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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // October 9, 2012
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted November 4, 2012 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
During Jon Pertwee's first two seasons playing The Doctor, the Time Lord was exiled to Earth.  Unable to make his TARDIS dematerialization he was stranded on one planet and in one time, but that didn't mean he wasn't still battling aliens.  During this period, they came to him as in the seven-part story the Ambassadors of Death.  While the story does last an episode or two longer than it needs to, it's a generally fun adventure with an eerie creature for The Doctor to confront along with an internal menace.

While working on the TARDIS trying, in vain, to get it working again, The Doctor and his companion Liz Shaw see a television news report about Mars Probe 7.  It blasted off from the surface of the Red Planet 7 months ago, but there has been no contact with the astronauts during that whole time.  A rescue capsule is sent up to meet the Probe in orbit and when they dock a loud, piercing noise is heard, and the pilot of the rescue capsule ceases communication.
The Doctor races to Space Center after hearing the noise because he's convinced that he knows what it is:  a message from aliens.  When the sound is repeated, The Doctor is able to talk the head of Space Command, Ralph Cornish, into letting him use their computers to attempt to decipher the signal.  What's surprising however is that the message is answered, and that answer originates from London. 

Triangulating the earthly message pinpoints the transmission point to an abandoned warehouse in the industrial district.  When the Brigadier takes a squad of men to investigate he's met with heavy resistance by ordinary looking thugs who have military training.  The UNIT forces prevail, but not before the signal device is destroyed and the leaders escape.  

That seems almost inconsequential when the rescue vehicle falls out of orbit and starts its decent.  It lands safely in the British country side and is cordoned off by police until UNIT arrives to retrieve it, but as soon as they get it loaded on a truck they're attacked by smoke bombs being hurled from a helicopter and armed men.  Just what is in the capsule, and who on Earth is communicating with whoever is sending the strange signals?  Most important of all, just what happened to the astronauts that were manning Mars Probe 7?

I'm a fan of Pertwee's run on Doctor Who, and this story has a lot of what I enjoy about his characterization of the Time Lord.  He's smart and usually the first to figure out what's going on, but also a bit pompous and slightly arrogant.  I like the fact that he's a flawed character (thought granted the flaws aren't too great and sometimes played for laughs), it makes him more interesting.  He also has a problem with authority figures (which makes sense given the fact that he ran away from his own race due to too many rules and regulations) and he does a great job of dressing down some people who think they're terribly important.  It's always great fun to watch The Doctor give a bureaucrat a well-deserved dressing down.
This serial also has some rather eerie villains, the titular Ambassadors who are humanoids in British space suits with darkened face plates so you can't see their faces.  They shamble and walk slowly, but they're bullet proof and their touch is deadly.  It's a great low-budget creature that actually looks more menacing than silly.
Unfortunately the story does have some flaws.  Being a seven episode adventure, there are a few too many plot twist and the result is a script with some pretty major holes in it.  Why did the antagonists fight UNIT for the rescue capsule when they knew that they didn't need the contents?  How come the villains could communicate with the creatures in space, but not when they were on Earth?  And why did the shadowy figures that The Doctor is constantly fighting against come up with such a convoluted plan in the first place.  His objectives could have been achieved much easier.  Oh yeah, and the title gives a lot of the plot away too.

Even so, it's easy to look past these inconsistencies and just enjoy the show.  There's plenty of action, space travel, mysterious creatures and science fiction elements to make it a fun way to spend an afternoon.  
The DVD:

This release is a two-disc affair. The seven-episode story is on disc one while the second one is reserved for the bulk of the special features.
This show comes with the original mono soundtrack that fits the show just fine.  The dynamic range is nothing to write home about, but the dialog is generally crisp and clear and there is no background noise, tape hiss, distortion or dropouts.  There are optional subtitles in English.

While all of the Pertwee era stories were recorded in color, the BBC trashed some of the color tapes and many chapters only exist in black and white.  That's the case with this adventure.  The first episode was taken from an original 2" videotape master, and it looks great.  The other chapters survive on momochrome 16mm film.  Using recently created algorithms to extra color information from B&W images, the Restoration Team was able to return the entire story to the original color.  The results are okay, but not fantastic.  The second episode is a bit choppy in parts, with a lot of banding and some faint horizontal color lines in a few scenes.  The rest look better though, and I'd bet the image on the DVD surpasses what viewers saw back in 1970.  
This two-disc set has some nice extras, as always.  First off is a commentary track that's a little bittersweet... it features two actors who have died since it was recorded a couple of years ago:  Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) and Caroline John (companion Liz Shaw).  I'm just glad someone had the foresight to get their thoughts down.  Various episodes also have include director Michael Ferguson, script editor Terrance Dicks, and three of the stuntmen who worked on a couple of the action-filled episodes.  They are moderated by Toby Hadoke.
The video bonus items include a nice making-of featurette, Mars Probe 7:  The Making of The Ambassadors of Death, and Tomorrow Times:  The Third Doctor a 13-minute look at the critical reception Pertwee stories garnered at the time they were aired.
In addition there is a pop-up informational text option which is very informative as always.   It does give some dry statistics, like how many people viewed each episode, but there are also some interesting notes such as script changes that were made and background information on the supporting characters.  The extras are rounded off with storyboard comparison, a trailer for the story, a photo gallery, and the listing from the Radio Times in .pdf format.

Final Thoughts:
While I'm not a huge fan of the longer Doctor Who stories, I did enjoy this one more than some of the others.  The plot does get a bit convoluted and there are some holes because of that, but when all is said and done it's a very enjoyable serial. It gets a strong Recommended rating.
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