Doctor Who: Ambassadors of Death (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros are tickled pink with this recoloured Pertwee story...
Jon Pertwee's first season of Doctor Who was marked by a sharp u-turn in the direction of the series, with longer, Earth-based stories that would help to not only ground the series in a degree of reality, but more importantly, it would reduce the budget by not having to create so many props and costumes per series. The switchover to colour also helped to give the series a more contemporary edge that appealed to casual viewers. After tackling more conventional Doctor Who monsters in the shape of the Autons and the Silurians, it was time to take on something more ethereal and unnerving in the shape of the Ambassadors of Death.
Mars Probe Seven has been missing in space for months, and a ship has been sent out to discover what happened to it. Recovery Seven is lost just as its pilot, Van Lyden, makes contact with the missing Mars Probe and a piercing scream-like sound is heard over the speakers at mission control. This scream immediately attracts the interest of The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Liz Shaw (Caroline John) and they set about trying to discover not only what happened to the Mars Probe and the Recovery Seven, but also to uncover the source of the strange scream that silenced Van Lyden...
Let's get this out in the open - we were never fans of the longer-running stories of the early Pertwee years; rarely did the increased number of episodes in a story actually help the drama in any way, more often than not, the stories felt over-padded and just made you think that a seven-parter distilled down to four would have made for a more exciting and faster-paced affair. Even Inferno - which we regard as being the best of the protracted stories of this era - doesn't really kick into high gear until about the third episode.
The decision to exile The Doctor on Earth not only resulted in longer stories, but it also seemed to feature a tonal shift, where some of the more gritty and/or mundane aspects of day-to-day living are featured. An example of this comes when a couple of heavies are doubled-crossed and disposed of in a gravel-pit and the corpses are buried under a large amount of slate - such an ordinary disposal of bodies was not something seen in Doctor Who and the scene has more in common with some of the crime shows aimed at more mature audiences of the period. Still, seeing as this scene took place in a gravel-pit, The Doctor could have gone there are pretended that he was still wandering around the galaxy to alleviate any feelings of cabin-fever he might have been suffering. There is also a genuinely exciting car-chase during one episode that features Liz Shaw being pursued by a couple of thugs - the sequence is well-filmed and crisply edited in what was then a modern, cinematic style and had a jazzy score that fits the scene perfectly and would have made casual viewers tuning in wonder if they were actually watching Doctor Who and not something made by ATV or ITC. At one point, Liz Shaw is seen having a gun very roughly stuck under her chin, forcibly tipping her head back and leaving her staring somewhat fearfully at the person holding the weapon - it's something that seems tonally out of place on Doctor Who, not that the show was a stranger to showing violence in various manners, but this act was not removed from reality in any way and it is a reasonably brutal moment. There also a sequence where some poor sod gets thrown over some high railings and falls to almost certain death below; what really makes this piece something to wince at is that you see the impact and it really is something that makes you wince - Doctor Who is no stranger to having people doing high falls, but to show the end result in a very blunt fashion was pretty uncommon.
Ambassadors of Death has an interesting history as far as the story is concerned, David Whitaker originally conceived it as a story for the Second Doctor (Patrick Troughton), along with Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) as the companions. The subsequent departure of all three actors meant that a rewrite was in order, and it was tailored to suit the modern-day Earth setting. Whitaker was unable to change it satisfactorily and went through several drafts before script editor Terrance Dicks stepped in and, along with Malcolm Hulke, rewrote all but the first episode (which had uncredited assistance from programme associate Trevor Ray). Dicks was able to get David Whitaker full credit for all of the episodes because he felt that Whitaker had been treated very unfairly by the establishment.
The opening episode shows some interesting - if somewhat implausible - meddling with time as The Doctor continues his work on getting the TARDIS to work again after having the dematerialisation codes taken away; there are some nifty disappearing and reappearing by The Doctor and Liz Shaw and gives the viewer a little insight into the concept of occupying the same space in different times. OK, so we're skating on thin ice when describing this scene as implausible - it's like saying that a jalapeno pepper is less spicy than a habanero pepper, but this scene is merely a set-up to establish how something vital can vanish later in the story, but it's good fun all the same, allowing Pertwee to do sleight-of-hand conjuring that is vaguely reminiscent of Sylvester McCoy's stock-in-trade on Doctor Who. The item that he makes vanish is something that looks a little like a videotape - could Mr Pertwee have been responsible for the disappearance of many sixties episodes of Doctor Who...? Before anyone gets upset at this allegation - we're only kidding.
