Aired 21 March – 2 May 1970
The first season with Jon Pertwee in the titular role continues its strong run of adventures with ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ while refining its new team-based format, not forgetting the children who made the programme so successful in the first place but also unafraid to offer a more adult-oriented and sophisticated take on science fiction with an impetus on set action sequences.
Using the allure of the world’s burgeoning space programme’s and the recent Neil Armstrong moonwalk, having a mysterious spacecraft approach Earth is a natural concept around which to base a serial, as is having the Doctor embrace and experience the entire rocket experience from pre-flight preparations to post-flight quarantine to capitalize on the public’s fascination. The Apollo 13 incident also happened to coincide with broadcast date of the fourth episode, lending credence to the dangers that the combination of Earth and outer space presents. Yet before the story shifts to that action, it initially builds a very tense and ominous atmosphere as a rescue mission is underway for a manned Mars probe that had gone radio silent shortly after arriving on Mars but is nearly back to Earth after seven months of silence.
With nobody knowing what to expect once the capsule is open, things turn decidedly more sinister when the capsule is opened, a piercing scream is emitted, and a story of kidnapped humans and radiation-laded aliens in spacesuits unfolds. The Brigadier had been monitoring the situation with intense interest, immediately calling for the Doctor who realizes that the scream is some sort of coded message. The story invites its audience to assume the worst about the three figures in the astronaut suits inside the capsule, but it also suggests that there are non-distinct lines between good and evil just as with the SIlurians in the previous story. Rather than trying to stop an outright attack or invasion, the Doctor, Liz, and the Brigadier instead find themselves fighting against a conspiracy to kidnap the astronauts to force them to perform acts of evil to cause public outrage.
In the midst of this tension and conspiracy, though, ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ also makes really good use of its stunt team to deliver several thrilling action sequences than previous stories have attempted. These sequences do arguably fill a bit too much of the running time with no real story progression, but the exhilarating fights and chases certainly amplify the danger of the conflict and certainly help to flesh out a story with a plot that really has no business being seven episodes long. This ultimately comes down to the story’s unwillingness to reveal that Carrington is the true foe, suggesting this early on but then attempting to divert suspicion to several other figures rather ineffectively. This comes at the cost of not revealing Carrington’s essential backstory until very late in the story, and quite why nobody thought to link Carrington as an astronaut from the previous Mars mission that also went horribly wrong to this one is an odd oversight. The accidental death of his partner and the strangeness of the aliens he has encountered before have caused a xenophobic paranoia and he is determined to turn the aliens into evil beings even if that is not their intent.
Not seeing any of Carrington’s past experiences robs the story of significant potential impact and doesn’t adequately explain why he is on such a personal vendetta for revenge or payback against the aliens. The Doctor finding that the astronauts of the current Mars Probe Seven are under the aliens’ mind control causing them to think that they are on Earth watching football in order to protect their own sanity and health is a clever twist that again showcases a distinctly non-violent intent from the aliens, but it also suggests that Carrington likely had the same things done to him and that both sides’ actions now are a result of that.
However, even though ‘Ambassadors of Death’ leaves a lot unsaid and chooses not to show crucial information that feeds into the antagonist’s motivations in exchange for keeping the identity shrouded in secrecy, it is still a very strong story with an intriguing plot that subverts expectations and showcases its leads and stunt team admirably as the show continues to prove that the confines of Earth still offer plenty of storytelling opportunities.