The Ambassadors of Death

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 53, starring Jon Pertwee)
  • written by David Whitaker
  • directed by Michael Ferguson
  • produced by Barry Letts
  • music by Dudley Simpson
  • 7 episodes @ 25 minutes each, re-colourized
Story: Earth Astronauts returning from the Mars Probe Mission seem to have become silent helmeted zombies dependant on levels of radiation deadly to all those they touch. As the Doctor and U.N.I.T. attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery, they find themselves embroiled in a multi-level conspiracy that further hampers their investigations.

The 2003 VHS video release partially restored colour to this classic adventure.
The 2012 DVD is now FULL colour.

DVD features include:

  • All seven episodes restored to full colour.
  • Audio commentary by Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), Caroline John (Liz Shaw), Geoffrey Beevers (Private Johnson),
    Peter Halliday (voices), HAVOC stuntmen Derek Ware (UNIT sergeant), Roy Scammell and Derek Martin,
    director Michael Ferguson, and script editor Terrance Dicks.
  • "Mars Probe 7" making-of featurette (26 min.), with Ferguson, Dicks, Ware, Scammell, and assistant floor manager Margot Hayhoe.
  • "Tomorrow's Times - The Third Doctor" media coverage featurette (13 min.) hosted by Peter Purves.
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery (4 min.)

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers Guide version instead.

Writer David Whitaker and director Michael Ferguson both take their share of criticisms from my opinions of previous seasons, and some of their trademark flaws are once again evident here. Thankfully, however, "The Ambassadors of Death" is largely good stuff and an enjoyable thought-provoking adventure, allowing both of them to notch up another winner to their respective credits.

Title Experiments and the Science of Anchoring

This story tries some more new experiments with the title sequences, and like "Citizen Kane", it has become best remembered for the less successful ones we have not learned to take for granted in subsequent stories, such as the fact that the title sequence comes back between the reprise of the previous week's cliffhanger and the start of the current episode's new material. This order of doing things is not totally new, as many 1960's stories opened with similar title logic - the only difference is that the titles here are accompanied by a return to the "vortex" graphics and Ron Grainer's theme song, instead of being superimposed over a standard establishing shot or the main action.

In terms of titles, what we should really notice is that this is the first story to use the electronic "scream" sting to lead into the familiar Doctor Who theme song, a move so successful that it has been reused, and later imitated, in EVERY Who story the BBC produced since. It's particularly hard to miss in this story, as it gets aired during the curiously delayed episode titles as well as on the end credits. The full psychological importance of this sound is worth discussing, and this is the time and place to do it. This sound becomes THE musical "sting" to signify an episode cliffhanger, and is one of the best cinematic examples of psychological "anchoring" that I know of.

Each Doctor Who episode attempts to give audiences a thrill ride of action and drama, and any successful episode will build itself so that the peak of the audience's emotions occurs right at the cliffhanger moment. As anyone familiar with Anthony Robbins' motivational research will know, any unique stimulus that occurs at that peak emotional moment will get psychologically linked to the emotion. Just when the Doctor Who audience is at its emotional peak, we cut to Ron Grainer's theme, and the thrill of the latest adventure gets linked, or "anchored", to the program's theme song. Watch enough episodes, and the anchoring occurs again and again, stacking on itself and becoming more and more potent. Pretty soon, all the BBC has to do is play the theme song and familiar viewers will automatically feel the thrill and adventure of all those suspenseful action moments, horrific plot twists, and dramatic, jaw-dropping sci-fi revelations that ended so many episodes before.

By playing the theme song at the beginning of an episode, they entice the audience to get back into the emotional state it was in at the end of the previous one.... and all previous ones at that. Where this was previously the domain of the theme song as an auditory stimulus in the 1960's, the Jon Pertwee Era can now add to this the visual stimulus of the "diamond flame" graphics. All TV shows that last long enough have the potential to create strong emotional anchors to their theme songs and title sequences in their regular audiences, and particularly in their fans. What makes Doctor Who such an exceptionally successful example of this is that (1) the anchored stimuli are so unique (where else in television can you find such strange graphics and synthetic sounds repeated on such a regular basis?), and (2), beginning with the introduction of the electronic scream here in this story, Doctor Who's production team made a real art of applying the start of the sound effect/ theme song/credit graphics at the PRECISE MOMENT of the emotional peak. (Obviously, some episodes do this better than others). It's Pavlov's dog all over again, with the electronic scream replacing the bell.

