THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

The Invasion of Time
The Time Warrior
BBC
The Sontaran Experiment

Episodes 2 'Words will never prevail against Sontaran might!'
Story No# 77
Production Code 4B
Season 12
Dates Feb. 22, 1975 -
Mar. 1, 1975

With Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter.
Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin.
Script-edited by Robert Holmes. Directed by Rodney Bennett.
Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe.

Synopsis: Continuing from The Ark in Space, the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah discover a grizzly plot on the supposedly barren Earth.


Reviews

Unfortunately a gap-filler? by Troy Irvin 6/12/97

Although I have always been enthusiastic about the basic story driving The Sontaran Experiment, this has always been more about untapped potential rather than the actual brushed-over result that was screened in 1973. The two episode Sontaran Experiment is unfortunately often regarded as a gap-filler between the strong Ark In Space and the most powerful Doctor Who story ever, Genesis of the Daleks. The storyline simply deserved more. I will be bold and suggest that given adequate development (probably an additional two episodes) and a different attitude it could have been a great.

I was not particularly impressed with the Sontaran methodology. It does not make sense to have an entire battle fleet waiting for a signal to attack that is based on a bunch of crude tests conducted by one military officer. Surely a team of Sontarans with scientific backgrounds would be considerably more thorough and eliminate all the risks associated with inaccurate data sourced from a poorly conducted experiment. They did miss out didn't they?

The Doctor demonstrated great courage to defeat the Sontaran by prompting unarmed combat to the extent that Tom Baker broke his collarbone in a fall! This fight scene was the highlight of the story but once again deserved more.

As a big fan of the arrogant Sontarans I always wish they were given a larger share of the Doctor Who world. Years ago I remember my dad returning home from work as I tuned into Doctor Who at 5.30 pm and he saw on the TV what he dubbed a Spud-Man - yes, a Sontaran! So I give an extra mark from my dad for the distinct potato-like head. I will however take off a mark for the flimsy robot (surely a very poor design in such rocky terrain) and the ease with which the Doctor put it out of commission. Overall a 6.5.


A Review by Leo Vance 20/1/98

It has been commented that this is a less than perfect story. I agree. But it is a very good story. The criticisms raised by Troy Irvin are valid but strange.

On the upside, this story has a strong performance from Tom Baker as the Doctor, and a good performance from Ian Marter playing the funniest companion ever, Harry Sullivan. Kevin Lindsay is brilliant as Styre, and his Robot is excellent, a superb device, well constructed and used. The Doctors use of the sonic screwdriver to destroy it is no more unlikely than the destruction of the forcefield with the screwdriver. Glyn Jones as Krans is excellent, putting in a great performance as a well-written character. Vural is less effective on the acting stakes, but his character is more interesting. The location work is excellent, and the spheres, as well as the Sontaran ship, are well constructed. The death of Styre is also well done, and the direction is good as well.

On the downside is Elisabeth Sladen, who is playing a weak, spineless coward in this story. Sarah Jane Smith is impressive in some stories usually with Jon Pertwee, and in others, she works well with the Doctor but not on her own. Here, she is cowardly and incompetent. A wimp, as in some others.

Also on that downside is Erak. He is a terrible performance, and a bad character. I just don't like the whole Erak section of the plot.

The plot itself is in between good and bad, with some excellent ideas (the Sontaran on Earth torturing people) and some less so (that said Sontaran could vaporise a military spaceship on his own). While the torture is not much of a report, perhaps it is all that the Sontaran Grand Strategic Council wants (to satisfy the troops that they know about humans, maybe).

A fairly mixed adventure, but certainly there are many more good points than bad. 7/10


After the fire by Ken Wrable 27/4/00

This is a real oddity, as its title suggests: the only seventies Dr Who story to come in at less than four episodes, and filmed entirely on location. It's as if Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, the new producer and script-editor of the programme, were testing what was possible with the series' format.

So, does it work? Well, yes, surprisingly well. The unusual brevity of the story means that we don't really get to learn much about the supporting characters but it also cuts down on padding, gratuitous subplots and extended capture/escape sequences. The location shooting is very effective and the scenario of a post-apocalyptic Earth is credibly evoked. It's also refreshing to watch a story with no space station-type control rooms and corridors.

