liz Shaw his assistant is definitely a woman with an authority that comes from her impressive academic career. Although her taste for mini-skirts and kinky boots hints at a trendy Seventies outlook too. It could be argued that this season has less variety, with most of the stories taking place in one scientific complex or another and those stories are mostly too long, but I generally prefer this time when the Quatermass influence was more pronounced.

The Ambassadors of Death had a difficult genesis, with veteran writer David Whitaker being asked to produce several drafts, none of which the producers were happy with. Eventually the script editor Terrance Dicks took over the rewrites, along with frequent collaborator Malcolm Hulke. Because of budget problems, it had been decided to extend three of the four stories to seven episodes to save money. Whilst The Silurians brought in a prehistoric plague sub-plot to stretch its story and Inferno gained a trip to a parallel Earth, which helped to transform it into one the programme’s most epic and gripping stories, Ambassadors could only increase the number of kidnappings and attempts on the Doctor’s life, whilst the conspiracy plot hatched by the hidden traitor became both convoluted and full of logic holes. Yet to a large extent these problems do not stop the Ambassadors being entertaining moment by moment, in a Saturday matinee serial sort of way. Director Michael Ferguson is amongst the best directors the original series enjoyed, with a dynamic style and some clever visual tricks which make the most of the limited budget, such as the quick edits in the aliens’ unmasking scene, cutting between the Ambassador and Liz’s reaction. There are several excellent action set pieces, including a gunfight in a warehouse, a helicopter attack on a convoy and a car chase that culminates in Liz Shaw hanging over a raging river. For a while this is as Earthbound as Doctor Who could possibly be, it’s guns and spies and criminals who are motivated by money, damp countryside and television news reports. The Doctor may be an alien but here he could be a younger Professor Bernard Quatermass without any effect on the story. Even the spaceships are merely slightly advanced versions of existing Apollo era tech.

Then at the end of episode five a huge glowing UFO arrives out of nowhere and we suddenly return to a world where the Doctor is our intergalactic ally, exploring its psychedelic alien interior. I quite like the way the aliens never introduce themselves properly and the Doctor has never encountered them before (or since). Their enigmatic nature and briefly glimpsed true forms do help cover the fact they are some of the cheaper aliens the series has featured.

Out of the guest cast, William Dysart stands out as Reegan, the ruthless criminal hired to kidnap and control the aliens. He murders several men in cold blood, but he was also has gallows wit and shrewd intelligence. Cyril Shaps is also memorable as the weasely scientist Lennox, a clever but weak man in far over his head.

For many years this story only existed as a black and white film recording, except for episode one.  There was a colour Betamax recording from America but it was hopelessly blurry. The DVD restoration team have done a marvellous job in restoring the colour. Although the picture is still grainy in a few places, considering they were working virtually from scratch they must be commended. This is a two disc release with the second disc carrying the extras. The main item is “Recovery 7” a making of documentary which concentrates on the stunt men who were a regular feature of Doctor Who’s UNIT era. This seems appropriate considering this is an action heavy story and some coverage was overdue in this range. But it is a shame we could not have learnt more about the earlier versions of the story when it was called “Invaders from Mars” and featured the Second Doctor. The excellent modelwork is also well covered.  “Tomorrow’s Times” is a continuing feature across several of the later Doctor Who DVD’s, looking at the show’s press coverage. Obviously this time it is covering the Pertwee years, and it seems the show got a pretty soft ride from the critics, with only Mary Whitehouse raising complaints over the frightening content of some stories, particularly the killer dolls and policemen in Terror of the Autons. Finally there is the specially shot trailer for Ambassadors, in which Pertwee says key lines from the script (“I don’t know what came down in Recovery 7, but it certainly wasn’t human!”) interspersed with clips from the story. It is quite effective and it is good to see it has survived.

The commentary features a big cast and is one of the most enjoyable for quite a few releases. It is also a little sad that by the time the DVD came out, both Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John had died. But here they are in a cheerful mood, joined by director Michael Ferguson, actors Peter Halliday and Geoffrey Beevers, script editor Terrance Dicks, stunt co-ordinator Derek Ware and stunt performers Roy Scammell and Derek Martin and all moderated by fan and actor Toby Hadoke. Present and correct are the traditional information subtitles and photo gallery.

Whilst as a story it is not up to the standard of the recently released The Mind of Evil, The Ambassadors of Death is a very enjoyable SF adventure story and deserves a re-evaluation by fans, especially if they’ve only seen it edited and in murky monochrome on UK Gold.

