BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014

BBC Homepage

Entertainment Cult

Contact Us

The Ambassadors of Death

Production Code: CCC

First Transmitted

1 - 21/03/1970 17:15

2 - 28/03/1970 17:15

3 - 04/04/1970 17:20

4 - 11/04/1970 17:15

5 - 18/04/1970 17:15

6 - 25/04/1970 17:15

7 - 02/05/1970 17:15


The Doctor joins UNIT's investigation into the mystery surrounding Mars Probe 7. Space Control, headed by Professor Ralph Cornish, has had no contact with the astronauts on board since it started back from Mars seven months ago, and now the Recovery 7 rescue mission has run into similar difficulties.

This second ship does get back to Earth, but the astronauts are kidnapped after landing and Liz Shaw notices that the Geiger counter is at maximum. It transpires that the ship's occupants were not the human astronauts after all but a trio of radiation-dependent alien ambassadors who had swapped places with them.

The Doctor makes a solo flight in Recovery 7 and docks with Mars Probe 7, still orbiting in space. He is then intercepted by a huge alien spaceship and taken on board, where he finds the real astronauts unharmed. The aliens' Captain threatens to destroy the Earth unless their three ambassadors are released.

The Doctor is allowed to go and, after returning to Space Control, discovers that the kidnapping of the ambassadors is part of a scheme devised by xenophobic ex-astronaut General Carrington to discredit the aliens and convince the world's authorities to wage war against them. The Doctor and UNIT are able to thwart his plans and arrange the safe exchange of ambassadors for astronauts.

Episode Endings

The Doctor and Liz go to see Bruno Taltalian, a scientist on Cornish's team, to request the use of his computer to analyse the alien messages that have been received. When they enter the computer room he pulls a gun on them.

The sealed Recovery 7 capsule has been taken to Space Control after its return to Earth. Astronaut Charles Van Lyden's voice can be heard over a radio link, but Cornish cannot get a reply when he tries to talk to the man. The Doctor asks some additional questions which are also ignored. He instructs a workman, standing by with a blowtorch, to cut the capsule open.

Liz Shaw receives a note, apparently from the Brigadier, asking her to meet him in Hertfordshire. She sets off but discovers that this is a trap. She is chased by two thugs and tries to escape across a bridge over a weir. Mid-way across she is caught. She manages to knock one of the men into the water, but is then herself flipped over the edge by the other.

One of the alien astronauts is taken by their kidnapper, Reegan, to kill Sir James Quinlan, the man in charge of the space programme. This done, the creature then destroys the contents of a safe. The Doctor arrives to see Quinlan and hurries to the dead man's side. Behind him, the astronaut approaches, hand outstretched to kill him too.

The Doctor makes a solo flight in Recovery 7 and docks with Mars Probe 7 to try to find out where the human astronauts might have gone to. Ground radar suddenly reports a massive alien craft heading straight for the Doctor.

The Doctor has been captured by Reegan and taken to his secret base. Reegan wants the Time Lord to build him a translation device so that he can communicate with the aliens. Suddenly, Carrington enters the room. He has been behind all the kidnappings and now wants the Doctor dead. He produces a gun with which to kill him, explaining that he sees it as his 'moral duty' to do so.

Carrington has been exposed and prevented from engineering a conflict with the aliens. The Doctor leaves to continue his attempts to repair the TARDIS while Liz remains to assist Cornish with the ambassadors.


2001: A Space Odyssey.

NASA space programme coverage and David Bowie.

The Avengers episode The Radioactive Man.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (non-hostile aliens misunderstood as invaders through paranoia).

Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('They're here! We're being invaded!').

Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles (the conditioning of astronauts to believe they are back on Earth).

The Outer Limits.

The Projected Man.

The Quatermass Experiment.

Dialogue Triumphs

Ralph Cornish : "Something took off from Mars!"

The Doctor : "I don't know what came down in Recovery 7, but it certainly wasn't human!"

The Doctor : [Being rude to Ralph Cornish] "The man's a fool. How can I possibly tell who the message is from until I know what it says? Let me explain this to you in very simple terms!"

Double Entendre

Carrington : [To Reegan (about the astronauts)] "Kindly ask one of them to come out."


The Ambassadors are not Martians. Carrington, a survivor of the Mars Six Probe, notes they come from another galaxy and 'were on Mars before we were', accidentally killing astronaut Jim Daniels by touching him (See The Ice Warriors). The aliens thrive on radioactivity, measured at over two million rads.

