Scary Astronauts are Go! [WHO-50—1970]January 1st, 2013 at 9:00
Season 7 of Doctor Who is a fan favourite, probably because of its taking itself terribly seriously (unlike the more fun later seasons of the Pertwee era). This season does have some great elements to it, especially the snarky and intelligent companion Dr Liz Shaw, the early and rather more prickly version of the Brigadier, and Jon Pertwee playing the Doctor far more straight than at any other time in his run.
It’s also a season which has provided a great deal of inspiration to the 2005- version of the show, featuring the debut appearance of both the Autons and the Silurians, and a rare example of a parallel universe (a narrative ploy also used for great effect in New Who).
What I hadn’t quite twigged until the DVD release of The Ambassadors of Death, the third of four stories featuring the Third Doctor with his UNIT-and-Liz-Shaw ensemble, is that this season also used the masked figure of astronauts as creepy figures of horror, something which has been something of a feature of several Steven Moffat-written stories, and the River Song arc in particular.
(Hey, who turned out the lights?)
There are several certainties in Third Doctor Earth-based stories:
1) anything that comes or falls from the sky is Bad and must be Stopped.
2) ministry officials are all stuffed shirts who must be mocked by the Third Doctor and his eyebrows.
3) computers are untrustworthy and possibly evil (for all his pro-science talk, the Doctor is a bit of a luddite)
4) it doesn’t matter how straight Pertwee is playing the Doctor, he will still take any opportunity he can to put on a silly voice.
The Ambassadors of Death covers all of these! The first episode is mostly talky political stuff, revolving around mission control trying to recover a space crew – the highlight is a cute sequence in which the Doctor uses his console (extracted from the TARDIS and placed confusingly in a parlour somewhere in UNIT headquarters) to slip the two of them back and forth in time, making the most of the brand new CSO technology. Once the capsule itself lands, however, we are flung into a mighty action sequence (ACTION BY HAVOC) which deeply impressed me. I have never been particularly seduced by the action aspect of the Pertwee era (though I maintain that the chase sequence in Planet of the Spiders is one of the finest scenes in Doctor Who full stop), but this one floored me.
Not only did they build a proper sized recovery capsule, they also loaded it on to the back of a truck with a crane, brought in a helicopter (a real one!) and staged an air raid on the truck using explosives. I just kept saying ‘but… so expensive!’
This episode also features a completely adorable sequence in which, after the recovery capsule has been hijacked, the Doctor hijacks it right back, by acting like an old duffer (funny voice alert!) and magnetising a bunch of bad guys to his car. Yes, really.
So when the Brigadier turns up to report the theft of the capsule, there’s the Doctor, smug all over his face, showing that he got there ahead of them. It’s the first truly cozy moment of the growing friendship between the Doctor and the Brig, that grudging smile on Nicholas Courtney’s face.
“So cute,” I cooed.
“What is?” asked Raeli.
I explained my soppy reaction, and her face cleared. “Oh, but the Brigadier would be much cuter if he was drawn like Tiny Titans,” she decided.
“I suppose so…”
Throughout the entire third episode, she drew with deep concentration, occasionally asking me to pause the TV, or to look up a picture of the Brigadier’s uniform online when the DVD case proved lacking in detail. And she produced this:
My daughter the fan artist. She’s not eight yet! I’m so proud of the character and style she managed to put into this sketch. It was all I could do not to ask her to do a set of the classic companions, from Barbara to Ace!
But what about the second half of the story?
I was pleased with Liz Shaw’s role throughout – there were several episodes in which she hardly appeared or didn’t have much to do, but her role grew stronger as the story continued, largely because she was separated from the Doctor and had her own narrative. I particularly liked her pragmatism in working ‘for’ the enemy, a moral choice later endorsed by the Doctor, who does exactly the same thing.
She also got some adventuring in, including the famous ‘dangles off a weir while pregnant’ sequence, and combat driving of Bessie. Is Liz Shaw the only woman who drives Bessie before Ace (and possibly Doris) does in Battlefield? I’m pretty sure neither Jo nor Sarah were handed the keys at any point in the 70’s.
Speaking of Liz, I consider it a tragedy of epic proportions that I was unable to find a decent image of her white boots on the internet. Internet, what is the point of you if you cannot do this??
The space sequences were very well done, and I love the fact that the Third Doctor manages quite casually to get himself into an astronaut suit – his persona throughout the whole story is so serious and authoritarian (except when he’s mocking establishment figures, which is usually him at his most naughty and rebellious) that he gets the job done through sheer force of will, and I love that he’s willing to rocket himself into space using 1970’s technology purely to prove an argument to the powers that be.
But oh, those astronaut suits. Such a simple idea, to use the masked figures as something scary and mysterious rather than heroic – and to do it in a story that would screen only a year after Neil Armstrong’s famous first step on the Moon. It’s very well done here, and the reveal as to what is under the visor’s can’t help but be disappointing after all the build up… something that can’t be said for Steven Moffat’s take on the same ‘astronauts are scary’ concept in Silence in the Library & The Forest of the Dead (and again several years later in The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon).
Still, The Ambassadors of Death is a good old space-and-espionage story and showcases exactly what Jon Pertwee, Barry Letts and the team were trying to do with this new Third Doctor Era – dignity, drama, action and space stuff. Most excellent!
ELSEWHERE ON 1970:
The Third Doctor [Tor.com]
Dr Liz Shaw [MarlowInc]
A Modern Women’s Guide to Classic Who – The Third Doctor [tansyrr.com]
Spearhead from Space [Wife in Space]
Nicholas Courtney & Caroline John discuss his bum in the Spearhead from Space commentary [whatthefoucault]
The Silurians [Hoo on Who]
Ambassadors of Death [DVDactive]
Neela Debnath reviews Inferno [Independent]
Inferno [Wife in Space]
3rd Doctor [Springfield Punx]