Doctor Who (Classic): S07E03 “The Ambassadors of Death”

Season 7
Directed by Timothy Combe
Written by Malcolm Hulke

After last week’s standout serial, we head into the back half of this season with another seven-episode story.  It was also a serial that ended in a way that would typically define the rest of a season (especially on any modern sci-fi/fantasy show) with the Brig’s decision to seal off the Silurians’ base permanently causing The Doctor’s opinion of him and the whole UNIT experience to turn for the south.  Surprisingly, The Doctor hasn’t forgotten the Brig’s actions in this serial as I feared he would (and hoping he wouldn’t).  It’s a nice touch in a show that has long been on a pattern of mostly ignoring the events of the previous episodes ever since it gave up on any sense of season long character (relationship) development after Season 1.  It doesn’t affect the show in much of a material way, but it casts a big shadow.

As for the actual plot, we start with an astronaut in a blue tinted space scene approaching a Mars probe (Mars Probe 7) that took off from Mars seven months previous.  There’re some immediate Event Horizon vibes from it and perhaps if The Doctor was still flying through space, the show could have dealt in some cosmic horror.  That’s was not really the show’s bag though even then, so it was hardly surprising the show didn’t head in that direction despite some nods to it.  The two astronauts aboard that probe have been silent since it seemed to end in catastrophic failure.  When the astronaut docks with the other craft, he hears something coming from the other ship and is seemingly killed by a deafening noise.

UNIT has gotten itself involved with this Mars mission as the foremost expert on anything strange (though once again, they and especially The Doctor get a chilly reception from mission control), and it’s a noise that The Doctor recognizes but from where he doesn’t know.  He also seems to be the only one not affected too badly by the sound even though this does not turn out to be especially relevant in the end.  Despite his efforts to use a computer to decode the message, it still turns out to be complete gibberish at first.

The craft is emitting a signal, a signal which is tracked to a warehouse where in an uncharacteristic style of action, UNIT trades gunfire with the troops there.  People with the weirdest disguises that have metal over their mouths, false noses, and what appears to be oxygen tanks on their back hijack a convoy transporting a capsule only for The Doctor to then singlehandedly steal it back with some trickery.  The message is in a code and there’s people on the inside who appear interested in seeing that decoding it never happens.  Despite recovering the capsule, those at mission control continue to receive messages from inside that just repeat the same thing no matter what they ask, asking to be cleared for reentry.

It’s a creepy moment though perhaps deflated when it is found out to just be a recording with the capsule being empty and radioactive, and the astronauts kidnapped.  The three men are busy receiving massive doses of radiation yet somehow still alive and feeding on it.  It’s from here that the story pivots to one a twisting and overloaded one.  At the center is a former astronaut and current general now working as Space Security.  His role starts as villainous, keeping the astronauts for UNIT before the story hints that maybe his mission was just one for the government (acting as a counterpoint to the Brig) with the reason that being that he was following orders to keep it secret with UNIT who is not trusted as they are an international organization when the astronauts get stolen from him, and finally ends up as a generic baddie.

He’s working alongside Sir James Quinlan who does everything he can to try to block the launch of another mission to be sent up in their place.  He claims later that if the rocket goes up, it will apparently mean disaster for the whole world, but try to keep the truth from The Doctor.  It’s a twist that could have made for a far more effective episode and continued the shades of grey of the previous story had they just made that the truth.  The twist on top of it that the three astronauts are still in orbit and the “astronauts” who landed aren’t human (merely walking about in their uniforms) is an effective one that once again could have brought in cosmic elements, but the eventual explanation is far less interesting.

Liz winds up getting kidnapped and forced to help maintain the “astronauts” who are eventually able to be controlled using a silly device.  They are also immune to bullets and shock whatever they touch as they become boring goons.  An attempt is made on The Doctor’s life (who has volunteered to launch himself into space), an attempt he survives thanks to the crafty manipulation of the enemy which only manages to kill one person.  Launching The Doctor into space is a clever way to get around the restrictions of this season, but it still feels mostly trivial, perhaps due to how quickly he travels through space each way.  Even nearly being sent into the sun barely slows him down.

The motivations of the whole plot are kept purposefully vague with plenty of false leads throughout.  Sir James is killed before he can tell the whole truth with stuff in his locker destroyed and there are hints of an alien nation prepping for an invasion possibly aided by a foreign power.  The truth is far more in keeping with the standard “humans are bastards” format though there’s a hint of nuance and a continuation of the theme of humans reacting to aliens with skepticism and ultimately fear and violence.  After the Doctor’s capsule is sent flying into an object that appears in space, he winds up docking with the object which is an alien craft.  The astronauts have been kept safe on it and hypnotized by an alien TV set (probably watching those damn Earth programs) to maintain their health while the aliens hold them as collateral.  The three “astronauts” on Earth are ambassadors (dammit title, spoilers!) from the alien race who were sent as part of an agreement and if they don’t get them back, they will kill their prisoners.

