Where Spacemen Live (The Ambassadors of Death)

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What do you mean "homoerotic undertones to the UNIT
era?"
It's March 21, 1970. Lee Marvin continues the apparent obsession with country and western in UK music with "Wand'rin Star," unseated after only one more week by Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," which lasts until mid-April before being unseated by Dana's "All Kinds of Everything," the 1970 Eurovision winner. This is actually mildly controversial, given that Dana herself is from Northern Ireland, but in Eurovision represented the Republic of Ireland. (As you will recall, The Troubles, the lengthy period of unrest between the UK and Ireland, were getting into full force here). Dana is in turn unseated by Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky." Spirit in the Sky is an interesting piece. Looking at its single cover, in 2011, it looks, frankly, redneck - a bright red cover featuring a photo of a long-haired man in front of an American flag. However in practice, the song is a vaguely psychedelic piece about the afterlife that is treated as a precursor for a lot of glam rock. Andy Williams, Kenny Rogers, Stevie Wonder, and Steam also make appearances.

In other news, the Concorde makes its first flight and the first Earth Day proclamation is made. Ian Paisley wins a by-election to the House of Commons. But more importantly, the seven weeks of these stories surround Apollo 13's launch, catastrophic malfunctions, and eventual (and damn near miraculous) safe landing - essentially the last time that the public followed space story as an ongoing matter instead of in the aftermath of a fatal catastrophe. But perhaps the most important news story is one of music. This is also the story that was on when The Beatles, who had provided, in many ways, the nearest analogue for the artistic movements of Doctor Who throughout the 1960s, announced their imminent breakup.

I'm not even sure where to begin in terms of pointing out the fitting connections here. The fact that the first stirrings of glam rock - Doctor Who's next musical parallel - hit #1 the same month as Doctor Who is running an oddly David Bowie-inflected story and where its previous musical influence, the Beatles, breaks up? Or the fact that as the Beatles depart so does David Whitaker, the show's strongest creative force to date? Or that Doctor Who has its last big space story just as the world's last big space story is going? We are, as they say, spoiled for choice.

But for me, of course, it has to begin with Whitaker. And end there. And really, be all about that. There's a lot going on in this story, but look, nothing beats the fact that this is Whitaker's departure. Mind you, this is not quite a David Whitaker story, whatever the credits might say. Indeed, the last solo story by Whitaker was the sublimely good The Enemy of the World, since The Wheel in Space was a joint venture with Kit Pedler. In this case, Whitaker apparently had trouble working in the new format for Doctor Who (which, to be fair, so was everyone else, as the bewildering ending of The Silurians demonstrated), and furthermore was moving to Australia. As a result, Whitaker only completed the first three scripts of this, with Malcolm Hulke working (uncredited) from Whitaker's outline on episodes 4-7, then doing a rewrite on 1-3 to make the story match up better.

All the same, the story has its whiff of mercury. Much of it is focused on the first three episodes, which bristle with Whitakerian whimsy. The TARDIS console makes its return with a strange little sequence in which the Doctor and Liz shuffle around in time, the Doctor has apparently gained the ability to spontaneously teleport objects through time, and Bessie has an anti-theft system, presumably based on static electricity, which glues people to the car. There's an odd dissonance to all of this - a sense that it's far too silly for the Pertwee era. But there's also a charm to that silliness - a sense that a few small changes that led Pertwee to be more grandfatherly wizard than swashbuckling dandy could have led to a whole wonderful era unto itself. It's oddly beautiful and innocent in a way the show doesn't quite see again until Amelia Pond and fish custard.

Similarly odd and beautiful is the way this story, even in Hulke's episodes, seems to unfold. It is strange and fascinating in a way that Doctor Who isn't always. It's a story that transfixes you as much as it excites you. It continually fails to quite make logical sense, but equally constantly makes a perfect sense of its own. The story jumps tone freely (and credit is due to director Michael Ferguson for following the jumps with appropriate changes to visual style), but never loses its way. There's something to its narrative structure that one is never quite sure whether is elegance or just plain oddness.

Of course, reducing David Whitaker to his copious oddness is a mug's game. There's more to Whitaker than that. One of the things we've seen Whitaker to be best at is colliding Doctor Who with other narratives - whether it be Shakespeare, The Forsyte Saga, James Bond, or Kit Pedler. This time, he's merging Doctor Who with conspiracy thrillers of the Manchurian Candidate style. This means that the first three episodes (and the back four, though Hulke isn't quite as methodical about it as Whitaker) all feature huge action setpieces. And generally they're really quite well done action setpieces as well - the gunfight in the warehouse in episode one is extraordinary, and the action sequence in episode two has a truly heart-in-throat moment as the Brigadier is apparently shot down halfway through it. Brilliantly, the sequence doesn't even emphasize this, letting the possible death of a major character get swallowed up in the chaos of the scene. (The oft-cited slow bit of the Doctor as an astronaut is, in fact, another of these set-pieces, in the same way that it was in The Seeds of Death and The Space Pirates.)