Characteristically of this era of Dr Who, there are some fairly horrific ideas underpinning the story - this time, the "nightmare" factor is the systematic torture of human beings in the name of scientific investigation. Some of the experiments are only referred to, but those that we do get to see are surprisingly graphic. The special effects in The Sontaran Experiment are of variable quality; the robot is far from convincing, but I did enjoy the deflating head bit at the end of episode two. The fight scene's pretty good too.

The cast here all perform well. The stranded humans all seem convincingly haggard and stressed-out, while the regulars have by now formed an unusually impressive team. Elisabeth Sladen doesn't have much of a chance to shine, but Ian Marter's Harry is just great and Tom Baker is as much of a bug-eyed wonder as ever. You almost don't notice that he's wearing a neck brace.

It's something of a shame that the cliffhanger to the first episode is ruined by the title of the story, but I guess this is in the grand tradition of all those Dalek stories where we're supposed to be surprised when a Dalek dramatically appears at the end of episode one (Planet of the Daleks, Dalek Invasion of the Earth and so on). All in all, this is an interesting diversion.


The Odd One Out by Mark Irvin 21/11/01

I'm not exactly sure, but I have a feeling that for some reason or another, the production team were exactly two episodes short for season 12. Therefore The Sontaran Experiment was written and commissioned to fill this gap. Filmed entirely on location, it's a refreshing change from the more studio bound (but very good) stories that surround. The absence of any padding is also a nice change - The Sontaran Experiment is proof that a two part story can be effective.

It's interesting to note that after the initial broadcast there weren't many concerns aimed at the brutality in this story. Styre's experiments in my opinion are actually quite horrific for their time (human torture - fluid deprivation, tissue compression). When you really think about it they are certainly far worse than anything that occurred in the once banned The Brain of Morbius. Far more realistic.

I disagree with my brother's above theory that this was potentially a four parter, I think it worked well and served it's purpose as it stood. However, I definitely agree that it is somewhat implausible that an entire battle fleet would wait on the results from a single scouting scientist before attacking. Additionally, it's a little unlikely that a simple message from the Doctor would even deter this attack. These questionable situations along with the slightly silly looking robot are the main downsides to the story.

On the upside the complete cast performs very well. Kevin Lindsay deserves special mention with a memorable performance as Styre. Baker is still acclimatising to the role of the Doctor but is terrific in the famous fight scene with Styre. Ian Marter convinces as Harry confirming my disappointment that his endearing character never stayed on the show longer.

All in all The Sontaran Experiment is an interesting and enjoyable little adventure but unfortunately is nothing special - due to the lack of serious storyline development (the main two parter shortcoming) and some improbable situations.


A Time Filler by Tim Roll-Pickering 14/8/02

This story is a rarity in that it is set entirely on location but unfortunately it becomes all too obvious that virtually everything takes place in an immediate vicinity and so there's little sense of scale about the events. Furthermore the absence of shots of either the GalSec colonist's ship or the Sontaran battle fleet results in little sense of just how important matters are.

A strong attempt is made to give both Sarah and Harry something to do in this story but it is clear that Harry is there to perform an action role in the mould of Jamie, Ben, Steven or Ian and that this role is redundant given that the Doctor himself can perform such a role.

Part One foolishly spends all its time building up a sense of mystery that can only be resolved hurriedly in Part Two. This story is extremely light on character or incident and is wisely confined to only being a two-parter since it could never have supported anything longer. The plot is at least original but given that the story is set in the far future it is extremely difficult to accept that the Sontarans require such basic information about the human physical form. The use of the Sontarans is a good idea, since it provides a link with the last Jon Pertwee season and thus shows to the viewer that even though the Doctor has recently changed appearance, the adventures and adversaries remain the same. But given the length of time that has passed since the 11th century one has to wonder how the human race can have escaped the attention of the the Sontarans for so long.

In contrast to his direction on the previous story, The Ark in Space, Rodney Bennett's direction is far less inspired on location and so there's very little suspense or terror. The effects are also weak, with Styre's robot best forgotten. Styre makes a strong physical impression but otherwise there's extremely little in this story that's visually memorable.

On the acting side none of the guest cast stand out in any particular way, though Kevin Lindsay brings a strong sadistic streak to Styre. Ultimately it is difficult to find very much in The Sontaran Experiment that stands out in any particular way. This is a story that at best fills up a gap and is fortunately over far sooner than many other time fillers. 4/10


A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 12/11/03

The Sontaran Experiment is an effective two parter that makes the most of its budget and manages to entertain at the same time. As criticisms go, there is only one to be levelled at the story in terms of plot; that being why does Styre need to experiment if the earth is abandoned?