The location footage looks very cinematic, with, episode two featuring an extended sequence that shows the recovery of the vessel, with much use of location footage that give these scenes a very cinematic feeling, complete with helicopters, outriders, explosions and the like. The fact that a full-size prop for the returning spacecraft was built really helps to sell the illusion that these things are really happening. Seeing the craft loaded onto the back of a truck and driven along makes for an exciting sequence and must have caused quite a bit of consternation amongst any members of the public who might have wandered across the filming.
Episode two also features a sequence that is genuinely tense and exciting, where the Recovery Seven craft begins re-entry; it as good acting, taut direction, snappy editing and suspenseful music that all combine to produce something exciting and will have you on the edge of your seat. The great spacecraft scenes keep coming with the sequences featuring The Doctor in the rocket; they are most interesting to watch, as it seems apparent that Pertwee's audio was recorded through microphone on the headset he is wearing and gives the thing a nice sense of realism when you hear his somewhat boomy and distorted voice. The scenes showing The Doctor suffering from the effects of G-force are great (they seem to use the same technique employed to show Roger Moore undergoing something similar in Moonraker), and it's a credit to Pertwee's abilities as an actor that he is really able to sell the illusion of taking off in a spacecraft in the conventional manner. The scene where The Doctor makes contact with the missing craft is remarkably suspenseful and has an almost ethereal quality to it as both The Doctor and the audience are wondering what will be found when he boards the vessel.
The titular ambassadors themselves are wonderfully eerie creations, mainly seen just in the spacesuits that were originally occupied by the human astronauts; the helmets obscure their faces and they walk slowly and menacingly, with the ability to kill anyone who comes in contact with them. Much of the time, they are little more than zombies, slow-moving but with a sense of lethal menace that builds tension when handled correctly and Dudley Simpson's bizarre, almost dreamlike music adds to there otherworldly menace. The mixture of something familiar (the human spacesuits) and the menacing, slow-moving demeanour of the beings inhabiting them makes for a cocktail that will linger in the memory and trigger a shiver down the spine whenever you see that famous picture of one of the ambassadors with his hands outstretched.
You can certainly tell that Barry Letts had firmly established himself as producer by this point, as the establishing shot of the inside of the alien spacecraft seen in episode five is achieved by the miracles of Colour Separation Overlay, with Pertwee climbing out of the space capsule and walking along, all with a floatiness that was the norm with CSO at that time. Letts' enthusiasm for embracing new technology to tell a story was admirable, even if it didn't entirely pay off every time. Speaking of Mr Letts, his influence seems to be left on the ending of this story, where there is a resolution that works out best for both the humans and the extraterrestrials (including The Doctor himself), and this is the hallmark of Letts' Buddhist beliefs; people may get killed along the way, which is a necessity in order to establish the threat element and also to show that the bad guys mean business (in this case, the thugs that Carrington has under him), but ultimately, a peaceful resolution to the situation occurs.
This story has a unique set of opening titles, along with a slightly re-jigged format, showing the cliffhanger of the previous episode, then bringing up the name of the episode, and even this is done in a manner that had never been seen before or since. These rearranging of the title sequence will initially have you wondering what the hell is going on, but you quickly get into them and actually enjoy the refreshing change.
Jon Pertwee is particularly good in Ambassadors of Death; we have long considered him the most limited of the actors to play The Doctor during the original run of the series, but there were areas where he excelled, particularly when it came to giving authority figures a dressing down in a manner that resembles the school swot intellectually running rings around a school bully. Pertwee was also great at doing dramatic "end of scene" posers and this story contains one of very best - when the spacecraft has been brought back to Earth, The Doctor states in a very dramatic manner "whatever came down in the Recovery Seven wasn't human" - it's a very simple line, but Pertwee delivers it in such a beautifully dramatic manner that it not only serves to make the characters around him wonder what could be in the craft, but it also sets the minds of the viewers at home into overdrive.