The other thing Whitaker is a genius at, of course, is having Doctor Who subvert the genre it seems to be playing with. This was the true genius of The Enemy of the World - the way that it continually played with our expectations of what a Doctor Who/James Bond story should be, finally subverting it by becoming something entirely different in the end. The Ambassadors of Death is similarly structured, with its last two episodes undermining the conspiracy plot and, indeed, the entire ethical basis of the conspiracy genre. This, again, appears to be something that is definitely Whitaker's handiwork, with Hulke doing a very capable job of executing it.

None of which is to say that Hulke's work is invisible. It's not. But what Hulke is good at segues in many ways from what Whitaker is good at. Whitaker's basic concept in this story - that the aliens are actually completely benign and being abused by the humans involved in the conspiracy - is great, and I've little doubt that, on paper, Carrington was originally very much in the vein of Maxtible or Salamander - dour, paranoid, and cruel.

But Hulke, who as we saw in The Silurians is excellent at stringing along a thriller plot, reworks him into a far more intriguingly ambiguous character. Helped by the fact that John Abineri is a quite solid actor, Carrington ends up being a considerably more interesting villain - ruthless and crafty enough to be effective, but still driven by human concerns, and, as with most decent villains, genuinely convinced he's doing the right thing.

Of course, Hulke is by his nature a somewhat saner writing partner for David Whitaker than Kit Pedler. They are both cut from the same cloth in terms of an interest in ethical science fiction. For all the quality of Whitaker's Dalek stories, it's notable that, when left to his own devices, he never wrote a monster story. His first contribution hinged on the discovery that the supposed alien presence invading the TARDIS was in fact the ship itself. His second on the fact that the monster isn't actually a monster at all. He wrote the only monsterless story of season five. So pairing him with the guy who just did a story about subverting the idea of "monsters" is eminently sensible. Likewise, for all the developing genius of Robert Holmes, Hulke is still the writer most invested in the human dimensions of science fiction. Griffen the Chef in The Enemy of the World is, in his own way, more of a prototype for earth-based adventures than The Web of Fear ever could be.

Furthermore, their strengths are oddly complimentary. Only David Whitaker could come up with the idea of black box communications with aliens, where communication can only take place via a set of pre-selected messages. But only Hulke could make that black box into an elaborate game of diplomatic chess. Similarly, both are good at their setpieces, and so their collaboration leads to wonderful things like the Space Oddity-flavored rocket sequence, a key moment in Doctor Who moving from the NASA dream of moon landings on to a far more vexed and unusual view of space. The sequence in which Pertwee's face appears slightly distorted on a monitor, cast entirely in blue light, being deformed as he's asasulted by a high powered fan to mirror the effects of G-Force is stunning. It's a sort of agony we've never seen the Doctor in - one that's made all the more powerful by the fact that it's not just the silly gurning we're already used to Pertwee delivering, but is actually a real, direct assault on the character. With it, Doctor Who makes its first steps into treating space less as a realm of infinite possibility and more as an uncertain, mysterious, and dangerous realm.

But, equally crucial, as a realm that is not without a real and genuine sense of magic. The Ambassadors are oddly magical figures, which is part of why the gorgeous sequence of them walking slowly towards the space center, framed by the sunlight, is, by all accounts, the second most memorable sequence of season seven, at least to people who actually watched it on television. Indeed, the sense of the uncanny that the Ambassadors generate - a sense no alien since the original Cybermen has really offered - is such that Steven Moffat visibly borrowed the iconography of this episode in The Impossible Astronaut.

All of this leads inexorably to the story's final sequence, in which Whitaker and Hulke demonstrate, almost effortlessly, what the UNIT era should look like. The Doctor ends up resolving the situation by laying a non-violent siege to the Space Center using only some UNIT guards and the Ambassadors. That is to say, the Doctor, the military, and the aliens team up to non-violently take over a secure government facility and stop the bad guys. It's beautiful, and exactly what the Doctor working with the military should look like, and nothing like what we've seen before this season, or, for that matter, will see again for some time. It's extraordinary. It's thrilling. And it's a beautiful passing of the torch. Just as the Beatles give way to glam rock and David Bowie here as the most visible cultural parallel to Doctor Who, so does the role of the ethical heart of the series (or as Tat Wood puts it, the series' conscience) pass on from Whitaker to Hulke here.

