Doctor Who Project: The Ambassadors of Death

What about reducing the g’s by mixing K and M3?

What if they held an invasion and nobody came? With “The Ambassadors of Death” (Series Production Code CCC), series regular writer David Whitaker provides an engaging answer to the recent profusion of alien invasion plots in Doctor Who by neatly subverting all expectations of how an alien invasion story should play out.

The Mystery of Mars Probe Seven

Comparisons between “The Ambassadors of Death” and its immediate predecessor, “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” cannot be avoided. We have aliens, to be sure, and the threat of invasion from beyond (or below) gets bandied about, but this time, the aliens actually do come in peace. While Malcolm Hulke toyed around with the idea in his story, Whitaker comes right out and finally says what the series has been suggesting for some time now: the real monsters are human beings and their foibles.

To Whitaker’s immense credit, and in keeping with the series’ long-standing tradition of concealing the monster as long as possible, the viewer doesn’t quite know what humans and which foibles are at fault until nearly the finish of the seven episode story. A tangled set of interwoven conspiracies develops around the mystery of the missing astronauts from Mars Probe Seven, and the cast of players seems immense at first. Will it be the bureaucratic pride of the civil servant, the simple greed of a cunning con man, the unbridled Promethean lust for knowledge of the foreign scientist? We’ve seen them all before. Instead, we find at the core of this story a sad tale of misplaced morality coupled to the human destructive impulse. All summed up with a swagger stick.

General Carrington, I presume?

The Brigadier’s apparent destruction of the Silurians’ underground lair at the end of the last story greatly informs General Carrington’s actions in this story. Confronted with a force beyond his understanding, Carrington, head of the UK’s newly formed Space Security Division, conspires to destroy that force by any means necessary to protect Earth from a possible threat. It is, he says, his “moral duty” to do so.

On a prior Mars Probe mission, Carrington encountered a group of nameless aliens on the red planet, not natives ostensibly but alien explorers not unlike himself. And through a convoluted kidnapping plot involving swapping human astronauts for alien astronauts (who, for some reason, wear the humans’ spacesuits), he attempts to convince the people of Earth to attack and destroy the spaceship by which the aliens arrived on Mars.

The Alien Spacecraft

But where the Brigadier succeeded in his awful mission, Carrington fails in his thanks to the intervention of the Doctor. So while the Doctor may brush off his anger with the Brigadier near the beginning of this story, in effect his entire effort here is to redeem his own failure to protect the Silurians.

The first layer of the conspiracy comes from a group of humans who are responding to high frequency radio messages from the seemingly-abandoned Mars Probe Seven, which UK Space Control has been attempting to rescue. The Doctor has a nagging feeling that he’s heard these messages before, but because of the Time Lord’s meddling with his mind, he cannot identify the source, so he stops tinkering with the TARDIS control console, oddly removed from the TARDIS itself, and rushes off to assist.

TARDIS, 70s-style

In a bit of a knowing aside, the Doctor wonders why the Brigadier and UNIT are even involved in the Mars Probe rescue mission:

Doctor: Good gracious. Lethbridge-Stewart? What on Earth’s he doing at Space Control?

Liz: Well, something’s happened to the Mars Probe.

Doctor: Hmm, the Brigadier thinks it’s his business? Well I suppose he’s got to do something to occupy his mind now that he’s blown up the Silurians.

Working UNIT into nearly every story will become something of a problem going forward for the Third Doctor’s writers. And given UNIT’s absolutely atrocious track record as an elite military force, the narrative gymnastics will only get more tangled. In this story alone, UNIT reveals itself to have no one who can shoot straight, no one who can guard a secure compound (or even protect a single person in a locked cell), and no one who can even find a jeep when one is needed to save the day. They are, of narrative necessity, hamstrung at every turn. But in truth, all is forgiven when UNIT’s finest leap into action on board the Doctor’s vintage car, Bessie.

To battle in Bessie!

From the start of his investigation, the Doctor is stymied by bureaucratic resistance and then outright sabotage as the landed Recovery Craft is stolen by the same group that is found communicating furtively with the aliens in an abandoned warehouse. This group has obvious military training and backing, given their skill and equipment. Demanding answers, the Doctor and the Brigadier confront the minister in charge of the space program, Sir James Quinian, who reveals that he and Carrington, as part of an effort by the Space Security Division, have purloined the astronauts to a safe location because they are afflicted with a contagious form of radiation, news of which would cause worldwide panic. But the Doctor keeps digging, not least because he still has five episodes to go in the story.