Ambassadors of Death really proves that Caroline John was a great companion, but sadly one ahead of her time. Strong female characters might have been the key selling points of shows such as The Avengers in the previous decade, but having a companion of the fairer sex in Doctor Who giving everyone's favourite Gallifreyan renegade a run for his money was something that didn't seem to sit right. Liz Shaw was intelligent, educated, cynical and capable (a stark contrast to the qualities found in the subsequent companion), but - if we were to continue to make comparisons between other popular cult television shows - some viewers, not to mention some at the BBC, didn't like the idea of having a Scully to The Doctor's Mulder. At one point in the story, Liz Shaw is captured and though the capture of a companion was not a new development by this point, Caroline John never once portrays her character as a stereotypical damsel in distress - you can see that Liz Shaw is constantly absorbing information about her predicament, her location and those around her, ready to put this gathered information to good use when the time is right; she even manages to persuade slightly unhinged scientist Lennox (Cyril Shaps) to bluff his way out of the place and try to get help. There is even a moment in episode six where Liz is given a choice of either joining the adversaries who have kidnapped her or being deprived of the benefits of living - John plays this scene beautifully, with only mild alarm, but a steely determination on her face at the same time. The only time you get to see the mostly unflappable Liz Shaw get into a flap is when the Ambassadors start to reveal themselves in episode six - she is inside a confined quarantined area and you see Liz get into a tiz by panicking and banging on the thick glass to try and get attention; the contrast between the noise inside the confined area and her silent panic is very nice, but she immediately makes a bolt for the doors, which makes you wonder why she didn't just do that in the first place. As well as doing the more cerebral sequences, the late Ms John also really throws herself into the action scenes in this story, with the most famous one being where she performed her own stunt and threw herself over the railings of a bridge - this was potentially dangerous anyway, but Ms John was pregnant at the time and if the stunt had gone wrong, it could have been even more disastrous.
Nicholas Courtney is as fine as ever playing Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, injecting a fine mixture of stiff upper-lipped authority and weariness that makes for a great comedic pairing with Pertwee's Doctor - the late Mr Courtney always worked to best effect with Pertwee's Doctor, as the clash with military authority was something that brought out the best in Pertwee. The Brig gets to stretch a little during Ambassadors of Death, as he starts to question the motives of his superior officer and mentally deduces, compiles and collates various bits of information that are pieces of the puzzle during the final act and begins to arrive at the same conclusion as The Doctor.
Michael Wisher is on hand, playing the character of Wakefield, a reporter who acts as a sort of Greek chorus and spelling things out for the audience (not just the fictional ones he is broadcasting to, but also the real viewers at home), being almost a surrogate companion in some respects, asking the equivalent of "what is it, Doctor?" when The Doctor isn't around. Wisher played a surprising number of roles in Doctor Who, always bringing something different to each part, whether is more comedy-based in Carnival of Monsters, or commanding in Planet of Evil, or to portraying a thinly-veiled version of Hitler in Genesis of the Daleks. Michael Wisher was a sterling actor and his role in Ambassadors of Death is a testament to his versatility and clearly demonstrates that there was more to him than just being the definitive Davros.
The best piece of casting in this story is probably Ronald Allen as Professor Cornish; Allen had appeared in the Patrick Troughton snoozer, The Dominators, as one of the title characters and it's great to see him playing a character who not only acted and sounded completely different to the previous one he played in Doctor Who, but he also looks almost unrecognisable from his role in The Dominators. Allen is pretty suave and dashing as Cornish, a stark contrast to the ugly and somewhat hunchbacked Navigator Rago in the Troughton story. It's a testament to an actor when he or she can just move from role-to-role and not have much in the way of baggage from previous parts. Professor Cornish's personality couldn't be more different from that of Rago's - Cornish is the dedicated scientist and Rago is the brutal, evil bastard. Rago's demeanour was driven by the worst factors of evil and Cornish's were driven by good, but then again, Cornish didn't have the hump all the time...
We couldn't mention the guest cast without putting John Albineri under the spotlight. He plays General Carrington with the sort of pig-headed bluster that you expect of bullish army officers at the upper-end of the ranking scale; the fact that he knows more about the whole situation than he is letting on just adds to the sense of frustration the viewer has toward him; he is intent on blowing Mars Probe Seven the mysterious alien spaceship out of the stars, regardless of how people with more scientific knowledge than him (even The Doctor) feel about the situation. Albineri makes Carrington a character that is easy to dislike and with little to sympathise with, and as such, he makes for a great target for Pertwee's Doctor, who almost delights in getting angry at senior authority figures and showing them up in public. At one point, the General wants the Ambassador's ship destroyed by nuclear missiles and will not listen to reason; after he leaves there is a lovely exchange between The Brig and Professor Cornish - it's simply written and wonderfully performed...
The Brig: "I think the General is a little overwrought."
Cornish: "I think he's insane."
