Who: Ambassadors of Death Featured

Monday, 05 November 2012 10:50
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Doctor Who - Ambassadors of Death restored on DVDTechnology combined by hard work and dedication is the backbone to the remastered release of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor Who Season Seven classic “The Ambassadors of Death”. Utilising advances in computer wizardry, now all of the episodes – including those that have been seen up until now partially in black and white – have been restored, and are supported by an extensive collection of bonus features.

One of the longer stories in the entire series, “Ambassadors” has all the ingredients which the Pertwee era stamped out as its trademarks. Aliens becoming the enemy within, political wrangling not being for the greater good, and the Doctor’s ongoing battles and alliances with the military – with Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) integral to the plot. And YES, dammit, that’s what UNIT stands for, and to hell with the UN demanding that we now call it something else!

The plot is conspiratorial in nature, which echoes themes that over forty years later are once again taking centre stage. The Doctor joins UNIT’s investigation into the mystery surrounding Mars Probe 7. Space Control has had no contact with the astronauts on board since it started back from Mars seven months ago, and when the Recovery 7 rescue mission runs into similar difficulties, the Doctor simply has to investigate.

When Recovery 7 gets back to Earth, the astronauts are kidnapped after landing, and assistant Liz Shaw (the late Caroline John) notices something odd about the ship. There follows a surprising discovery about the ship’s occupants –they are a group of alien ambassadors who have swapped places with the astronauts. When the Doctor takes Recovery 7 to the Mars Probe to find the actual astronauts, he soon discovers that all is not as it seems. He has to act quickly to avoid an all-out war.

Those, who casually flirt with the Who franchise, will note that this serial has been available previously, if only on video tape. Indeed, in May 2002, a restoration project for the story’s VHS release had its first shot at getting the serial into a presentable state for the domestic market.

The problem was that this was another serial which was not well-preserved in the BBC archives.  At the time, the Restoration Team combined the usable colour information from some domestic recordings made by an American fan with the black and white picture from 16mm film prints languishing at the BBC. This created a reasonable colour picture, in places at least.

Over half of the serial’s running time was presented in colour, including all of Episodes 1 and 5, and sections from 2, 3, 6 and 7. The remaining footage, including all of Episode 4, simply wasn’t able to be restored to a good enough standard, and so remained in black-and-white. The resulting mismatch didn’t make for a particularly satisfying viewing experience on that VHS release.

For those new to this restoration alchemy, it’s worth clarifying that although the entire story was made on colour videotape, only the first episode was retained in this format at the BBC. Everything else was junked as being “of no commercial value”. This first episode of “Ambassadors” is the earliest one that survives in the series’ original videotaped format, either in colour or black and white – such was the purging that went on of the BBC Doctor Who archive. What we see from the Hartnell and Troughton 1960s eras is almost entirely down to 16mm film prints made for foreign sales.

So, no worries over Episode One. However, the remaining six episodes of “Ambassadors” were only available as black-and-white film prints and the aforementioned poor-quality domestic colour recordings made from a Stateside transmission in the 1970s.  To add insult to injury, those off-air recordings were severely affected by rainbow-coloured patterns of interference, which at times consume the entire picture. It would probably have been okay for an episode of Top of the Pops, but not for Doctor Who!

And so, what we have with this DVD release is the most amazing recovery work, with different techniques used to recondition all of the episodes in the serial. The technical explanations available as extras on the DVD are easy to understand, and jaw-dropping in their ingenuity.

To paraphrase, it involved back-stepping back from American Transmission to UK Transmission standards, and then weaving the colour together in the places where it was correct, and allowing computer software to fill in the gaps where the interference patterns on the colour recordings had got the information wrong. All this while simultaneously converting the film prints back to how they would have looked on the original broadcast quality video tapes, and marrying these all together. Phew!

There are criticisms that the story is drawn-out, but this is more to do with wanting more action and less of the conspiratorial intrigue.  As a lesson in how to decode what’s going on around us in our 21st Century, “Ambassadors” can be very helpful.  To summarise, you’re in for a rude awakening if you think a Government of any colour has the best interests of its citizens at heart. Have that as the message playing out in the background to watching this serial, and it will help you deconstruct the propaganda we have thrust on us, disguised as mainstream news.

The serial itself had been problematic from the start, originally written for the Patrick Troughton era. Short of completed scripts and with looming transmission slots to fill, the story was pressed back into service.

Although David Whitaker is the sole credited writer on the episodes themselves, the DVD sleeve credits the serial as being written by David Whitaker, Malcolm Hulke, and Trevor Ray. As script editor Terrance Dicks notes, he was also involved in the process of rewriting, as Whitaker had revisited it far too many times to be able to finally bring it to screen on his own. Interestingly, Terrance notes that he blamed the BBC establishment for this, which does beg the question as to what was in the original script which created such tensions and rewrite demands from ‘on high’ – and how much made it through to the screen despite this!

The excellent DVD extras on this release include:

  • Commentary (Stereo). Toby Hadoke moderates actors Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Peter Halliday and Geoffrey Beevers, director Michael Ferguson, script editor Terrance Dicks, stunt co-ordinator Derek Ware and stunt performers Roy Scammell and Derek Martin.
  • “Mars Probe 7 - Making the Ambassadors of Death” (26’ 21”) – with Michael Ferguson, Terrance Dicks, Derek Ware, Roy Scammell and assistant floor manager Margot Hayhoe. Narrated by Carl Kennedy.
  • Trailer (1’ 27”) – the original BBC trailer for the story.
  • “Tomorrow’s Times – The Third Doctor” (13’ 05”) – this ongoing series looking at the press coverage of Doctor Who, and here it reaches the Jon Pertwee era. Presented by Peter Purves.
  • Photo Gallery (4’26”) – production, design and publicity photos from the story
  • Coming Soon – a trailer for the mega-restored “Claws of Axos” DVD release.
  • Radio Times Listings in Adobe PDF format.

 

All in all, this is a serial from a time when Doctor Who played out many allegories as well as hard-hitting social comment to assist in the understanding of the world around it. “Ambassadors” uses science fiction in the way it should be – not about technological advances, but instead encouraging free thinking about what’s really happening in our society. It’s a little concerning that if that was done with the current series, the show would probably be hauled off air!

Doctor Who – “The Ambassadors of Death” has a running time of 170 minutes approx, a ‘PG’ certificate, and a RRP of £20.42 or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Monday, 05 November 2012 10:55

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