The seven-parter is an interesting creature. For all my complaints about the padding in some six-parters, I've never noticed any in their longer cousins. For whatever reason, they just seem to tell richer stories, with deeper themes, more developed characters and unusual structures. I think it's true that the longer the story, the more experimentation becomes a necessity, because the beginning, middle and end will be much further apart than in a four-parter. This is good, because I like stories that stand by themselves in Who catalogue.
The Ambassadors of Death is certainly unique. Its length owes to its keeping the viewers guessing about who the villains are and what threat they pose, both the nefarious human characters as well as the aliens. A reason this is frustrating is because on first time viewing, going so long without knowing what's going on, my expectations constantly subverted, gets tiresome after a while. It's only when the story is over that I reflect on the whole story and notice the subtleties of the earlier episodes, admist the twists and turns that seemed like padding at the time. This is not a wholly satisfying approach, because once we know what's going on, there are only a few minutes left, leaving me little time to savour it.
David Whitaker returns. I approve, not just because of his Who credentials but he seems a particularly good fit to the Season 7 style; the dare I say it more adult style of the show, with a companion who is a fully rounded person and the shady human characters. Unfortunately Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke’s rewrites leave me wondering what Whitaker put in and what came from them – I trust that the scripts were unusable without the rewrites but in this case I think there was too many fingers in the pie. So do the writers’ ideas gel together? I’m surprised how well it flows actually, but then Terrance Dicks is a good script editor. His is the voice I can hear the least when I watch, but I imagine he was mainly worried about just getting a workable script into the studio.
The plot sees the return of a recovery probe, sent into space to investigate the disappearance of a British spacecraft. However the astronauts, who have been replaced in their spacesuits by aliens, are captured by a group of people, only to escape and kill people by touching them. What we soon learn however is that the aliens are ambassadors who are being controlled by the group, led by General Carrington, to sully public opinion of the visitors and encourage military action against them. I like the fact that this isn’t an alien invasion… to an extent. Going down the human villain route is tricky because in such a long story you need a strong sense of menace to keep the interest. Without that, we’re kept guessing until the end, when Carrington surrenders. This is to the story’s detriment; despite enjoying the exploration of how humans would react negatively to friendly aliens, the point would have been better made if we had someone who was willing to die for his beliefs and who was a clear-cut villain from at least the midpoint of the story.
The story begins in a British space centre. The influence of the Apollo missions is clear as despite the TV-scaled set and few actors the scenes of probe launches and communication with outer space is handled a lot better even than in The Seeds of Death only a year ago. That and the inclusion of a TV news reporter makes these scenes more interesting to watch than they would normally be.
Of course, UNIT and the Brigadier are hanging around, but the Doctor isn’t, being more concerned with repairing the TARDIS, what to him is a simple space mission not worth his presence. When a strange sound is heard, the Doctor realises it’s a communication from an alien race and decides to go to the space centre. As usual, the Doctor simply barges in, taking it for granted that the Brigadier will apologize on his behalf and authorise him. When a response to the alien message is sent from a nearby warehouse, UNIT are out in force to investigate, followed by a shootout in said warehouse, resulting in the capture of a culprit.
The first episode crams a lot in. It’s not often we get such a big action scene at the beginning, and the action in general in the story is probably my favourite aspect of it, they’re especially well directed by Michael Ferguson and hold interest even if the Doctor isn’t in them.
Happily, just when I thought the story was just spoiling me early, there’s an even bigger action scene in the second episode as UNIT are intercepted while transporting the recovery probe to the space centre, which results in the probe being stolen by the unknown perpetrators – until the Doctor takes it back in a hilarious sequence where he convinces the thieves to help him movie Bessie, and traps them to the car. Moments like this define the Third Doctor for me; his humour works in a different way from his predecessors but when it’s there it’s just as funny.
