You know those press conferences that happen before boxing matches, where the opponents do a bit of pre-fight trash talking? I’m still waiting for the one where somebody calls the other one an “unspeakable abomination”. But that’s beside the point.
When we watch the Classic series of Doctor Who, there is something we should probably bear in mind: money was a problem. This is something we rarely have to think about when we watch more recent episodes, because budgetary limitations don’t tend to have consequences that are visible on screen nowadays, although there are exceptions to that rule. But there is little doubt that the Classic series was underfunded throughout it’s run. This is why such a thing as a six-part story even exists, and anything less than a four-parter is extraordinarily rare. There simply wasn’t enough money available to keep building new sets.
Although the lack of funding is a certainty, the question of whether this was really a bad thing is open to interpretation. The logical conclusion is generally yes, it was a bad thing, and you only need to look at some of the unspecial effects to understand that. But on the other hand, a small budget often led to some of the most amazing creativity. People who make televisions shows, and I include everyone from the writer to the designers to the directors to the actors, tend to do their best work when they have limitations to overcome.
This two-parter represents something of a brainwave. Instead of a six-parter with studio and location filming, we have a studio-bound four-parter (The Ark in Space) followed by a two-parter shot entirely on location. Of course, that idea should flag up WARNING in neon lights, because “studio-bound” normally equals “rubbish”, but if you can manage to pull off a triumph like The Ark in Space then you’ve already hit gold with the idea, because what follows is two episodes in the great outdoors, which are guaranteed to look good without much design work needed. Head off into the British countryside, and the design work has all been done for you, and by a very talented designer.
In an attempt to keep costs down even further, we have a limited number of actors (making this one of those all-male affairs [apart from Sarah] but not one we can complain about too much), and some recycling of props. We should have a recycled monster as well, but the Linx head proved too uncomfortable to wear again, so we get a lighter-weight version of the Sontaran head, which unfortunately lacks some of the quality of the original. The attempt to make a low-cost story, with nearly all the design money allocated to The Ark in Space, unfortunately led to the writers’ ambitions being scaled down. Read this and weep: Bob Baker and Dave Martin wanted the ruins of London landmarks to be strewn around, such as the top of Nelson’s Column sticking up out of the ground. Maybe somebody will CGI that in one day. Until then, The Sontaran Experiment is built on the basis of a striking image that doesn’t actually exist.
Talking of Baker and Martin, what on earth were they trying to do here with this story? They approach a two-parter rather bizarrely, insisting on a monster reveal cliffhanger. This results in a four-parter with the first episode intact, and the other three squished into one, which actually works surprisingly well, cutting out most of the boringness. What doesn’t really work, unless you twist logic into unusual shapes, is what Styre is up to.
How are we to understand this in terms of The Time Warrior? Linx was not exactly a genius among potatoes, promising Irongron amazing weapons and then delivering a tottering robot who flailed around on the ground like a fish when it was knocked over. But Styre is on another level.
So here’s what Styre does. He is sent to investigate humans, before the Sontarans invade the planet. He arrives with another rubbish robot. He then fails spectacularly to notice that the planet is clearly uninhabited. Or if it is inhabited then he hasn’t landed in an inhabited bit. The lack of any kind of buildings whatsoever might give him a clue about that. Then he finds a handful of humans and fails to notice that they are astronauts. You could maybe twist yourself into a logical knot and make a wild guess that the Sontarans are time-travellers, so have travelled forward into the future to test out humans when there are only a few around, ready to travel back into the past for their invasion, but why go to all that bother when they can simply colonise the planet in the future, if that’s their game?
Having found a few humans, Styre proceeds to test out their physical and mental abilities. Not with a game of cricket and a few hands of poker. No, he decides to torture them a bit. One of his ideas, in the name of science, is to see how much weight it takes to crush a human chest. He then makes any useful measurements impossible, by allowing two of his victims to hold the weight above the chest of a third. Two experiments in one, you say? Two experiments cancelling out the results of each other.
Experiment 4 is drowning. Experiment 5 is dehydration. It would have been an interesting battle to say the least if the Sontarans had made use of this intelligence! So here’s the plan. We’re going to assemble a giant vacuum cleaner and suck all the water off the planet. Then we’ll leave them for a few days, and throw all the water back at them in one big hit. Then we’ll give the remaining survivors really heavy shopping bags to hold. If anyone is still stood holding their bags when the invasion fleet lands, we’ll push them over and sit on their chests. Sorted.
