053 – The Ambassadors of Death
Doctor Who serial
Directed byMichael Ferguson
Written byDavid Whitaker
Trevor Ray (episode 1, uncredited)
Malcolm Hulke (episodes 2–7, uncredited), Terrance Dicks (episodes 2–7, uncredited)
Script editorTerrance Dicks
Produced byBarry Letts
Incidental music composerDudley Simpson
Production codeCCC
SeriesSeason 7
Running time7 episodes, 25 minutes each
First broadcast21 March 1970 (1970-03-21)
Last broadcast2 May 1970 (1970-05-02)
← Preceded by
Doctor Who and the Silurians
Followed by →
List of Doctor Who episodes (1963–1989)

The Ambassadors of Death is the third serial of the seventh season of the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, which was first broadcast in seven weekly parts on BBC1 from 21 March to 2 May 1970. Written by Trevor Ray, Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke (though solely credited to David Whitaker), the serial was directed by Michael Ferguson.

The serial is set in London, Hertfordshire and the Earth's orbit. In the serial, the alien time traveller the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and the international organisation UNIT investigate the disappearance of astronauts who have lost contact with Earth. They become involved in a conspiracy and meet alien ambassadors who have arrived on Earth.


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With the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce providing security, the British space programme under Professor Ralph Cornish oversees the launch of the Recovery Seven probe. This has been sent into Earth orbit to make contact with the missing Mars Probe Seven and its two astronauts, who lost contact with Earth eight months earlier. The pilot of Recovery Seven, Van Lyden, makes contact with the Mars probe but is then silenced by a piercing unearthly sound. The noise troubles The Doctor who travels with his assistant Liz to the Space Centre to investigate, offering insights into the sounds, which he interprets as coded messages. He also identifies a reply sent from Earth, which is triangulated as coming from a warehouse seven miles away. Led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, UNIT troops attack the warehouse and engage in a gun battle with troops commanded by General Charles Carrington.

Meanwhile, Recovery Seven has returned to Earth. But whilst UNIT is transporting it to the Space Centre Carrington's troops stage an ambush and capture it. The Doctor recovers it, by which time it is empty. Carrington has ensured the occupants—three space-suited astronauts—are detained elsewhere and is feeding them with radiation to keep them alive. Carrington is now introduced to the Doctor by Sir James Quinlan, the Minister for Technology, as head of the newly formed Space Security Department. Carrington says his actions were to protect the astronauts, as they have been infected with contagious radiation. Quinlan states the government did not want the public to become panic-stricken and reveals that Carrington has been acting with government authority.

By the time Carrington takes the Doctor to meet the astronauts, an intelligent but ruthless criminal named Reegan has organised their abduction, killing the soldiers and scientists guarding them. When the Doctor and Liz examine the site, they realise that human tissue could not have withstood the degree of radiation being emitted by the mysteriously irradiated astronauts. The Doctor believes the real astronauts are still in orbit, and that the three space suits contain alien beings. Reegan engineers the kidnapping of Liz Shaw to aid his own scientist, Lennox, in keeping the alien astronauts alive. Reegan sends the creatures to the Space Centre to kill Quinlan. It now becomes clear to UNIT that the aliens are emitting radiation, and that to touch them brings instant death. It is also evident, to Liz, that Reegan is taking orders from someone else. She helps Lennox escape, and he tries to reach the Brigadier, but his bid for freedom is cut short by Reegan finding and killing him.

Cornish is determined to launch another spacecraft to retrieve his astronauts, who the Doctor believes are still in the Mars Probe capsule in Earth orbit. The Doctor volunteers to pilot the rocket himself. As he prepares to blast off, Reegan tries to sabotage the mission by tampering with the fuel, but the Doctor survives and succeeds in piloting the craft to its scheduled rendezvous in Earth orbit. However, at the last moment an enormous spacecraft bears down on the two linked capsules and engulfs them. Aboard the alien spaceship, the Doctor discovers the three human astronauts, unharmed, but they have been mentally conditioned to believe they are in extended quarantine at Space Control on Earth. An alien being reveals itself and explains the humans are being held pending the safe return of the alien ambassadors, who have been sent to Earth to make peaceful contact with mankind. The Doctor assures the alien commander that the authorities on Earth knew nothing of this and gives his personal guarantee to return the ambassadors safely. The alien commander threatens to destroy the world if the ambassadors are harmed.

