Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Ambassadors of Death written by David Whitaker (or Terrance Dicks, Mac Hulke and Trevor Ray if we’re being specific) and directed by Michael Ferguson


This story in a nutshell: ‘They’re here! We’re being invaded!’

Good Grief: About as far removed from Patrick Troughton’s interpretation of the character as you can get, the third Doctor of season seven is something of an anomaly because he’s not much like Pertwee’s take on the character in subsequent seasons either. Whilst undeniably carrying the weight and authority of the Doctor; he’s a cold, hard professional for the most part, enduring his exile but not enjoying it (whereas from season eight he’s clearly settled into the lifestyle). You’ll never find the Doctor more passionately sarcastic or insulting either, only expressing moments of warmth when he has to rather than something that is part of his personality. It was a bold move to make Pertwee quite this unpleasant in his first year but its one of necessity because we had to be convinced that this was an enforced punishment for the Doctor rather than a holiday. It pays off in spades, not just because Pertwee is a natural comic actor and finds a great deal of humour in his characters brazenness but the moments of sunshine that he exhibits mean much more because they are rare. Isn’t it strange that in the three efforts they make to get the Doctor away from present day England in season seven (underground into a prehistoric slumber chamber, into space squaring up to alien Ambassadors and to an alternative universe where everybody is a badass) it is the one that we are most used to (outer space) that feels the most awkward. Almost as though this Doctor is at his best when grounded. 

Rather more effective than the bizarre info dumps that Eric Saward liked to drop at the beginning of the 80s stories to suggest a running serial, the Doctor still condemns the Brigadier for his murderous activities at the end of the previous story and isn’t afraid to point that out to the audience. With his adventures taking place in one time and place now, this sort of continuity between stories is not only effective but mandatory. The Doctor might be mooted as an establishment character in this period (especially by Doctor Who supremo Verity Lambert) but his behaviour is quite the contrary. He steps off a lift insulting security guards, patronises the Controller, dismisses the technology at their disposal and generally behaves as if he owns the place. It is only when he is on the verge of being thrown out that he displays any discretion whatsoever. Dressed up like a poof in a parlour, he cuts a memorable anti-establishment figure. Some people might get into a lather about the Doctor apparently performing a conjuring trick at the beginning of episode two (directly contradicted in next seasons The Daemons) but ultimately its just a bit of fun. I’ve seen far worse get out clauses of cliffhangers. More impressive is his psychology in the cell, provoking a military reaction out of the Brigadier’s prisoner by barking at him. Having the Brigadier responding to every stage of the Mars Probe re-entry affords the Doctor the chance to express his knowledge and show he is as cool as a cucumber. He pretends to be a useless old man and sticks Carrington and his stooge to his car in order to re-obtain the Mars Probe. A lovely bit of business. He’s a clear highlight throughout this story; I especially love his complete disrespect for Sir James Quinlan and how he sees through Carrington’s bogus explanation of why ‘the right hand has been fighting the left’ (although to be fair the tale spun about astronauts infected with a deadly radiation is convincing, especially after the plague spread we witnessed in Dr Who & the Silurians). Isn’t it wonderful that the third Doctor has a tattoo and wears a necklace? Its like he’s trying to embrace his role as a grounded human as much as he possibly can. The Doctor offers Taltalian a choice between a ruthless interrogation by the Brigadier or a quiet chat with him – he might not like being partnered to this organisation but he isn’t afraid to threaten people with the organisation should the situation require it. When he returns to Earth with his big secret about the Ambassadors the Doctor comes across as a man who has one up on everybody else and is loving it. Its in the last episode where he really surprised me. I had always come to think of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor as the most lecturing and virtuous of the lot and so for him to quietly admit that he understands what Carrington has done really took my breath away. He could have so easily have gotten on his soapbox (and he certainly would in the future) but the way this handled in such a sensitive and sober fashion is very unlike the show or the character. And all the better for it.