Carrington is planning to telecast across the globe on a 'worldwide hook up' [something that Our World and Live Aid failed to achieve]. The Brigadier is arrested by a superior for the second time in three stories. There is a different UNIT lab [indicating a different HQ].

There's a first look at UNIT's 'shoot to kill' policy (see The Three Doctors). The Brigadier can hold individuals 'on security charges for a very long time'.

Bessie is fitted with an 'anti-theft device' which sticks the villain to the car. The Doctor is fixing the TARDIS' time vector generator, which sends Liz 10 seconds into the future (see The Wheel in Space). Liz can speak French.


The opening title sequences of this story are unique for two reasons. First, they break off part-way through to make way for a short 'teaser' of the action before resuming to display the story title, writer and episode number captions. Secondly, the story title actually appears in two stages - 'The Ambassadors' first and then 'of Death' below it a few moments later - the latter punctuated by a gunshot noise added to the theme music.

Actor Michael Wisher appears in the role of John Wakefield, a television reporter. Wisher later became best known for playing Davros in the season twelve story Genesis of the Daleks and made numerous other appearances in the series.

There are excellent model sequences of Mars Probe 7, Recovery 7 and the alien spaceship, accompanied by some unusual and highly effective incidental music courtesy of Dudley Simpson.


In episode one, when the video screen retracts, the CSO image stays for several seconds.

When the spacecraft rotates, the image from the cockpit camera rotates with it (it should be fixed on one point).

The UNIT soldier who is killed by touching the same barrier as an alien in episode four, is alive and well and back at work in episode six.

From this story onwards no military personnel ever moves between 'attention' and 'at ease' properly.

'Variant' is spelt 'varient' on location props.

Taltalian's accent is French in the studio and English on location.

Recovery Seven's nose cone changes colour between prop and model shots.

Quinlan's office safe slips about as the alien tries to open the door.

And how does the Doctor manage to get the TARDIS console through the doors?

Fashion Victim

Liz Shaw wears a Brian Jones style fedora, knee length boots and the shortest skirt in the history of TV (and her tights change colour each week).

The Doctor dons a hideous stripey dressing gown.

Cast & Crew


The Doctor - Jon Pertwee

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - Nicholas Courtney

Liz Shaw - Caroline John

Alien Space Captain - Peter Noel Cook

Alien Voices - Peter Halliday

Astronaut - Steve Peters

Astronaut - Neville Simons

Astronaut - Ric Felgate

Astronaut - Derek Ware

Carrington 1-3 / General Carrington 4-7 - John Abineri

Collinson - Robert Robertson

Control Room Assistant - Bernard Martin

Control Room Assistant - Joanna Ross

Control Room Assistant - Carl Conway

Corporal Champion - James Haswell

Dobson - Juan Moreno

Flynn - Tony Harwood

Grey - Ray Armstrong

Heldorf - Gordon Sterne

John Wakefield - Michael Wisher

Lefee - Steve Peters

Lennox - Cyril Shaps

Masters - John Lord

Michaels - Neville Simons

Miss Rutherford - Cheryl Molineaux1

Private Johnson - Geoffrey Beevers

Private Parker - James Clayton

Quinlan - Dallas Cavell

Ralph Cornish - Ronald Allen

Reegan - William Dysart

Sergeant Benton - John Levene

Taltalian - Robert Cawdron

Technician - Roy Scammell

Unit Sergeant - Derek Ware

Unit Soldier - Max Faulkner

Van Lyden - Ric Felgate


Director - Michael Ferguson

Assistant Floor Manager - Margot Heyhoe

Costumes - Christine Rawlins

Designer - David Myerscough-Jones

Film Cameraman - A A Englander

Film Cameraman - Tony Leggo

Film Editor - Don Goddard

Film Editor - Chris Wimble

Make-Up - Marion Richards

Make-Up - Teresa Wright

Producer - Barry Letts

Production Assistant - Nicholas John

Script Editor - Terrance Dicks

Special Sounds - Brian Hodgson

Studio Lighting - Ralph Walton

Studio Lighting - Geoff Shaw

Studio Lighting - Dave Sydenham

Studio Sound - Gordon Mackie

Studio Sound - Brian Hiles

Title Music - Ron Grainer and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, arranged by Delia Derbyshire

Visual Effects - Peter Day

Visual Effects - Ian Scoones

Writer - David Whitaker

Writer - Trevor Rayl

Writer - Malcolm Hulke

Bottom Line - from The Discontinuity Guide

'With these three you can do anything. Walk into Fort Knox and help yourself.' In need of a major re-evaluation, The Ambassadors of Death benefits from a multi-layered script and spooky spacesuited aliens. It also contains one of the series' finest climaxes as the Doctor tells Carrington he understands the General's motives and allows him to keep his dignity.

