This article covers the episodes The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, which together form a single Doctor Who story. When bringing back old monsters, the Russell T. Davies era tends to look to their earliest appearances for inspiration, and draws upon what made them successful in the first place. So we had the Autons smashing through shop windows (like Spearhead from Space), the Daleks cunning and deadly (like most of their Sixties stories), the Cybermen emotionless and converting humans (ditto) and now the Sontarans: short, powerful and bred for war. Their new design is based on the original but with more facial movement, plus more muscular definition in the costumes. In the best Doctor Who traditions, the director reveals the monsters a little bit at a time – first a hand, then the eyes, then the complete alien but with their helmets on, and finally the full face. There is plenty of attention to detail to please the classic series fans, with guns and spacecraft that resemble the originals, and the “weak thorax” reference.
Something the new series has also been very good at with old monsters is explaining or enhancing some aspect of the original design, so for the Daleks we had some functionality to the balls and the sucker stick, and for the Sontarans the probic vent is explained in terms of facing their enemies in battle, which fits perfectly with everything that has been established about their culture. In terms of the plot, the Sontarans are given their best storyline here since their very first appearance (yes, I know that’s damning with faint praise). These two episodes focus on their military ethos: war is everything to them and they take pleasure in battle and do not fear death. Their war chant, ‘Sontar-ha’, is an amusing new invention, and somehow manages to feel like something that has been around for ever, despite being brand new for this story.
Martha is back, and our expectations are confounded by her reaction to Donna. It would have been all too easy to have them fighting over the Doctor, but instead they make friends and gang up on the Doctor! Martha’s characterisation here is well thought out: she has moved on during her time apart from the Doctor, she has got over him, and now is working for UNIT. It makes sense that she would not be able to just return to her normal life after travelling in the TARDIS, and this is a good solution. At first it seems that she is working against the Doctor’s principles, until she explains that she is making things better from the inside. Her new job allows for the proper return of UNIT; although seen in passing previously, this is the first time that they have been central to a new series story. Their mobile base in a lorry is a bit of a step down from the plane they were using in The Invasion, but the UNIT Carrier Ship Valiant more than makes up for that.
The beauty of this being a two-parter is that Martha’s return does not overshadow Donna’s ongoing story, and there is time for her to visit her mother and grandfather. Wilf in danger is a good choice of cliffhanger, as Bernard Cribbins has made him into such a loveable character. The cliffhanger itself misfires though, because the resolution is obvious and the Doctor’s inaction is out of character. This is one of a few dodgy moments throughout the story where credibility is stretched too far, the worst example being the burning atmosphere, with life returning to normal afterwards.
If this article has seemed like an exercise in say-what-you-see, that’s because this is a story with little depth to it. It’s hard to engage with the themes of a story that buries the themes deep and doesn’t follow through with them. There is something half-hearted going on here about capitalism and the environment, and as for the Rattigan Academy, well, what are we to take from that? Don’t be an arrogant nerd or people won’t like you? There is an interesting message lurking under the surface there: Luke’s downfall is not his intelligence, and that is not what isolates him in the end. In fact, he has assembled a group of intelligent friends, so his nerdiness is not what destroys him. It is his attempt to control people and force his vision upon them. In his most revolting moment, he reveals that he has created a “mating program”. He is emotionally disconnected and deals with that by trying to shape the world around him to suit him. But all in all, it’s a pretty obvious route to go down, and the cliché of an evil, entitled nerd criminal has been done to death and generally much more entertainingly than here.
So we have a fairly standard use of the monster two-parter, something that was already starting to feel old. Throwing in an extra companion helps to fill the time, and this is efficient at what it does, but feels like one of the last gasps of a fairly simplistic mode of storytelling for Doctor Who. The plot may have involved setting the world alight, but this story really doesn’t do that, and ultimately the only place to go from here with the Sontarans was to use them as comedy aliens. Fortunately, they are so perfectly suited to that role that this actually worked out for the best. I suspect this is the last time we will see the Sontarans as the main villain of a Doctor Who episode for a very long time, if ever. This may just be the end of their story, but that’s ok. RP
The view from across the pond:
When Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005, it was only a matter of time before fan favorites would start showing up. Seasons one and two gave us the Daleks and Cybermen respectively. Those were no-brainers. What was far more of a surprise was the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K-9. Season 3 saw the return of the Master. Season 4 gave us the return of the Sontarans with The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky.
