Doctor Who #267: The Ambassadors of Death Part 1

"Oh, and the Brigadier thinks it's his business? Oh well, I suppose he's got to do something to occupy his mind now that he's blown up the Silurians."TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is not yet on DVD. I have used Internet sources to watch it while I wait. First aired Mar.21 1970.

IN THIS ONE... Astronauts returning from Mars are incommunicado, except for a strange signal that someone on Earth has replied to.

REVIEW: A British (or at least, European) space program that put men on Mars 7 months ago?! I guess I'll have to address the dreaded "UNIT dating" issue soon! (So see Theories.) Regardless of the when and how of it, it might seem like we're getting back to "countdown procedurals", but director Michael Ferguson plays the same trick he did on The Seeds of Death by making even that component more interesting than it has a right to be. In this case, he breaks the fourth wall by having a journalist on site, turning to the audience and giving some of the backstory, later acting as a kind of narrator. The rendezvous between the Recovery and Mars Probe is done with believable tension and is helped greatly by the episode's very good production values. The model work is well done, all the CSO-driven screens (the ancestor of the green screen process) are cool and dramatic, stock footage is smartly utilized, and the camera work helps sell the idea of weightlessness. The organ music (I could almost say muzak) is a rather strange one, but production values are only really let down in the human resource department, as neither mission control nor any of the space missions have an appropriate complement.

And of course, The Ambassadors of Death avoids comparison to other countdown procedurals by not being a base under siege story (at least, not yet). Rather, it's a mystery. What did the astronauts bring back with them from Mars? Why is there no communication from them? What is the nature of the signal they eventually emit. And who are the people on the receiving end answering it? These questions more than the threat of a solar flare is what drives the episode. The Doctor means to answer them, of course, and is his usual boorish self with the people in mission control. Rude, but witty. He seems to still have a grudge against the Brigadier for what he did to the Silurians, a nice wink to continuity and to their evolving relationship, but he still gets involved. That the return signal is triangulated to London comes as absolutely no surprise, of course. Liz, for her part, proves she can speak pretty good French. That's probably neither here nor there, but it's my mother tongue, so my ears naturally perk up.

There are a number of important firsts in this episode that deserve mention. Though I believe they worked on The Smugglers uncredited, this marks the first UNIT action sequence done by the HAVOC stunt team (and the first "Action by HAVOC" credit). Frankly, I'm a little disappointing. Whenever the Brigadier is involved, he looks cool and fearless, and a little extra care is given, but the rest of the sequence is rather limp. I've never been a fan of shoot-em-ups, especially in Doctor Who, and this one just makes UNIT look ridiculously ineffective. Another first is the Doctor taking the console out of the TARDIS and setting it up in his(?) house. At least, it must be his given the variety of strange items on display. The console is apparently able to make short jumps in space, or else how did it get out of the TARDIS? And it can make Liz and the Doctor pop a few seconds to the future too. Very strange, and it remains to be seen if it has any bearing on the story, or if it's merely meant to show the Doctor's continuing efforts to get his TARDIS working again. Annnnd I almost missed it because I'm so used to it being part of the show's format, but it's the first time the cliffhanger "sting" has been used on the show. Can't believe we went without it for so long!

THEORIES: When DO the UNIT stories take place? It's always been a point of contention among fans. On the one hand, it's obviously meant to be the near future, with a more advanced space program, mobile telephones and other technological clues. On the other, the production has never been particularly good at 1) guessing at the future (we still haven't put people on Mars, but there's also Britain's monetary system) and 2) removing offending items like calendars from shots (admittedly, they wouldn't have expected episodes to be re-broadcast, never mind scrutinized on DVD). It's tomorrow, but it looks like today. Some of the only dates we get are contradictory. Sarah Jane Smith says she's from 1980 in Pyramids of Mars (1975), but Mawdryn Undead places the Brig's retirement in 1976. The DisContinuity Guide And About Time place the stories more or less the same year they were made, preferring to believe that the Whoniverse's basic history is the same as ours, but that there are certain technical advancements that came sooner, at least for the military and scientific research centers. What we now know of UNIT and Torchwood would account for that, so I tend to agree. Sadly, the definitive reference work on the Doctor Who time line, Lance Parkin's brilliant AHistory, throws in the towel on the subject and just dates the UNIT era as Years 1 through 8, etc. (with The Invasion and Spearhead in Year 1, Silurians beginning Year 2). The book is too complete a reference to find an answer that is not contradicted by SOME piece of information. Scale it like you want to, but AHistory suggests Year 1 is either 1969, 1974 or 1979 based on evidence from Mawdryn, Pyramids or The Invasion, respectively. I trust Parkin that these dates check out.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Another good start, tense, mysterious and well-crafted. The firefight is, unsurprisingly, the sore point.


Anonymous said...

Harpsichord and flute -- the official UNIT ass-kicking music?

LiamKav said...

I have mixed feelings about the cliffhanger scream. On the one hand, it always feels abrupt on old episodes when they go straight to the closing music. On the other hand, there are a few instances where is is completely inappropriate to the mood being conveyed, most apparently on the new series where several episodes ended on a somber moment which was underminded by the scream. (I much prefer the season 5 approach. Use it for actual cliffhangers, or at the end of the next episode preview.)

Also, and this might be heresey, but I prefer the 80s Davison-era scream.

Siskoid said...

Definitely, the RTD use of the sting is terrible. It's a lead-in to the music of the end credits instead of a cliffhanger and that's just a complete misunderstanding of what it's for.


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