It's nice to see Benton (John Levene) back in the action, having been promoted from Corporal to Sergeant since that nasty business with the Cybermen. Though many dismiss Levene as a "glorified extra" (and as we have worked in that field, we can assure you that he didn't fall into that category), Levene gives Benton a certain charm that is infectious and it's always nice to see him in Doctor Who - it would be cool if he could come back for audio adventures.
Ambassadors of Death was one of those titles in the Jon Pertwee era that was a victim of the junking policy that existed at the BBC up until the late seventies. With most Pertwee stories, colour copies of missing episodes were discovered in other parts of the world, but there were one or two where no colour PAL or NTSC copies existed ( Planet of the Daleks and Invasion of the Dinosaurs had one episode a piece in black and white, whereas The Mind of Evil was entirely in monochrome). Ambassadors of Death was somewhere in between in that one episode exists in the original PAL format (episode one), but the others were junked and existed in the form of black and white film recordings. Colour recordings of the other episodes were made on a domestic Betamax video recorder in the US and these served as the basis for the official VHS release in 2002, where just over half of the story was able to be presented in colour. The advances made in the field of colour recovery technology in the last decade are remarkable, and building upon the work performed on episode one of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, Ambassadors of Death is presented in full colour for the first time in nearly four decades. So, how does it look?
Well, let's get the easy one out of the way - episode one looks spiffing, as it survived on the original 2" Quad videotape (it is the earliest surviving episode of Doctor Who on its original videotape) and looks as fresh and as vibrant as anything else seen in Doctor Who during the seventies.
Of the others, episode two is the patchiest, with mild kaleidoscope-like patterns of pink and blue present on some plain backgrounds; such things are a little distracting, but it's certainly not the end of the world. Things get better with episode three, as there seems to be more stability and less of the aforementioned patterns appearing. Better still is episode four, which looks pretty impressive and even less of the pink and blue patterns. Episode five looks pretty damn good and episode six looks very similar to episode four. Episode six and episode seven look pretty good, with some of the characteristic shifting patches on plain backgrounds, but nothing that's going to have you throwing an autistic-like freak-out because it's not perfect..
Ultimately, this is a story that few ever thought would be seen in full colour again (OK, let's skip over the fact that atrocious quality colour bootlegs had been sold at comic and film conventions for decades), and we would say that this alone is reason to cut a little slack in terms of the results of the colour-recovery work performed here. We personally thing that the Doctor Who Restoration Team has done a wonderful job here - the results are better than the colour recovery on episode one of Invasion of the Dinosaurs - and whilst the recoloured episodes presented here are certainly far from 'perfect', they look comparatively fabulous. Our caps are indeed doffed - once again.
Nothing out of the ordinary to report here - the audio sounds fine, even on the episodes that had a long and troubled history. Dudley Simpson's eclectic music score (including some jazzy passages and that run about 50/50 in terms of being appropriate for the scene) is a delight on the ears.
Mars Probe 7 - Making the Ambassadors of Death: The Doctor takes on modern space travel, and this enticing look at Ambassadors of Death gets things get off to an interesting start by noting that The Doctor's near-disastrous flight into space was broadcast exactly the same day that Apollo 13 launched, as though the fates of both were intertwined. Not waiting momentum, Terence Dicks clearly wears his 'pissed off' jumper as he relates the treatment of Doctor Who scribe David Whitaker at the near-tyrannical hands of Producer Peter Bryant and Script-Editor Derrick Sherwin, who kept sending each of the overworked writers’ scripts back for numerous re-writes. Worn out, Dicks recalls how he arranged for Whitaker to be paid him off, with the ten grand he trousered buying a new life in Australia, as “Carriers of Death” was re-written by others, principally Malcolm Hulke.
There is some great vintage footage of the HAVOC guys clowning around, with some of it set to quicken the pulses of any women watching - yep, the boys are seen in the shower, complete with their tradesmans’ entrances on display! This kind of free spirit which HAVOC embodied is mourned, with the days of a gang of stuntmen deciding in an off-the-cuff manner who did what dangerous feat that day, not to mention the freedom to improvise anything they wanted within the location and time allotted to them. Derek Ware and Roy Scammell rattle off some terrific stuff, including when the latter doubled for Caroline John on both the weir stunt and for the driving sequence, where there is mention of the transvestic classic Some Like it Hot!
There is an interesting look at the differing philosophies between Dicks and the director Michael Ferguson, laid bare when Dicks remembers how the convoy was originally diverted by use of a phoney policeman and a single sign, keeping the cost of production as economical as possible. Ferguson thought it needed to be more elaborate and militaristic in nature, opening up the scale and making it more exciting and turned to a new organisation formed by a guy he knew: Derek Ware. Naturally, the HAVOC boys played their part, with helicopters and explosions turning it into a much more cinematic than the frugal script-editor originally wanted!
