In the past fortnight, whilst watching the Third Doctor's tangle with the British Space Programme, I decided to renew my acquaintance with its progenitor, Professor Bernard Quatermass. While the Doctor was dealing with a mysteriously empty space rocket, I watched (and read, in Penguin) about the Professor dealing with a mysteriously empty space rocket, and not longer after the Doctor went heroically into space to deal with the problem himself, the Professor went heroically into space to deal with his. I don't know if fan fiction has yet recorded the meeting of these two great minds, perhaps in the lounge of some Marylebone pub, but what with their shared experience of ancient inhabitants of Earth, uncanny meteorites, possession, sinister factories and deadly plant creatures, they wouldn't be stuck for conversation.
Just so long as they weren't later joined by the Professor's journalist friend, Hugo Conrad (played marvellously by Roger Delgado). That might have been awkward. (There's a less exciting but somehow more apt casting connection between the two worlds, in the form of Cyril Shaps: in Quatermass II, he's the technician who guides the Professor in his rocket toward the mysterious Thing on the dark side of the Earth - in Doctor Who, he's Viner, landing a rocket with a bunch of other astronauts to dig up the Tomb of the Cybermen, and even more appropriately, he's a discredited scientist blackmailed into helping the villains in - The Ambassadors of Death!)
The more you watch, the more you gasp in disbelief at the ideas, plot twists and images half-inched by Doctor Who (though interestingly, unless I've miscalculated, only in the Second Doctor's adventures and onward - even The War Machines doesn't feel that much like a Nigel Kneale story). And who can blame them? One of the fun things about Doctor Who is that the Doctor himself is fairly unique as a protagonist, and it's fun to drop him into other people's stories and see how he messes them up. The Doctor's alien qualities give a very specific and interesting twist to And The Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death and, of course, Inferno, whilst The Web of Fear, Spearhead from Space and The Seeds of Doom (to name the three most Knealeian stories) benefit from a more flamboyant, flippant or eccentric hero.
The Ambassadors of Death is a terrifically fun story, albeit with only a couple of lapses (somewhere round the middle, and right at the end). It plays off adult viewers' memories of Quatermass as much as it explores its child viewers' expectations. Much as it does steal from Nigel, there's lots of evidence here that the production team care about Doctor Who as a discrete entity with a particular moral stance: so, immediately following And The Silurians, we have a benevolent alien race and a highly negative depiction of military paranoia. When I was watching it, I kept waiting for the Brigadier to be given something to do - it's still weird to have him in every story - and suddenly he got it, stumbling upon a conspiracy of British Intelligence, arrested by his own men and obliged to make a getaway in Bessie. There's no overt connection made between this story and the last, but I think perhaps this is where the Brigadier realises that the Doctor is right: he sees his own paranoia in a dark mirror.
The action is brilliantly directed, and everything seems to take place in a decidedly moody winter's landscape. Bessie's hood is up, Liz Shaw makes sure to keep her hat on, and of course, the Ambassadors are careful not to unzip their space suits. It's bitter! The Doctor's in a terrible mood throughout the story, which somewhat detracts from the action - he takes himself so very seriously, all of a sudden, and there's really not enough banter between him and Liz Shaw, even when she brings him a mug of tea in his redesigned Tardis console room and he can't take his eyes off the telly. I've decided Liz has entered my pantheon of great Doctor Who companions. I want there to be hundreds of spin off novels about her.
Like all good companions, she exists on the fault-line which runs through Doctor Who between high seriousness and high camp. Her performance is wonderfully intense - helped along by some freaky, Ghost Stories for Christmas video effects when the Ambassador temporarily takes his hat off to her - but her outfit wouldn't look out of place on Lulu at Eurovision. Meanwhile, her fellow technicians look soberly into camera while droning on about the space ship intercepting the Doctor's rocket, as though heavily sedated. Jon Pertwee, too, is playing it very straight - but presumably he can't see how rudimentary is the video effect overlaying him into a giant segment of satsuma. And how else can you respond to Docteur Tartalian (never the same accent twice).
However much Doctor Who is inspired by Quatermass, it is always itself, always somehow ludicrous, funny and frightening in its own special way. And along with all that comes something Quatermass doesn't have - aliens who come in peace.
Oh, and Sergeant Benton's arrived!