DVD “Who”sday – October 2012, “The Ambassadors of Death”
By Kyle Anderson on October 16, 2012
After a brief foray into First and Sixth Doctor stories, we return to this year’s running theme of Third Doctor DVDs. It’s certainly no surprise that I love Jon Pertwee’s tenure on Doctor Who and have a specific admiration for Season 7, his first year in the role. In fact, the entirety of it ranked as my number one Classic Who story of them all (it was a huge cheat, but I don’t care). Of the four serials that make up that season, the one that had been the least readily available is the third one, “The Ambassadors of Death.” Finally, delightfully, this story has made it to DVD and is the second to last Third Doctor story to get an initial release.
This story was one of the few Pertwee stories that, for a good long while, existed mainly in black & white, though filmed in color initially. Due to the poor way in which the BBC handled its serials (I needn’t remind you of all the missing Hartnell and Troughton episodes), only the first of “Ambassadors’” seven episodes existed in its original colo(u)r videotape format. All the others existed in the archives only as black & white film recordings or of lower-quality domestic colour recordings, meaning if you watched the series the way it was released on VHS many years ago, you’d have seen the show switching back and forth in quality and coloring.
One of the restoration team’s biggest challenges has been to attempt to re-colorize the scenes that exist only in black & white, something they’ve done for the first episode of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” episode three of “Planet of the Daleks,” and will have to do for the unreleased “The Mind of Evil.” “The Ambassadors of Death” was originally slated for release over a year ago, but due to issues in the recolorization, it was delayed until now. It has been well worth the wait. The episodes look marvelous in the new, vibrant color scheme and there are only a few places where you can really tell something had been done to the footage. I’m a nerd for film and TV restoration, so this really is a great feat.
The story is perhaps the most like Quatermass of any in the Earthbound season. It involves a missing manned Mars probe which, of course, leads the Doctor, Liz Shaw, and UNIT to get involved. A rescue mission recovers the three astronauts, but they are decidedly less human than before. The Doctor also uncovers a conspiracy by the British military to cover-up the strangeness of the returned astronauts and General Carrington’s insistence that Earth prepare for a war with another world. More mystery and a huge amount of action by stunt group HAVOC populate the story and, like all of Season 7, the seven parts never drag. It features some of the best Brigadier and Liz Shaw bits in the whole of the show.
Extras on this DVD are definitely a case of quality over quantity. There is the obligatory half-hour making-of documentary which mainly discusses the script problems and the filming of the many action sequences. An interesting fact brought up in the doc is that this story, about a botched space mission and missing astronauts, was broadcast during the real-life saga of Apollo 13. Fearful symmetry, eh? Also on the disc is the Third Doctor edition of “Tomorrow’s Times,” a series about contemporary press coverage of the show during the times it was released. Much to my surprise, the critics largely enjoyed Jon Pertwee and his time on the show and the only negative stuff was about Doctor Who’s rising level of violence.
That’s sort of it as far as extra features are concerned; however, this release offers one of the best commentaries they’ve ever done. Because the original plan was to release the DVD in early 2011, the commentary was recorded in 2009 and features actors Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, and Peter Halliday, all of whom have sadly passed away in the past year. Also featured are director Michael Ferguson, script editor Terrance Dicks, actor Geoffrey Beevers (who was also Caroline John’s husband), stunt coordinator Derek Ware, and stunt performers Roy Scammell and Derek Martin. Perennial moderator Toby Hadoke appears again here, and does a really phenomenal job with the rotating group of contributors, keeping things moving along and the conversations light, entertaining, and informative. My particular favorite is episode two, which, being a particularly action-heavy episode, featured Hadoke talking to the three stunt guys. They’re a jolly group with some amazing and funny stories. It’s rare for an entire episode to be devoted to speaking just about stunts, and it was fascinating. Dicks, who usually tells the same three or four stories on every track he appears, is only guilty of regurgitating information a couple of times.
I heartily recommend this disc to everyone. It’s a fantastic story with great performances and superb direction that we can finally see in full color for the first time since, basically, it was initially broadcast.
Next month, another Pertwee story: the special edition of the early release “The Claws of Axos” from season 8. It’s an interesting choice for special edition-dom, but I’m excited to review it.
And, if you’re in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 27th, come down to NerdMelt Showroom at Meltdown Comics at 2 pm, where I’ll be hosting another classic Doctor Who screening. The first one last month went incredibly well and we’re hoping for another fun afternoon of sci-fi. This time we’ll be watching the Second Doctor masterpiece, “The Tomb of the Cybermen!” DVDs will be given away in between episodes! It’s FREE! RSVP HERE if you’d like to attend. Hope to see you there!