When the Doctor touches down, he is kidnapped by Reegan, who reunites him with Liz. Reegan's paymaster, and the real organiser of the situation, is revealed: General Carrington. The General's actions have been prompted by paranoia, arising from his own encounter with the aliens when he was an astronaut on Mars Probe Six, where he witnessed his co-pilot be killed by touching one of them. He has lured the three aliens to Earth in order to expose them on television and intends to call on the nations of the world to attack them. The use of the ambassadors to kill was done simply to arouse public opinion against them, But Carrington is so mentally disturbed by his experiences that he cannot grasp the fact that the aliens can destroy the world easily.

Carrington departs for the Space Centre, where he aims to unmask the ambassadors before the eyes of the world on an international TV hookup—and then call on the powers of the Earth to destroy their spaceship. The Doctor manages to send a radio message, and the Brigadier and UNIT soldiers rescue him and Liz, arresting Reegan. They race to the Space Centre where the Brigadier arrests Carrington before he can make his broadcast. The Doctor arranges for Ralph Cornish and Liz to return the ambassadors to their own people so that the three human astronauts can be released.


This story was initially developed to feature the Second Doctor and his last companions, Jamie McCrimmon and Zoe Heriot. As such, it was set well into the future, and did not include UNIT. When all three actors left the programme at the end of the sixth season, it was rewritten to fit the consequential revamp. Original script editor David Whitaker proved incapable of writing for the incoming new format and cast, requiring the contributions of Trevor Ray, Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke. All concerned parties agreed to leave sole credit to Whitaker and this was the last Doctor Who serial with his name on it. In an interview years later, Terrance Dicks recounted the experience of rewriting Whitaker's story:[citation needed]

One of the situations I inherited [as Doctor Who script editor] was Ambassadors of Death and the ongoing tangle with that. David Whitaker ... had gone through four or five drafts and you come to a stage where you write so much it just gets worse. What was happening was that the need for the script was very urgent and I stormed into [producers] Peter [Bryant] and Derrick [Sherwin] and said, "Look, we've got five drafts of this. David's fed up with it, he doesn't know what to do. What we need to do is pay David in full and Mac [Hulke] and I will finish." And that's basically what we did. I made sure that David got a full script fee for all his episodes because he had been buggered about by the establishment and Mac and I took the bare bones of his story and almost did a "War Games"—wrote new scripts very quickly—and it shows. It had its moments though.

Working titles for this story included The Invaders from Mars (later the title of a Big Finish Productions audio drama), and The Carriers of Death.[citation needed] The opening titles of this story start with the normal music and graphics, yet immediately fade after the Doctor Who title caption. There is a short "teaser" for episode one, and episodes 2–7 feature a reprise of the previous episode's cliffhanger. This is followed by a "scream", accompanied by a zoom-in on the words "The Ambassadors", concluding with "of Death", and a "zap" effect. The experiment was not repeated after this story. This was the first story to feature the sting or "scream" into the end title theme. It was added by Brian Hodgson of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to improve and shape the closing credits.[1]

Location filming took place during January and February 1970 at Blue Circle Cement in Kent, Marlow Lock in Buckinghamshire, Southall Gas Works in Middlesex, and various sites in Aldershot, Hampshire.[1] Studio recording then took place during February and March 1970.[1] The alien underneath the spacesuit was achieved by layering the actor's face with blue make-up, tissue and latex rubber.[2][3] Because it was uncomfortable for the actors, the make-up was applied shortly before they had to go on set.[3] As the story was supposed to take place in the late 1970s, the spacesuit was designed as a futuristic version.[3] Roy Scammell performed as a stunt double for Caroline John when she is pursued in Bessie and captured on the weir. Her husband, Geoffrey Beevers, briefly appears as a UNIT radio operator, credited as "Private Johnson".[4]