So let's end with that. Our farewell to the mad and magical David Whitaker. The question of who created Doctor Who is historically, and wrongly, considered complicated. Certainly the question of who thought up the idea of doing an ongoing series about a time traveler is a complex matter with many players. But a man with a time machine could be any number of shows. When it comes to creating Doctor Who - the show we know and love today - there is only one answer: David Whitaker.

This is the man who script-edited the creation of the Daleks, who wrote the story that introduced the TARDIS as a living, conscious character, who supervised the first regeneration and the first companion change, who wrote the two best Dalek stories of the 1960s, and who had a hand in nearly every formative decision of the show. More to the point, this is the man who treated the Doctor as more than just another sci-fi hero, whose odd obsession with alchemical symbolism helped establish the character as the transformative, chaotically brilliant character we know him as. Every idea I picked up on in talking about The Mind Robber stemmed from David Whitaker.

On top of that, Whitaker managed the incredible feat of both being unmistakably brilliant in his time and unmistakably brilliant in hindsight. Things like Power and Evil of the Daleks were recognized as landmarks when they aired, but looking at the ways in which his oddly alchemical approach influenced the structure of his narrative, one sees ideas and structures that were years and decades ahead of their time in mass entertainment. Almost every time we see a truly great writer stride onto the series from here on out, one of the first things I'm going to say about all of them is that their ideas are unmistakably derived from David Whitaker. This is a man who Neil Gaiman cites as a major influence, who handled the only era of Doctor Who that Alan Moore likes. Heck, we're talking about the man who invented the Doctor Who novel.

He's the best writer we've seen so far on the series. For my money, he's one of the three best writers in the classic series, and maybe one of the three best writers ever on the series. Actually, if I'm being honest, I think he was one of the great science fiction writers ever and one of the greatest television writers ever. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Isaac Asimov, Gene Roddenberry, Neal Stephenson, and Joss Whedon.

And with this story, as the series found itself nearly pulled apart by the consequences of its new direction, he made his last and in some ways greatest gift to the series - showing it yet another way forward. As though the half-dozen ways forward he'd already figured out for it weren't enough. For all that Whitaker is said not to have "gotten" the new format, as we saw on Wednesday, neither did Letts or Dicks if they let the ending of The Silurians through. They're hardly the ones to be judging Whitaker for it.

Looking at the story, we have a man who brings wonder and magic into the world set loose into a plot that is brilliant, multi-layered, and that ultimately subverts the inside/outside paradigm of invasion and base under siege stories. We have a story that shows how you can have the Doctor and the military work together in a way that doesn't lose the essential Doctorness of the story. We have the best UNIT story to date, and very possibly the best one ever. One that is almost good enough to fully heal the almost irreparable damage done the week before. And although, as we'll see on Monday, the darker sides of the UNIT idea still rear their heads regularly, we have something that, once again, feels like it might be able to go on forever, especially if the Doctor finishes the repairs to the TARDIS. (It's a nice tough that it's under Whitaker's pen that the first steps towards restoring the TARDIS are made.)

From here, David Whitaker spent nearly a decade teaching in Australia. He returned to the UK and began work on the novelization of The Enemy of the World before dying tragically young at 51 of cancer. There are no biographies of him, nor much in the way of interviews. I have a sad feeling his life is about as well documented as it will ever get, though I, at least, would love to write a definitive biography. He, like much of his work, is something of a mystery, and over far too soon.

But then, take 51 years that include "I am single-handedly responsible for the heart and soul of Doctor Who," and stack them against the lifetime of almost anyone else. It's hard, given that, to see David Whitaker as anything other than what he was: a wizard.

Goodbye, Mr. Whitaker. You mercury man.

Comments

nimonus 5 years, 9 months ago

That was a beautiful and fitting tribute.

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AD169 5 years, 9 months ago

I've noticed that your rotating list of reference books from Amazon is missing and that you're no longer linking to DVDs of the story you're covering. I don't think I have an adblocker installed on this computer, and the "Fast and Furious" ad is certainly present. :)

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 9 months ago

My state passed a new tax code that basically would require Amazon to record tax information on money I make via Affiliates links. Because Amazon is a bunch of psychotic babies when it comes to taxes, they handle this by just disabling all Affiliate accounts in my state. It's dumb.

