Thursday, 19 April 2018
Inspirations - The Ambassadors of Death
There will be a number of stories during the Pertwee era where topical issues have found their way into the writing, but the topicality of The Ambassadors of Death was unplanned.
On the afternoon of 11th April, 1970, Apollo 13 blasted off from the Kennedy Space Centre. Two days later the Service Module was damaged by an exploding oxygen tank. The planned lunar landing had to be aborted, and the three man crew were forced to use the Landing Module as though it were a lifeboat. They survived, and succeeded in returning to Earth on 17th April.
On 21st March, 1970, this Doctor Who story opened, and it was being broadcast through the period when the world was avidly watching as the Apollo 13 drama play out.
This story opens with a manned space mission going wrong. This is a mission to Mars rather than the Moon, however. The Probe 7 ship is on its way back to Earth, and Mission Control have lost contact with its crew. A Recovery vessel is sent up to rendezvous with it - and contact is lost with that as well.
The opening sequence features actor Michael Wisher - the first on screen appearance for the future Davros - acting as a sort of Greek Chorus, setting the scene without resorting to clumsy info-dumps. He's a TV presenter, based in Mission Control. By now the audience would be used to seeing this sort of environment, as the Apollo programme was in full swing.
The spaceship sequences are made to look as authentic as possible, with craft clearly based on the real thing - again because the viewers now knew what spacecraft looked like. They are backed with a piece of Dudley Simpson music which sounds as if it might have been inspired by Procul Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale - which was in turn inspired by Bach. 2001: A Space Odyssey had popularised the notion that classical music went with spaceships.
Once again UNIT are already involved in the proceedings, and the Brigadier is present in the control room. The Doctor, meanwhile, has managed to get the TARDIS console out of the Police Box shell, in order to carry out repairs and try to get it working again.
The previous story had been the first to be entirely TARDIS free (barring Mission to the Unknown).
The new production team did not want to have to use up studio space with the Police Box prop, or with the console room set, hence the free-standing console. It was never explained how the console could be separated from the ship.
The Doctor gets involved in the main plot after seeing the Brigadier on TV, and then hearing a bizarre signal which is broadcast to Mission Control.
The story is credited to David Whitaker, the show's original Story Editor, and it is his last work for the programme. He was asked by Derrick Sherwin and Terrance Dicks to come up with a "First Contact" storyline. Earlier titles included "Invaders from Mars" and "Carriers of Death". Once again, to minimise costs, this would be another 7 part story.
The work which Whitaker submitted was not deemed right for the new format. He was asked to do rewrites, but these were also rejected. Dicks and his assistant Trevor Ray helped as best they could, virtually rewriting the first section in order to steer Whitaker onto the correct course. Whitaker was in the process of moving from the UK so was unable to keep up with what was being asked of him, and eventually it was decided that Malcolm Hulke should be brought in to complete the bulk of the story.
What we can credit to Whitaker is the concept of aliens substituting astronauts with their ambassadors in order to make contact with the Earth authorities, and their subsequent capture and manipulation by a criminal. It was his idea that the alien ambassadors would be unwitting killers, owing to their radioactive touch - hence the "Carriers of Death" working title.
The xenophobic General Carrington being the brains behind the abduction, we can ascribe to Hulke.
Carrington's irrational fear of the unlike is typical Hulke material. Many of his stories deal with topical issues such as immigration and race relations.
The story's troubled development may explain why characters suddenly vanish after the opening couple of episodes - such as Carrington's mustachioed second-in-command - and the gangster Reegan's appearance from out of nowhere in Episode 3.
New producer Barry Letts was unhappy with the 7 episode format. True, it was money-saving. He only needed three lots of costumes and three lots of sets for his first season, but he was denied more "first nights". It was believed that the opening episode of a new story attracted more viewers, as they tuned in to see what new planets and aliens were on offer. Casual viewers then drifted away, perhaps returning for the conclusion only.
The longer stories were also harder to maintain, plot-wise. This is why we have mid-story diversions, just to pad things out and offer something fresh for the regular viewers. Last time it was a plague subplot, and this time we get to see the Doctor make a solo space flight to find out what happened to the real astronauts. He is taken aboard the alien mothership and meets its commander, learning about the ambassadors switch - and that the aliens will destroy the Earth if they are not returned unharmed. The actors who play the real astronauts also play their alien counterparts, hidden in their spacesuits.
Some reused props on show here. The interior of the space capsule was a co-production with the Doomwatch series, to reduce costs. It was also seen in their episode Re-Entry Forbidden, broadcast only a few days before it was first seen here. The spacesuit helmets originated from the 1969 Hammer film Moon Zero Two. This had been a Western in Space, its plot based on a Gold Rush scenario.
As well as the various writers involved in this production, what we see on screen can also in part be put down to the director, Michael Ferguson, and to the stunt team of HAVOC. Ferguson had worked on the series since the first Dalek story. Indeed, you could say he was the first Dalek, as it was he who threatened Jacqueline Hill with a plunger in the first cliffhanger, and it was his gloved hand which emerged from beneath the Thal cloak for the third one. That hand also tapped Carole Ann Ford on the shoulder in the petrified forest. HAVOC was led by Derek Ware. He had also been involved in the series from its earliest days - indeed he was there at the Ealing pre-filming for the first story.
The script called for a shoot-out in a warehouse, and for the hijacking of a convoy carrying the space capsule. A few lines on paper became major stunt set-pieces - especially the hijacking. As written, the lorry was to have been stopped, its occupants knocked out, and the vehicle driven off by the villains.
What we get includes motorbike spills and a helicopter dropping gas grenades, with Ware hanging onto and then falling off the skids. One of the motorbike stunts went out of control and the bike hit a member of the production team - Director's Assistant Pauline Silcock. She later lent her name to one of the disguises for Reegan's van. (The other was the AFM Margot Hayhoe).
The whole sequence sent the production over budget. Letts learned a valuable lesson when Ferguson pointed out that, as producer, it was his job to hold the director back.
As mentioned above, Reegan suddenly appears in the third episode, to become General Carrington's chief henchman. He actually seems to forget about his boss' plans, and sees the alien ambassadors as a way to make money - robbing banks etc. He's played by William Dysart, who had featured briefly in The Highlanders. His accent is hard to place, and it has been stated that he and his team were supposed to have been Irish - basically members of a paramilitary group such as the IRA. This was evidently felt to be too strong a reference and was dropped, making him a more generic gangster.
Talking of accents, Professor Taltalian sports ze most outrageous Fronch acczent since Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We won't hear the like again until Anthony Ainley attempts to convince us that he is Sir Gilles Estram.
There's a 1967 episode of The Avengers called The Positive-Negative Man which we need to mention before we close. A man named Hayworth wears rubber boots to insulate himself as he can discharge powerful electric bolts by touch. He goes round killing people, and breaking into safes. Some of the imagery from this episode has clearly made its way into this.
Finally, we welcome the return of UNIT's Benton, now a sergeant. He doesn't show up until quite late in the proceedings - hence his absence from the pre-filmed exterior stuff such as the Brigadier's attack on the underground bunker to free the Doctor and Liz. That's because he was only drafted in because director Douglas Camfield wanted to use John Levene in his upcoming story.
Next time: The Doctor sees double after parallel parking the TARDIS...