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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 The Doctor discovers that in fact, the three astronauts have been replaced by three alien ambassadors, sent by a race of aliens who have peaceful intentions and have been keeping the human astronauts safe.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.

Other notes:

- 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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