Friday, 1 January 2010

Ten Stories #3: "The man's a fool!"

Written by David Whitaker, Trevor Ray (episode 1, uncredited), Malcolm Hulke (episodes 2-7, uncredited), Terrance Dicks (episodes 2-7, uncredited), directed by Michael Ferguson, 1970

It’s hard to retrospectively judge the changeover to colour, especially since this story, with its Ipcress File stylings, particularly suits black and white (although that film was in colour, but hush…). The black and white clips at the beginning of the VHS act as a brilliant trailer, while unfortunately looking far better than the colour footage; the sets and CSO are hugely improved. The titles especially must have been dazzling though – they still have such an unearthly, technicolour allure.

It’s often all too easy to lump the earliest Doctors’ eras together when considering the entirety of Doctor Who in overview, but with its stark industrial settings, this is a massive leap. It’s bleak, glum, austere; visually alone, it really doesn’t feel ‘teatime’. There aren’t many Doctor Who stories Michael Caine’s Jack Carter would feel at home in, but this is one of them.

Its stylishness – the much-cited shooting into the sun and fast cuts between Liz and the (brief) reveal of the Ambassador’s face, with building music – gives much more ‘coherent’ an approach than we’re arguably used to. The Invasion set a precedent for stories like Ambassadors, but, despite its relative ‘realism,’ it still featured supervillians and lairs, etc. Ambassadors is on a whole different level of realism again.

I also really like the earthbound setting when viewed as a not-quite-right ‘near future,’ especially since this is something people tend to ignore now. And it’s lovely (as in the later Invasion of the Dinosaurs) to have a bit of intrigue in Doctor Who. The whole thing is strangely – but appealingly – inaccessible (by comparison to the series’ most popular periods): things aren’t made easy for the audience; the good guys don’t have charming foibles, and the villains aren’t moustache-twirling clich├ęs. The characters we have here are no longer larger than life figures – at least for a brief interlude. The Doctor doesn’t even stage the expected daring rescue when Liz is kidnapped; this very clearly isn’t the action-adventure world the Doctor usually operates in.

He does take control quickly and in a more assured manner than we’re used to, but the downside of the new realism is that it makes our hero feel like a much more conventional lead than previously. Though no Doctor in and of themselves is dated (in terms of performance or acting – ie, they are all still effective), Pertwee is arguably the most generic, as he is broadly comparable to John Steed or Jason King. Even in the aforementioned trailer alone, the Doctor, who features only as a talking head, is immediately a massive departure from his two predecessors. It’s decisiveness that makes him seem like an ‘action hero’ in a way the first two don’t; the decisive, grim Third Doctor is the closest the character has been to a conventional action hero so far.

Appropriately, even the Brigadier is at a level of all-time competence in this story, and doesn’t question the astronauts being aliens when the Doctor tells him. He’s shrewd, and has also changed his tune since the Silurians, when he disagrees with Carrington’s pre-emptive strike on the Ambassadors’ ship.

However, in the end, despite my attraction to its tone, Ambassadors is almost too dour – not that Doctor Who shouldn’t do this, but in the sense that there isn’t a great deal of variety of location, etc, in this period; the tone could have been used in conjunction with more varied stories (ie, there’s no reason, technically, why a Mawdryn Undead or Ghost Light format couldn’t have been used in the earth-exile period). Also, considering Carrington’s plan hinges on public reaction, this is an example of a story that could have been improved by showing the public or domestic sphere, as per the new series.

Overall its maturity in trying to be an adult thriller is its weakness; Inferno, say, is intelligent and mature but still plays with pulpy ideas (men into monsters and parallel worlds), whereas Ambassadors’ attempt at being a gritty adult drama is belied and undermined by a slight shoddiness (plot holes, continuity errors, under-directed extras) which seems more pronounced in relation to its high intentions.

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