Learn more about Tony Robbins and his Powertalk tape series.

And so, one of the key factors missing from Michael Ferguson's previous story "The Seeds of Death" (story no. 48) in its video-released movie compilation form is precisely the same factor that his next story "The Ambassadors of Death" can be proud to have made pioneering improvements on.

The Hulke Files

Alright, "Ambassadors" is more than titles and credits. It's a darn good story as well. We have here the most detailed examples of space travel in any UNIT story getting linked into a good conspiracy mystery, with a healthy dose of Martian unknown thrown in for good measure. X-Files, eat your heart out. The audience's sense of anticipation remains high throughout the story, and it also has a particularly good resolution in which the action supports the thematic elements so that both can be successful and satisfying. The road getting there is still a bit touch and go however.

A lot of strange dynamics are at work in the plot, helping to keep things quite interesting for sure, somehow very reminiscent of Whitaker's efforts for the Patrick Troughton era. Once again, "correct" answers come to the minds of the characters without them doing on-screen investigation or having any direct evidence in support of their conclusions, making them look as though they can somehow read Whitaker's mind. The script does however manage to do quite a few backflips and somersaults to hang onto the logic of it all, managing it barely but successfully nevertheless. I've seen it written that Malcolm Hulke did "script editing" rewrites on episodes 2 through 7 (while Terrance Dicks' assistant Trevor Ray patched up episode 1). The Doctor's partially blocked knowledge of alien cultures is now the vogue explanation for his out-of-the-blue just-enough-need-to-know answers to the riddle of the mysterious message in episode one, while a few of Hulke's trademark raise-the-stakes and slap-the-protagonists-back-to-square-one devices now start to glue the plot together more firmly. I highly suspect that this collaboration of two and three writers helped make "Ambassadors" such a strong story, even if Whitaker took the need for re-writes personally and disapproved. The "Ambassadors" story is quite a successful endeavour, a unique marriage of genres and subject matter, and a jolly worthwhile tale.

As directing goes, Michael Ferguson turns in one of his better efforts for the program here, perhaps topped only by "The War Machines" (story no. 27), although the rest of season seven will surpass his work in the directing department. Cutting into Ferguson's ratings is the transitional style: he often shows a character who just goes on doing whatever he or she is doing, and without anyone commenting on it - in effect this is dramatic inertia. Too much of this does add up. At times, whole sequences are composed of this style of shot, and it is up to the audience to remember what might possibly happen next to keep themselves in suspense. This is harder to do on repeat viewing, when the basic outcome is known and the tension is less apparent. This cinematic style typically benefits musicians, however, and Dudley Simpson makes the most of the opportunity he finds here to create themes for the characters and play them at their full length in the finished product with little interruption from dialogue or action. The "Ambassadors" score is one of the most entertaining that Simpson has come up with, offering us the definitive version of a new UNIT theme, a VERY effective sleepwalk theme for the alien ambassador astronauts, and some really swingin' links and stings to put a 60's secret agent feel to the whole thing. Sound effects man Brian Hodgson takes over in providing many of the more alien scenes with a different auditory ambience, keeping the mixture of moods in the story fresh.

The story quite clearly seems to have been adapted from the old TARDIS traveling format into the new exile one during rewrites, and seems to have come out on top with the best of both worlds. The Doctor and Liz still manage to make their entrances satisfying by materializing with the TARDIS, complete with trick dissolves and another slight re-working of our favourite TARDIS sound effect. Never mind the fact that their journey is only a few seconds forward in time and involves practically no movement through space, or the fact that the police box is nowhere in sight, for this sequence fires off well-established positive anchors in any member of the audience who is familiar with mainstream Doctor Who, and gives Jon Pertwee his first opportunity to fiddle around with and fuss over the good old TARDIS console as his two predecessors often did. Fans like me need this to start a good Who story off right, and "Ambassadors" delivers. Excellent stuff.

