Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Ambassadors of Death - "Doctor, are you trying to force me to shoot you?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Ambassadors of Death - Details

Season 7, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #53) | Previous - Next | Index

These boots are made for riding in Bessie.
If you asked me out of blue whether seven episodes stories were ever a good idea for Doctor Who, I probably would've said something like, "No. They have too many structural problems and tend drag." Most, I think, would agree that every one of them could stand some tightening up; but, Season 7 is entirely comprised of seven-parters and it's one of my favorites of the entire series, Nü or Classic. "Ambassadors" is generally considered the weakest link of the season -- a judgment I'm not sure I support -- but, if it is, that's just goes to show what a great season it is.

Pertwee's Doctor could peg the needle on the Imperious-O-Meter from time to time. It's painful to watch when he's taking that tone with Jo, for example -- "The Dæmons" is still fresh in mind after a recent re-watch, and that was one where I found the Doctor a bit much. Here though, when his temper flares, it's directed a person in a position of authority and is, if not warranted, at least understandable.

Liz, white pimp hat and all, and the Brigadier get to carry parts of the story and both shine when given the opportunity. But as long as I'm fixating on Liz's fashion statements, let's take a second to acknowledge how marvelously 1970 this all is. Watching this story you can't help but be struck by all the beards and knee-high boots. When the Doctor's outfit is the most tasteful bit of civilian garb on display, you know you're living in interesting times.

But the meat of the story, and what makes this more than a charmingly acted science-y adventure runabout with shootouts and a menacing shadow organization as the villain, is that it's a crushing indictment of xenophobia. The titular ambassadors are just that, ambassadors. They're not out to conquer the world, they just want to open diplomatic relations, but have fallen afoul of a fear-mongering military man and his greedy cronies. The aliens may be ugly as all get out once the helmets come off, and fatal to the touch, but that's not their fault. They just are what they are. Because of communication challenges, appearance, and physical incompatibility at a pretty fundamental level, we can forgive an initial reaction of fear, but the Doctor brings out the best in the people of science and character who are the backbone the space agency and of UNIT. All that difference can be overcome, if we're open-minded and willing to be explorers.

In the closing scene, when the General Carrington is arrested he stops to plead his case to the Doctor: "I had to do what I did. It was my moral duty. You do understand, don't you?" Pertwee delivers the response with a perfect balance of sadness, exasperation, and compassion as the weak, fearful man is lead away: "Yes, General. I understand." The Doctor is done at this point. He leaves Liz to help tidy up the loose ends and stalks away. One can hardly blame him; after having to talk to Carrington, I'd want to avoid humanity for a while, too.

There's a thing in the titles this story does that I don't think I've seen any others do: when putting the name up, it starts with "The Ambassadors" and let's that sit for a second before popping "Of Death" in underneath it. Gimmicky? Maybe. It's a little bit of experimental flair I adore though. At the start of each episode I would read along with dramatic announcer voice to make my son laugh, "The Ambassadors ... of DEATH!" It caught me off guard the first time, but I did it the next six times and it killed.

Can't help but wonder (1) what whoever wrote the "transmigration of object" line was thinking with that whole mind-boggling bit of silliness, and (2) if the Doctor can make objects disappear and reappear from thin air moments later, why he doesn't do it more often? That's a neat little trick and would surely come in handy. Transmigration of object, my ass. That kind of nonsense we shouldn't have to strain our suspension of disbelief for.

Now watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.

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