The regulars -
Spearhead from Space written by Robert Holmes and directed by Derek Martinus
This story in a nutshell: A new Doctor, a new assistant, a new format and a new menace. Doctor Who is stranded on Earth and things are more dangerous than ever…
The Mighty Nose: The shot of the Doctor falling from the TARDIS is such a tease because we want to know what he looks like and yet all we see is a weakened man fall into the grass. Then we get to see him tossing in bed but still don’t get a clear view. Okay so he is clearly visible in the credits at the top of the show but that is still no compensation for seeing in the flesh the main man post Troughton. The anarchic little pixie put such a stamp on a role after the definitive first incarnation that it is hard to imagine anybody coming close to capturing that sense of magic. It's not until the Brigadier turns him around that we get to see our new Doctor and we share the Brig’s despondence that we don’t recognise this fella. It is easy to forget that so much of what we take for granted was first introduced in the Pertwee era such as his two hearts, self induced comas and the name Gallifrey. Anybody who was worried that this might become Pertwee’s comedy caper might have been appalled to see him romping around in bed, looking for keys and crying ‘unhand me madam!’ to the nurse, singing in the shower and trying on all manner of comedy hats! It's fantastic fun and initially appears that Pertwee is going to play the part with as much humour as Troughton did (the humour is there throughout his run but it is far more less slapstick and subtle but ultimately Pertwee was probably the most serious and authoritative Doctor of the lot). After the initial shock of seeing his face he judges it as quite distinctive, even his mighty nose. When the Doctor grabs his shoes and hugs them his physician wonders if his brain has been damaged (I love his cheery ‘Hello! How are you feeling?’ and the Doctor’s deadpan ‘Shoes!’). Everybody is having fun trying to find their way with the Doctor in this tale from Robert Holmes to Jon Pertwee to Nicholas Courtney who as the Brig plays the same role that Ben did in Power of the Daleks, attempting to determined whether this is the Doctor or not. Since we have already seen him transform before and the Time Lords stated they would be changing his appearance at the end of The War Games there isn't that sense of uncertainty that we had during Power. But that just leads to even more fun, we're one step ahead of the Brigadier and are experiencing the new Doctor charming his way into his life in exactly the same way Troughton did with his audience at the beginning of his era. By the end of Spearhead from Space there is no doubt whatsoever in the Brigadier's mind that this is the Doctor, having defeated an alien menace on behalf of humanity. I’m guessing that the Doctor figures since he’s been caught and punished by his own people and cast in the role of a criminal and exiled to Earth he may as well keep up the image by stealing clothes and vintage cars. Whilst there was always the feeling that there was more than meets the eye with the second Doctor he never manipulated his friends like the third Doctor does here with Liz, using her to obtain the TARDIS key and escape his prison on Earth. It's fascinating that like the first Doctor in his initial handful of stories you get the feeling he would happily go and leave the humans to sort this mess out themselves. It's a feeling of contempt that would run like words through a stick of rock through season seven. By the end of this story you are convinced that the Doctor has always been UNIT’s scientific advisor and this is how the show has always been, that’s how firmly Pertwee has asserted himself. I never have any problem with the Doctor working for the establishment and making a name for himself, it is the most distinctive way to mark him out from Troughton (although even he work work with the authorities when it was necessary - The Faceless Ones, The Web of Fear, The Invasion). And besides I wouldn't say that his anti-establishment attitude vanishes - he spends almost the entirety of his era mocking the army and their brutish ways and condemning the Brigadier and his military pomposity. It's just he happens to exploit them at the same time. He's card, this one. I love how he scoffs at the thought of earning a salary and yet wants a very materialistic lifestyle on Earth of fast cars, stylish clothes and pretty ladies. He's the James Bond and John Steed of Doctor Who, the feckless dandy adventurer with a penchant for hardware. It's another Doctor I really enjoy spending time with.
