Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (1970) [DVD]

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There’s a point midway through this seven-part Classic Who serial from 1970 where you realise: this must have been the season that current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat saw when he was six or seven years old. It’s at that age that an experience most thoroughly impresses itself into one’s psyche and stays there well into adulthood, and there’s plenty of evidence of just how much of series 7 is still alive and well in Moffat’s creative imagination.

The specific scene in “The Ambassador of Death” that reveals this to be Moffat’s most impressionable age is the moment when the eerie, wordless figure in the NASA spacesuit is walking toward the camera, his face hidden by the blank visor of the helmet he’s wearing. It’s just as unnerving and terror-inducing as it is when Moffat himself uses the same visual imagery in his 2008 two-parter “The Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”. And it pops up again throughout his second season in charge of the show, from “The Impossible Astronaut” onwards.

Mere coincidence and not strong enough proof for you that the classic series 7 is really that pivotal to a young Moffat’s development? Then consider that another story from the season – “Inferno” – introduces a key character wearing an eyepatch (employed in much the same way that Star Trek’s use of a goatee designates an evil parallel universe version of a familiar character in “Mirror, Mirror”) resurfaces in Moffat’s New Who series as sported first by Madame Kovarian and then by the entire cast in the parallel universe-set season finale “The Wedding of River Song.” Or how about the fact that it was under Moffat’s management that the Silurians – who originally debuted in classic series 7 – were revived and reused in New Who? The only remaining monsters from that classic season not reintroduced by Moffat were the Autons, and that’s only because Russell T Davies had already done it in the very first 2005 episode “Rose”. Even so, Moffat brought the Autons back for his first season in charge in a pivotal manner in “The Pandorica Opens”, so that rather completes the representation of series 7 under Moffat and gives strong credence to the theory.

In which case: Moffat has excellent taste. For many fans – and certainly for myself – Season 7 is one of if not the strongest seasons of classic Who’s 26-year run. It came at a time of great change for the show: it was moving to colour transmission for the first time; there were new opening titles (including a variation used for this serial only); Jon Pertwee was taking over from Patrick Troughton in the title role; Barry Letts was taking over as producer and Terence Dicks as script editor. They were charged with revitalising the show, after the previous year had seen ratings on the slide and too many ‘base under siege’ stories becoming tiresome. Budgets were also being crunched because of the need for making everything for colour.

Letts and Dicks decided on a total overhaul of the show: out went the time and space travels, with the Tardis barely seen all year. This Doctor was trapped on Earth, exiled here by his own people, which meant that his adventures would be literally more ‘down to earth’ and less ‘silly’ and surreal, somewhat patterned after the BBC’s previous science fiction hit Quatermass. Letts and Dicks wanted to make the show more grown-up, with increasingly intellectual plots given more room to play out rather than the four-episode runarounds that had become the show’s standard format by then. The opening episode “Spearhead with Space” which introduced Pertwee as well as the Autons was pegged at four episodes, but after that the remainder of the season was divided into three seven-part stories.

One of them was “The Ambassadors of Death”, a story with a troubled genesis not to mention a crashing big spoiler in the story’s very title which wrecks a shock twist that comes as late as episode 6 in the story. It was originally given to David Whitaker to write: the show’s original script editor, Whitaker struggled to deliver the story of ‘Earth makes first contact with aliens’ at the serious level that the new production team was after. Eventually he was paid off, and Dicks worked with one of the other regular writers on the show (Malcolm Hulke, who’d just contributed the Silurians) to finish the script. They did so by reusing quite a lot of the aforementioned first Quatermass story as the basis for the first episode and a half of this serial.

Each writer brought his own individual contribution to the script: Whitaker’s charmingly bizarre take on how radioactivity works is still in the finished script, while Hulke provided the sturdy framework plot of a political conspiracy/thriller led by a paranoid Army general and Dicks’ penchant for wanting all his adversaries plotting against each other with their own agendas is also present and correct. Coming right at the time when Apollo 11 had just been to the Moon, there’s an attempt to depict ‘real’ spaceflight in the show for the first time (at least as real as the FX and set budget could allow.) They also found ways of including extended action sequences from the newly-recruited stunt group Havoc – which means there’s a long warehouse gunfight sequence in episode 1 and a major ambush of a road convoy using motorbikes, helicopters and gas bombs in episode 2 just for starters. For young boys watching at the time this was all most thrilling and certainly beat filling up the running time by having the regular cast running endlessly up and down corridor sets at Television Centre, even if some grown-ups like Mary Whitehouse were appalled at the new level of realistic violence and horror that the show was edging into.

As a result of all these ingredients, the story achieves the near-impossible: a seven episode serial of Classic Who that doesn’t feel interminably pulled out to ridiculous lengths. Each episode has its own self-contained unique purpose to it, so it doesn’t feel like a whole lot of running around in circles just padding things out until the end. In fact it’s the pacing of the final episode that lets the side down if anything: having paced itself to perfection for six weeks, it’s as if the story suddenly realises that it doesn’t have another three episodes to wrap everything up and has to scramble to pack everything in, even if that means that rare scientific equipment the Doctor needs gets ordered from Geneva in one scene and is being worked on in the next. Finally, just when we’re getting to one of the most significant moments – the aliens finally face-to-face with the humans at Space Control – the Doctor suddenly gets bored and walks off the set in order that the titles can crash in.