The astronauts have in fact been replaced by aliens, the titular ambassadors from another species, summoned by Carrington as part of his plot. When the Doctor insists on seeing the astronauts, Carrington obliges, knowing that his underworld associate Reegan will have already removed the aliens to another facility by force and allowing Carrington to suggest that a foreign power is involved somehow, hoping to use the radiation as a weapon. But to tidy up loose ends, Carrington has Reegan use the aliens to kill Quinian when he’s about to reveal to the Doctor the truth of the matter.

Reach out and touch someone

Just why the aliens respond obediently to the simple communication device Carrington has had made remains quite unclear, beyond some intimation that they are trying to be helpful in their roles as ambassadors. They require extreme doses of radiation to survive, and eventually they are threatened with its removal if they stop cooperating, but the threat comes after they’ve already killed a good dozen humans in Carrington’s reign of terror intended to cause panic amongst the people of Earth.

The UK's finest spacecraft

The Doctor surmises that the astronauts are still in outer space, as they could not have survived that much radiation, and he convinces the head of UK Space Control to send up another recovery mission, only this time with himself as the astronaut. Despite Carrington and Reegan’s best efforts, the Doctor manages to reach the drifting Mars Probe Seven only to be swallowed up by the alien’s giant spaceship. There, just as in “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” he serves as an intercessor between the aliens, who are both perplexed and angered by the taking of their ambassadors, and the humans, who don’t even know they have them. The Doctor extracts a promise from the aliens not to blow up Earth just quite yet in exchange for a chance to rescue the ambassadors.

The Doctor and the alien leader

Everything proceeds rather perfunctorily from there, with the Doctor being kidnapped by Reegan (who can walk in and out of UNIT bases at will, apparently) and brought to create a two-way translator for the ambassadors, all so that Reegan can use them to rob banks. Linked up with the ambassadors and Liz Shaw (who, of course, was captured mid-way through the story and forced to work for Reegan as well), the Doctor communicates with the ambassadors and, once rescued by UNIT, uses them to break into UK Space Control, which is now under the control of the Space Security Division. There he confronts Carrington just before he unmasks one of the ambassadors on live worldwide television to spur the countries of the world to destroy the alien spaceship. (Whew.)

Of note, the Doctor is sympathetically understanding of Carrington’s motives. The general continues to insist that he had a “moral duty” to protect the Earth from the aliens, and the Doctor, far from castigating him, can only ruefully comfort the paranoid military man who almost got the world blown up. He almost cannot bring himself to admonish him, understanding that he, unlike the Brigadier, simply lacks the mental capacity to understand the unexplained and unfamiliar.

For, indeed, to the Brigadier’s credit, he has faced quite a bit of the odd and strange with much aplomb, even if he has tended to confront it with force rather than subtlety. He redeems himself somewhat in this story by supporting the Doctor even in the face of Carrington’s increasingly insistent demands, bucking the hierarchy to stand up for what he believes in. Not, perhaps, the best career path for a solider, but the Brigadier continues to evolve into a steadfast ally for the Doctor.

Scientists at work

Pertwee plays the Doctor quite calmly in this story, with little of his manic facial expression on display (save for the scenes of him fighting the g-forces in the capsule during his turn as an astronaut). This approach suits the moral gravity of the Doctor’s character quite well here, and for the first time in Pertwee’s run, one understands why people would believe in, and follow, this Doctor. Though the Third Doctor will never serve as a fount of quiet authority, for this story, at least, he leads by example.

Once more, the Doctor-as-Scientist remains at the forefront. Though he still despises computers, he’s rather a whiz with them, able to program them to conduct semiotic analysis of high frequency radio pulses. Liz Shaw continues to provide him with ready support in the scientific world. Caroline John had precious little to do this story, alas, being kidnapped after the series’ first serious car chase (in Bessie, no less), but she shows quite a bit of fight when captured, even managing to escape before being recaptured minutes later. The Doctor obviously trusts her quite considerably, as he leaves it up to her to get the alien ambassadors back to the alien spaceship in exchange for the human astronauts at the end of the story.

Waiting for a ride home

And so, at the end, a happy resolution, though in truth not much of a resolution at all. Humanity has established definitive contact with a peaceful alien species, and it’s just left at that. The aliens never receive a name, nor indeed another mention. The show’s continuity continues to be in its main character and his steadfast yet slowly evolving persona. Narratively there’s more freedom in the world being figuratively reset every story; a world where people remember being invaded every other week would make for an odd show indeed. Though perhaps “odd” should be reserved as a description of the next story to come…

(Previous Story: Doctor Who and the Silurians)

(Next Story: Inferno)

Post 55 of the Doctor Who Project

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