Brainy Redhead: Liz Shaw has one of the most stylish introductions of any companions, chauffeur driven into UNIT headquarters and drafted by Lethbridge Stewart into aiding their fight against alien menaces. With her introduction the show suddenly feels as though it has grown up, introducing a strong, intelligent foil for the Doctor in a very sophisticated way. Her interaction with the Brigadier is spiky, almost flirtatiously so at the beginning (at points during their many spats in this adventure I could have sworn they were one more insult away from grabbing each other and snogging) and it is a shame that when the Pertwee gains control of the series that we lose this thorny chemistry in favour of the Doctor/Brigadier fights. She deals with facts and not science fiction ideas and she sounds ever so much like Scully early in The X-Files run. In this story certainly Liz Shaw feels like a prototype for Gillian Anderson’s character, cold, calculating, resourceful and ever so slightly aloof but played by an actress who imbues the part with enough warmth to make her likable. Caroline John’s little eyebrow raise when the Brigadier mentions that Liz is not just a pretty face is perfect. By the end of the story Pertwee has asserted himself and Liz is left holding the equipment whilst he tackles with the monster but their chemistry is instant and very enjoyable.
Chap With Wings: The scenes between the Brigadier and Liz in episode one are phenomenal – I love it when they take UNIT this seriously and Nicholas Courtney sells this format changing material brilliantly. Despite a moustache that doesn’t quite want to hold in place he is instantly charismatic and exceptional in his field and you can see how he will be an invaluable asset to the series. It’s a shame he became something of a parody of his own character in later years because there is absolutely nothing wrong with how he is characterised here. The Brig knows how to deal with the press and their incessant questions; he asserts his authority over them with a firm ticking off. I love the way the Brigadier treats the Doctor like a naughty child after he tries to abandon them, he makes him promise not to run off again just as a parent would with a wayward child. UNITs co-operation with the army is discussed here and it is clear it is a tentative relationship. It takes a long time for the Brigadier to be convinced that this is the Doctor and his little runaway attempt doesn't help matters but by the story's conclusion it is clear that his new scientific advisor is a massive benefit to his cause and he is trying to make his transition to exile on Earth as comfortable as possible.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We have drawn attention to ourselves, Miss Shaw.’
‘What you don’t understand is that there might, there is a remote possibility that outside your cosy little world other things could exist!’ ‘No need to get tetchy!’ ‘Well sometimes you can be very aggravating!’ ‘Me? What about you? You really believe in a man who’s helped to save the world twice with the power to change his physical appearance? An alien being who travels through time and space…in a police box?’ – hurrah for Robert Holmes for managing to sum up the first six years of Doctor Who in one witty line!
‘Camouflage General, its not really a police box…it’s a spaceship!’
‘Where are they going?’ ‘To take their places…’ – all those dummies of civil servants are heading of on a killing spree to take over the country!
‘We are the Nestenes. We have been colonising other worlds for 100,000,000 years and now we have come to colonise the Earth.’
The Good Stuff: Its only when you watch this story in hindsight of the new series that you realise just how much Russell T Davies nabbed to reboot the series in 2005. A contemporary Earth setting, a new Doctor and assistant, a Nestene invasion – both stories even start with the same shot of a pan in on the Earth! Clearly everybody looks to Spearhead from Space for inspiration since the TV Movie features a Doctor who is rushed to hosptial and the x-ray sequence is repeated practically to the letter. I'm not surprised, this is stirring material and deserves to be repeated.What it points out is just how contemporary Robert Holmes' writing could be, this material works in 1970, 1996 and 2005. The music leaves you with no doubt that the throbbing sphere that Seeley is pulling from the ground has not come to the Earth for any beneficial reason to the planet. Armed soldiers guarding the TARDIS in the woods – there has been nothing like this in Doctor Who before and it genuinely feels like a whole new, grittier lease of life for the show. There are a number of beautifully executed tracking shots in this story – one taking place in the corridors of the hospital and another as the Brigadier is taken to one of the meteorite fragments outside. The slick camerawork feels glossy and contemporary, a real jolt after the creaky black and white years, a quantum leap in quality as much as the leap from third to the fourth season of the Avengers was. Hugh Burden’s Channing is a creepy background presence; he doesn’t need to say anything to put the wind up me, just stare with those cold eyes. Make no mistake, no matter how many attempts there have been to copy the success of this original Auton story this is the definite article and they have never been scarier then decked out in their