This aside, the story is still great, conveying the impression of an abandoned Earth, thanks to the excellent location work. Similarly the performances are generally excellent, with both Harry and The Doctor coming out on top in terms of characterisation. Robert Lindsay also puts in a great turn as the sadistic Styre, a different type of Sontaran to Linx. Even the ungainly robot, isn`t too bad, although the Doctor does tend to rely a lot on his sonic screwdriver during the story. The only other risible effect is that of the deflating Sontaran head - why not have him just keel over?

In short,this is a great story, atmospheric, with strong characterisation and acting, and an enjoyable way to pass 50 minutes of your time.


A Review by Brian May 27/2/04

The Sontaran Experiment is a wonderfully atmospheric mood piece, alternating between suspenseful and just plain creepy. It is often overlooked as inconsequential because of its short length, but to dismiss it like this is unjustified. Coming out of the Pertwee era, with long stories that wore on the patience, this adventure is a terrific example of what can be achieved in a short space of time.

In some respects it feels too quick. The usual first episode build-up to the revelation of the monster (although the giveaway title, if you already know who the Sontarans are, spoils things) becomes half the story, meaning that everything else must take place in only one episode. The story does feel hastened by its length, but it succeeds because the atmosphere is so unrelenting. The high production values also add to this.

The location footage, used for the entire story, is excellent. The wilds of Dartmoor substitute perfectly for a post-apocalyptic Earth, instilling a feel of loneliness and desolation. It's certainly not one for agoraphobics, as the music, direction and sometimes just the silence saturate the open spaces with a sense of dread. The camerawork achieves this as well - Sarah's over the shoulder glances at the ridge above her and the point of view shot as Roth slowly approaches her - are great examples of this. It's obvious that something is wrong here. The exposition is good, cementing the fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry team. They all get something to do - at times it feels like it's just running across moors or scrambling among rocks - but they are all actively enhancing the story.

The atmosphere is testament to the new hands at the helm of Doctor Who - Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes. This is the first recorded (although transmitted second) adventure of this producer-script editor team, and it brilliantly encapsulates their philosophy for the programme. It is dark, grim and at times horrific. The first episode, as mentioned above, is a slow build-up with figures that flicker in the corner of the eye, a "thing" that lurks in the rocks, tales of disappearing crewmen, torture, and an ominous robot that sweeps the countryside. The second episode continues this mood, with a cruel experiment performed on Sarah and disturbing images of a man chained to a rock, left to die of thirst. Yes, these are dark, grim days indeed - not that anyone's complaining though, for I too am one of those who believes the Holmes/Hinchcliffe years are certainly one of the show's best eras.

It's good to see the Sontarans again - a href=timew.htm>The Time Warrior proved they were interesting monsters, and Kevin Lindsay is excellent in his return performance(s). True to the new feel of the programme, Styre is a colder, nastier incarnation, whereas Linx, although unpleasant, at least didn't inflict such pain on people. The nature of Styre's experiments, being methodical and clinical rather than sadistic, is quite chilling (although we do see the alien's sadistic side - note how he chooses Vural, the man he used as his spy, to be the one tied to the rock in his tissue compressability test).

As I also mentioned, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry make a good team. Tom Baker and Ian Marter have settled in well to their new roles, while Elisabeth Sladen is as wonderful as ever. All the crewmen are realised pretty well - you can almost forgive Glyn Jones for The Space Museum! Erak gets a little overexcited at times - but then, this is the actor who would deliver the priceless "I ain't going down there Giovanni!" line in a few years' time (The Masque of Mandragora).

The only faults with The Sontaran Experiment lie in aspects of its plotting. The basic premise is okay, but if Earth is uninhabited, why do the Sontarans need a report before invading it? It's indicated that Earth has strategic value and would be a useful base, so why don't they just land? The testing of humans to determine their weaknesses is sound enough, as it's implied that they are anticipating conflict with them in their latest military campaign. But just the invasion of Earth bit, it's irritatingly unnecessary. The climax is also rather a letdown - the "brinkmanship" the Doctor applies is rather unconvincing. He says the Sontarans are methodical, but from the Marshal's response, it seems as if they're more bureaucrats then anything else - most untypical for such a warlike species. And, as I also mentioned, a wonderful sense of mystery in part one is totally squashed by the title.