In fact, the entire thing was a set up by the general.  He allied himself on Earth with people who did so under the assumption that the “astronauts” are being kept because they are intended to be controlled to rob banks and the like.  All the while though, he is really intending to use the (nonexistent) threat of the aliens to set up a broadcast where he reveals the aliens on air (of course arresting all those who oppose him) in the hope that it will lead to war.  The serial did establish well that he was a former astronaut who had previously conducted a mission to Mars despite hiding the importance of that in that the general had met the aliens on his mission.  It was there that he became convinced that they are evil for accidentally killing his companion on the flight.  It leaves the story as one big revenge narrative enabled by a false flag operation.

He’s only stopped when he’s interrupted by the two freed aliens and UNIT which honestly makes little sense.  If anything, that should have bolstered his cause and portrayed him as a truth teller being suppressed from getting the truth out by the secret world police while also confirming that they are real.  I guess he was unlucky that the news decided not to televise a big breaking event as it is unfolding seconds from the intended broadcast and right in front of their cameras.

I do quite like when the villain is someone who believes he is doing the right thing even if he is clearly mad as a hatter.  It’s just a shame that the story is over plotted, and the seven-episode length makes it extremely tiring.  While it’s not exactly shocking who the ultimate villain will be, most of the serial uses random thugs and the threat of the alien astronauts as the enemy.  It’s a decision that really hurts the show as neither one is especially interesting.  The horrifying faces of the aliens only appear from beneath their helmets midway through the sixth episode and the slow-moving astronaut suits looks their intimidation factor quick.  There are certainly good ideas spread throughout, but this is definitely another case where the show would have benefited from tightening things up.

Grade: C

Stray Observations

– Besides Event Horizon, the opening also recalled 2010: The Year We Made Contact, perhaps a more accurate comparison in terms of tone.  Even that movie’s subtitle would work well as an episode title if the show was still naming individual episodes.
– The general is played by John Abineri who had already appeared in “Fury from the Deep” and who was a regular in Terry Nation’s Survivors (and Rimmer’s dad on Red Dwarf) while Quilan is played by Dallas Cavell who was a villain in “The Highlanders” and was making his fourth appearance.
– The show also features an appearance by longtime Taggart regular Robert Robertson, the future original Davros (Michael Wisher), and the third The Master (Geoffrey Beevers).
– In another mark for season-long serialization, we get to check in on The Doctor’s attempts to reactivate the TARDIS showing us that progress seems to be occurring as well as giving a pretty good read on just how eager he is to still leave.  Plus, it’s another opportunity to develop the Third Doctor as someone who is adept at working on various craft.
– It’s still a sequence though that exists largely as a comic one with a wacky sequence where he accidentally projects Liz into the future by 15 seconds and the two of them take turns disappearing before later being able to achieve transmigration of object for a glorified magic trick.
– More evidence of The Doctors tinkering – He’s managed to outfit Bessie with an anti-theft device (some forcefield) that keeps people glued to it as it screeches.  He also later is able to manage to craft something that is able to cast an SOS signal and even a communicator to talk to the aliens.
– The serial probably peaks early with the mysterious behavior and attempts to contact the astronauts managing a level of suspense.
– The running newscaster reports that act almost as if there is no fourth wall are far from my favorite touch of the story.
– Between the creepy repeating tape (which made for one of the best moments of NuWho in “The Empty Child”) and the entirety of “Spearhead from Space” (see also “Rose”), it’s clear just how much affection Russell T. Davies had for this era (Moffat too I guess as he wrote “The Empty Child”, brought back the Silurians in “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood”, and “Silence in the Library” takes the astronaut suits where the astronauts inside have been replaced).
– Besides that initial action sequence, the episode also throws in a car chase (with Liz at the helm of Bessie) which turns into a foot chase, a far more action-packed serial that typical for the show.
– The Doctor continues to manage a very aristocratic air.
– There’s more evidence of The Doctor’s alien nature as he is shown to be able to stand more G-force than any human being.
– This story is not the best visually especially compared to the past two (in no small part because most of the episodes needing to be colorized due to junking), but the show still continues to look better than the earlier seasons even beyond the addition of color.
– While the show has established Martians as an alien race on the show before, it’s apparent that these are not the same as those previous depictions.  Instead it is another race who just happened to be in the area.
– In more evidence Liz is incredibly talented, she can also speak French, making her the second companion thus far with that ability (after Polly).
– While I can’t say I noticed it (probably since it was played during the first episode credit), this was the first to serial to use the trademark Doctor Who cliffhanger sting.
– I did however notice that for some reason the show switched to reairing the last episode’s cliffhanger this time out before the serial title, creating a feel like a proper film serial.
– It’s fairly obvious that this episode was a mess in writing and sure enough, it was largely rewritten by Terrance Dicks quickly.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The Doctor leaves Liz to communicate with the aliens and send them back, walking off to go work in his laboratory.

Next Up:  It feels like we only just started Season 7 of Doctor Who (Classic), but we are already going to wrap it up with “Inferno” on 6/3.  More Star Trek: The Original Series to come first with “A Taste of Armageddon” and the famous “Space Seed” on 5/27.