Cast notes

In episodes 5 and 7, John Levene reprises the role of UNIT member Benton, now promoted to Sergeant, who had first been seen in the season 6-story The Invasion. Benton became a semi-regular character from this story onwards. Ronald Allen had appeared the previous season as one of the eponymous antagonists in The Dominators (1968). John Abineri had previously appeared in the season 5-story Fury from the Deep and later appeared in both Death to the Daleks in season 11 and The Power of Kroll in season 16. Michael Wisher appeared on screen in Terror of the Autons (1971) and Carnival of Monsters (1973), as well as being one of the regular Dalek voice artists during the Pertwee era, before becoming the first actor to play Davros in Genesis of the Daleks (1975).[5] Geoffrey Beevers[6] later played the Master in The Keeper of Traken (1981) and a number of Big Finish Productions audio plays. William Dysart had previously appeared in The Highlanders (1967). Peter Halliday, who provided the voices of the aliens, and also supplied the voices of the Silurians in the previous story, had first appeared in Doctor Who in The Invasion the previous season, and later appeared in Carnival of Monsters (alongside Michael Wisher), City of Death (1979) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988). Cyril Shaps previously played Viner in The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), and subsequently appeared with Jon Pertwee in Planet of the Spiders (1974) and with Tom Baker in Androids of Tara (1978).

Broadcast and reception

EpisodeTitleRun timeOriginal air dateUK viewers
(millions) [7]
Archive [8]
1"Episode 1"24:3321 March 1970 (1970-03-21)7.1PAL 2" colour videotape
2"Episode 2"24:3928 March 1970 (1970-03-28)7.6Chroma dot colour recovery
3"Episode 3"24:384 April 1970 (1970-04-04)8.0Chroma dot colour recovery
4"Episode 4"24:3711 April 1970 (1970-04-11)9.3Chroma dot colour recovery
5"Episode 5"24:1718 April 1970 (1970-04-18)7.1PAL D3 colour restoration
6"Episode 6"24:3125 April 1970 (1970-04-25)6.9Chroma dot colour recovery
7"Episode 7"24:322 May 1970 (1970-05-02)5.4Chroma dot colour recovery

Cultural historian James Chapman has written about connections between this Doctor Who serial and earlier science-fiction TV programmes.[9] The Quatermass Experiment (1953), for example, has a similar storyline concerning astronauts endangering humanity after coming into contact with extraterrestrials.[9] Chapman also refers to the 1960s Gerry Anderson series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, whose eponymous aliens are a race of malevolent Martians.[9]

Patrick Mulkern of Radio Times noted that the script revisions caused an "uneven plot" and anticlimax, and wrote that the "narrative feels extemporised, a bumpy, sometimes thrilling ride, but one with no clear end in sight".[1] However, he praised the cliffhangers and direction as well as the acting of Pertwee and John.[1] The A.V. Club reviewer Christopher Bahn stated that The Ambassadors of Death was the "weakest" entry in a very good season, noting that it "spins its wheels" in the middle, but filled the time with impressive stunts. He felt that the problem was that Carrington's motivation was not revealed until the cliffhanger of the sixth episode, despite it being obvious since the first episode.[4] Ian Berriman, reviewing the DVD release for SFX, gave the serial three out of five stars. He described it as a "hit and miss", finding the early episodes "promising" but then he felt the story did not have enough plot to carry on for seven episodes, and keeping track of the conspiracy between the various characters was "tedious and confusing".[10] DVD Talk's John Sinnot rated The Ambassadors of Death three stars out of five, describing it as a "generally fun adventure" despite it lasting a couple episodes too long. He was positive towards the Doctor's characterisation and the Ambassadors, who he described as "a great low-budget creature that actually looks more menacing than silly", but felt "there are a few too many plot twists and the result is a script with some pretty major holes in it".[11]

Commercial releases

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In print

The Ambassadors of Death
AuthorTerrance Dicks
Cover artistTony Masero
SeriesDoctor Who book:
Target novelisations
Release number
PublisherTarget Books
Publication date
21 May 1987 (Hardback) 1 October 1987 (Paperback)

A novelisation of this serial, written by Terrance Dicks, was published by Target Books in May 1987 and was the final Third Doctor serial to be adapted.[citation needed]

Home media

Although the entire story was made on colour videotape, only the first episode was retained in this format.[12] In fact, it is the earliest episode that survives in the series' original videotaped format, either in colour or black and white.[12] The remaining six episodes were retained only as black-and-white film recordings and poor-quality domestic colour recordings made from a US transmission in the 1970s. This recording was severely affected by rainbow-coloured patterns of interference that at times overtook the entire picture.[13]

In May 2002, a restoration project for the story's VHS release combined the usable colour information from the domestic recordings with the black and white picture from the film prints, creating a high-quality colour picture. All told, over half of the serial's running time was presented in colour, including all of episodes 1 and 5, and sections from 2, 3, 6 and 7. The remaining footage, including all of episode 4, was deemed unsuitable for restoration, and so remained in black-and-white.