Analysis - from Doctor Who, the Television Companion

The Ambassadors of Death, like David Whitaker's previous story The Enemy of the World, is a curious mixture of James Bond-style action and hardware and science-fiction concepts. Its main point is often said to be to illustrate the lengths to which some people are capable of going in their irrational hatred of other races. Strangely, however, this emerges only in General Carrington's xenophobic attitude toward the apparently friendly aliens that he first encountered on Mars. Normally one might expect some additional sub-plots exploring the same theme, but these are absent here. This tends to suggest that Whitaker might actually have had a different message in mind, but if that is so then it is hard to discern what it might have been. Nick Cooper, writing in Star Begotten Issue Two, dated summer 1987, tried to rationalise this:

The unnamed alien race are, without doubt, the "monsters", yet they are certainly not the villains. Reegan is a villain in the literal sense, but he is not to blame for the situation, only for taking advantage of it once it had arrives. And Carrington? All I can say is that of all the Doctor Who "bad guys", none prompted my sympathy more so than he... He is insane and so he cannot really be blamed for his actions - no-one warrants that blame. How's that for a difference? A story in which no one person or group is to blame for all the "evilness"?

The Ambassadors of Death holds a deep message for all of us - we should not fear or hate those who are different from ourselves, because the threat is more likely to come from ourselves...'

There are a number of inconsistencies and plot problems apparent in the story, no doubt due in large part to its problematic development and the involvement of several different writers in its scripting. Such a combination of different styles and ideas generally does a story no good at all, and this is very apparent here. The eclectic nature of the story was highlighted by Lance Parkin in Matrix Issue 52, dated spring 1996: 'The Ambassadors of Death is a peculiar mix of archetypal action-by-HAVOC two-fisted UNIT romp and leisurely [ramble in the style of the] sixth [season] stories that almost appear to be made up as they go along. Most of Episode 5 is taken up with Reegan's attempt to sabotage the Doctor's rocket, an attempt eventually foiled by the Doctor in thirty seconds. That said, the action sequences are lavish and the cliffhangers are among the best in the show's history.'

There is nothing wrong as such with either the direction or the acting, but the aforementioned plot problems result in the story dragging somewhat over its seven episodes. The aliens are deliberately sidelined and, on the single occasion that the viewer does get to see one of their true faces, it is on screen for less than a second. Even the alien Captain is seen only through a louvre blind, making any detail impossible to discern. Quite why this was done is unclear. Perhaps the alien make-up was deemed unsatisfactory, or perhaps, as the story isn't really about the aliens at all, it was felt that there was simply no need to showcase them. Parkin put forward another theory: 'Keeping the aliens at a distance really makes them, well, alien. Glimpsed behind slats, or in a moment after Liz removes one of their helmets, [they remain largely a mystery]. Their voices are strange, disembodied, their vast spacecraft mixes the mundane (a recreated quarantine area to keep the astronauts in) [with] a surreal CSO landscape. We hear that they have "invaded our galaxy" and that "they were on Mars before us," but only from Carrington, and we don't know whether they are really Martians or not. We know they need radiation... to live, but not why (or how). Although some fans have expressed dissatisfaction with this obscurity, it's a deliberate device that only adds to the mystery, suspense and paranoia - it's a trick that The X-Files uses on a weekly basis nowadays, over twenty years later.'

This story shows what the remainder of the third Doctor's era could have held in store. Impressive military hardware, soldiers running about with guns, and barely glimpsed or present aliens to provide the science-fiction backdrop. It is perhaps just as well that this did not, in the event, become the norm. Some, however, have celebrated The Ambassadors of Death for its relatively adult content and realisation. 'From scene one we were plunged into a tale far deeper and more complex than perhaps any that had preceded it,' wrote Simon M Lydiard in Skaro Volume Three Number Three, dated February/March 1983. 'Doctor Who had at last reached full maturity, a quality which, along with Jon Pertwee's surprising acting talents, would take the series' ratings, popularity and reputation to new heights.

< Doctor Who and the SiluriansThird DoctorInferno >

This episode guide is made up of the text of The Discontinuity Guide by Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, and Doctor Who: The Television Companion by David J. Howe and Stephen James Walker.

The Discontinuity Guide © Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping 1995.
Doctor Who: The Television Companion © David J Howe and Stephen James Walker 1998, 2003.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy