Sunday 14 August 2011

265 The Ambassadors of Death: Episode One

EPISODE: The Ambassadors of Death: Episode One
TRANSMITTED: 21 March 1970
WRITER: David Whitaker (and Trevor Ray - Uncredited)
DIRECTOR: Michael Ferguson
SCRIPT EDITOR: Terrance Dicks
PRODUCER: Barry Letts
FORMAT: VHS: Doctor Who-Ambassadors of Death
Episode Format: 625 video

After months of no communication Mars Probe 7 is returning to Earth. Recovery 7 has launched to meet it carrying astronaut Charles Van Lyden. The docking is being broadcast live on television but as Van Lyden opens the hatch an eerie noise is heard and communications are cut off. The Doctor races to the space centre and with the help of the already present Brigadier convinces flight controller Professor Ralph Cornish to allow him to help. The Doctor believes the noise is a message. A second transmission is heard, which is replied to. The Doctor & Brigadier set up monitoring and triangulate the repeated reply to a warehouse in London which is stormed by Unit troops, who meet stiff opposition, allowing the besuited man communicating with the capsule to escape. They find some radio equipment which is destroyed by a self destruct device. The Doctor is given computer time to decode the messages but when he & Liz enter the computer room they are held at gunpoint by Doctor Taltalian.

Ambassadors of Death 1 is very much a time machine back to the seventies. On the one hand you've got a live space broadcast, very popular still at the time, with the Doctor watching at homd and on the other you've got the Unit troops enacting an episode of The Sweeney. Fresh from seven episodes of Silurian boredom - they get name checked at the top of the episode - it makes a nice change. Once again Liz is with me and despite having been warned "What so I want to pay attention to the titles for?" she wet herself when they returned after the opening moments of the show presenting us with the word "The Ambassadors" and then the word "OF DEATH" flies onto the screen with a comedy sound effect. They don't try that one again after this story! As the spacecraft docks she was entertained by Dudley Simpson's impersonation of Procul Harem's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" which then transforms into a Hamlet Cigar advert. Add it all together with the spaceships docking and you get something resembling a seventies film where, as the hero & heroine share their passion for each other we instead get to see alternate suggestive imagery replacing what's actually going on! There's a rather nice sequence in the opening moments where we get to see the Doctor playing with the Tardis console and he projects first Liz then himself several seconds into the future. It's a nice touch heralding what will come in the next story.

Two firsts for this episode: One's in the episode itself, and the other has been bequeathed to it by history. It's the first episode of Doctor Who to feature an "ACTION BY HAVOK" credit on the end titles (My friend Matthew will be cheering - it's his favourite Doctor Who credit). HAVOK were a stunt agency formed by regular Doctor Who stuntman Derek Ware and are used for many of the early earth bound Pertwee serials. Ware himself will pop up in various minor roles throughout Pertwee's time as Doctor Who. This episode has become the first episode of Doctor Who to survive on it's original 625 line video tape and since no 405 line episodes exist on their transmission tapes it's the earliest surviving episode of Doctor Who on video. As we'll see it's a bit of a shame that they didn't hang on to the remaining six episodes of this story.

We've seen several of the actors in this episode before: Professor Ralph Cornish is played by Ronald Allen who was Rago in The Dominators. Liz recognised him from Crossroads where he played David Hunter. Ric Felgate (Astronaut Charles Van Lyden) appears in two of director Michael Feguson's previous serials as Roy Stone in The War Machines and Brent in The Seeds of Death. The Internet claims Ric Felgate helped create Play School but I can't find any evidence to substantiate this. Meanwhile a book I have, which isn't known for being 100% reliable, claims he's Michael Ferguson's Brother in Law. Doubting the validity of this information I put it to m'learned friends on the Internet. Toby Hadoke (Moths Ate My Scarf & Running Through Corridors) replied thus:
He was married to Cynthia Felgate who produced Play School, and he was Michael Ferguson's brother in law, but I think it may have been more complicated than Cynthia simply being Michael's sister (did maybe Michael's sister marry his brother or something?). I can't remember exactly, but it's on the Ambassadors commentary.

I was moderating as it happens A long, but very rewarding day.

Actually, I don't know if I talked to Michael about it off mic or on. If I'm not 100% sure of a fact I'll try to address it between eps so I'm clear and on the right track when we start recording again. I hope I remembered to bring it up after getting it clarified - it was a while ago now.
On his Doctor Who onscreen debut here is one of the true greats of Doctor Who: Michael Wisher, playing bearded TV reported John Wakefield. He's famed for bringing Davros, the creator of the Daleks, to life in Genesis of the Daleks but you can also see/hear him in Terror of the Autons (as Rex Farrel), Carnival of Monsters (as Kalik), Frontier in Space, Planet of the Daleks, Death to the Daleks & Genesis of the Daleks (as Dalek voices), Revenge of the Cybermen (as Magrik) and Planet of Evil (as Morelli and voice of Ranjit). I've read one website the says he did uncredited voice work on Michael Fergusson's previous story, The Seeds of Death, but since it's just one site and doesn't say what he voiced I'm reluctant to include it. Either way this is his first on screen appearance.

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