But this story is interesting and accomplished. Its short length and total absence of studio-bound scenes make it an experiment in itself. An imperfect one, but definitely not one to chuck in the rubbish bin. 7.5/10


"Your Waterloo, Marshall!" by Joe Ford 30/3/04

This story has always felt to me like DS9 did to the Star Trek universe, unfairly treated as the middle child because it is surrounded by two much more appreciated (and yet not always as good as they are claimed to be) and recognisable stories/shows. Honestly if your fellows were Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks you are bound to be left out a tad. But this is unfair treatment of a story that in its own right is just as good as those two and a damn sight more experimental than either.

Two parters were rare at any period of the show, they crop up sporadically and seem to work rather well when they do, balancing off a heavyweight story either side with what some might call 'filler' (although I despise the term). The Rescue was a breath of fresh air after the drama (or attempted drama) of Dalek Invasion of Earth, Black Orchid distracts us from the powerful shocks coming up in Earthshock and The Awakening (hardly a favourite) highlights the strengths of Frontios by being rushed and unexplained.

Squeezed between two studio heavy stories The Sontaran Experiment brilliantly opens out the season with a story entirely shot on location. I firmly believe Philip Hinchcliffe knew exactly what he was doing as he planned out each season and this story is ideally placed, it rather cleverly uses ideas that were initiated in The Ark in Space and expands them to an extent where you can be tempted to call it a six parter had they not been so different in tone.

It astonished me when I noticed that Rob Matthews stuck this story in his top forty turkeys, especially when he commented on how the story was really cheapo filler. I always thought it was one of the best looking Doctor Who stories purely because it was location bound and saved from any wobbly sets and silly monsters. It has that advantage over so many Doctor Who stories in that it is believably shot in a location that suits the material, if you can't buy into a story set entirely on the Dartmoor moorland than where can you?

As Brian May so accurately points out the direction is near perfect. Had this been a normal alien invasion story that just happened to be set in a remote location it would have been atmospheric but with the previous four episodes building up a picture of a wild, lonely planet abandoned by the human race then immediately we are enraptured by the bleak chill and frightening desolation of the location work.

The thought of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry landing on an uninhabited planet is superbly brought to life by a scene where Sarah and Harry discuss how quiet it is. I love it as we become aware that they are not as alone as they first thought, blurs of movement in the corner of the eye, gun sights trained on them... the atmosphere thickens as Harry is trapped, the Doctor shot and Sarah on her own to face whatever horrors lurk in post apocalyptic Earth.

There are some stunning visuals that never fail to make an impact no matter how many times I watch the story. I love the scene where Harry comes face to face with a sheer expanse of stone, the music reveals his disbelief. Or the small moment of the water dripping from the tendrils onto the Doctor's face which wake him. Best of is the dramatic punchline of the first episode, the first shot of the Sontaran spaceship in the rocks. Those spherical ships look mighty cool and for once this feels like a genuine threat, the incongruity of the hardware amongst the craggy rocks makes for a memorable image.

A whole episode of build up for a two parter might feel like a waste of time but it provides one hell of a cliffhanger. Sarah dragged in front of the ship, the door opening and the Sontaran emerging only to remove his helmet is a truly excellent pay off for the atmospheric opener, the rising music adding a lot of importance to the moment. I love it.

The second episode wastes no time in involving the viewer in Styre's horrific experiments. The Sontarans remain to this day one of the more intruging alien races thanks to the hard work Robert Holmes put into conceiving them. He was right to badger writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin into ensuring the dialogue suited the race, some inconsistencies appear (calling a character a "moron" feels a bit out of place) but on the whole this is another startling appearance. It is disturbing to hear his reports of the sadistic experiments; the writers make it clear that humans are militaristically a very weak race whose weaknesses can be exploited easily. Just lines like "Why did you make that disagreeable noise?" when Sarah screams and "That is my function, I am a warrior" after murdering Vurrul reveal much about this callous species. It is wonderful that they use the same actor as the Marshal as it highlights the cloning theme without throwing it in your face; subtle moments like this are what make or break a Doctor Who story. And how like the Sontarans to send a warrior to survey the species for its weaknesses before landing, intelligent, calculated and strange that no other invading aliens has ever thought of it before.

The torture scenes are strikingly discomforting such as they should be. Sarah's is the ickiest, that horrid sludge rising up her legs would be enough to get me wailing in fear but the rocks falling down are also quite frightening. But the stress on the ribcage test is also mighty cool, the three Galsec members proving to be right wankers in the first episode so hopefully a little torture might knock some sense into them.