boiler suits, eyes gouged out and faces slick with plastic. They are a terrifying menace, all the more disturbing because they resemble something that we all see on a daily basis. If this were being made today the glorious Meg Seeley would have her own spin off (‘You watch your tongue and don’t think I’ll have that dirty old box in my house!’). What a marvelous old dragon. Proof that the show was trying to push the horror content as far as it would go, we have never seen anything quite as grisly as the scene where the Auton steps out in the road and forces the UNIT soldier to collide his jeep with a tree. We see its blank staring eyes surveying the wreckage through the cracked windscreen, the poor soldiers bloody face smacked into it. Astonishingly nasty for Doctor Who and quite terrifying for the kids watching. The end of episode two is enough to give you nightmares, a row of mannequins that our victim passes and one slowly twitching and coming to life. Ransome spitting out his tea and shaking with fear is scarier than a hundred monsters, a very human reaction of terror to an inexplicably terrifying situation. This the first time that Doctor Who has ever had a monster stepping into a normal person house and terrorising somebody, it wouldn't be the last but I don't think it is ever quite as effective as it is handled here. The awful gluey face of the Auton who menaces Meg Seeley is pretty horrific and the way he slowly advances on her as she pumps his chest full of lead must have given the kids around the country nightmares. The scares keep coming when it is revealed that characters aren't even safe under UNIT protection, the Auton tears through the fabric of the tent and disposes of Ransome in a tightly edited sequence. I remember when this was first released on video I was petrified by this sequence, it is so quick and unrelenting and Ransome barely has time to react before he is blown away. It really establishes the Autons as an unstoppable force. There is a sequence in The X-Files episode Two Fathers that mirrors almost exactly the end of episode three where Scobie answers the door and is greeted by an alien facsimile of himself. Love the Nestene plan to replace all the top civil servants and replace them with facsimiles to take over the country, very clever, and they are all such emotionless automatons I doubt anybody would even notice! The Nestenes in their natural form feature a disgusting gunky eye that pulsates and shudders nastily, thanks goodness they took human form for this story because this is nauseating. Save the best set piece for last and the one that everybody wants to see – shop window dummies smashing through windows and terrorising the high street. About a million times more effective than a similar scene in Rose because it doesn't feel as though it has been edited down for a CBBC audience. Whilst we never get to see the glass smashing what we do get is genuine looking dummies storming the streets, cutting down policemen and people running for their lives, genuinely terrified. What the kids would have made of this beyond me...this is enough to get adults twitchy walking down the high street! There is something so horribly mundane about executing a bunch of people waiting in a bus queue, the Autons punishing us Brits for what we do best! What an awful way to go though, waiting for a bus. Although it is shot in the same place as The Invasion concluding action set piece it feels entirely different in colour but equally as spectacular, UNIT soldiers are disposed in flashes of smoke, gunfire is exchanged and explosions rip through the scene. It looks gorgeous and provides an exciting story with a memorably action packed climax. Channing’s smoky Auton corpse covered in green snot is the last gross out shot of the story. ‘Will these Nestenes try again?’ – yep when the ratings are down at the end of the season!
The Bad Stuff: Whilst the cliffhanger to part one is great as written (the Doctor is shot dead before we even get to know him) the closing line feels really badly edited. What's missing is the cliffhanging sting that Barry Letts introduced and in it's place is an awkward silence before the title music cuts in. Barney the dog is clearly a man doing a poor dog impression ('arf! arf! arf!') - they couldn't find stock sound effects of a dog barking? You can see General Scobie the waxwork blinking clearly and one of the female waxworks actually opens her eyes and closes them several times when she thinks she is out of shot! Just to remind us that actually this is still Doctor Who after all we get the Doctor gurning ridiculously as giant green rubber tentacles try and strangle the life out of him. Pertwee tries to play this danger for real but with the camera shoved right down his nose it looks like he is taking the proverbial out of the climax to this tale. What a shame as otherwise this story would be practically flawless and probably earn full marks.
The Shallow Bit: I cannot believe that they filmed Pertwee washing his lily-white butt in episode two! I cannot imagine any other actor being able to pull of a velvet jacket and frilly shirt and not look ridiculous but during his time Pertwee pulls off all manner of ensembles without batting an eyelid or even thinking about feeling embarrassed. Nameless soldier (lets call him ‘Bemused Man’) who looks around in astonishment as the Auton’s fall is pretty cute.