Miss Shaw: For the first handful of episodes Liz is barely given anything to do highlighting that Barry Letts might have had a point when he suggested that she wasn’t companion material. She’s far too good to be tripping over, getting into trouble and needing rescuing. This is character that is strong enough to hold her own narrative thread later in the story entirely independent of the Doctor and thus proving she has more than enough substance to hold up her own show. I still think to this day they could have had a Torchwood style show at the time (with a little more subtlety than the RTD spin off), an adult drama featuring Liz at the head of UNIT. Caroline John was never going to be anyone’s assistant, she’s simply too strong an actress to be lost on the sidelines. When Caroline John does come into play in Ambassadors, she’s absolutely excellent as usual. Liz pre-empts all the funny business in the eighties where companions grab the console in fear of the TARDIS’ temperamental behaviour. Hinting at a life outside UNIT and an academic career that would have thrived beyond their secondment, Lennox recognises a photograph of Liz as a research student at Cambridge. Interestingly come episode four where both the Doctor (Taltalian) and Liz (Lennox) are paired up with another scientist it is the latter the proves the most interesting to watch. Liz denounces Lennox for turning his back on the morality of science and their differing allegiances (him to Carrington, her to UNIT) serves to expose their characters (because in their own way they both hate working for the authorities). Caroline John shows off her classical roots in these scenes, attacking with a passion and intelligence rarely seen in Doctor Who. Only when there is a gun shoved right in her face does Liz blow Lennox’s cover. The disgust that she displays when Reegan offers her a job is only topped by her quiet acceptance as Lennox’s replacement or losing her life. The fact that the Doctor hands Liz over to Cornish rather than taking over operations himself at the conclusion is him as good as admitting she will never be a mere assistant.

Chap With Wings: One of my favourite sequences in the first story comes in episode one where the Brigadier confronts one of Carrington’s henchmen in the warehouse. Its bristling with tension as they hold guns on each other and wait to see who reacts first. I don’t think the Brigadier has ever look braver or more professional. Isn’t it wonderful that at this stage the ‘UNIT family’ really didn’t exist (although in just one seasons time everybody will be settled and cuddly) and even Benton can be considered a murderer? His behaviour when he locks Lennox in a cell is really peculiar, as though he is enjoying the mans fear and is planning on turning his paranoia into a reality.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I have no time to talk to the press’ ‘Quite right, neither have I.’
‘Didn’t you find two angry men stuck to my car?’
‘Right cut it open!’ – a brilliant cliffhanging tagline. Always gets my blood pumping.
‘I don’t know what came down in Recovery Seven but it certainly wasn’t human.’
‘No the only people who could set up an organisation of this size would be foreign agents with enormous resources behind them’ ‘And hair combs.’
‘You have no concept of moral duty!’

