Chapter 120. Doctor Who – The Ambassadors of Death (1987)

Synopsis: As a tracking station on Earth awaits the return of a Mars capsule and its crew, the rocket’s inhabitants are kidnapped and hidden away. Liz Shaw discovers that the astronauts are not the ones that left Earth but alien ambassadors. Someone is conspiring to use the aliens for their own means – and start a war in the process…

Chapter Titles

  • 1. ‘Something Took Off From Mars…’
  • 2. ‘That Sound – It Was Some Kind Of Message…’
  • 3. ‘They’ll Never Survive…’
  • 4. ‘Recovery Seven – It’s On The Way Back!’
  • 5. ‘The Capsule Has Landed.’
  • 6. ‘They’ve Started To Crack The Code…’
  • 7. ‘You Must Feed Them Radiation – Or They’ll Die!’
  • 8. ‘We’ve Got To Get That Rocket Up!’
  • 9. ‘Someone’s Threatening To Kill Miss Shaw!’
  • 10. ‘An Attack On The Space Centre?’
  • 11. ‘Do You Really Think They’re Not Human?’
  • 12. ‘Large Unidentified Object Approaching On Collision Course…’
  • 13. ‘The Capsule Will Be Smashed To Fragments…’
  • 14. ‘Your Doctor Friend Is As Dead As A Doornail…’
  • 15. ‘We May Not Have Much More Time!’
  • 16. ‘We’re Being Invaded!’

Background: Terrance Dicks adapts the 1970 story credited to David Whitaker (but which also included passes by Malcolm Hulke and Trevor Ray), completing the run of Season 7 stories – and the Third Doctor’s era as a whole – that began with Target’s first original adaptations back in 1974.

Notes: The TV reporter’s name is given on screen as ‘John Wakefield’, but here it’s now ‘Michael’, while astronaut Charles Van Lyden becomes ‘Van Leyden’. Ralph Cornish at Mission Control is said to be ‘quite literally tall, dark and handsome’. Dicks is not as snide as he was about Chorley in Doctor Who and the Web of Fear, but he still makes a few sly digs at the TV reporter; he’s small, neat and bearded with a ‘low, throbbing, earnest voice that seems to be the exclusive property of a certain kind of TV journalist’. 

It was a voice that conveyed expertise, sympathy, concern and a sort of muted reproach. The implication was that somehow Michael Wakefield already knew all the answers. Luckily for him, he never had to provide them. He only asked the questions, and passed along the background information assembled for him by an expert team of researchers, all kept firmly behind the camera.

For the final time, we have Dicks’ standard description of the third Doctor, with a face that is ‘neither young nor old’, and that Bessie is ‘an Edwardian roadster’ (and I’ve waiting until now to point out that it’s not actually a Roadster, it’s a four-seater Tourer, but Roadster is such a fun word). It’s still early days for the Doctor and Liz, having only had ‘two dangerous adventures’, and we’re reminded of the incident with the Silurians. 

In the assault on the ‘enemy’ in the warehouse, the Brigadier notices that they are ‘simply better than his own men, better shots, better trained in this kind of house-to-house fighting’. It’s the fact that none of his troops has been shot that draws the Brigadier’s suspicions – accurate shots knock the guns away but nobody is actually hit, and he notes that there’s ‘something rather humiliating about fighting an enemy who weren’t even trying to hit back’. The Doctor’s trick with the disappearing tape is ‘a Time Lord technique somewhere between telekinesis and conjuring’. 

The scientist Heldorf had been a refugee and still had a trace of an accent. Reegan was born in Ireland but spent most of his life in America, among other countries, evading the law. He’d been a bank robber for the IRA until they’d discovered he’d been stealing from them. He set himself up as a professional, specialising in ‘kidnapping, extortion and murder for hire’.  

Cover: The Doctor smiles as two ambassadors in space suits approach him from behind. Tony Masero’s original cover had a much more shadowy depiction of Jon Pertwee, but this was changed in response to a request from the actor. This is the first cover to feature the Third Doctor prominently on the initial cover since The Claws of Axos (1977), or on any cover since the 1978 Three Doctors reprint (aside from a small profile as part of a montage on The Five Doctors).

Final Analysis: We begin with a deceptively simple opening line: ‘Far above the Earth, in the infinite blackness of space, two metal capsules were converging.’ That ‘infinite blackness of space’ leapt out at me as a quote from something and a quick survey on Twitter led to Paul Rhodes supplying a flurry of suggestions for a possible source. Nasa’s own public information office LB Taylor Jr appears to have coined the phrase in his commentary around the Apollo 11 moon landings, which is appropriate considering the subject of The Ambassadors of Death. An earlier reference can be found in The Transcendent Man, a 1953 novel by future Star Trek and Twilight Zone writer Jerry Sohl, while the earliest I’ve found is a 1920 edition of the handbook of the Boy Scouts of America. It’s a phrase that crops up across science fiction from Star Trek to Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer but as yet, I’ve not found an origin. Any suggestions?

There are some other lovely turns of phrase here: The warehouse where Carrington’s crew are hiding out has ‘row upon row of arched windows, every one methodically broken by the industrious local vandals’. The little extra biographical details for Heldorf and Reegan feel like something Malcolm Hulke would have added (appropriate considering he wrote a substantial amount of the scripts). We’ve come a long way from the days where Terrance was bashing these out one a month and as we reach the end of the third Doctor’s TV adventures, this stands out as one of the author’s very best.

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