Result: Spearhead from Space is so slick and assured it could have been the pilot story for the series and nobody would known otherwise. A mysterious man who falls to Earth at a time when he is most needed, having been exiled from an unknown planet and aiding a military organisation against a terrifying menace. That is a premise strong enough to hold up a feature film. Holmes affords himself the entire opening episode to the mystery the Doctor's new face before kick starting the plot in episode two. Forcing this story on location is the best thing they could have done because this reboot couldn't have looked any more expensive and different from what had come before. It feels as though the BBC is throwing everything they have at this story to make the switch to colour a success when in reality it was industrial action that forced the show on film. Jon Pertwee, Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney make for an impressive set of new regulars and all three characters are intelligently written and have memorable interaction. Some of this material is astonishingly adult and frightening and episode three in particular features one scary set piece after another. At four episodes long it feels quick paced and with touches of Avengers eccentricity and Quatermass frights but bundled into a story that is as mad and as engaging as only Doctor Who knows how to be the result is an alluring introduction to the shows Earthbound formula. If they are all going to be like this then the show is in very safe hands. What do you get when you combine a polished production, a charismatic new Doctor, a bold new format for the show and a proper scary adventure? A ratings smash hit: 9/10
Dr Who and the Silurians written by Malcolm Hulke and directed by Timothy Coombe
Good Grief: The Doctor has acquired a new car which he has sweetly named Bessie after his assistant (probably so he can hurl abuse at one or the other and they wont know who he is referring to!). The Doctor never reports himself anywhere and particularly not forthwith so the Brigadier attempting to give him orders is completely the wrong approach. Verity Lambert lambasted the third Doctor for becoming an establishment figure (and I can see arguments for both sides) but at least he was resisting it for the entirety of his first season. It’s Terror of the Autons where he starts to look comfortable in the UNIT labs, talking about hobnobbing it with politicians in 'the Club.' Anybody else would look completely self conscious wearing a black and red velvet cloak and riding through a busy London high street in an old fashioned yellow roadster but the third Doctor seems to revel in sticking out like a sore thumb. He’s so completely rude to Dr Lawrence by walking around the room when he is telling them about the research centre and not even bothering to look at him when he interrupts with his questions that your sympathies are entirely with the Director initially. I know some people don’t like that spiky sort of arrogance but I love it in both the third and sixth Doctors – it shows a naïve lack of understanding of human behaviour and stresses the Doctor’s alien nature. He seems to perversely enjoy defying authority figures but in a very different way to how Troughton used to. With the second Doctor it was getting away with murder when they backs were turned but the third seems to love rubbing his defiance in their faces at every opportunity, even when it is clear they are psychologically unstable (‘Pompous idiot, I never could stand that man.’). When asked if the dinosaurs he has seen before were in a museum he takes great insult to the suggestion and then remembers he cannot show off like he used to or he would be packed off to the funny farm and agrees that yes it was. The Doctor enjoys playing with Quinn when he visits him at his cottage before showing his hand; it’s like a cat playing with a mouse before killing it. He thinks nothing of breaking into Quinn’s personal effects despite Liz’s objections. Dr Lawrence sums the Doctor up as insolent, impertinent and showing no respect for his authority. He certainly has no time to chat to Under Secretary’s, Permanent or otherwise! Major Baker casts the Doctor in the role of a traitor to mankind for warning the Silurians of the soldiers advance. The Brigadier sees him as a moral coward for not willing to face up to the danger of these creatures. It's absorbing to see how all the difference characters view the Doctor as he tries to negotiate a peace because at points they are all correct without ever being entirely so. At times Jon Pertwee has been accused of giving an overly earnest performance but it his absolute seriousness that sells the danger of Major Baker’s infection. The Doctor doesn't even notice the injection, which is a nice moment for the kids. Interesting that when the Brigadier shoots the Silurian who is threatening his life he says ‘Well done, Brigadier’ but condemns his actions thoroughly when he blows up their base and commits genocide. The climax is very powerful because despite all the Doctor's efforts to heal the wounds between the Silurians and humanity the Doctor is finally outfoxed by somebody who he considered to be a friend. It is clear that come to beginning of the next story that the wounds are still raw.
Sexy Scientist: As much as I adored Zoe (and I did adore her) and it might have been interesting to see how she worked in this format (it was on the cards), Caroline John brings a certain gravitas to the role of Liz Shaw that shows at all times that she isn’t just the Doctor’s assistant but her own person who can cope with her own investigations. Somehow when Liz talks about female emancipation she doesn’t sound like a militant feminist but simply a strong willed woman who doesn’t want to miss out on all the fun. Liz lets out her one scream in this story when she is clawed in the face by a green skinned assailant but it genuinely looks as though she facing death so we’ll let her have that one. She might be put off once at going down the caves but she insists on going after the Doctor the second time he heads off down there. She already knows what sort of trouble he gets into on his own.
