So to-day is Jon Pertwee’s one hundredth birthday. I knew it was coming so I decided to watch a nice long serial from his era of Doctor Who. I settled on the seven episode serial The Ambassadors of Death which ran from late March to early May in 1970. The third serial from Pertwee’s first season as the Third Doctor, it’s the only one from that season I hadn’t seen more than once and I’d never seen the fully colourised version that was released in 2012. As always, the colourising is impressive though sometimes the orange spots on people’s skins look a bit bright.
It’s certainly the weakest of Three’s first season though it’s competing with three outstanding serials—Spearhead from Space, The Silurians, and Inferno. Inferno remains the only serial that’s ever actually given me nightmares but the creepy astronauts in Ambassadors of Death are pretty good, too.
The faceless astronauts from the Tenth and Eleventh era episodes like “Silence in the Library” and “The Impossible Astronaut” owe a debt to these original ambassadors. But The Ambassadors of Death also has its influences. Doctor Who from the beginning was a descendent of the Quatermass serials. Few so clearly show the Quatermass influence as The Ambassadors of Death, focusing as it does on a rocket base and a mysterious accident befalling one rocket mission that turns out to have been caused by alien interference. There might also have been some influence from Marooned, the John Sturges movie released the previous year (and featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 under the title of Space Travellers). It’s one of the reasons the first season of the Third Doctor era feels a world apart from the last season of the Second Doctor era which featured a serial, The Seeds of Death, in which the Doctor and his companions make a similar Earth rocket journey that feels more Frau im Mond than NASA.
Now Pertwee is obliged to exchange his velvet coat for realistic safety gear and mission control has Ronald Allen as a slightly more emotionally vulnerable version of Gregory Peck’s character in Marooned.
Allen’s performance still kills me—I love his subtle jaw wag as he seems to allow each line to pass his lips with forlorn savour. He certainly has “soap opera” written all over him and he compares oddly with Pertwee, who’s always excellent.
Pertwee in his first season gave a kind of performance I hadn’t seen on the show before. He clearly spent some time working out ways he could communicate outside the dialogue. I suppose you could say he chews scenery but it always feels natural and refreshing the way he’d wait before replying to a question by thinking a moment, bouncing his fist off a desk or pacing. You always got the sense of him really putting a question through his mind before formulating an answer. It also helped contribute to the impression of him as a dandy intellectual. Here’s a man who sees value in taking his time.
There’s also a fair amount of James Bond influence on display. When his companion, Liz (Caroline John), is asked to explain how she was captured, she wryly replies, “I ran into an old friend.”
Ultimately, the serial meanders a bit much and the plot about military rogues hijacking alien ambassadors to potentially rob Fort Knox or somewhere like that is a bit thin—though I did like the shady mercenary character Reegan (William Dysart) who seems as willing to help the Doctor as anyone else. The aliens themselves work great and I love shots of them in their space suits solemnly approaching on a blinding, sun drenched road.
Twitter Sonnet #1253
The early bird became a feathered worm.
A tropic desk produced a ruler’s inch.
The apple tree produced throughout the term.
And ev’ry day we saw the waiting finch.
The deepest lizards found the surface man.
A helmet hid a darkened mask beneath.
A monster bade Atlantis quit the pan.
Infernos dream of crossing summer heath.
The astronauts delivered faces down.
In time the colour turned for older tape.
A modest crop became a silver crown.
A hero wore a velvet coat and cape.
His speedy yellow car escaped the field.
But time and space the Third would never yield.