Writers rooms, right ‘n’ wrong and The Ambassadors of Death (1970)

terrance_dicksrobert holmeshulke

So, future showrunner Chris Chibnall has apparently been considering the merits of using a writers room for Doctor Who. Around the time of The Ambassadors of Death, I reckon they already had one, when there were effectively only three people writing for the show. Consider this string of stories from 1969 and 1970:

  • The Krotons by Robert Holmes,
  • The Seeds of Death nominally by Brian Hayles, but heavily rewritten by Terrance Dicks,
  • The Space Pirates by Holmes,
  • The War Games by Dicks and Malcolm Hulke,
  • Spearhead from Space by Holmes,
  • The Silurians by Hulke, and
  • The Ambassadors of Death nominally by David Whitaker, but heavily rewritten by Hulke.

That’s a total of (counts on fingers and toes) 44 episodes – basically a year’s worth of episodes – effectively written by three men.

And it’s not just any old set of episodes. Think of the momentous changes going on during this time: cast, production crew, technical. Think how different The Krotons is to The Ambassadors of Death. Change the title sequence of one and you could pass it off as a different show. Not until the show had a dedicated showrunner in 2005 was such authorial control exercised.

The funny thing is that these three writers – arguably the best the classic series produced – are technicians first and foremost. Holmes had the most macabre sensibility and the sharpest sense of humour, but in the beginning of his Who career he was producing workable, dependable scripts until he struck gold with Spearhead. Dicks and Hulke are trouble shooters, and their special skill is keeping long narratives ticking over: these 6, 7 and 10 episode stories are replete with subplots and incident which inch the plots forward, without resorting to padding.

As a result it’s not surprising that between them, these three don’t generate a coherent vision for the show. They’re the guys you get in to hammer things into shape.

Ambassadors has the sense of something which took some hammering, but ended up in an intriguing and not unattractive form. Its basic plot – madman tries to incite war with an alien race – is new territory for the show, but certainly not enough for nearly three hours of screentime. So the rest of the time is taken up savouring some of the show’s more recently acquired tastes.

For instance, there is the interest in the hard mechanics of space travel. True, this had been a theme as far back as The Tenth Planet, and The Space Pirates had recently indulged in a little space ballet modelwork, but Ambassadors is the first attempt to show contemporary style space craft in action. The result is a lot of loving close ups of ships docking and undocking, some ambitious rocket launches and a full scale recovery capsule which is dragged all over the countryside for location filming. This is a show which has discovered a love of hardware. And it covers it in music which is Mozart via Procal Harem via Dudley Simpson. Cut-price Kubrick.

Then there’s its love of action. Doctor Who had done army shootouts with alien monsters before, but they were all getting a bit samey. Spearhead features one in the same location as The Invasion. But Ambassadors takes it up notch. There’s the showpiece fight between UNIT troops and heavies in Episode One, the theft of the capsule in Episode Two complete with motorcycles and helicopter and the pursuit of Liz Shaw (Caroline John and Roy Scammel dressed like Caroline John) across the weir in Episode Four – an amazing piece of stunt work, which still impresses today. The Pertwee years’ reputation for action starts here.

Then there’s the desire to paint everything in shades of grey, ironic for a series which had recently started shooting in colour. Like The Silurians before it, Ambassadors has a moralistic undertone: don’t be too quick to judge, the line between right and wrong can be hard to define. Its spooky aliens are not sinister, but are victims of manipulation. General Carrington (John Abineri) is up to no good, but through the misguided belief that he’s doing the right thing. This is a big turnaround from the Troughton era, where the lines between good (the Doctor and his friends) and bad (anything non-humanoid) were very clearly drawn. As late as The Seeds of Death, the Doctor had been catapulting Ice Warriors into the sun without offering them half a chance. But since his exile to Earth, it seems he’s become chief negotiator between mankind and the monsters.


But in some other ways, this isn’t so different from the Troughton era. Season Six had a lead cast of an eccentric, anti-authoritarian Doctor, his brainy female sidekick and his male chum he kept around to do all the fighting. Nothing much changed there. And it’s a team which works very well. The Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) as shown in Season Seven, is much more like a regular companion than he’ll ever be again; he’s a genuine collaborator with the Doctor and not the plug-and-play figure of fun he’ll become next season. And although the Doctor grumbles slightly about his military friend’s killing of the Silurians in the previous story, he’s clearly forgiven him and moved on, which speaks to either the Doctor’s grudging respect for the Brigadier, or a massive inconsistency of character.

Liz Shaw  is present too, although the story asks little of her than to hang around the Doctor for the first few episodes, hang off a weir for a bit and then hang around imprisoned for the rest of the story (when she’s finally liberated in Episode Seven, she gives a weary ‘just get me out of here’ suggesting John was not sorry to see the end of the tacky little bunker lab set she’d spent three episodes in).