Also, in terms of classic formulas, any good hero MUST make a dramatic final exit to separate himself or herself from the good average citizens he or she has just helped out. The Doctor is all set to slip away before the excitement of the climax cools off, but wait - this is the new exile format and the TARDIS can't quite give him his usual hero's exit. He leaves just as quickly anyway, rushing back to the lab to go tinker with the disabled time-machine. On this occasion, his abandonment of the other characters appears particularly contrived to fit old formulas, because he has personally started so much with these people under dramatic circumstances, and is now faced with finishing up without the continued tension of a crisis. But, dang it, those old formulas still work, and manage to give "Ambassadors" a good closing scene.

"Why didn't you shoot me when you had the chance?"

What real chance did Grey ever have to shoot the Brigadier? As the Brigadier himself pointed out when they first confronted each other at gunpoint, "You kill me, my men kill you." The men amount to at least two soldiers covering Grey with rifles, as seen in the last shots of this scene. Suddenly, there's a bit of a scuffle involving a swinging chain, and the Brigadier drops his pistola, losing his confidence and common sense with it. Does Grey now have a better chance to shoot him? Nothing has really changed: if he shoots the Brigadier, the two riflemen shoot him. Pointless really. But old Alistair is now afraid to face death without having a weapon in his hand. The unfortunate Brigadier is made to think with his pistola instead of his head, under Whitaker's pen. Perhaps this is the male side of gender stereotyping. Nothing is really wrong with this playing out the way it does, with characters having all kinds of illogical emotions in the heat of the moment. It's in the cool, collected aftermath that the Brigadier's question becomes redundant. Grey, like any common thug in his position, has a very obvious good reason not to shoot the Brigader: two riflemen on the sidelines with their guns pointed at him. Grey's merciful streak is not as clearly demonstrated as Whitaker was aiming to do.

The Cast

The acting is fairly exceptional from the main cast in this one, going a bit better than "Spearhead From Space" (story no. 51). John Abineri, who last made an excellent Van Lutyens in "Fury From the Deep" (story no. 42), returns to give his definitive Doctor Who performance as General Carrington. Abineri has the pivotal role that carries the true thematic weight of the story, and he pulls it off beautifully and credibly, and even sympathetically as well. Michael Wisher debuts on the program applying the natural charisma of his usual stern visage and meticulous, light line delivery. His beard is a nice touch, setting his TV reporter character apart from the many others he would play on the program in a very short space of time. Cyril Shaps plays virtually the same worry-worn character as he did in "The Tomb of the Cybermen" (story no. 37), now under the new name of Doctor Lennox, and manages to make an equally watchable job of it. William Dysart seems perfectly cast for the multi-talented criminal Reegan, fully capable of charm, yet resorting to force more often than not with that chip on his shoulder against most of society. The role of Bruno Taltalian, although a bit touch and go at times, also seems capably done.

Chiefly it is the extras and really minor characters who are not quite up to par, including "Action by Havoc", where the choreography, photography and blocking out of shots often doesn't enhance the drama very well, often becoming hammy or quite improbable and "unsoldier-like". John Levene makes a brief return as Sgt. Benton, only in episodes 5 and 7 and only in the studio. His absence from the final location battle seems very much to be more a production consideration than one of plot logic. Benton still seems a bit rough around the edges, but not by very much.

The most enigmatic acting in terms of appreciability comes from Ronald Allen, last seen sporting the huge shoulders of Dominator Rago (in "The Dominators", story no. 44), now playing British Space Controller Ralph Cornish. The Cornish character has come out of Whitaker's average-Joe factory mould without any dings or dents, so obviously he is meant to be the understatedly attractive straight man guest star for the story. He doesn't get a factory mould average-Jane character to play against, which is possibly a blessing considering past Whitaker efforts in this arena. In fact Cornish is single-mindedly job-focused all through the story, and receives no challenges to this philosophy to give his character some personal drama. He is rather blandly conceived in the scripts to begin with; what can an actor do with that? In consideration, Allen's performance is not at all bad, but lacks the same levels of intrigue found in most of the other characters of the story.

