50 for 50 — The Greatest Stories in Doctor Who History — #12

One of the most haunting images from my childhood, that still endures in my memory over 43 years later, is that of three silent and faceless space-suited aliens steadily approaching with the sun glaring behind them, producing a stunning silhouette effect. This surreal visual impact is intensified by an eerie soundtrack perfectly crafted to create a perplexing atmosphere of mystery and intimidation.

The Ambassadors of Death is definitely a story of its time and finds itself honoured with the #12 position in our Top 50 for being bold and experimental at the peak of ‘space age’ fervour. Even the opening titles were experimented upon, with the word “DEATH” exploding into view following, unusually, after the reprise of the previous week’s cliffhanger. And at 7 episodes long, this story certainly gave us plenty of dramatic and tantalizing cliffhangers to ensure we would tune in for the next installment.

Ambassadors is not conventionally scary, but is a fine example of how Doctor Who can bring about a heightened sense of anxiety within the viewer. The behaviour of the soldiers and politicians leaves us with the clear impression that those in authority are either clueless, irrational or cannot be trusted and, without the Doctor’s interventions, the scientists have little more insight or reassurance to offer a public terrified by the mysterious fate of the human astronauts.

With the Tardis out of action, this gives the Doctor a heroic excuse to embark on a space mission of his own, and the claustrophobic capsule sequences help build up a veritable feeling of tension as we watch him head courageously towards an unknown danger. The intelligent plotline of course reveals that the true menace comes not from the aliens who need to feed off radioactivity to survive, but from the unhinged General Carrington who is manipulating their powers to pursue his own agenda.

For its time, Ambassadors delivers some excellent quality special effects. The unmasking of the irradiated faces of the aliens presents a truly gruesome image and some of the better space models of the Third Doctor’s era can be seen in this story. I’ve only ever watched it in black and white and I wonder if the colour restoration might perhaps take away some of the distinctive atmosphere of the story as I remember it.

Whichever version you choose, The Ambassadors of Death treats you to something just a little bit different which is beautifully directed and which allowed Jon Pertwee to stamp his authority on the role and prove that the show was definitely in safe hands as it advanced forward into the 1970’s. — Alan

Andy’s #12 — Inferno
David’s #12 — The Girl in the Fireplace
Steve’s #12 — The Caves of Androzani

Could #11 feature Doctor #11 …. The tension mounts … until next week.