Planet of the Spiders

Once upon a time the Doctor visited Metebelis 3 and took a large, perfect blue crystal. He gave it to Jo Grant as a wedding present when she and Dr Clifford Jones left for the Amazon. But now she has posted it back to him, claiming that it is frightening their native guides. Meanwhile the disgraced UNIT officer Mike Yates has joined a Buddhist retreat, where he has grown suspicious that some of his fellow students are in contact with some kind of alien power. Earth is in danger from a powerful new enemy, the Giant Spiders of Metebelis 3. To defeat them the Doctor will have to face an evil that he knows will kill him for certain.

These days a Doctor Who season finale story will be an epic that draws together the themes of the year and have a lot of emotion involved. Back in 1975 the programme had a different style that was less demonstrative. Aside from a mention of Jo Grant by letter, there is little in the way of continuity and certainly no grand final tour or choirs as say the Tenth Doctor had in his last story. Planet of the Spiders is simply a traditional story except this time the Third Doctor doesn’t survive.

Originally it had been intended that the Third’s last story would involve a final battle with The Master, ending with the renegade sacrificing his life to save the Doctor. Roger Delgado’s untimely death negated that idea, so Barry Letts and his writing partner Roger Sloman came up with a new story inspired by Buddhist philosophy, a passion of Letts. The Spiders are metaphors for fear, ambition, greed and hatred, elements which hold characters back from enlightenment.

It is an entertaining but somewhat rambling story. Most of part two is taken up by an extended chase scene that ultimately makes no sense and part six features an extremely long reprise of the previous episode, something that wouldn’t have mattered much in the pre-video recorder era but which is very obvious on the DVD. However Tommy the simple minded soul who evolves into a full personality is a touching sub-plot. And John Dearth as terrific as Lupton, an embittered salesman turned potential ruler of Earth. He’s such an unusual bad guy for Doctor Who that it is a shame that he becomes sidelined in the second half of the story.

This is a two disc release and hence there is an impressive amount of extras. The Final Curtain is a comprehensive making of documentary. Producer Barry Letts explains how he deliberately tried to get as many people involved who Jon Pertwee was familiar and comfortable with, to ease his unhappiness as he filmed his last story. It was very much the end of an era, since aside from Elisabeth Sladen, all the major names in front of and behind the camera were leaving the show with this story. Special effects designer Matt Irvine goes into detail with how they created the impressive spider puppets. There’s some welcome honestly about some of the elements which didn’t work as well as they hoped too.

John Kane wrote Terry and June, one of the most popular BBC sitcoms of the seventies and early eighties. Yet as he ruefully points out in John Kane Remembers, virtually all he is ever asked about in fan letters is his performance as Tommy in this Doctor Who story. Irony aside, Tommy is one the show’s most memorable one-off characters, thanks to his touching development from a simple minded, almost childlike man, into a mature, funny adult, thanks to a blue alien crystal. I’d never read an interview with him before and it turns out he has fond and impressively detailed memories of a job he’d done nearly thirty years ago.

Barry Letts had originally wanted to be a director at the BBC rather than a producer. Consequently as part of his deal for producing Doctor Who, he also had several chances to direct stories and Planet of the Spiders was an obvious candidate.  In Directing Who he recalls his experiences working with three Doctors in the 60’s and 70’s. As usual his contribution is thoughtful, informative and tactful.

Jon Pertwee’s 1989 appearance on Wogan to promote the Doctor Who stage play is a good example of the entertainer at his best. The anecdotes will be pretty familiar to most fans, such as how he was chosen to be the Doctor, where his talent for mimickery came from and his problems piloting the hovercraft seen in Planet of the Spiders. But it’s clear Pertwee was delighted to be on primetime BBC1 again and it’s a good clip.

Unusually for a DVD release, also included is the one hour forty-five minute omnibus edition of the story which was repeated at Christmas 1975. This version is an interesting alternative and quite watchable but unrestored, showing the amount of work the DVD makers put into improving the picture and sound quality of these episodes.

The commentary features Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney, Richard Franklin , Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. It’s sad that by the time it came out, both Sladen and Courtney had died making this virtually their last contribution to the show. As with all the Doctor Who DVD’s, there is also a photo gallery and information subtitles. Another excellent release from the Doctor Who range that is now available at a bargain price from most outlets.