The Good:
  • From the outset there is something cold, clinical and realistic about The Ambassadors of Death. Opening on a video link to a space shuttle, characters exhibiting grave concern for the manoeuvres taking place and news reports direct to camera explaining what is occurring there is a sense that we have possibly wandered into a live broadcast of a genuine shuttle link up. Its quite jarring after the last story’s prehistoric monsters, dinosaurs and plagues but this sudden step into contemporary drama is attention grabbing and definitely works in its favour. Slow paced scenes suggesting a substantive approach to space travel might have felt like a problem in science fiction stories such as The Seeds of Death and The Space Pirates but only serves to highlight the detail and informative approach of The Ambassadors of Death. I love the use of mock classical music that is added to the link up scenes giving the moment a sense of gravity and poetry. Aside from one action sequence the first episode is almost entirely devoid of incident and constructed of scenes of deathly serious people standing around in a scientific institute. It would kill any other show but its exactly where Doctor Who needed to be at this point, proving that it can innovate and embrace its new adult approach. It doesn’t surprise me that some of the best individual episode ratings of the season are in this story – viewers had never seen anything quite like this from the show before.
  • Spreading a story over seven episodes might seem like madness in hindsight but it certainly does have its advantages. At a point where it had to prove itself as a continuing success to the BBC, the show was not being lavished with the strongest budget and out of necessity the number of stories were reduced and the number of episodes per story were lengthened. This meant that money could spread more economically over a few stories rather than stretching a thin budget over many. As a result (it wont be until the show is in dire straits again that it would be reduced to a four story season) the season seven stories are some of the most lavish and expensive looking Doctor Who stories of the shows classic run. Immediately we are greeted with a gorgeous long shot of Space Control with a domed roof that looks far beyond Doctor Who’s usual means. The model work is exceptional, its so easy to shoot this sort of thing head on but Ferguson instead opts for POV shots, skewed angles and insists on highlighting the detail of the models. Pre-dating Stargate by several decades you have an institute carved out of the side of a mountain with an impressive tunnel entrance (the similarities between this and Stargate Command are uncanny…you cannot help but wonder if somebody on that production team caught this when they were younger). In a show that gamely tries to avoid ambitious physical effects (plumping instead for CSO and the like) its terrific that they went to the effort to build a life size Mars Probe to dump in a field and be the focus point of a James Bond action sequence. Watching this cumbersome piece of hardware being hiked onto a lorry and fought over en masse is another example of this story going for the substantive approach.
  • A story this sombre requires a committed cast to bring it to life (in a way it reminds me of the cast of Ghostwatch who had to commit to making the story look as realistic and as possible not to shatter the illusion that what they are watching actually happening) and fortunately director Michael Ferguson has assembled a top drawer list of British character actors to cast a spell of authenticity over proceedings. It might be his most thankless role (this or his turn in Planet of Evil) but Michael Wisher is utterly convincing as reporter John Wakefield. Ralf Cornish may have a habit of staring off into the middle distance as if searching for a camera to capture his best side but that does nothing to detract from Ronald Allen’s star turn as the Controller of Mission Control. He needed to be somewhat uncharismatic and quietly confident to sell the role as believable authority figure in this setting and whilst he is never given any seriously dramatic material to play about with Allen is subtly convincing throughout. It’s a bit of a thankless role in that respect, propping up the story whilst everybody else gets all the juicy stuff but that just makes his selfless turn even more impressive. Amoral, cool, dangerous and utterly indifferent to the morality of his actions, Reegan is certainly one of the more attention grabbing henchmen to appear on this show. William Dysart’s career never really took off in the way that it should have judging by his mesmerising turn in this story – there’s a whole backstory to Reegan’s disturbing behaviour that would be fascinating to explore. Its lovely to see Cyril Shaps play a character who is more than just a walking bag of nerves (although it is something he does extremely      well) because whilst there is something of that to his performance as Dr Lennox, he also displays intelligence, integrity and a surprising amount of resourcefulness. It’s a complex character that stands out in a story full of them. Ambassadors features John Abineri’s finest performance in Doctor Who, managing to keep hold of General Carrington great dignity whilst he commits some terrible atrocities. The first six episodes see the character exist on the periphery of the story and appear unsure where precisely his loyalties lie. Its not until the plot crystallises in the final episode when his true colours emerge and it is more than worth the wait. The emphasis on his moral duty and his understated anger make him really standout as an atypical, profound villain. The most understated cliffhanger is probably the best of the set where he holds a gun on the Doctor and prepares to shoot him, to uphold his moral duty and expose the aliens.
  • The documentary feel to the direction is so convincing that when something dramatic occurs (such as the attack on Van Lyden in exquisite slow motion) it wrenches you out of your comfort zone and really impacts.
  • Ferguson continually finds innovative ways to shoot the story with plenty of POV shots, actors talking directly to camera and unusual ways of pointing the camera to maximize the drama. I do find his cut succession of reaction shots when the aliens attempt to contact the Earth a little jarring, it feels as though I have wander into a particularly rapidly edited ABBA music video. But even there it is Ferguson attempting to make the story look as exciting as possible where a lesser director would just point and shoot. By economically cutting to  stock footage of various satellites around the world, he puts this story on an international scale. When Ambassadors wants to shock its audience it succeeds in spades and the scenes of bodies being dumped unceremoniously in a gravel quarry (the violence of the act mirrored in the industrial, madly edited machinery that is in operation) have an ugly, hardcore tone to them that has never been repeated in any other Doctor Who story. This is early, gritty James Bond material. He saves some money for the final, exquisite long shot.
  • Its one of my favourite Dudley Simpson scores. Coming as it does after his mad experimental period during Troughton’s time and his exhaustion during Tom Baker’s latter years, its slap back in the centre of his time on Doctor Who where he has honed his craft into something professional and stylish. The use of drums to highlight the drama of the return Mars Probe is subtle but persistent. I love the UNIT theme and whilst some may comment that it is too upbeat where something more militaristic might have been more appropriate, it is a gorgeous use of the flute and very catchy for all that. His jazzy saxophone theme to suggest wrongdoings is similarly excellent. The Ambassadors have their own theme that suggests a sense of wonder whilst also capitalising on their unrelenting approach and destructive force.
  • It’s a story famous for its overspend and the action sequences bare the brunt of the responsibility but since Doctor Who has never felt grittier I’m not complaining for a second. The warehouse sequence feels as though it has leapt straight from The Sweeney or Gangsters; its astonishingly violent, unrelentingly ruthless and most brilliantly of all almost entirely devoid of music to drive home the fatality of the confrontation. Bullets fill the air, punches fly and well choreographed madness ensues. The Brigadier has never felt more like a man of action. The siege and subsequent theft of the Mars Probe is an infamously expensive sequence and one of Terrance Dicks’ favourite anecdotes features him writing an economic get-out with a road diversion that the director dismissed and pulled in all manner of exorbitant resources to jazz up the episode. A helicopter zooms in dropping smoke bombs, motorcyclists are toppled in spectacular fashion, high tech weaponry is in evidence cutting down soldiers…The Mind of Evil aside its about as cinematic as classic Who ever achieved. Massive kudos for giving the car chase sequence to Liz and she proves to be as adept in action as she is in the laboratory, swerving across the road, running across muddy fields and evading her captors by flinging herself over the precarious structure of a waterworks. In the action stakes, this story just keeps on giving. I don’t know if the show would ever look quite this good in terms of action again. Although it does have the adverse effect of exposing Reegan as an expert in everything (seriously this guy could be James Bond he’s so resourceful), the location work of him sabotaging the rocket fuel injection are gorgeous to look at and very dynamically shot. What is it about a whole load of pipes that gets me so excited? The handheld camerawork for the Brigadier’s escape from the guards in the last episode doesn’t feel at all like it belongs in Doctor Who. And I mean that as a compliment.
  • The colour restoration process on the DVD is clearly the work of hard labour and hours of fiddly touch ups and whilst it might not be as perfect as the audience might like the fact that we can watch this story in full colour to even the standard of a middling quality VHS is amazing. We’re lucky this show has the sort of talent and commitment chucked at it that allows for miracles like this to happen.
  • I’ve always said its what you don’t see that is far scarier than what you do and Ambassadors of Death goes to some lengths to prove that. Its space suited aliens hidden behind shadowy visors are one of the most effective aliens ever to appear on the show because I was desperate to find out what was underneath whilst simultaneously enjoying the mystery of them. Their slow gait and confident stride has the feeling of the better zombie movies (especially in their unrelenting pursuit…they remind me of the Vocs from Robots of Death and the Service Robots from Pyramids of Mars) and the idea of ‘one touch and you’re dead’ gives characters a very good reason to fear them. The shots of them silhouetted by the sun as though walking directly from it are absolutely gorgeous (it seems that The Seeds of Death was Ferguson’s test run on this approach). I find the cliffhanger where one looms up behind the Doctor with its arm outstretched especially memorable. It should be a massive disappointment when one of them removes their helmet and attacks Liz but thanks to some nifty editing, great reaction shots and terrific disfigured make up they absolutely lives up to their promise as something freakishly scary. The ambassadors looming over the camera as they walk towards the Space Centre at the climax to clear their name proves that even when we know they aren’t hostile they can still be portrayed as menacing and otherworldly. Whilst we’re talking about scary moments, Lennox’s off screen death at the hands of a radiated isotope under a dinner platter (the very thing he has ‘gone to fetch’) is one of the shows bleakest moments ever moments. To leave a character on a such a dramatic moment and not have the release of seeing their death is extremely adult.
  • At points I wondered if perhaps Chris Carter had been watching Ambassadors because there is so many similarities between this The X-Files that you have to question the originality of the 90s hit show. An overlong story arc featuring morally bankrupt characters, barely glimpsed aliens with a mysterious background that is never really explored, a government level conspiracy with a subtly performed figurehead and plenty of action and memorably expensive set pieces. Indeed the first season episode Space also has a character haunted by his experiences in space trying to sabotage the space programme.
  • Great characters moments abound and sweeten the pill as things get overly labyrinthe in the latter episodes. The chemistry between Reegan and Lennox is worthy of a great deal of praise and I particularly like the scene where the scientist condemns himself because he feels as though he has murdered the astronauts for giving them more radiation.
  • The last episode harkens right back to the tone of episode one with everything deadly serious and a summary ditching the camp excesses of the middle installments. John Wakefield is back to expose Carrington’s madness to the world (or the aliens, depending on which way this turns out – he is a reporter after all!), the Brigadier is back in action, there’s an impressive shoot out and it all builds to an unexpectedly emotional climax where the Doctor supports rather than condemns the villain of the piece. You’d be hard pressed to find a final episode to any other story that has this much substance, depth of character and expensive production values on display.
  • All the UNIT soldiers jammed into Bessie as they head off to save the Doctor. Always makes me laugh. And totally deserving of its own bullet point.