Chap With Wings: The Brigadier is such a serious, authoritative figure in this season it is a world away from the comedy buffoon he would become in the next couple of years. Whilst I love watching Nicholas Courtney playing the role either way (as an actor he always knows how to charm me) I find the character far more credible in season seven than at any other point in his long run. His reaction to the Doctor’s ‘You’re not exactly a little Sherlock Holmes yourself, are you?’ is lovely. You can understand the Brigadier’s skepticism about the Doctor’s theory of two lots of monsters in the caves considering he has only been exposed to Yeti (robots), Cybermen (humans that look like robots) and Autons (dummies that act like robots). Actual living breathing aliens have eluded him to this point (and considering the Silurians aren't extraterrestrial but a home grown species it isn't until the next story that he comes across his first aliens). Whilst the Brigadier probably thought he was doing the right thing for the sake of the world by wiping out the Silurians it is exactly the same sort of action that the tenth Doctor brought down Harriet Jones for in The Christmas Invasion. He’s lucky that the Doctor needs him at the moment or he might just have suffered the same treatment.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re not proposing to dismantle a piece of equipment worth 15 million pounds with a screwdriver?’ ‘Its not worth 15 millions pins if it doesn’t work!’
‘I take you’re yet another member of the UNIT team!’ ‘Yes. Depressing, isn’t it?’
‘This is our planet. We were here before man.’
‘Well you can clear out of here all of you! And take that crazy Doctor with you! And all of your military rubbish! I’m in charge of this place! When are you going? Or do I have to throw you out myself!’
The Good Stuff:
· Considering the production nightmare they went through to get them right (Barry Letts literally halting production because they were so bad) the cave sets are actually quite nicely done. They look genuinely cavernous and dank although I wish they had treated these scenes to some film work at Ealing to complete the effect.
· I love the feeling at the start of this adventure that it could literally be taking place anywhere on the Earth. In the previous six seasons you know that even if the opening scene isn’t set in the TARDIS (which it generally was) that the travellers would turn up soon enough and sort things out. With the TARDIS out of action that Doctor trying to find his way on the Earth it is exciting to think we don’t know how this adventure is going to proceed for a change. It was exciting times for the show.
· An atomic research centre built into some caves in Derbyshire – it just sounds like a Doctor Who location, doesn’t it? One of the benefits of have seven episodes (despite what Dicks/Letts will tell you) is that you can spread the budget of one and a half stories over one and thus have far more impressive sets than usual. The Cyclotron for example looks completely authentic and the set is large enough to be split level with an impressive partition between the dialogue scenes and the action down below. It looks like a fully functioning research centre. Doctor Quinn’s country cottage is another beautifully designed and lit set (its full of ornaments and little character touches and has a nice, homely fire set in the grate).
· Peter Miles, Fulton McKay, Normal Jones, Geoffrey Palmer…that is an incredible guest cast for a show in the seventies and proof that the show was attracting big names in its new format. A young Paul Darrow makes his Doctor Who debut here and I have to say that it is extremely disconcerting seeing Avon in a military uniform playing such a straight part!
· The storytelling is complex, mature and full of mystery and not the sort of straightforward action adventure we have been used to during the Troughton era. Headaches, power failures, psychological breakdowns, an unstable Director…this is being pitched at a much more sophisticated audience than those watching Troughton gooning around in foam and chasing Ice Warriors (as glorious as that was). Scenes such as the Doctor being assaulted by a bestial man, Roberts suffering a breakdown and attacking Miss Dawson and the Director’s astonishing psychological meltdown are not the sort of scenes we haven't seen for a while in the show (not since the early historicals have we seen material quite this psychologically stimulating) and it certainly makes the show a richer for having the guts to explore these darker areas of the human psychology. At least there’s a bloody great T-Rex and some walking lizards about to remind us this is still Doctor Who. The urgency of breaking into the barn is another shocking moment because by all the evidence inside Liz could be dead inside, there is simply no way of knowing until the UNIT boys break inside.
· Allowing us to see through the wounded Silurians eyes lets us sympathise with the creature and experience its experiences of being hunted down and trying to find refuge in a nearby barn. The scenes are shot with a dizzying, almost nauseous hand held camera and with creepy heavy breathing piped in the suggestion is that this is a creature in a great deal of pain.
