For the majority of this episode we have a much more traditional Doctor Who story, and it works well. The Sontarans have invaded, and the Doctor has to defeat them. Chris Chibnall does a very good job with this episode to restore the Sontarans to a credible threat, after they had become little more than comedy aliens for the show, and he even manages to do that while retaining a little of their characteristic humour:
“I wanted to ride a horse.”
The past is honoured with a name-check for Linx, the new designs for the Sontarans are nicely in keeping with their original concept, and they are sensibly dirtied up for the battlefield, which works well for a warrior race. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering who wrote this, it is more of a love letter to the past than something new, with the Sontarans easily defeated on a one-to-one basis by hitting their probic vents, and stupid enough to turn their backs, on a ruse. Hardly the great warriors they are supposed to be.
Ultimately their defeat relies on a very silly idea, and one that really does feel like it belongs in the classic series. Apparently they all go back to their ships for 7.5 minutes every 27 hours to plug themselves in. All in one go. So they don’t think it would be a good idea to stagger that process then? Not even one Sontaran to stand on guard? The Doctor’s two metaphors, cars fuelling and horses eating, don’t help at all, because they just highlight the absurdity of the idea. Cars don’t all fuel and horses all eat at exactly the same time.
The Doctor gets to meet another important historical figure, Mary Seacole. She is a nice inclusion and it’s good to teach children about this kind of thing (and delightfully Doctor Who does seem to be getting made and scheduled for a family audience once more, at last), but apart from that she doesn’t have a whole lot to do apart from show mercy to a Sontaran and then follow the Doctor around for a while.
Before the Doctor is whisked away by Swarm, there is just time for one of her familiar lectures for the human race, especially the men, a word that she almost spits out.
“Sometimes men like you make me wonder why I bother with humanity.”
The Doctor’s grounds for this bile is the act of revenge inflicted on a race who just massacred thousands of humans, but they were “retreating”. They weren’t retreating though, were they. They were “strategically withdrawing”, with the explicit intention of coming back. Would the Doctor have been there on their return to stop thousands more humans being massacred, something she just spectacularly failed to prevent? There are not always easy answers to moral questions, but never mind about that. The Doctor will seize any chance to belittle the human race she used to love. Indomitable no more.
Dan is proving himself to be an excellent companion, resourceful and oddly fearless (I’m not sure anybody whose house has just been destroyed could ever be quite like Dan). He’s also a racist (“Scooby Doo here,”) but perhaps one day he will learn not to insult and reject an ally based on how they look. That’s one occasion where a Lecture from the Doctor ™ might actually help, but that would probably be rather more mature writing than Chibnall can manage. He never quite gets past the obvious targets. This week: war is bad. Yep. We know.
The cliffhanger seems a little weak. Swarm has been set up as omnipotent (the corruption of the TARDIS is scary) but fails to immediately disintegrate either Yas or the Doctor. The more he engages in convoluted plans instead of using his powers, the more the fear factor is diminished. Chibnall has created the villain who could define his Doctor Who career. Let’s hope he isn’t at a loss to know what to do with such an impressive creation. The success of this season hangs by a thread. RP
The view from across the pond:
The more I think about what Chibnall did with Doctor Who and creating a pre-Hartnell Doctor, the more annoyed I get. However, when a writer cashes in on an idea and we start seeing some serious payoff, I have to put my worries aside and have a little faith. I’m very hopeful that Chibnall will pull a victory out of his hat with this 6 part story. If nothing more, it will just make me want to play Doctor Who Fluxx! We have 4 more weeks to find out if he can do it but so far, I’m actually coming around!
After the events of last week, with the end of the universe mere feet away, the Doctor, Dan and Yaz end up in Crimean War Earth. Maybe that felt like the end of the world at the time, but it hardly justifies such an incredible cliffhanger. Still, I have to give Chibnall a chance but first there are things that warrant criticism. Let’s review the Sontarans. During David Tennant’s era (The Sontaran Stratagem) it was stated that the Sontarans were so good at warfare that they were not allowed to take part in the last great Time War. Yet, these guys are effectively Stormtroopers from Star Wars: they can’t hit the broadside of a barn! We see a platoon chasing Dan and all of them are firing but not one of them can hit the man running in a straight line down the block?? I mean he wasn’t even running serpentine! Dan then ducks into an alley and… only two kept following? Ironically just enough for his mom and dad to thwack the Sontarans on the back of the neck. What, were they chasing the platoon with a few frying pans?? And where did the rest of the platoon go? Then there’s the moment that really made me mad: when the Doctor sees Skaak take off his helmet she grimaces with disgust and tells him to put his helmet back on. Man, I want to karate chop Chibbs in the neck sometimes! The Doctor looks human but is supposed to be our role model. She should not be looking at another race in disgust. She’s our gateway to meeting wonderful things and she’s supposed to accept them and make the universe better. It’s one thing to look upon an act with disgust, but she’s evaluating his appearance and she’s supposed to be better than that! Imagine that being done to someone of color? Sexual orientation? Disability? The same rules should apply even if the creature is a made up one for a show – teach people the right way to treat one another; make the world a better place. That’s what’s made the Doctor a hero before and maybe we can have that happen again with a good writer at the helm.
Having said that, Chibnall does pull a few brilliant moves out of the bag here. In just one story, we cover past, present and future with the Doctor, Dan, and Yaz respectively. Dan gets some amazingly good lines including being confused as to why Sontarans are into Japanese food. (This comes from misunderstanding temporal, thinking it’s tempura that they keep saying!) His use of a “wok” was very funny too. Even his banter with Karavanista was enjoyable. I could almost get used to having this dog-like creature around for the playful banter that was bandied back and forth between the two. (I was reminded of countless buddy cop movies and thought this was a surprising formula that was actually working!) More than anything, Chibnall ups the ante by making things scary. When Yaz and Dan vanish in front of the Doctor, it really looks like all hope is lost. To then have the TARDIS having a literal meltdown, to the point where there is no door to get in, actually ups the tension tenfold. Where’s our one safe haven? Then, as if the threats are not enough, everything going on with the temple of Time has a heightened sense of danger because truly Swarm and Azure are scary villains. They are toying with our heroes; we’re not sure that they can be beaten. In fact, the mere plot that the Doctor has fought them before proves they are not lightweight villains. I hope they are not dispatched with such a coincidentally convenient method as the Sontarans in this story, but it’s hardly a complaint at this point because the tension is so high. In fact, I don’t recall when the tension was this high before! If I have any complaints about these villains it’s that Azure mumbles (I had to look up her name to find out what she was called) and they really need to ditch the shoulder pads. They look like they are auditioning for a role in a David Bowie music video, which takes a little away from their otherwise terrifying performance.
I confess the character of Mary Seacole is one I know nothing about so there was no sense of meeting a great figure from history, but that’s not a bad thing. It does what Doctor Who should be doing: opening the doors to learning. Maybe we can include how to treat people who look different to us in the future. She was a highlight and offered some good lessons that even the Doctor should learn from. I still wish the era of modern writers allowed the hero of the series to be the one doing all the teaching, but at least we’re getting it from somewhere. At any rate, this has been a stunningly good episode and a solid follow up to last week. No idea where Claire is, the Weeping Angel, or half of the cast from last week, but I have a feeling we’re building to something truly epic and long overdue! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Doctor Who Flux: Once, Upon Time