Harry says little but Ian Marter's contribution is always welcome, he handles all the action very well and manages to grab a moment or two amongst all the running around. It is great when he decides to attack Styre head on after discovering the bodies of the Doctor and Sarah and the dead guy chained to the rock, you genuinely feel his beside manner strained to breaking point. Plus it contains one of my favourite Harry lines ever "Don't worry Sarah, I'll get you free even if I have knock his bally head off and grab his keys!"

It may be over too quickly but a further episode of this fresh air might have started to get boring, it is always best to leave your audience wanting more rather than wishing for it to end!

Besides the climax is rather brilliant with the Doctor taking a much more physical part in the story than you would imagine from Tom Baker. The fight with Styre is breathlessly directed to encompass the location in its entirety, they really go at over those rocks, chucking each other about rolling about, fists and knives at the ready. Love the sunny hill it is filmed on, it's enough to make you want to rush out and play about in the sun yourself. My one major criticism with this story is Tom Baker's performance. This was filmed directly after Robot and it is perfectly clear that he was still feeling his way into the role and is astonishingly subdued throughout. The only time he behaves as grand as we expect is when he challenges Styre but other moments such as his interrogation and realisation that he has lost his sonic screwdriver comes as across as being uncharacteristically underplayed. However when Lis Sladen and Ian Marter are your back up, one out of three performances lacking is still better than average. Tom would improve in leaps and bounds throughout the season (only to lapse again in Revenge of the Cybermen but that is singularly the worst written Doctor Who story ever, so terrible dialogue might have something to do with it) and every Doctor had little teething troubles.

Addressing Rob's criticism that the story is poorly thought out I would have to dismiss this too; it is made perfectly clear that the Sontarans are a proud and arrogant race. It appears that they have judged humans correctly, that they are mentally and physiologically weak creatures; Styre's initial report confirms this. But to have their facts thrown in their face, the possibility that this may be a superior species after all, clever enough to dupe them into thinking their slave class was their average citizens, is enough to warn them off. At least for now. I think it makes perfect sense and the Sontarans are right to be cautious, one wrong move and they could lose their endless battle with the Rutans. But then their rubbishy attack on Gallifrey proves they never learnt their lesson.

It's brilliant stuff all in all, exciting, engaging and best of all realistic. It is a story that delights in its location and manages to advantageously write a good story around it. Refreshing and interesting.


An excellent, thrilling 2-parter by Konstantin Hubert 4/5/04

“Ah, so that’s the Sontaran way?” snaps the 4th Doctor scornfully to Styre, the Sontaran, just before we see them fighting to death.

If this is always the Sontaran Way then I can only wish the Doctor had encountered those warlike stout, humanoids with the brown hairless dome-like heads more than four times. They make wonderful villains, suitable for every kind of adventure especially action-packed adventures, like Sontaran Experiment.

Originally, Sontaran Experiment was designed to be the last two parts of a 6-parter but eventually it follows on from the 4-parter Ark in Space individually. After leaving the Space Station Nerva at the very end of Ark in Space the Doctor, Harry and Sarah beam down on Earth in the distant future to check out if there is life on the planet and if it is still habitable. Not only is Earth still habitable but it hosts an evil alien race the Doctor and Sarah have already confronted (in Time Warrior). Styre, a Sontaran, played very well by Kevin Lindsay, is performing torturing experiments on the few remaining humans in order to find out the weaknesses of the human species and exploit this knowledge in their battles against humans and in their attempt to conquer the Galaxy. Needless to say, the Dr and his companions accidentally find themselves embroiled in the Sontaran’s affairs...

Sontaran Experiment is a crystalline proof why tales lasting 45-50 minutes should have been more numerous during the first 26 years the series ran. In its shorter duration it manages to gather many characteristics that make an adventure exciting and pleasant: humor, especially at the beginning, action/violence (the duel between the Dr and Styre is one of the best battle scenes of the Tom Baker era, a sign of the Dr’s vulnerability, while the cruel scenes of torture are neatly directed), suspense (for example, when Styre with the help of his box-shaped machine catches and ties up Sarah to perform a lethal experiment on her), beautiful settings (it's filmed entirely on location), a great ruthless villain, a solid, interesting plot with only few faults, nice acting and direction (Harry is as good and naive as always while Sarah turns me on again with her vigour and prettiness and the Dr and the rest of the cast give a satisfying performance), even terror (in Part 1 Styre's machine is presented as the threat and at times we only see what the machine sees, like the very first scenes of the Robot in Robot, and is therefore not shown in its entirety), respectable, not dated special effects (pay attention to the silver sphere, Styre's small spaceship). After having watched The Sontaran Experiment one feels that in two 24-minute parts one has enjoyed to the same extent what one would have enjoyed in a 4-parter or a longer story.