The Bad:
  • Given every episode a pre credits sequence and then cutting to the title in a crazy Batman-esque CRASH/ZOOM  fashion might he felt dynamic to the director but oddly takes me out of the drama that is unfolding. It feels like the story is trying to make a point that this drama which isn’t really reflected in the material we are watching that is going out of its way to have a documentary feel.
  • Bizarrely the TARDIS console seems to have been ripped out of the ship and plonked in the middle of a laboratory for the Doctor to tinker with. If the heart of the Ship really is under the console surely this would cause the most terrible problems even if she is effectively grounded.
  • Cod French accents lack any conviction and Taltalian is no exception. Much of his characterisation doesn’t hold water as he appears to switch sides with astonishing oscillation. When compared with Carrington and Reegan, he’s an empty vessel of plot necessities rather than a character. Robert’s Cawdron’s natural accent (famously heard in one film sequence) makes the character seem far less of a caricature so it’s a shame that they decided to French him up. Reegan using him as a tool to kill the Doctor (and himself) is a relief on the story and accentuates the assassin’s complete lack of morals. 
  • One of my favourite scenes comes when Carrington is revealed in episode three and starts to explain the extraordinary behaviour of him and his men. For a seven part story it seems astonishing that he would be revealed as the brains behind this operation so early. But its after this point where you have to question not only his motives for being so deliberately misleading but the gullibility of Lethbridge-Stewart for buying into it.
  • Come episode four the length of the story starts to show signs of wearing. Taltalian is up to his usual underhanded tricks and Liz escapes capture only to be taken right back to where she started. Its good padding but its padding all the same. The Doctor’s laborious efforts to get into space might be realistically slow but in dramatic terms they take an age and lengthen this story by about an episode and a half. It proves that this would have been a great deal tighter at five episodes. Turning the decontamination room into a sauna lacks drama and only serves as more padding.
  • Its almost a statement as to why Doctor Who works better visually on the Earth since as soon as the Doctor takes off in his sky ray rocket the effects go to pot. This is what Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks want to get back to? I am a fan of the ambition of Doctor Who as much as anyone but the assault of fringe-laden CSO and weird unexposed aliens waving their floppy arms does rather jettison any of the realism that the early episodes thrived on. Saying that the effects might look ropey for the alien spacecraft (it literally has the look of a painted blob on a space backcloth that is pulled nearer to a the window) but the sound effects are top quality. Its clear that the show has the budget to bring monsters to Terra Firma but not the other way around. Maybe Russell T Davies had the right idea after all.
The Shallow Bit: The Brig has never felt more manly than when he engages in action and this contains some of his greatest moments in that field. Considering that all men were somehow made to look like obscenely sexist porn stars in the 70s (it really wasn’t a great period for masculine types!), William Dysart manages to escape this story with his good looks intact. Caroline John is gorgeous. Especially in that hat.