· I like how the story doesn’t adhere to the Doctor Who cliché of revealing the monster at the end of episode one. It reveals a monster but the titular creatures are still left in the shadows, with only limbs briefly seen and POV shots until the end of the third episode.
· Season seven saw some of the most impressive production values that Doctor Who managed to pull off in its first 26 seasons. Seen here is some extensive location work that pulls off both a military sweep of the Derbyshire moorland and an outbreak of plague at a busy London train station. A helicopter can be seen sweeping across the beautiful hillsides and there is a gorgeous Ariel shot of Bessie driving along the rugged landscape. Not to mention the slick filming in Central London with some fantastic long shots showing the enormity of the infection in the capital City. Masters eventual death is captured in as uncomfortable a way as possible with a low angle shot through some railings as he clings onto them as his body finally gives up and he slides down towards the camera. Timothy Coombe wants yo to know how terrifying this threat to London truly is and shoves succumbing victims with disgusting welts and pustules on their faces right down the camera.
· Often guest characters in Doctor Who have a surface level of characterisation but nothing too substantial underneath. Dr Who & the Silurians looks like it is going down that path in episode one but as the story progresses they soon start to reveal layers and nobody is quite what they appeared to be at the beginning of the tale. Dr Quinn is a smiley loon but underneath he wants the power and knowledge that the Silurians and will do anything to obtain it, Dr Lawrence is terrified that his reputation will be in ruins if his complex is closed down, Miss Dawson clearly has more affection for Quinn than just a professional affiliation, Major Baker is suffering from a previous career mistake and is desperately trying to salvage his reputation and Masters doesn’t want the embarrassment of the research centre to tarnished his otherwise flawless political career and heads off to London and winds up infecting the population – they’ve all been touched by some Malcolm Hulke magic that transforms their stereotypes into flesh and blood people with real lives. Even the Silurian characters enjoy greater depth than is usual with the alien characters on this show. The squabbles between the Silurians reveals them to be just as argumentative and stubborn as the human characters, just as flawed.
· The use of the globe showing the Earth before the great continental shift is a massive clue to the origins of the Silurians but only in hindsight. The idea that the small planet was due to collide with the Earth and forced the Silurians into hibernation turning out to be the Moon is an ingeniously thought through backstory that uses real historical events imaginatively.
· Quinn makes the first step towards war by keeping the wounded creature hostage and demanding their knowledge and it costs him his life, which provokes the Silurians first act of aggression. It’s a tightrope that this story walks very finely throughout with both sides putting pressure on the conflict that is bound to explode sooner or later until one side or the other is wiped out. Placing the Doctor in the middle of these two warring sides is a mesmerising exercise because we have never seen him in the role of a diplomat before and with both sides acting so aggressively he starts to run out of excuses for them. There is no right or wrong in what either the humans or the Silurians are doing and they both have a claim to the planet – that is why watching this play out is so fascinating. Although we naturally side with humanity in the conflict, if the Silurians did succeed in wiping us out they would just be taking back what used to be theirs. I love that ambiguity, with no side technically being in the wrong and an uncertainty that couldn't be pulled off under any other circumstances as far as a colonisation of the planet is concerned, which makes this tale truly unique.
· The Doctor’s solution is somewhat naïve – does he really think that humanity will live in peace with the Silurians and let them move into the uninhabited lands on the Earth? When the only other solution is extermination of one of the species I guess it is an option that is worth fighting for. Wouldn’t it have been brave to have kept this storyline running throughout the Pertwee era and showing the political and social ramifications of such a union? I don’t think the show was ready to make such a bold step but it remains a fascinating what if...
· Sending Baker back to his own people with a deadly virus is such an insidious way of committing genocide you almost have to admire the Silurian guile. This is the extra plot element that the story needed to justify its extended length and it becomes an extremely prominent and dramatic divergence from the central narrative in the sixth episode. The way the virus spreads so suddenly and uncontrollably is terrifyingly realised with scarred bodies piling up in London, Baker collapsing outside the hospital and Masters tearing down the street as though he can outrun his body succumbing to the disease. Most of the guest cast are wiped out indiscriminately, these people that we have come to know and understand are killed in a violent fashion that really helps to sell how desperate and chilling the fight for the planet has become. People bemoan that the scenes of the Doctor and Liz working on the antidote take forever but a quick solution would blunt the drama – the fact that we can see people dying horribly whilst they are ponderously trying to mix different drugs to prevent this going global gives the latter half of the story some real bite-your-nails tension.
