The Ambassadors of Death

053 The Ambassadors of Death
Doctor Who serial

The Brigadier pulls his gun on an Ambassador attacking the Doctor.
Directed by Michael Ferguson
Written by David Whitaker
Trevor Ray (episode 1, uncredited)
Malcolm Hulke (episodes 2-7, uncredited), Terrance Dicks (episodes 2-7, uncredited)
Script editor Terrance Dicks
Produced by Barry Letts
Incidental music composer Dudley Simpson
Production code CCC
Series Season 7
Length 7 episodes, 25 minutes each
Date started 21 March 1970
Date ended 2 May 1970
← Preceded by Followed by →
Doctor Who and the Silurians Inferno

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 from 21 March to 2 May 1970. Written by Trevor Ray, Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke from a story by David Whitaker, the serial was directed by Michael Ferguson.

In the serial, the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT), including Liz Shaw (Caroline John) and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), investigate the disappearance of astronauts who have lost contact with Earth. They become involved in a conspiracy and meet alien ambassadors who have been sent to Earth, who seem to have ill intentions.


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 Shaw to the Space Centre to investigate the situation, offering insights into the origin and meaning of 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 more of Carrington’s troops stage an ambush and hijack it. The Doctor locates 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 a 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, a disgraced Cambridge professor, in keeping the alien astronauts alive. Reegan has even been supplied with a device to communicate with the aliens, and sends them to the Space Centre to kill Quinlan. It now becomes clear to UNIT that the aliens are emitting radiation like walking reactors, 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’s merciless revenge.

Ralph 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, but 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, Daniels, killed by merely touching one of them. Carrington's mind is broken: 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, and cannot be defeated.

Carrington departs for the Space Centre, where he aims to unmask the alien ambassadors before the eyes of the world on an international tv hookup – and then call on the powers of the Earth to blast their spaceship from the skies. No one else knows what Carrington intends to say on tv: his plan calls for a surprise revelation of the alien nature of the space-suited figures. But the Doctor manages to send a radio message, and UNIT soldiers rescue he and Liz, and also apprehend Reegan and his thugs. The Doctor races to the Space Centre and alerts the Brigadier, who arrests Carrington before he can make his broadcast. He is taken away, protesting that he was only performing his moral duty. 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.


In the first episode, the Doctor makes a reference to the Brigadier's destruction of the Silurians at the end of the previous serial. Sergeant Benton has been promoted from Corporal since his previous appearance, which was in The Invasion (1968).[1]

The Mars Probe space programme appeared in two of Virgin's Doctor Who novels. Who Killed Kennedy revealed that the shuttles were developed from technology taken from International Electromatics. In The Dying Days, the programme was abandoned when Mars Probe 13 accidentally encountered the Ice Warriors and it was agreed that Earth would stay away from their territory; however, a 1997 Mars Probe mission precipitates a Martian invasion and takeover.


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, hence 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:

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. 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. Starting with the "scream", followed 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 Weir 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, 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] Caroline John's husband, Geoffrey Beevers, briefly appears as a UNIT radio operator, credited as "Private Johnson".[4]

Cast notes

Ronald Allen had appeared the previous season as one of the eponymous antagonists in The Dominators. Michael Wisher would go on to appear on screen in Terror of the Autons and Carnival of Monsters, 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.[5] Geoffrey Beevers would later play The Master in The Keeper of Traken. 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 would later appear in Carnival of Monsters (alongside Michael Wisher), City of Death and Remembrance of the Daleks.

Broadcast and reception

Serial details by episode
EpisodeBroadcast dateRun timeViewers
(in millions)
"Episode 1" 21 March 1970 (1970-03-21) 24:33 7.1 PAL 2" colour videotape
"Episode 2" 28 March 1970 (1970-03-28) 24:39 7.6 Chroma dot colour recovery
"Episode 3" 4 April 1970 (1970-04-04) 24:38 8.0 Chroma dot colour recovery
"Episode 4" 11 April 1970 (1970-04-11) 24:37 9.3 Chroma dot colour recovery
"Episode 5" 18 April 1970 (1970-04-18) 24:17 7.1 PAL D3 colour restoration
"Episode 6" 25 April 1970 (1970-04-25) 24:31 6.9 Chroma dot colour recovery
"Episode 7" 2 May 1970 (1970-05-02) 24:32 6.4 Chroma 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 another 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 as three stars out of five, describing it as "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 twist and the result is a script with some pretty major holes in it".[11]

Commercial releases

In print

The Ambassadors of Death
Author Terrance Dicks
Cover artist Tony Masero
Series Doctor Who book:
Target novelisations
Release number
Publisher Target Books
Publication date

21 May 1987 (Hardback)

1 October 1987 (Paperback)
ISBN 0-491-03712-0

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.

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 is 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. 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.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mulkern, Patrick (28 September 2009). "Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death". Radio Times. Retrieved 23 September 2012.
  2. Inferno 1-4_Page_2.jpg "Dr Who's Who's Who: Page 2" Check |url= value (help). Radio Times. 1970. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  3. 1 2 3 Inferno 1-4_Page_3.jpg "Dr Who's Who's Who: Page 3" Check |url= value (help). Radio Times. 1970. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
  4. 1 2 Bahn, Christopher (6 January 2013). "The Ambassadors of Death". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  6. Shaun Lyon; et al. (2007-03-31). "The Ambassadors of Death". Outpost Gallifrey. Archived from the original on 2008-05-18. Retrieved 2008-08-31.
  7. "The Ambassadors of Death". Doctor Who Reference Guide. Retrieved 2008-08-31.
  8. Sullivan, Shannon (2005-05-14). "The Ambassadors of Death". A Brief History of Time Travel. Retrieved 2008-08-31.
  9. 1 2 3 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. 1 2 Wood, Jonathan (1 February 2002). "The Ambassadors of Death". Doctor Who Restoration Team. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
  13. "Can You Help Us?". Retrieved 2011-12-14.
  14. Burton, Charlie (2010). 'Time Travel TV' WIRED UK, January 2011, p74.
  15. "Doctor Who News: Ambassadors Delayed". 2011-01-26. Retrieved 2011-12-14.
  16. Doctor Who Magazine, Panini UK Limited issue 449 published 28 June 2012, p9
  17. 1 2 "Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death DVD]: Jon Pertwee, Caroline John, Nicholas Courtney: Film & TV". Retrieved 2013-10-09.
  18. "The Ambassadors of Death @ The TARDIS Library (Doctor Who books, DVDs, videos & audios)". Retrieved 2011-12-14.
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