But before that, this is a beautifully shot story, helped particularly by the direction of Michael Ferguson who keeps things ticking over at a decent clip thanks to some ahead-of-their-time fast editing techniques that seems to have the knack of finding just the right way to inject pace and tension when the story requires it. On paper, the cliffhanger to episode 2 is a rather dull moment when the Doctor simply snaps at technicians to open up a recovered space capsule: but the way Pertwee delivers the line and Ferguson crash-cuts to the end titles at just the right moment will leave you traumatised wondering just what the sudden emergency is that the Doctor has uncovered and that we stupid humans have missed.

Alas, “The Ambassadors of Death” is one of those stories that was a victim of a culling of video tape from the BBC archives in the 1970s, when the Corporation didn’t think there was any value in holding copies of old shows (as a children’s show Doctor Who was rarely repeated on-air, and the idea of making money from them via home entertainment sales would have been an even more fantastical science fiction concept than the Daleks.) Only the first episode’s master was retained, while the other six was scrapped so that the expensive VT could be reused for other shows. All that was left was the black and white back-up film recording of the show (film couldn’t be recorded over so there was no point in ditching it.) And that was how the show had mainly been seen ever since in rare TV outings on the likes of UK Gold in the 1990s: a colour first half hour followed by the rest in lower quality black-and-white.

A colour copy of sorts did actually still exist, but it was an off-air copy made on early Betamax NTSC home video by a fan in the US from a Canadian TV broadcast – a mixture of so many different and inferior technical standards that it’s a restoration team’s nightmare in trying to find ways of using the video colour information to recolourise the black and white film. Other ‘lost’ Doctor Who masters have been resurrected in this way before and with impressive results (see “Claws of Axos” as one such example, itself just released in a new special edition version this month) but when the same process was attempted on “The Ambassadors of Death” it simply didn’t work. The original scheduled DVD release of this story was abandoned to allow the restoration team an additional 18 months to try and get an acceptable result, and the end product is what appears here.

First up, let me say that it’s little short of miraculous that they’ve achieved anything at all, and that to have a colour copy of the story after decades of absence is truly remarkable. I can’t imagine just how difficult a task this must have been to pull off, and it’s hard to believe that any other TV show in the world could possibly have justified such an extended labour of love as Doctor Who does here.

But the brutal truth about the result is that the restoration is somewhat variable. Understandably, none of the reconstituted episodes come close to matching the first part, which has been digitally remastered from the sole existing colour VT master and which therefore looks outrageously superb, so disturbingly perfect that it could almost have been filmed just last week. By comparison, the parts of the restoration that fare the best are those that were originally shot on location, using film stock rather than VT which means that it’s closer to the look-and-feel available from the black-and-white film back-up copies and looks virtually as good as such sequences ever look. At its very best, the restoration of the studio-shot sequences manages to match that of the aforementioned location scenes and for a few moments you can quite forget about all the recolourisation efforts that have gone on.

But for the most part, the deficiencies of the off-air colour home video recording used in the recolourisation process are all too evident: there’s streaking, smearing, ghosting and bleeding of the colour all over the place. Skins tones bleed out of faces and leave a hazy aura around every character; and when they move, a long trail of colour is left behind them. The colour is generally inconsistent between scenes (the Doctor’s hair varies from grey to yellow to blue to pink and purple, and back again) and flickers back and forth even within a single shot. There is a particularly poor five minutes early in episode two where the colour takes on an overall sickly green/yellow hue that is really awful – but fortunately shortlived. None of this is a criticism of the restoration team: I’m absolutely sure that they have done everything technically possible (and then some) given the raw materials at hand that they have to work with. It’s just that 1970s home video technology was pretty basic, and we’re seeing all its limitations exposed despite the best efforts of everyone involved. We’re lucky to have anything at all.

That said: how important is the colour? After all, just a dozen episodes before “The Ambassadors of Death”, every episode of Doctor Who had been in monochrome. Why should we mind watching this story in black-and-white, when we’re already perfectly happy to watch the William Hartnell/Patrick Troughton stories in glorious monochrome? While watching this version I couldn’t help asking myself: couldn’t this story just have been released in the black-and-white, as it was aired on UK Gold, to bypass all the problems and distractions of the poor quality source?

Yes, it could. And by all means turn your colour level down to watch this serial if you so wish to simulate the effect. But the reason why the colour restoration is not only a good idea but a necessary one is that the episode was meant to be seen in colour by its makers: its design is for colour, and so not to have it is to literally lose a key dimension in time and space in what you’re seeing. It’s as wrong as seeing black-and-white film classics violently assaulted by artificial recolouring techniques: they weren’t meant to have colour and so that ‘addition’ actually lessens them. It really is important to see a film or a TV programme as close to its original form as its makers intended, and the restoration team have pulled out every stop possible to achieve just that in this flawed but still hugely welcome and greatly appreciated release.

With so much effort going into the colour restoration, the rest of the extras are surprisingly light for the Doctor Who range, boiling down to just a half-hour “making of” (which is as good as ever) and a short piece on press coverage of the show in the 1970s presented by Peter Purves, part of a series distributed through the latest DVDs in the series. But there are the fabulous production trivia subtitles (always informative, and surprisingly entertainingly written as well) and a commentary track comprising so many participants that you wonder if the sound booth had to have a revolving door fitted for the occasion.

There’s one very poignant postscript: because of the delay in getting an acceptable quality recoloured version ready for release, the commentary is now three years old. That means among the main contributors are series 7 regulars Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) and Caroline John (Dr Liz Shaw.) Both are as wonderful on the commentary as indeed their younger selves are on screen; it’s just very sad that both passed away before the DVD was completed. They might well have greatly enjoyed seeing the colour back in their cheeks after 39 years.

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