“The Ambassadors of Death” is so underrated, it’s almost forgotten. I don’t think anyone has it in their personal top ten (but maybe they do). I happen to believe it is a damn fine Doctor Who story that deserves more attention.
The plot is simple, yet effective; the British space agency has lost contact with Mars Probe 7. When the capsule returns to Earth, something has gone wrong. It’s up to the Doctor to blast off into space in order to solve the mystery; because the truth is out there.
Wait… That’s The X-Files.
This sounds like a pretty straight forward Doctor Who story, but screenwriter David Whitaker had a devil of a time sorting it out. As is almost always the case, with each subsequent draft, he kept getting further away from what is compelling about the story. Script editor Terrence Dicks convinced the BBC to pay Whitaker and give him sole writing credit, then Malcolm Hulke and Trevor Ray completed the story. And what a fantastic job they did.
“The Ambassadors of Death” works as a serialized story, but like “The Invasion,” it would make for an excellent movie. That is, if you could sort out the continuity issues. Such as: when the Doctor’s bandage goes missing, or Liz’s tights change shades.
One of my favorite parts of the story is the scene where the baddies hijack the truck transporting the space capsule back to HQ. Jon Pertwee’s incarnation of the Doctor was a bit of an action man, and his stories borrowed liberally from the James Bond films. The unsung heroes of this era are the stunt team known as Havoc. These guys were as good as any stunt performers, and they somehow managed to pull it off on a BBC budget.
Now is as good a time as any to bring up what is known as the UNIT Dating Controversy™. It’s never stated on the program, but all the UNIT stories take place in the 1980s. In “Pyramids of Mars,” Sarah Jane Smith tells Tom Baker’s Doctor that she is from the 80s; but that’s about it. I don’t know the reasoning behind this decision, and it makes no sense when you consider that they never attempted to make the sets and costumes appear to be from the following decade. I’m sure those viewers who watched Doctor Who as it aired in the early 1970s had to know something was up when they saw that the UK had a space agency. As Eddie Izzard once said: at that time, Britain didn’t have enough money to send a man in a track suit up a ladder.