No, there’s only one logical reason for all this. Styre is a clone that went wrong. He is what we call in the retail trade “slight seconds”. As a kindness to him, he has been sent down to an empty planet where he can’t do anything to damage the reputation of Sontarans very much, and will inevitably find a silly way to get his head deflated. He gets to die his glorious death in battle, fighting a squirrel or something. But it was Styre’s lucky day, because he found a few people to torture on that empty planet. Once his head is deflated, his boss has a quick chat with the Doctor, makes a half-hearted attempt to maintain the Sontarans’ reputation with some fightin’ talk, and then happily flies away, secure in the knowledge that he has done his good deed for the day. There was never going to be an invasion. RP
The view from across the pond:
By contrast with The Time Warrior, which I felt was mostly enjoyable, The Sontaran Experiment was marvelous. First of all, when I first viewed this story, it was during WOR’s run of Tom Baker episode when I was around 8 years old. They did 2 episodes back to back on a Saturday morning from 10-11 and I had started with Ark in Space. That meant that by this story, I was only 3 weeks new to the series. I had already started to love the characters. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry… that was the team. When they appear on a barren planet Earth with something watching them and a ragtag group of human survivors, the mystery held me in place for another Saturday morning. It is amazing how our viewing experiences really shaped what we classic fans became too; how the way we watched impacted us! What was wonderful about this one for me was that it would be resolved in one fell swoop; I would not have to wait a week to find out the outcome!
Another thing that made this story stand out was the outdoor setting – the entire story takes place outdoors which is amazing for a show that almost always took us into a space station, or an underground base, or some quasi-futuristic locale. Beyond being aesthetically appealing, as an 8 year old boy, it turned everywhere I went into a part of that landscape. Was there a Sontaran ship in the field? Only one way to find out… And Styre made a magnificent enemy as he ran some pretty gruesome experiments on people. The water dehydration test is alarming, the fear test on Sarah Jane is horrifying, but the one that stayed with me was the weighted bar that two people had to hold so it wouldn’t crush their treacherous team mate. That went into some deep psychological terrain; their teammate was rotten to the core, yet they struggled to keep him alive.
During the episode, Baker broke his collarbone; an injury that I’ve been thankful never to experience, but rumor is, it is extremely painful. Amazingly, he goes on with the show in such a way that you’d never know he was injured. Sarah and Harry continued to grow on me as companions. Harry was the one who was actually going exploring while poor Sarah was getting caught by a robot whose obscured lower half was undoubtedly connected to a car to get around in terrain that it would be completely unable to actually move around on. And that robot with its little bug-like antenna is destroyed in such an unconvincing way… yet I loved it. Really everything about this short story made me happy as a kid.
Now flashing forward for an instant, during Tennant’s era, there was a game that came up on the BBC website that gave us the challenge of using Doctor Who phrases in everyday speech, like “bananas are good”. The more obscure the quote, the better. Well, I started that game 30 years earlier and The Sontaran Experiment was one of my early favorites to pull from. Roth, horribly upset by Styre’s experiments, is trying to explain to the Doctor what Styre is: “Alien. Alien, j’understand?” It was perfectly delivered and is still a favorite. He’s actually saying “you understand?” but his panicked voice and accent gave me a line that stuck with me for years. Another classic was Baker’s, “Never throw anything away, Harry”, which he says while throwing away the very thing that just saved his life. Mind you, he follows this up with “It’s a mistake to clutter one’s pockets, Harry!” But the best comes from Styre himself. Styre threatens the Doctor and his companions with “I shall kill you all now, but first I have more important tasks to perform.” If I were grading it for a paper, I’d say something about the use of “now… but first” but I’ll let that go. I’ll instead join Scott Evil talking to his dad, Dr. Evil: why not just shoot them all right then and there? What important task was so important that he could not take 3 seconds to wipe out his enemies? But even that is brilliant and made the episode so much fun. This was the era that every story offered something enjoyable; some happy takeaway that would stay with us forever!
Yes, The Sontaran Experiment was an early favorite of mine. A simple story filling the space between two longer stories, it added to the lore of a mighty warrior race that would be back to plague the Doctor again and again.
You know, I could say a lot more about it but first I have other important tasks to perform… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Genesis of the Daleks