· ‘The Daily what?’ is such an unnecessary touch that add a whole extra layer of realism and that is Malcolm Hulke all over.
The Bad Stuff:
· Dr Quinn has the oddest habit of breaking tragic news with a huge smile on his face – he tells the Doctor about the two potholers dying in the caves as though he is about burst into song. It's fascinating to learn that his smiles mask something much more sinister underneath.
· ‘He’s just frightened that’s all’ ‘Well what’s made him like this?’ ‘Some kind of fear!’ – that could have been rewritten to sound far less embarrassing than it does. ‘She was found in the barn paralysed with fear. She may have seen something!’ doesn’t help matters either.
· The first (and probably the most successful considering the competition is a number of stop motion animation cuties from Big Man T-Rex in Invasion of the Dinosaurs to the terrifying (not) Skarasen and the pantomime horse with the limp head Myrka) dinosaur in the series is still an effects disaster. Had I been Tim Coombe I probably would have suggested its size and not actually shown it in its entirety. What is the point of their T Rex if they keep calling it off every time it tries to kill somebody? Is it just serving a cliffhanging function?
· The soundtrack for this story has a terrible reputation and I have to admit it is awfully distracting and jarringly discordant for the most part. What is especially weird are the few moments where Carey Blyton proves that he can write music that is easy on ear such as the introduction to Squire’s Farm and so why he chose to go down such an unpleasant route baffles me. There is logic behind his use of primitive instruments but when the net result is something that alienates this many people perhaps more traditional instruments would have done a better job. People like Mark Ayres can be heard praising the experimental musical techniques pioneered during the Pertwee era but he is a trained musician who can sift out all the nuances and challenge the scores technically. To your average laymen the scores of Clarey Blyton and Malcolm Clarke are just cacophonous noise. The comedy nonsense when Baker tries to escape the Silurians is especially painful, gutting the scene of any drama.
· Some thought has clearly gone into the Silurian design but thanks to a reliance on rubber the idea doesn't quite translate effectively on screen. The masks are great with their beady little eyes and sucker mouths (and the flashing third eye is a lovely touch) but in long shot they do look like men dressed up in rubbery fabric that is designed to look like reptile skin. Plus the clawed feet are very funny, flapping about as they run.
The Shallow Bit: I think there is something to Terrance Dicks’ bouffant scale in telling how long Pertwee has been in the part because season seven sees his hairstyle at it's most controllable and least crazy, it's almost a respectable look.
Result: Good on Malcolm Hulke for proving Terrance Dicks wrong in his assertion that there were only certain types of story you could tell set on Earth and in doing so has written one of the most intelligent and sophisticated of Doctor Who adventures. The Silurians are an excellently conceived race and their origins open up a huge moral quandary which has no easy answers – who is to say they don’t have a right to reclaim the planet that has become overwhelmed with human beings since they have slept beneath the surface? Hulke always characterises his stories to the hilt but he has surpassed his best efforts elsewhere with this memorable guest cast. Every one of these characters comes alive in unexpected ways and the director has cast them all perfectly, the performances adding much weight to the already substantially characterised parts. With some Doctor Who stories I can barely remember the guest characters once I have finished (Were there any in Meglos? Or The Kings' Demons? Or The Monster of Peladon?) but I have never forgotten the stubborn and violently objectionable Dr Lawrence, the outwardly smiling but manipulative and exploitative Dr Quinn, the regretful and accusatory Major Baker or Parliamentary Under Secretary Marsters who is trying desperately to salvage his career. These are real people, not just ciphers out to service the plot. The regulars all shine too with Jon Pertwee Caroline John and Nicholas Coutney all given plenty to do and treating the drama with apropriate seriousness. At seven episodes you would think that the story would outstay its welcome but there is enough drama and surprises to see you through to the last second and I skipped through this viewing in one go. The ending is justly hailed as one of the shows best and it shows that the Doctor’s new military allies might not be as trustworthy as we all thought. I have to lop off a point for the horrendous musical score (some might consider it blasphemy but I would love to watch this story with a completely different, Dudley Simpson score) and a couple of dodgy moments (mostly involving the Silurians exposed in their entirety and their pet Dino) but overall this story not only justifies the Earthbound format, it positively revels in it: 9/10
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!’
- 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.
- 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
Inferno written by Don Houghton and directed by Douglas Camfield & Barry Letts
TO BE REVIEWED...