The Ambassadors of Death

“I’m sorry Doctor.  It’s my moral duty.” – General Carrington, gun to Doctor’s head

This is the only story of this season that I did not see or read about as a kid and thus don’t have an emotional childhood connection to. For that reason, I didn’t have much interest in it at first viewing as an adult, but each time I’ve seen it my interest and appreciation of the story has grown. If anything, it’s in large part a spy story (or one could even argue a mob story) as the bad guys have infiltrated every level of the government as a shadow organization and thus can intimidate, sabotage, or block access at will. All the double crossing and cover-ups are almost exasperating, yet that’s exactly how we’re meant to feel since the Brigadier must feel the same way. Indeed, UNIT comes off looking rather poorly as their opponents in this group seem better trained and quicker at clever plans than they are, even managing to steal a rocket and kill a man in protective custody under their noses. Even their equipment is cooler like the fake delivery truck that can change its side markings.

The story is full of eye-catching moments like the incongruous head-on shot of a lone astronaut walking down the road towards the station (inspiring future Doctor Who perhaps?) or the cliffhanger with the alien’s deadly hand outstretched over the Doctor from behind. The three Earth astronauts having a familiar waiting room recreated for them in the spaceship out of nothing by an alien power nicely evokes parallels with 2001: A Space Odyssey. There’s still a lot of large-scale outside filming like the chase across the dam or Reegan’s run through the pipeworks that give the whole season that seventies film quality. The show also steps up its use of CSO to create alien environments. Some of it looks dated today, but it was a clever for instance to try to have the Doctor being lowered as though by an unseen force as he steps out of his space capsule.

The Doctor is arrogant as ever but nevertheless brilliant from the start. Hearing the signal over the TV, he not only knows it’s an alien message but differentiates the next one as response and all the implications it brings. They highlight his alien physiology again, now a staple in the program but rather still a new thing at that time. It’s also hilarious when the Brigadier comes to sheepishly admit the rocket capsule was stolen from UNIT and does a double take at finding the Doctor standing there busily examining it having single-handedly gotten it back.

On the other hand, the Brig comes off pretty well at other moments. Even in the midst of his soldiers being shot down, he stands tall at one point for an often referenced scene as he fires off his revolver in three different directions with barely a need to look around. There’s some soldierly braveness when he realizes he’s cornered and stands there expecting to get shot with an expression that he doesn’t regret dying but hates that he let himself get put in such a position. He even gets some hands-on fighting including having to take out some rogue army personnel when Carrington betrays him. The show references the Doctor’s unhappiness at the Brigadier’s previous decisions about the Silurians, but the Doctor has apparently forgiven him for the most part as it is more with irritation that hostility.

Again I love Liz and almost shout for joy at her no-nonsense character. She is brave in the face of danger, especially in the kidnapping scene as she leads one of the first real car chases on the program. Nearly escaping a couple of times and ready to try again even when recaptured, she never acts defeated. She also doesn’t stand stupidly in confusion as things change or characters end up being double-crossing agents; she quickly figures out and reacts with disappointment at what each change means. Best of all, when manhandled by Reegan and thrown into the menacing grasp of a huge thug who tells her she’d better keep still what is her response? “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.”

In the end, the momentum of the story does break down a bit. What seems like a huge secret organization with countless resources seems to boil down to two men which stretches credibility a bit. Granted, Reegan comes across as an amazing super genius villain with his ability to quickly devise plans and unerring confidence to the end. Mad Carrington’s side of the story, on the other hand, ends rather abruptly with not much resistance. It’s intended to be a pitiful ending for a once brave man who has gone insane with the Doctor sympathetic towards his madness, but it is all a bit of a let down compared to the strong start. It’s also not quite clear in the story why the three alien ambassadors would follow orders to break in and kill people. One assumes they think that they are in fear of being deprived of radiation and thus killed, but it seems they could easily turn against anyone trying to control them. The alien leader that sent them, thinking they were representatives to a peaceful earth, also sends the plans for the control box to give them commands so they must have been expected to be ‘used’ for something. This lack of motivation doesn’t undercut the story but it does make the ambassadors seem more like robots than alien beings.

Best unsettling moment:

It’s just a small part of the story, but I find the callousness of Reegan disturbing. He tells the hired goons to get in the back of the truck with the alien astronauts and reassures them they’ll be alright since they have guns to protect themselves. Soon later he casually stops the truck and pulls out their dead bodies knowing they would have died from radiation exposure and just dumps them in a rock quarry pit. The reveal of the lumpy blue face of the alien is supposed to be the jump scare of this story, but I find the hard edge on this scene to be much more affecting.

Firsts:

  • Console outside the TARDIS
  • UNIT versus authorities
  • The Doctor adds a futuristic device to Bessie (in this case an anti-theft forcefield)

Regrets:

As already mentioned, the ending feels a bit of a let down. I wouldn’t have minded it being an eight episode story with the ending given a bit more action and drama. On the other hand, I’m sure the space capsule launch and link up at the start may have been thrilling at the time because it reflected reality, but now the entire scene plays quite slow and plodding. When it’s at the point that Van Lyden starts droning: “Releasing first clamp…First clamp away…Second clamp…” it’s almost painful.

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