In 2009, a commentary for the future DVD release was recorded, including Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney, Michael Ferguson, Peter Halliday, Derek Ware and Terrance Dicks.[citation needed] The January 2011 edition of Wired UK magazine, published in December 2010 carried a full-page article on the recolourisation of the story. It was stated in the article that the Restoration Team expected to deliver a fully restored colour version of the story to the BBC "within weeks".[14] In issue 430 of Doctor Who Magazine the DVD was announced but later set back due to restoration difficulties.[15] The release was delayed until 2012 when Doctor Who Magazine issue 449 confirmed that the full-colour version would soon be out on DVD.[16] It was later announced that the story would be released on DVD on 1 October 2012.[17] Among the special features on the DVD is a documentary entitled Mars Probe 7: Making The Ambassadors of Death. Although David Whitaker is the sole credited writer on the actual episodes, the DVD sleeve credits The Ambassadors of Death as being written by David Whitaker, Malcolm Hulke and Trevor Ray.[17]

The original soundtrack for this serial was released on CD in the UK in August 2009.[18] The linking narration was provided by Caroline John.

Critical analysis

A book length study of the serial, written by LM Myles, was published as part of The Black Archive series from Obverse Books in 2016.[19]

The serial was covered in number 15 of the Doctor Who: The Complete History book series, which reprinted Andrew Pixley's Archive features from Doctor Who Magazine and the various Doctor Who Magazine Special Editions, as well as new articles created specifically for the book.[20]


  1. ^ a b c d e Mulkern, Patrick (28 September 2009). "Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death". Radio Times. Retrieved 23 September 2012.
  2. ^ "Dr Who's Who's Who: Page 2". Radio Times. 1970. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  3. ^ a b c "Dr Who's Who's Who: Page 3". Radio Times. 1970. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  4. ^ a b Bahn, Christopher (6 January 2013). "The Ambassadors of Death". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  5. ^ "BBC – Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide – The Ambassadors of Death – Details". www.bbc.co.uk.
  6. ^ Hadoke, Toby (21 June 2012). "Caroline John obituary" – via www.theguardian.com.
  7. ^ "Ratings Guide". Doctor Who News. Retrieved 28 May 2017.
  8. ^ Shaun Lyon; et al. (31 March 2007). "The Ambassadors of Death". Outpost Gallifrey. Archived from the original on 18 May 2008. Retrieved 31 August 2008.
  9. ^ a b c Chapman, James (2006). "Earthbound: 1970-1974". Inside the TARDIS: the Worlds of Doctor Who: a Cultural History. London: I.B.Tauris. p. 84. ISBN 1-84511-163-X.
  10. ^ Berriman, Ian (28 September 2010). "Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death Review". SFX. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  11. ^ Sinnott, John (4 November 2012). "Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death". DVD Talk. Retrieved 22 November 2012.
  12. ^ a b Wood, Jonathan (1 February 2002). "The Ambassadors of Death". Doctor Who Restoration Team. Archived from the original on 17 March 2014. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
  13. ^ "Can You Help Us?". restoration-team.co.uk (Click "Articles and Info" then "Can you help us?". Retrieved 5 December 2017.
  14. ^ Burton, Charlie (2010). 'Time Travel TV' WIRED UK, January 2011, p74.
  15. ^ "Doctor Who News: Ambassadors Delayed". Gallifreynewsbase.blogspot.com. 26 January 2011. Retrieved 14 December 2011.
  16. ^ Doctor Who Magazine, Panini UK Limited issue 449 published 28 June 2012, p9
  17. ^ a b "Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death DVD]: Amazon.co.uk: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney: Film & TV". Amazon.co.uk. October 2012. Retrieved 9 October 2013.
  18. ^ "The Ambassadors of Death @ The TARDIS Library (Doctor Who books, DVDs, videos & audios)". Timelash.com. Retrieved 14 December 2011.
  19. ^ Myles, L. M (2016). The ambassadors of death. ISBN 978-1-909031-39-5. OCLC 933337682.
  20. ^ "Doctor Who: the complete history". Doctor Who : The Complete History. 2015. ISSN 2057-6048. OCLC 978424294.

Further reading

Target novelisation