We keep banging on about it, but we’re always stoked to find the participation of women from the production side of things, and the recollections of Assistant Floor Manager Margot Hayhoe, who compares the HAVOC guys to jazz musicians, being free-spirited and always ready with an amusing anecdote to tell. She also notes that it was due to the helmets of the Ambassadors not being designed with ventilation in mind which caused a build-up of condensation, leading to the menacing appearance of their misted visors. She also spills the beans that it was upon her suggestion that the name on the laundry van use her name, along with that of Director’s Assistant Pauline Silcock once signage had been changed.
The most engaging section comes with the telling a story of one of the few times someone was injured by the stunt team during filming. Sure, the guys who throw themselves in harms’ way are always sustaining various scrapes and bangs, but this time it was one of the crew who copped it. Aforementioned Director’s Assistant Pauline Silcock had her leg gashed open when Stan Hollingsworth lost control of a motorbike due to poor ground and smoke-bombs obscuring vision, having to be taken to hospital for treatment. Even now, the two HAVOC guys interviewed here are still a mixture of mortified, maudlin and regretful about the incident, just that a member of the crew other than a stuntman copped it when something went wrong.
Ferguson rounds things off beaming with pride that he was responsible for bringing in the “scream“ music right up front to preface the end credits, a tradition which became iconic. In fact, Ferguson - a man Dicks describes as one the best directors to have worked on the show - remembers his time on Ambassadors of Death as: “…One of the most enjoyable times of my career”. This is yet another excellent, entertaining look at a classic Doctor Who production, crammed with even more fun than usual - if that’s possible - due to the involvement of the HAVOC guys. Watch and smile!
Audio Commentary: The ever-personable Tobe Hadoke is your host for a look at one of the most mysterious of the complete Doctor Who stories, and with him to dispel the shadows enshrouding it are as motley and likeable bunch as you are likely to find, encompassing main cast, the director and stuntmen. Will the actors team up against the more physical participants, or will the boys in the kneepads thrown themselves out of a breakaway window rather than be subjugated? With a full roll-call consisting of actors Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Peter Halliday and Geoffrey Beevers, director Michael Ferguson, Terrance Dicks, HAVOC personnel Derek Ware Roy Scammell and Derek Martin. OK, they all get along amicably, but we hope Mr Hadoke was packing the stripy shirt and whilst for this audio commentary!
The nature of the ‘biz is brought to the fore when Ferguson is asked if anyone he set to cast actually turned him down on principle of the job being a Doctor Who story, in spite of it being a god proving-ground, to which the erudite director notes that: “…It’s a bit like The Bill, isn’t it? I don’t remember anyone saying the wouldn’t do it - a few I imagine said they couldn’t do it…”. At this point, the reliably blunt Terrance Dicks wades and with: “Remember, it’s ninety percent unemployment - actors don’t say “no,” if you’re offered a job, you take it!” Now we all know that Dicks can shoot a fair amount of venom, but one instance comes about through a sort of anti-Freudian-slip, making the error when asked about the Quatermass influence which manifested the show during Pertwee’s first series. “It was a conscious decision,“ he starts, “by my predecessors, upon which I seem to be heaping a great brain”. Noticing his mistake, he quickly retorts: ” …Of blame. Brain was the last thing you’d heap on them…”
The lovely Caroline John is always chiming in on various topics, particularly amusing when crystallising how the stuntmen came unstuck in the show and got killed “…because they didn’t have a [character] name. Anyone without a name was expendable”. Best of all from the much maligned companion is when she reveals how a fan changed her mind about the work she did on Doctor Who. “I always thought I was terrible in this,” she concedes, “…and someone sent me a DVD once, and one Monday morning about ten years ago, I dared myself to look at it, and because it’s so far away, I thought ‘someone thought I’m OK’. I think my skirt especially in this particular episode (four) is rather short, in fact probably shorter than a lot [young girls] are wearing at the moment! And I did enjoy this particular story, as I was allowed to have my hair down…even though it was a wig, which I had to share with Roy [Scammell, for the water stunt]…and the hat!” Gales of laughter are then broken into when Dicks notes that it’s typical “BBC Economy…” Ms John‘s wonderful personality really comes through when joined by her husband for the final episode, and even though he admits that his memory isn’t very good, there are some great reminiscences which followed in the wake of the show. Caroline John recalls when the two of them were accosted by a fan at Waterloo station, exclaiming that Halliday “…“Played The Master..,” then affecting a strange accent to note how, “…he had a mask on all the time! How did they recognise you?”. Beevers echoes his Missus’ amazement, chipping in with: “I was under a hood and covered in black makeup!”
Derek Ware elaborates on the origins of his beloved daredevil organisation, born out of the need to bring younger talent into the business, populated at the time by old-hands ready for the pip and slippers. Wonderfully self-reflective when talking about the name of the group, Ware elaborates that: “..I didn’t want to be associated with stunts in that it was people who could eat 26lbs of cement or throw themselves off of London Bridge into a rowing boat full of broken bottles, so I called it HAVOC - specialist in hazards, which sounds terribly pretentious now…” The other stunt guys wax philosophical about how computer animation is getting the point of making their work redundant, as Scammell points out that: “…There’ll be CGI in ten years time which will knock stuntmen out completely… it’s getting so good now, it’s only going to improve.” Ware goes on the defensive and counters any optimism within the digital medium as he almost bitterly recalls that: “…The first time I was aware of it was on that Mission Impossible, where Tom Cruise - on that train - gets bent into positions the human body couldn’t stand without snapping.” He goes on to vent his disappointment with Cruise’s face being “painted on” to a stuntman during a horse-fall in The Last Samurai. It’s not all doom and gloom, as Martin is still both pleased and bemused at the royalties which pop through his letterbox for the show, from the various stories over the years. “By Image of the Fendhal,” interjects Hadoke, “you had been promoted to a speaking role.” Martin performs the sum of his dialogue with relish, as he lets out a couple of “Arrghs” which would make any thespian jealous.
When former Doctor Who actress and wife of you-know-Who Jean Marsh is brought into conversation, Peter Halliday rattles off a very interesting anecdote, one which goes to prove that if you have a good idea, keep it firmly to yourself. “I had a brilliant idea,“ he recalls, “…about a family, it’s a Victorian theme, and I said it’s just the kitchen and the cook and everybody… I meant to call it The Green Baize Door, and nobody goes through the green baize door - after they go through, they go into another world, which is the Upstairs, and Jean was fascinated by this, she said ‘that’s a very good idea,’ and she told Eileen [Atkins] about it and it became Upstairs Downstairs.” The warnings from Filthy Rich and Catflap are confirmed with this little gem!
Nick Courtney was always a great person to have on commentaries, as he spent most of his time reacting to the tales of the other participants, and filling in the little details, and usually augmenting everything being said, like a piano-player in a burlesque theatre. A vintage example of this knack comes after the stunt guys elaborating in the big warehouse shootout in the story, where ol’ Nick sniggers away at the carnage left in their wake, and the unfortunate sods who have to take care of the bodies. “The poor UNIT staff,” he chuckles, “Clear that up! Clear that up, Benton!” Both he and Caroline John will be missed, and it’s just nice that there will always be the commentary on Spearhead from Space to get an undiluted fix of their wit and chemistry together.
All members as a lot of fun, regardless of how many episodes they get to sit in on, and Hadoke is required to do less prompting this time around, with few of the participants clamming up about their experiences, leaving ol’ Tobe to let it all unfold, as a good interviewer/moderator would. It’s a shame that there are only a finite amount of commentaries left, as Mr Hadoke really has become damn good at keeping it all damned entertaining.
One of things which keeps hitting us every few Doctor Who releases is every now and again, the extras contain the participation of those who have entered the great beyond, in this case, the recently-deceased Caroline John and Doctor Who staple Nicholas Courtney. It highlights just why their contributions need to be captured on ventures such as these, as without them, posterity becomes a much more narrow, lesser-faceted experience, and their voci dal profondo are a bittersweet, yet welcome, experience.
Production Subtitles: From the dawn of time they came, moving silently through the centuries, seeking to win a prize of ultimate knowledge and total consciousness - but the sword-wielding immortals of Highlander really shouldn’t have bothered, as it seems that The Prize has already been claimed by another of the compilers of the unimpeachable Production Subtitles found of Doctor Who releases. There is no way any normal human being could possess this much knowledge without existing on some higher plain of existence, but such a man is not greedy with all they know, as they have seen fit to share it with the rest of us mere mortals once again, and an absolute corker it is, too!
There are MANY changes between varying versions of the script, and you can rest assured in the knowledge that you won’t miss out on a damned thing courtesy of an utterly comprehensive comparison between the two found here. Huge chunks of dialogue are faithfully reproduced from the varying drafts, many of which would have been of great benefit to the final product, shedding more light on characters and their motivation. Every little detail of the production is to be found here, including exactly when relevant sequences were shot - and in some cases, re-shot, and the numerous problems which cropped up as they tried to put Ambassadors of Death before the cameras. You’ll marvel at how the story was slated to film ten days worth of material in a nine day slot, gasp at the amount of studio time allotted to each story and be utterly amazed that the location filming clocked up a massive twenty-three hour overtime bill for actors, crew and stuntmen alike! More incredible is that the BBC actually paid out on that one…
Filming of the Recovery Seven craft being checked out by The Doctor and co was delayed for a while after a yokel resident reported seeing a flying saucer in the area to the authorities. With perfect timing, the track reveals: “Yes, that’s right: this spacecraft”. They say that humour loses a lot in print, but it’s always managed with aplomb whenever these guys get their hands on a keyboard. Speaking of space vehicles, we find out that the production office split the cost of a capsule with their opposite numbers on Doomwatch, as both need the same thing for their current stories, with Doctor Who getting sloppy seconds when it came to using the set in the studio.
With BBC credits being somewhat rudimentary with those it lists, it’s always nice that the Production Subtitles go out of their way to give every single devil their due, from extras to some of those performing necessary stuff behind the camera. Among others, it spills the beans on the identity of Pertwee’s dresser, and even goes one better with Caroline John, revealing both her costumer and her hairdresser! Well, her wig-stylist, anyway. They might have also named the stylist for Pertwee, but we’d think that poodle-clippers would prefer to remain anonymous…
Though many might have thought that it was due to changes between the drafts, but there’s a good reason why a good deal of Michael Wisher’s lines were cut from the show was due to the original concept of the character of Wakefield reading all his dialogue from a teleprompter, but the one they were using broke down, and the BBC newsroom refused to let them borrow theirs. “Newsreaders in having to actually learn lines” shocker! Speaking of Space Control, you get a comprehensive list of where all the other monitoring stations are around the Earth, saving us all the trouble of squinting at the map on the TV, and eliminating possible Andi Peters-style burns from plasma-screen monitors.
We have to salute the power behind the Production Subtitles for having a pulse, one which pumps blood to every part of the body. It gets to a point in fifth instalment where the track unexpectedly announces that: “…It’s tights-inspection time for Liz Shaw.” Whilst you might think that they might be hoping for traces of skid marks or hitting the jackpot with other fluids, they quickly elaborate before too many questions are thought up about said check, noting that they are: “…a completely different, darker pair from the ones she wore in Episode four”. With the combination of short skirt and Go-Go boots, we really wouldn’t blame anyone for studying that sinfully wonderful area of exposed flesh between the two for any great length of time. Get that man an ice-water and hold the bromide!
He might not wield a sword, hasn’t been mentored by Sean Connery and probably doesn’t have a rather interested variety of Scots accent, but boy can he really throw together a fascinating and entertaining subtitle track, one which can’t fail to increase the understanding and appreciation of the story being told. It really is a labour of love to give anyone watching a richer experience from the show, and something which will be watched a fair few times to come, as there is far too much information to absorb in one sitting. There can be only one - and his name is Martin Wiggins! Show him some well-earned respect and make this track a priority.
Tomorrow’s Times - The Third Doctor: Taking a break from narrating Crufts, Peter Purves is your host for a look at just what the press thought of the Bouffanted One's tenure on the show. Opinion on Worzel’s time on the show forever fluctuates, but from the clippings of the time, he was looked upon very favourable by the press, and seen as a breath of fresh air. Colour probably helped, but he certainly had charm.
One of the cutest items is found in the pages of newly-launched tabloid The Sun, running a rather sweet interview with Caroline John, explaining how she took her young brother to the set, and came away looking rather sheepish when she forgot that there were actors inside the Silurian suits, buying into the costumes completely. Naturally, the tenth anniversary of the show is brought into conversation, and Purves notes with a fair degree of resentment that he among those who weren’t on the guest list for the celebratory bash.
Breaking away from the TV, we get a rather puzzling rant/quote about the Doctor Who stage play Seven Keys to Doomsday, where The Times theatre critic Irving Wardle printed a favourable review, but kinda blew it when he huffed that: ”Terence Dicks allows authorship to go to his head, and permit’s the Doctor to open a Dalek like a hinged biscuit-tin, and scrap out its occupant… for suggesting that Daleks contain anything more than the standard printed circuit, Mr Dicks deserves a rehabilitation sentence down in the reactor room.” Yes.
Hot on the heels of the shit-storm stirred up by Terror of the Autons, we get to that interfering old [insert your own word here] Mary Whitehouse, a woman who wielded self-righteousness as a sword, used religion as a shield and would not rest until everyone in the UK was bashing tambourines in dull unison. She was quoted in The Times as wanting the BBC Finance Department to commission a study to find the psychological effects of the show on children, and “…in the meantime, we ask to switch the programme to 6.30”. Now, let’s consider all of this. The National Viewers and Listeners Association was/is a privately-funded organisation, with a lot of religious money in their pot, and they are requesting that the BBC use taxpayers’ money to commission research which is purely to push their own agenda? Still, she would have manipulated the findings on it to suit her own ends, anyway - just take a good look at the whole “Video Nasties” phenomenon to see she that she was especially good at that sort of thing. That Whitehouse asked for the timeslot to be changed whilst a report would have been in the works suggests that she had already formed her own opinion, so maybe she should have taken a leaf out of her own book: judge ye not. OK, rant over.
This is great stuff, and Purves is possibly the best presenter to have worked on Tomorrow’s Times, with a naturalistic style combined with a warm humour that sweeps you along with it all - not to mention being one the few able to read an autocue without being obvious about it. For a guy who stayed away from anything to do with the show for so long, he has a clear fondness for it all, and it’s something which really comes through. Recommended for both casual and hardcore fans alike, although Italian fans will certainly a-like it…
Trailer: This is clearly a reconstruction coming about through an audio-only recording made by a fan at the time, but there are only a few little giveaways to it being built from existing materials, the main one being how the voiceover is rather muffled, coming from a microphone placed near a TV speaker. It will be a revelation to anyone who watches it, as you just wouldn’t expect this sort of thing to survive at all, let alone have been put back together the way it has.
Photo Gallery: Good grief! It’s another top-flight collection of imagery from a vintage story, with ones familiar to many through the pages of the Doctor Who Monthly, but graced with photos seen by precious few. There are some really nice images here, with a number of them familiar to fans through lower-resolution printing, but here they are, and crystal clear. There are a few which are certain to be used as wallpaper one fans get ahold of this, including the shot of Pertwee with full cape/wingspan surrounded by a number of classic monsters, including - ironically - a Cyberman, and you get some awesome photos of the Ambassadors, which really look as though they were taken yesterday. We are treated to numerous shots of Caroline John, showing lots of leg on a few of them, and we also see her in the makeup room, along with numerous aliens. There are production stills, reference picture of the sets and loads of other good stuff to be found, all accompanied by excellent selections of music and Special Sound.
PDF Materials: Yep, we are treated to a hefty dose of nostalgia, as the Radio Times listings for each episode are faithfully listed herein. It’s nice to know that a handy key provided tells us that Doctor Who is - indeed - a “BBC recording”. Right up there with Space Dust and Texan bars, this stuff!
Coming Soon: It’s The Claws of Axos. Many love it, but we really didn’t groove on it. This is a pretty cool trailer, and it even generated some interest in us, but it’s not top of our particular pops.
We have to admit that we weren't looking forward to revisiting this story; we first saw the thing on UK Gold about a decade ago when we were doing a "mopping-up" exercise on watching Doctor Who stories we hadn't seen - watching Ambassadors of Death in a pretty poor quality monochrome transmission that had been edited into an ominibus version really didn't do the story any favours.
It's amazing what a little love and care will do for something; the restoration work performed on the Ambassadors of Death has not only restored the audio and video quality, but will also do much to restore the original intent of this story, which had long been shrouded by a monochromatic smog of indifference.
Doctor Who stories weighing in at more six parts or more are rarely able to have enough story to properly justify the added length, but we were pleasantly surprised by Ambassadors of Death. It's true that there is some noticeable padding, but the story rattles along faster than some six-part Pertwee stories - The Monster of Peladon being a good example. With some excellent extras and the chance to see it in colour, this is a terrific package and gets a hearty recommendation from us. You could say that with this Ambassadors, the BBC are really spoiling us... sorry.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 1st October 2012
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Tomorrow's Times, Mars Probe 7 - Making Ambassadors of Death, Production Subtitles, Photo Gallery, Trailer, Coming Soon Trailer, PDF Materials
Easter Egg: No
Director: Michael Ferguson
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Michael Wisher
Length: 170 minutes
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