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Sean Daugherty 5 years, 9 months ago

I've been avidly following your blog for a while now (the start of your season 5 coverage), and it's easily the best scholarly work on Doctor Who I've ever read. Your thoughts converge closely to my own (so far, at least), but you've been able to explain the reasons far better than I ever could. The two most notable examples of that are your criticisms of the Troughton era's "base under siege" format and your deep respect for the work of David Whitaker (I'd given up ever finding anyone else who appreciated "Enemy of the World"!)

This might be my favorite article of yours to date. A beautiful tribute to Mr. Whitaker, and an excellent summary of the end of an era. I eagerly look forward to your coverage of "Inferno"... albeit not without some trepidation, given that it's my favorite story of season 7 (which, despite not being much of a fan of Pertwee's tenure, I think is quite strong). In any case, keep up the good work!

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wwhyte 5 years, 9 months ago

Love this tribute to David Whitaker too. I presume the other two greatest Doctor Who writers are (a) Bob Baker and (b) Dave Martin?

One thing I regret, apart from his own early death, is the recent deaths of people like Verity Lambert and Barry Letts who worked with him closely and might have some light to shine on how much of Doctor Who was his and how much was someone else's. Have you considered contacting Terrance Dicks directly and asking to interview him just about his memories of David Whitaker? I'd love for you to do that.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 9 months ago

The other two are the predictable choices - Holmes and Adams.

I don't know how I'd go about contacting Dicks, though I'd certainly like to do that, so if you know how to go about it, please do let me know.

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wwhyte 5 years, 9 months ago

I've been thinking about the ethos of the show and how much it can be attributed to David Whitaker versus how much it grows from what the show is. To an extent, the cosmopolitan outlook where the ugly side isn't necessarily wrong and the pretty side isn't necessarily right is clearly a theme throughout all his writing. But on the other hand, in the early days of Doctor Who were the model is capture/escape rather than find problem/fix problem, of course the more cosmopolitan side is going to be the ones portrayed as the good guys, because they are the ones who are less likely to try and kill the TARDIS crew. So you have the Aztecs, where Tlotoxl is the bad guy and Autloc the good guy, even though Tlotoxl is basically right and Autloc wrong about Barbara. And it's immediately followed by The Sensorites, where the good and wise Sensorites are the outward-looking and tolerant ones, and the bad Sensorites are the insular ones, even though the Sensorites are actually under attack by forces outside their society. Same for Marco Polo, the Web Planet, and to a lesser extent The Reign of Terror: the supporting characters we align ourselves with, because they try to help our friends, are the ones with the broader worldview.

This attitude is there even into the Spooner era, with its most plonking manifestation obviously being in Galaxy Four. The fact that it makes it through despite Spooner being very different from Whitaker, more populist, mischievous, and counter-counter-cultural (think South Park), somewhat suggests that this is the way the program "wants" to be. But at the same time, as you've noted, both the Wiles and Lloyd eras are in their own ways much more insular. So how much was Whitaker, and how much was just baked in to the format?

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wwhyte 5 years, 9 months ago

BTW, don't know if you know, but Doctor Who Magazine issue 200 was dedicated to David Whitaker. I've just got a copy on eBay -- very excited to read it.

I also left a long comment on your Evil of the Daleks review a few days ago, don't know if you've seen it, about Whitaker, alchemy and stories. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

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landru 5 years, 9 months ago

What a lovely tribute to David Whitaker. I've always liked this story. Excellent breakdown. Never thought about the obvious Moffat influence, but I'm still on the War Games. :)

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Adeodatus 5 years, 9 months ago

Great piece of writing about Whitaker. I've always thought his contribution to Doctor Who was generally underestimated. But then, maybe I'm biased - his novelisation of The Daleks was one of my favourite books when I was a kid. (Still is, actually.)

Terrance Dicks, by the way, is on Facebook - you could try saying hi to him there.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 5 years, 9 months ago

One of my favourite scenes in "Ambassadors of Death" is the interrogation scene; it's a delightful contrast between the military mindset and the Doctor's, and it makes a nice pairing with the similar interrogation scene in "The Hungry Earth."

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Don Zachary 5 years, 9 months ago

Beautiful piece. Dead right on the moral torch-passing. Though think you're wrong on the end of The Silurians.

Apologies in advance for another correction.

"Ian Paisley wins a by-election to the House of Commons"

No.

Well, technically he did, but not until 1986, and that was defending his own seat (won later in 1970) which he'd resigned when all the unionists threw their toys out of the pram for the Anglo-Irish Agreement (Mrs Thatcher not right-wing or (UK) nationalist enough for them).

Paisley won his 1970 by-election to the Stormont Parliament, which was Northern Ireland-only. Not to be confused with today's Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont, which is the same but different!

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