Cliffhanger Edits and Padding

"The Ambassadors of Death" gives us the best cliffhangers of the Jon Pertwee Era so far. Taltalian's gun-pulling is a bit mediocre, rather anti-climactic after UNIT's warehouse shootout, but episode two's cliffhanger is a top notch improvement, masterfully relying more on about-to-be-answered questions than straight menace.

Cliffhanger endings for episodes three and four each have both a perfect edit and a botched one. The film sequence building up episode three's cliffhanger moment doesn't really work all that well, with Caroline John's performance, the transitional shooting style and the music all lacking a certain dramatic tension. Perhaps the biggest fluff is noticeable in the editing, for although episode three doesn't cut to the credits at the most suspenseful moment, the reprise at the beginning of episode four does (just as Liz starts to pull herself back up, she suddenly and clearly slips down further than ever before). Episode Four ends with an incredibly good and suspenseful last shot, but this is unfortunately lost on the reprise next episode, and the new shot sequence we get there does not work at all.

Episode Five is a bit different from all that has gone before in the story, dipping down into a bit of a slump. The Doctor's own plot-line becomes padded with the largely transitional coverage of his space-flight preparations, a common cinematic danger with this subject. He doesn't get much to do other than imitating the Man of Sleep without actually sleeping. The Amazing, Stupendous Reegan takes over the show to astound us with his acrobatics and feats of physical wheel-turning strength, and leave our mouths agape at the ridiculously laughable excuse for armed military security which he can so easily walk through. Luckily, Benton pops up to handle a bit of intrigue surrounding Dr. Lennox's subplot, perhaps the only thing saving the bulk of the episode. Once Jon Pertwee's Doctor makes it into outer space, however, the main story gets interesting once again, and "Ambassadors" delivers its absolute best cliffhanger: a nice surprise with very excellent production style. Episode Six contains many of the story's best moments, with many particularly unique and enjoyable ones in space. Jon Pertwee's exit from the capsule has to be one of the best uses of Colour Separation Overlay on the show ever. Peter Halliday does some voices again, sounding a little better than the Cybermen from "The Invasion" (story no. 46), but not by much. Reegan threatens to slow the plot with more of the same factory-come-Space Centre sabotage, but it's much more minimal this episode and events continue to move quickly. Episode Six also delivers one of the story's better cliffhangers, with revelation and danger combining themselves extremely well.

Although the characters in this story are a bit less believable than those in "The Silurians" (story no. 52), the plot resolution is much more enjoyable and optimistic here, making "The Ambassadors of Death" a good complement to the previous story. The excellent stride of season seven continues in full swing....

International Titles:

Deutsch: (Die Botschafter)

Magyar: "A nagykövetek"

Français: (Les ambassadeurs)

Русский: "Послы"

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
If you've only seen it on TV in black and white syndication,
get yourself a more colourful video and enjoy it closer to the way it was meant to be seen!
DVD NTSC Region 1
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC (North American video format)
PAL (U.K. video format)

A new process has allowed FULL COLOUR
to be restored to the 2012 DVD release!
The 2003 VHS Video Tape release contains:
  • Two minute restoration trailer
  • Episode One - full colour
  • Episode Two - 4 min. colour, then 7 BW, 6 colour, 7 BW.
  • Episode Three - 4 min. colour, then 20 BW.
  • Episode Four - all black & white
  • Episode Five - full colour
  • Episode Six - 2 min. BW, then 6 colour, 6 BW, 10 colour.
  • Episode Seven - 7 min. colour, then 9 BW, finally 8 min. colour.
Approximate totals: 94 minutes colour and 77 minutes BW.

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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "Inferno"

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