7x03. The Ambassadors of Death
Writer: David Whitaker
Director: Michael Ferguson
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts
Synopsis: Two space capsules --
one that traveled to Mars, and another sent up to rescue the first
mission's astronauts -- return to Earth, but with no communication from
the crew, who apparently remain sealed inside. To make matters worse,
the efforts to unravel the mystery by the Doctor, UNIT, and mission
control are continually disrupted and sabotaged. The Doctor discovers
that in fact, the three astronauts have been replaced by three alien
ambassadors, sent by a race of aliens who have peaceful intentions and
have been keeping the human astronauts safe. Unfortunately, General
Carrington, a British military officer, believes they are hostile and
has been orchestrating events so as to gather support for a world war
against the aliens.
Review: "The Ambassadors of
Death" forms a nice counterpart to "The Silurians." It employs similar
themes and narrative devices, such as xenophobia, misunderstanding
between races, and the Doctor's efforts being stymied by the "hawks"
who are overly inclined towards armed conflict. The difference is that,
this time, the Doctor is successful and manages to keep the situation
from reaching a boiling point.
Like its predecessor, "Ambassadors" does a nice job of letting a
mystery unfold slowly. At first, all we know is that there's no
communication from inside the space capsules and that someone on Earth
is transmitting an unusual signal. When UNIT track down the source of
the signal and are greeted with armed resistance, we realize that some
sort of clandestine plan is at work, but for a long time, it remains
unclear what it has to do with the space capsules or why the three
individuals on board are refusing to remove their spacesuits and are
apparently dependent upon radiation for their survival. Even after the
Doctor's encounter with the aliens on board their ship, we still don't
learn that much about them, and while this holds them back a little in
terms of characterization, it does accomplish something that one might
think impossible on Doctor Who at
this point, and that's
approaching the very subject of alien life with a sense of wonder. If
they'd taken their helmets off and been able to communicate with normal
speech, the scene at the end, in which they calmly walk through a hail
of bullets without even a thought of harming their attackers, probably
wouldn't have had the same impact.
"Ambassadors" also sees the Brigadier and UNIT portrayed in a more
positive light than "The Silurians." Though we are again presented with
a story in which humans unnecessarily provoke an alien race, the
culprit is General Carrington, who answers only to the British
government and has kept UNIT out of the loop. Even Carrington is not
really evil so much as misguided: he is convinced that the aliens are
hostile because they killed someone (by accident, it turns out) the
first time he encountered them, and now he believes it to be his "moral
duty" to rally the world for war, even if that means staging a conflict
when the aliens aren't attacking. The Brigadier, to his credit, isn't
buying it, and in fact he's the one to place Carrington under arrest at
the end, which must be a difficult step for a military man to take
against his superior officer. The script also displays a deft touch
when Carrington asks the Doctor if he understands that he felt
obligated to do what he did, and the Doctor solemnly replies, "Yes,
General, I understand." Carrington, after all, was genuinely trying to
protect the human race, and although the Doctor would never overreact
out of fear under such circumstances, it is not lost on him that
someone else might do just that. While we expect the Doctor to display
an open-mindedness and strength of character that most of the other
characters lack, it helps to see that he still has some sympathy and
patience for human failings (especially given his occasional arrogance,
as seen in the initial scenes at the mission control room).
Though the aliens do eventually threaten to attack if their ambassadors
are not returned, this scenario is considerably less ambiguous than
that presented in "The Silurians." Carrington, even if he means well,
is clearly wrong about the aliens' intentions and is indeed guilty of
xenophobia (he seems convinced that the unusual facial appearance of
one of the aliens will help unite people against them), while the
aliens are innocent victims. And while "The Silurians" showed the
establishment failing to prevent move violence, on the human side and,
to the extent they had an establishment, on the Silurian side as well,
"Ambassadors" portrays an establishment that effectively contains the
situation by reining in a few wayward individuals. On one hand, this
makes for a more realistic and balanced approach, not to mention a more
optimistic one -- I certainly wouldn't argue that UNIT should always be
portrayed as corrupt or excessively violent, nor would I want to see
such a portrayal in every single serial. On the other hand, that
slightly subversive edge is part of what made "The Silurians"
exceptional, and with the two airing back to back, "Ambassadors" can't
help but suffer a little by comparison.
The only other real weakness of "The Ambassadors of Death" is that it
doesn't quite fill out the seven episodes. It mostly moves along at a
pretty good pace, but there are an awful lot of action scenes of
varying quality, and some of the conspirators' efforts are either
boring (the prolonged attempt to sabotage the Doctor's space capsule)
or just kind of dumb (Dr. Taltalian's nervous attempt to kill the
Doctor, which is so bumbling and obvious that he might as well have
worn a sign reading, "I'M TRYING TO PLANT A BOMB"). Some of it gets
repetitive after a while, and it doesn't establish the sort of paranoia
typical of the best government conspiracy yarns so much as it simply
frustrates the protagonists and, at least in my case, the viewer as
well. There's also the character of Reegan, who has been praised by
some for being a villain of relatively small ambitions, in that he
deceives Carrington to pursue his own scheme of using the aliens to rob
banks. Certainly some variety among villains is a good thing, and his
selfish nature adds a certain edginess and danger to the situation, but
he might have been more effective in a different serial rather than
sharing the stage with a looming human/alien war. For me, at least, his
presence walks a very thin line between a welcome change of pace and an
almost comically irrelevant distraction.
Still, this is another strong installment that continues the new
Doctor's winning streak and shows how he is able to use his position in
UNIT to put his intelligence and his humanitarian values to work.
Though I found the first six seasons plenty enjoyable (at least from
what remains of them), the creative team clearly hit their stride at
this point in a way they hadn't quite done before, and once again I'm
eager to see more.
- Is it just me, or does Nicholas Courtney's fake mustache look like
it's coming loose during the gun battle in the warehouse?
- I think the production team were having a little fun with the
helicopter that attacks the UNIT convoy -- on the side of it, I
distinctly saw the letter code "G-AWFL."
- A nice touch was having the Brigadier denigrate the Doctor's mode of
transport earlier in the serial, then end up needing her at the end.
Bessie to the rescue!
Rating: *** (out of four)
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