We’re back on UK Gold with another of Pertwee’s lost era, and The Ambassadors of Death. This one is in black and white because they had already started junking colour videotapes of old programmes in the early 80s, despite the programmes being barely ten years old.
I believe most of them have been restored to colour in the years since this was recorded – indeed I’ve already looked at the Tomorrow’s World that details the restoration process that was used for some of these stories whose colour masters were lost.
It truly boggles the mind that the BBC can have an entire department dedicated to its archive, and yet nobody in power there thought it might be a short-sighted move to destroy the only existing copies of many, many programmes. Doctor Who is one of the most famous, but there are umpteen shows whose archive is incomplete because of these decisions.
I think things have improved there, though. While I was working at the BBC, I was involved in a couple of archive projects, so I was able to see a tiny amount of what they had to do.
One of the projects that was going on while I was there was the transfer of a huge number of older digital recordings. These were recordings on a tape format that was now obsolete, and for which it was impossible to obtain any more replacement parts for the machines that could play them back. Luckily, someone in the department noticed, and they embarked on quite a large effort to transfer the digital tapes to a newer, supported format, before the playback machines wore out. They had to do it right then, because given the number of tapes in the archive in that format, and the projected lifespan of the playback heads on their equipment, including all the spares they could get, they only just had enough time to transfer their archive before they would no longer have anything that could play back the tapes.
Archiving is difficult, as this blog has taught me.
Back to Doctor Who and The Ambassadors of Death. It opens with an astronaut talking to Ronald Allen in mission control. Ronald Allen was in Crossroads in the 70s, which is where I mostly know him from, although he is also famous for my generation playing Uncle Quentin in the Comic Strip’s Five Go Mad in Dorset.
He’s also been in Doctor Who before, in a Patrick Troughton story called The Dominators. It wasn’t very good.
Oddly, the story’s title appears after this brief sequence, and rather than just a static caption, the words ‘The Ambassadors’ fly into place, then ‘OF DEATH’ appears with an audible ‘boing’ effect.
This is an impressively large control room set. I assume that the top half of the picture is a painting or model.
This mission must be important – the Brigadier is on hand.
Everything is tense at Space Control One, as the spaceship is making a rendezvous with Mars Probe Seven, which had lost contact with Earth, but had taken off from Mars to return home, still with no contact.
The music for the docking sequence seems atypical of the series – it sounds like Procul Harum, or a pastiche of them. It’s probably library music.
The rescue craft docks with the uncommunicative craft, but when they open the airlock, there’s a blast of loud noise. Space COntrol One are baffled, but the Doctor recognises it as a signal. Things get curioser when, after a repeat of the message, there’s a second sound blast which appears to be an answer, from somewhere on Earth.
The Doctor and Liz help with triangulating the source of the signal, an abandoned warehouse in London, seven miles from Space Control One.
Unit go racing after the source, and we see the men responsible, a shady group, not afraid to shoot a few soldiers. I bet they’re a right-wing think tank, it always was in those days.
Cue some gunfights.
The Brigadier’s a bit of a badass with the pistol.
The men sending the signal get away, but not before setting a self destruct on their equipment. And at Space Control One, The Doctor is not getting the cooperation he needs from beardy Dr Taltalian, so he goes to talk to him, only for Taltalian to pull a gun on him.
Clearly there’s some grand conspiracy here, surrounding the Mars mission. The recovery craft undocks, and returns to Earth, still not transmitting, and when it lands (in the south of England, not the sea) Unit go to pick it up. They are menaced by some masked blokes in a helicopter, who drop smoke bombs on them
They get away with the capsule on a lorry, but luckily the Doctor is in Bessie and spots the hijacked lorry, and tricks the captors into helping him move Bessie, then activating an ‘Anti Theft Device’ which keeps the captors’ hands stuck to Bessie while he drives the Lorry away.
The conspiracy, whatever it is, goes as far as the Minister in charge of the Space programme. He’s hiding Dr Taltalian, and worried about the progress being made decoding the signal.
Then they make contact with the men on Recovery 7, but they’re not responding to questions from the outside. They cut the capsule open and find it empty. The men have been taken away earlier, in a scene we don’t even see.
Back at the ministry, the Brigadier and the Doctor demand answers from the Minister, and are introduced to the man who has been coordinating the ‘conspiracy’, General Carrington (John Abineri), head of the newly formed Space Security division.
The strange code was a signal from the astronauts that they had passed through a field of radiation that is ‘self sustaining and highly contagious’ and might infect everyone on Earth. I’m not sure that’s how radiation works.
The Doctor asks to see the astronauts, but before that happens, they are taken away from the lab holding them by the men who had the gunfight with the Brigadier in episode one. This conspiracy is getting odder and odder.
They are taken somewhere else, where Cyril Shapps is monitoring them. Always great to see Cyril Shaps in Doctor Who.
“Two bodies have been found in a gravel pit in Hertfordshire. They died from Radiation,” says the Brigadier. Oh good, so the show can go to a gravel pit that’s actually a gravel pit, and not pretending to be an alien planet.
Liz gets a message to join the Brigadier, so she goes off in Bessie, but the message wasn’t from the Brigadier, and Liz is chased, both in the car and on foot, by a couple of burly henchman types. It’s nice to see Liz doing a bit of action, instead of just staring down microscopes.
She’s taken to where Shaps is watching the astronauts, but prevails on him to let her escape. Unfortunately, the first car she meets after escaping just happens to be driven by Dr Taltalian.
There’s an attempt by the bad guys to blow up the Doctor, but fortunately, only Dr Taltalian dies – he was the one delivering the bomb.
The Doctor offers to pilot another recovery ship up to the Mars ship, as he believes the real astronauts are still up there, and what came down is something alien.
One of the aliens is sent to sabotage the Space Control computer, zapping guards as he goes.
Even the Minister gets zapped – I’m losing track as to who’s on whose side. The Doctor finds the minister just after his zapping, giving a genuinely tense cliffhanger.
Before episode five there’s an apology for the sound quality of the episode. I’m genuinely surprised that UK Gold even did technical checks of their broadcasts, but I guess I’m just a BBC snob.
They’re not joking, though. The amount of hiss on this soundtrack is astonishing.
The Brigadier comes in in the nick of time to prevent the Doctor’s demise. So the Doctor gets away, and is able to pilot the rescue ship. Cue some classic Pertwee gurning as he handles the g-forces.
The Doctor finds his way onto an alien spaceship, where he finds the missing astronauts believing that they are on Earth, in quarantine. The aliens demand the return of their Ambassadors, so the Doctor finally understands what’s happened.
But the Doctor is kidnapped by Reegan, the bad guy who has the aliens and Liz, and tells the General that the Doctor is dead. So when the General turns up, he’s about to shoot the Doctor, because it’s his moral duty.
But Reegan persuades him not to, so the Doctor can build a device that will let them communicate with the aliens.
The General’s plan was to bring the aliens to Earth, use them as killers to arouse public opinion against them, so he could destroy the aliens’ mothership. So it’s all a false flag operation. The Doctor manages to foil his dastardly plan, and send the Ambassadors back up to their ship.
This isn’t a bad story, but the abundance of conspirators, and the tiresome capture, escape, capture cycle of padding makes it a little unfocused. And it really didn’t need seven episodes.
After the last episode, recording stops, and underneath all there is is a caption for Tuesday’s programmes.