Result: One of the best Doctor Who stories ever in terms of its direction, its coarse tone and its fantastic monsters, The Ambassadors of Death is still weighed down by a number of flaws that become more apparent as it progresses. Its overlong (hardly a surprise in season seven), excessively complicated and has some characters whose motivations aren’t always backed up by their actions. Compensation comes in the form of a cast of complex, superbly cast characters, dazzling action sequences and a lump in the throat understated ending that surprises by not going down the obvious route. If this was five episodes long and cut out some of the escape/capture scenes (as well filmed as they are), simplified the machinations by removing a few superfluous characters (Taltalian in particular) and completely cut out the Doctor’s sojourn into space it would be pretty damn flawless. Its troubled inception shows through in these complications but if you are willing to hang around for an episode or two longer than necessary there is such a wealth of riches to be mined. Everything comes together for a genuinely fantastic final episode (something of a rarity on this show) so it is well worth the wait. Ambassadors of Death is Doctor Who re-imagined as a gritty, violent conspiracy thriller trading its imaginative roots for something altogether more adult and contemporary. Whether that works for you or not depends on your preferred approach to Doctor Who (there’s a daft trip into space for those who reject its grittiness) but it certainly commits totally to this tone and sells the material with absolute conviction (Jon Pertwee and Caroline John in particular crackle on screen). I find it gripping and multilayered, if a little repetitive in places. Cut away two episodes and tighten up the script a little (that its as good as it is is miracle given the behind the scenes nightmare) and it would be a flawless example of its genre. For Michael Ferguson’s astonishing work behind the camera and the breadth of characterisation I can easily award this story: 8/10

1 comment:

Michael said...

Just finished watching this one. Yes, I too felt that this was a far more adult and serious take on Dcotor Who. Despite some of the cliff-hangers being rather low key, I was excited and curious to see how the story would unfold and what would come next. Liz and the Doctor were brilliant, as were the host of supporting characters. It's a shame that Havoc could not stage the action better for the camera. Filming actors not landing their punches from the side is just poor direction. The Brig's fights in the final episode were staged much better.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not so much my long-suffering Canadian partner, Jason. Viewer dialogue highlights:

(When Carrington arrests the Brig and takes his revolver)
J: it's okay he doesn't know how to use it anyway.

(When Carrington sends Reegan to the Isotope stores)
J: the isotope store?
M: yes, it was a chain of shops all over Britain in the 70s. "Going down the 'topes" is what we would say.
J: Oh I see. And it would sell uranium and plutonium would it?
M: Well, we just didn't know the effects in those days. We thought as long as you washed your hands you were all right.