Liz Shaw’s Best Bits: The Ambassadors of Death

The Brigadier and Liz Shaw

Liz Shaw: Cambridge research scientist, with half a dozen degrees in subjects including physics and medicine. A go-getter who never gave up, who could outsmart the Doctor, who saved the world with her electronic engineering skills on more than one occasion. A companion so good, the Doctor could go back to his laboratory at the end of a story, leaving her to finish saving the Earth. The best companion Doctor Who ever had, which is why she got fired.

Trouble is, not a lot of people have even heard of her. For most people, feminism started on Doctor Who with Sarah Jane Smith. And that’s not totally surprising: Liz Shaw only appeared in one season – the first Jon Pertwee season back in 1970. That’s 40 years ago.

Consisting of four stories – the four-part Spearhead from Space and the seven-part Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death and Inferno – season seven was probably the most adult of seasons, with some of the cleverest stories, which is naturally why the BBC threw them into a great big dustbin. For the most part, all we have left is an odd mix of colour and black-and-white versions of episodes, which is one of the reasons (apart from that whole seven-episode thing) that repeats have been fairly thin on the ground.

So how can we get an unknowing world to appreciate the value of Liz Shaw? Well, beginning this week (although not appearing necessarily every week, since these boys take time), I’m starting a four-part project called “Liz Shaw’s Best Bits”, which as the title suggests is a compilation of all the best bits of “Liz Shaw-i-ness” on Doctor Who. That’ll save you the three hours of viewing time necessary to get you through most of them, anyway.

The Ambassadors of Death
This week, I’m starting with The Ambassadors of Death, Liz’s third story, and I’ll tell you for why. For my money, after the incomparable Caves of Androzani, The Ambassadors of Death is the best story old-school Doctor Who ever produced. It’s not perfect and the production values are very much of their time, but it’s a truly great bit of work.

The general plot is that we plucky Brits in the then near-future of 1980 (argh! UNIT dating controversy alert!) still have a space programme and have sent a space mission to Mars. Things begin to go wrong and the Doctor, exiled to Earth by the Time Lords and keeping himself gainfully occupied as UNIT’s scientific advisor, is called in to assist. It soon becomes clear that all is not what it seems and someone on Earth is interfering – and that Mars might not be as uninhabited as the first Mars mission suggested…

The Ambassadors of Death is notably the only crime story on Doctor Who – indeed, this is probably the most Avengers-esque story on Doctor Who, with Liz Shaw filling the Cathy Gale role nicely. It also plays cleverly on expectations set up by The Quatermass Experiment, that astronauts who venture into space are likely to end up different when they come back down again.

There are many plus points to Ambassadors: we have a proper villain who’s only in it for the money. He’s going around shooting people and burying the bodies. He switches allegiances whenever it’s convenient. He reports to a boss whose motivation isn’t world domination but who is simply misguided and trying to help the world wake up to what he thinks is an imminent alien invasion. And the aliens aren’t the baddies. It’s a human crime story with an alien backdrop and without the near-textual comments on morality the close-runner Doctor Who and the Silurians has.

It also has fantastic direction, probably the best ending to any Doctor Who story and Liz Shaw, being smart, offering witty one-liners, and getting captured (but hey, so does the Doctor), but still lording it over the villains. So, if you’ve 20 minutes to spare, peruse the first of Liz Shaw’s best bits: The Ambassadors of Death.

Part 1 – in which she speaks French without the aid of a TARDIS, masters technology, outsmarts the Doctor over a computer, uses a Geiger counter, does science, has a car chase and engineers an escape.

Part 2 – in which she tries to escape again, encourages a scientist to defect, insults a villain, gets offered a job, helps the Doctor build a machine to escape captivity then mops up the whole mess.

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