Liz was often characterised as the companion who didn’t work because she was too clever. It’s a slight which does a massive disservice to John (who was consistently excellent) and is also a tremendously patronising to the show’s audience. And also, it’s just wrong. Liz works fine. In fact she’s a terrific companion: smart, brave and resourceful. And although her successor, Katy Manning’s Jo Grant was also a good foil for the Doctor, dumbing down the only regular woman in the cast didn’t make the show any better.

As much as we mightn’t like to admit it, that’s the real stand out of the brief Dicks/Hulke/Holmes era. This is the writers room which could make everything work, except one. Write scripts in no time flat? Change the show into an action adventure program? Use it to explore moral dilemmas? None of these things are a problem. But find a way to incorporate a clever, mature female companion? That was too big an ask.

LINK TO The Name of the Doctor: the third Doctor is in each. As he was in The Five Doctors. As he is in…

NEXT TIME:  I’ve been meaning to pay a return visit to Peladon for ages. The miners are revolting in The Monster of Peladon.

6 thoughts on “Writers rooms, right ‘n’ wrong and The Ambassadors of Death (1970)”

  1. I don’t think it was, “too big an ask”. I think it simply wasn’t on the agenda; it wasn’t seen as necessary. Which, with 2016 glasses on, we can get huffy about, but I always think it always does the past a disservice to try and view it with modern eyes. OK, sure, it can be an interesting exercise on some level, but once we start making comments like it was too big an ask, as if these very good writers were incapable or it was somehow beyond their abilities, I don’t think that’s right at all, It was certainly doable… it just wasn’t wanted or needed at the time. That’s the harsh reality of that era. We don’t have to like it from where we’re sitting, but we shouldn’t be making up reasons why it was like that in relation to the abilities of the people involved. That’s a step too far.

    1. Hi Lynda and thanks for commenting!

      I think this is an issue you brought up in our discussion about The Talons of Weng-Chiang, namely is it fair to judge the cultural output of years gone by with the social standards of today? Where we agreed to disagree last time was that you say no and I say yes. Fair enough too. There are interesting arguments on both sides.

      As for my phrase, ‘too big an ask’… If the writers of Doctor Who in 1969 and 1970 were capable of writing rich, rewarding parts for women, then why did they choose not to? For me, it’s not enough to say, “that’s just how things were back then”. These were smart, savvy – and at least in Hulke’s case – socially progressive thinkers, who were in almost total control of the show’s fictional world. What was stopping them?

      My point was not so much that they were poor writers for not making more of a smart, proactive female companion. I agree that they certainly had the skill to do so. That’s not the thing which was too big an ask for them.

      What does seem too big an ask was to spot in the first place, that a strong, brainy female co-lead could have strengthened the program. And then to build that into their attempts to renovate the show. It’s the mindset I’m criticising, not their ability as writers.

      1. What was stopping them? I know you don’t like it… but it was the era. The Doctor was the hero… he was a bloke… and the assistants were there to ask questions, scream, and not be too brainy. It was a formula. That said, I think you may do a disservice to Liz, because they were trying something quite different with her; the fact they went “backwards” to a Jo Grant type says the era and what people wanted/expected from the companion was very strongly influencing them.

      2. For me, that something is the product of its time does not excuse it for being sexist or racist or homophobic and so on. We might acknowledge the prevailing views of the majority at the time of production, but then we might also argue that to passively reflect those prevailing views, however benignly, was to also condone them.

        But look – it’s clear we disagree on that one. I think it will make an interesting post of its own. Probably on The Tomb of the Cybermen, I expect.

        As for them being unable to write a strong female character because that was the show’s formula… my point is that these were the guys rewriting the formula in so many other ways! Not on this aspect though.

        As for replacing Liz with Jo, I’ve never seen anything to suggest the production team made this change because of “what people (I assume you mean the audience?) wanted/expected from the companion”. As far as I know, it was purely a decision made by the production team. Perhaps there was some audience research to support the change? Fascinating if so!

      3. It doesn’t excuse it by today’s standards, no. I’d be mortified if you thought I didn’t think it was any of those things. It is. But just as we can look at, say, what the Vikings used to do and say, wow, that’s really anti-social and violent… by their standards, it was par for the course. So of course we can point to what it is, but I think historical context still plays its part in looking back on any aspect of history, whether it’s a TV series from 40-50 years ago, or what some king or queen was getting up to, 100s of years ago. We don’t have to like or condone actions, but I think we still need to understand the setting. Even when you talk of someone like Hulke being socially progressive, and he was, I imagine “the tea lady” would still come through the office and he’d see no issue with that, or some secretary would get a slap on the bum and he’d find it amusing. When you go back to certain eras and study people, even the people you really admire for x, y and z reasons still often do things, or hold beliefs, that can surprise you.

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