Monday, April 26, 2010

"The Ambassadors of Death" - Episode 5

Doctor Who (1963) - Season Seven
Airdate: April 18, 1970
Jon Pertwee, Caroline John
Written by David Whitaker
Produced by Barry Letts
Directed by Michael Ferguson

And so we come to another Episode 5, and I'm sorry to say, it's pure padding. If you'll recall, the fifth episode of "The Silurians" introduced a new plot thread that ended carrying the story to its conclusion. This gave the story a shot in the arm, making it seem fresh just as it was starting to sag. We don't get that here. The problem, however, isn't an insufficient number of plot elements. It's just not structured very well. In fact, it feels a bit like an early "Doctor Who" story where episodes were expected to more or less stand on their own, even as they also formed part of a larger narrative. This sort of old-fashioned approach is exactly what you might expect from the show's original script editor, but as I mentioned before, David Whitaker didn't actually write this.

This episode focuses mainly on the Doctor taking on the role of an astronaut and piloting Recovery Seven on a return journey into space to look for the real missing astronauts. Let me back up and explain. This story started with astronaut Charles Van Lyden piloting Recovery Seven to rendezvous with Mars Probe Seven, stranded in space, in an effort to recover two other astronauts. Recovery Seven returned to Earth carrying three aliens wearing the astronauts' spacesuits (and, conveniently, played by the same actors who play the actual astronauts). So the Doctor is going back into space to try to find the real astronauts and, hopefully, get a handle on what's really going on.

Now, it could be argued that this is exactly the same sort of new plot element as the Silurian plague was in the last story. But it's not. This episode doesn't give the story a new freshness as it heads toward its conclusion. It actually stops the story almost entirely. Ironically, this is partly to do with the realism with which the script portray the space program. In last season's "The Seeds of Death", the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe piloted a rocket to the moon with a minimum of fuss. But this is meant to be more grounded, so the process of sending the Doctor into space is tedious in the extreme. Not realistically tedious (it's still accomplished quite quickly, rather than taking months of preparation, for example), but dramatically tedious.

Meanwhile, the rest of the story also stops so that the villains can attempt to thwart the Doctor's plans. This doesn't make much sense. The best thing for General Carrington to do would be to press on with his plan, but we still don't really know what that is. Instead, he tries to stop the launch, and when that fails, he has Reegan attempt to sabotage the launch. And I must mention, if only in passing, how absurdly easy it is for Reegan to dress up like a mechanic, gain access to the space center, and sabotage the fuel systems. Not for the first or the last time, UNIT is made to look utterly incompetent in order to facilitate the plot.

The only really positive things I can say about the episode are pretty minor. It's a lot of fun watching the Doctor impatiently puncturing the sober pomposity of NASA-like procedures. Getting a man into space is an extraordinarily complicated undertaking, but it's something that the Doctor takes entirely for granted. So he has no patience for the procedures involved, and gets quite openly exasperated with the whole ordeal. The other thing is Liz. She doesn't have much actual science to do here, but she does get some nice scenes as she persuades Lennox, a disgraced scientist working for Reegan, to escape and contact UNIT for help. This leads nowhere, as Lennox is murdered while in UNIT custody before he can do any good, but it's still a chance for Liz to demonstrate her strength of character.

1 comment:

jimheartney said...

Just a note on the tedium of watching space launches etc. I'm old enough to remember watching Walter Cronkite et al covering these things live, which amounted to seeing hours of slow technical processes narrated by these news anchors extemporaneously. To today's viewers it would have to seem excruciating (unless they were C-Span addicts or something), but back then it got huge audiences. And bear in mind, at the time there was no cable, so you had, usually, three out of your four viewable channels doing nothing but space coverage. (A few years later they did the same thing with the Watergate hearings.)

Anyway, the point is that while all the space hoo-haw may seem dull to a 21st-century mindset, back in the day people lapped this stuff up. It must have made Who seem spookily real to get the same feel of real-time space coverage in one of its episodes.