Unfortunately, my earlier fears about getting all the good stuff early isn’t entirely unfounded. With the action over, it’s revealed that the men who took the probe were under orders from General Carrington, who despite being from the army has been instructed to keep UNIT out of the loop because it’s a British matter. Now they team up, giving UNIT access to the astronauts, who had been removed from the capsule when nobody was looking. However, ANOTHER group of rogues shows up and kidnaps the astronauts, so we’re back to square one. Although this makes sense at the conclusion, as I was watching I thought this was a tedious twist, they’d have been better building on the threat already established (Carrington, who clearly is up to no good) than introducing a new one, even if they turn out to be one and the same. Also, the pacing slows from that of its first few episodes, as apart from the capture of Liz, not very much happens until Episode 5, when the Doctor goes up to space in a second recovery capsule.
The trouble with a story like this is that it’s interesting, but not very fun. At this point, I actually want the alien ambassadors to go on the rampage, but what we get instead is Liz escaping capture… only to be re-captured by Taltalian, a scientist who works at the space centre. I’m used to escape-recaptures, but they usually at least accomplish something leading to the eventual solution, this doesn’t, it’s just padding. I did like the character of Dr. Lennox, right from the moment he appears he seems like the most defeated person you could imagine, who continues working for the apparent head of the rogue group, Reegan, simply because he has nowhere else to go, having lost his social standing and respect in the scientific community. That he decides to take a chance and tell all to UNIT isn’t a surprise, but his death before he gets a chance is, mainly because it comes at the point where the story is gearing up towards its conclusion anyway, so I would expect UNIT to be homing in on the perpetrators. For a brief moment, the story was all about him as I felt his terror and doubt as he waited in the cell to speak to the Brigadier.
With the knowledge that the real astronauts are still in orbit, the Doctor goes into space and reaches Mars Probe Seven. The aliens in the spacesuits have been attacking and killing people on Earth, but after meeting more aliens, the Doctor finds out that ambassadors were sent to Earth following an agreement between these aliens and humans, but the ambassadors’ actions are not of their own doing. As I’ve said, a novel direction for the story to take, and it does lead to a good last episode as Carrington is revealed to be the man behind the whole scheme, but he believes he’s doing his moral duty by persuading the government to destroy the alien spaceship. My complaint about this is that as a seven-parter I feel it comes across as rather tame. The action is well integrated into the story but still seems like it’s there to make up for the fact that at its heart the story does not need any action. The low-key presence of the villains, some of whom have to co-operate with UNIT and some of whom hide away for the most of the story, combined with the fact that the aliens in spacesuits, destroying with every touch, would make for a scary Doctor Who story in its own right, is disappointing.
Some of the story’s best bits are non-plot related parts though. The music for one – it must be about the strangest Doctor Who score I’ve ever heard, and all the better for it. I’m surprised the UNIT theme didn’t become a regular. Even though he didn’t do much, Ralph Cornish was a good character. The shift between colour and black and white wasn’t one of these good things though, and likewise I hated the *TWANG* in the titles – main titles followed by the cliffhanger then more titles gets annoying after a few episodes, just play the episode already. Then there's Liz being captured for what seems like forever, another negative.
Despite my complaints, I feel the good far outweighs the bad, and the story it tells is worth telling.
Horror quotient – Interesting. This is a story where we’re initially supposed to find the alien ambassadors scary, but then reminded that we’re not supposed to. The real appearance of the aliens is a genuine shock though.
Comedy quotient – Some irrelevant humour, such as the Doctor’s “sleight of hand” (magic in Doctor Who!), and him and Liz jumping forward in time at the TARDIS console. The rest of the humour is more subtle.
Drama quotient – The story’s strong point. If it were shorter, it would have more impact, because it would probably mean the loss of some plot points which were pointless, including making Carrington’s deception a double cross instead of a triple cross.
It starts off by promising an entertaining romp about alien invaders, but then delivers a story that while more interesting, is less fun. A cracking story, nevertheless a disappointment.