So here’s an interesting thing: Helen Raynor, who gave us the two-part Dalek story of season 3, was so shocked by the negative reaction she received that she nearly bailed on ever doing another. And if we’re honest, neither The Daleks in Manhattan nor The Sontaran Stratagem are great stories, but there are far worse. In fact the worst of the Tennant Era was written by then-lead writer Russell T. Davies. The worst of the modern era covering all of the rebooted series was written by our last showrunner, Steven Moffat. Raynor did not hit a low like those! And she was clearly paying attention to the past; a quality I’d argue that Moffat totally failed to do with Hell Bent. When Tennent is asked a question by Colonel Mace, while wearing a gas mask, he turns to the military man and say “Are you my mummy?” This will obviously go over the Colonel’s head but that’s ok; the Doctor is being silly and Raynor is being clever. And let me tell you, I’ve been reviewed in a business capacity! “Attention to detail” gets rated. So there may be stronger stories, but it’s Helen’s writing that gave backstory to why Wilf was not at Donna’s wedding. It’s Helen’s story that bridges a gap with Tom and Martha. Maybe copying the “hints” from Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel was a bit blatant, when the Doctor was talking to Mickey through the camera without the Cybermen knowing, but that’s ok. Helen still wrote a good story and paid attention to detail! Frankly that counts a lot! Even if it isn’t destined to be a classic like Midnight or The Girl in the Fireplace, The Sontaran Stratagem has a lot going for it.
Luke Rattigan is an obnoxious brat working for a bunch of dwarves in blue armor. And I mean dwarves in the fantasy sense but with guns and spaceships. When the Doctor gives Luke the verbal equivalent of a smackdown with his “conditional clause”, you’ve got to cheer. (And kudos to Raynor for trying to teach a bit of English in the process!) Luke is not a likable character until he gives his life for the Doctor but he is memorable. And there’s something very right about redemption in good science fiction. Luke gets to be redeemed in the end and that’s interesting because it’s through another Luke that Darth Vader finds his redemption in Star Wars. Ironic, or just really good writing? You decide.
The Sontarans are certainly more of a military force than we’ve ever seen before in the series and that was well done. I don’t like that they are all short and wearing the wrong armor, but it might make more sense and I can accept that change is a good thing, so that’s ok.
If I have any problems with Helen’s story, then it’s these two things: the Sontarans say they were not allowed to participate in the Time War. Not allowed??? How does that work exactly? Who was moderating the contestants? “Oh, sorry, the war is mid-stride, you’ll have to wait until intermission!” It’s a minor, throwaway line but I’d like to understand how that works exactly. Typically someone wants the war to be over and won so why stop any group entering that might actually be able to stop it? Whether on the side of the Daleks or the Time Lords, some side should have wanted the Sontaran might to enter the battle!
My second complaint is the way the Doctor treats Colonel Mace. I suspect this had a lot to do with Helen paying attention to the Doctor’s dislike of the military attitude but Mace clearly admires the Doctor, so why be rude? It’s a case of “never meet your heroes”, but we want the Doctor to be awesome no matter the circumstances, so why the overly rude attitude? I could have done without that. I don’t think portraying the Doctor that way is right. I get that he’s a flawed individual, and that’s fine, but heroism shouldn’t be the flawed quality and rudeness is not heroic.
The other thing that can’t be ignored is the underlying message of the story: that we are so dependent on our technology that when it takes over, we’ll be powerless to stop it. We’ve given the reigns over to technology to such an extent already! Think about it. Can your kids write? I don’t know a child in today’s school system with neat handwriting! And why should they? The computer is the future of communication! Can they read a map? Why bother? GPS will tell them how to get from A to B. Does anyone wake up without an alarm clock anymore? Of course not! How many phone numbers do you remember? None? Why, because your phone has all of them stored for you? What are you doing this weekend? Better check that calendar because why would we remember anything like that? ATMOS is a logical extrapolation of where we are going and that’s what good science fiction is all about: telling a story allegorically that resonates with our real world. I don’t know about Daleks making pig-men in NYC, but I can give Helen Raynor a lot of credit for a story about technology gone wrong that hits very close to home.
Now if I can just rely on technology for a few minutes more, I’ll get this posted for Friday’s Junkyard view… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Doctor’s Daughter