Leo Vance in his review writes that on the downside is Elisabeth Sladen, who is playing a weak, spineless coward in this story and that here she is cowardly and incompetent. I will disagree with this comment because in Part 1 Sarah frees the Dr, gives him back the handy sonic screwdriver he had lost and takes initiatives. In Part 2 although she doesn’t contribute to the destruction of Styre, when he captures her and kills Roth, she is brave and bold enough to call him “a murderer and an ugly creature”. Both companions, Sarah and Harry, are delightful in this episode and more or less assist their Time Lord.

To be objective, it is not faultless: since the Sontarans seek to find out the weaknesses of the human species, an aim really difficult to fulfill, why do they send only one member of their race on Earth? It is a pity that the heroes face only one Sontaran, Styre that is. He is assisted by a silver box-shaped machine, but why not two or three Sontarans? Whereas Cybermen and Daleks are organised in armies or groups, the Sontaran seems to prefer wandering around as a solitary creature (bear in mind that I haven't seen yet The Two Doctors). The costume of Lynx, who appears in Time Warrior, could have been used for the second Sontaran. Another fault, minor one this time, has to do with the human warriors from Gal-Sec 7 colony: it is never explained why they are staying in the isolated, sterile fields when they are aware of the alien menace and why they don’t revolt, since they are more numerous, against this menace. They seem to be all of them frightened, at a loss and at the mercy of a single Sontaran and its sluggish machine. How do they sustain themselves when there are no vestiges, no trace of civilisation at all, no cultivated area?

These flaws aside, Sontaran Experiment is a very good episode and so far my favourite and the best 2-parter that I have seen, even better than the classic but predictable and not so action-packed Black Orchid, which is by the way the most acclaimed 2-parter. It serves well as the interlude of the 12th Season and as the ideal tonic just before the non-stop adventure of the fabulous 6-parter Genesis of the Daleks and the sublime and undoubtedly underrated Revenge of the Cybermen.

Grade: 9/10 (when compared to other 2-parters only and taking into account the limited possibilities of the 2-parters due to shorter duration) and a good grade, at least 7/10 when compared to all stories regardless of their running time.


Death on Dartmoor by Joe Austwick 2/1/07

The first thing that strikes me when watching The Sontaran Experiment is the sheer prettiness of it. Dartmoor? Exmoor? Dartmoor I think.

Anway, it's all terribly organic and a huge constrast to the clinical, white sterility of The Ark in Space. It's also quiet. Still. Calm. The fact that it was shot on videotape as opposed to film adds to this bizzare feeling or serenity. That's what sums up this story in general: it's quaint. A quaint little slice of two-partness serving as the link between the two more important stories either side of it. And while you could easily skip from The Ark in Space to Genesis of the Daleks and lose nothing in terms of plot, I can't see why anyone would want to, because it's just so charming.

The opening scene is lovely with the faulty transmat and Sarah's injured dignity. It quickly becomes eerie as it becomes apparent that Earth is not as abandoned as they think it is. Something is watching Sarah and Harry and it subsequently becomes apparent that the pit into which Harry has fallen has been deliberately covered as a trap.

All three regulars give very good performances here, particularly Tom Baker. It's amazing how quickly he settled into the role and found his style. In The Ark in Space he was wonderful, having been freed from the extra baggage of Earth and UNIT and therefore having more room to develop once the series headed out into space once again. He seems very relaxed and witty in this story and he's clearly having a ball. Well, apart from the collarbone incident but you can't have everything. Ian Marter is simply wonderful. Harry takes everything in his stride, never once questioning that he has travelled through time or that he's being menaced by sundry extraterrestrial nasties. So he's obviously a very pragmatic fellow. And his verbal repetoire of 'old chap', 'old thing', 'I say...' etc is very endearing.

It's not long before the robot puts in an appearance and, by God, it's terribly cute. Or just terrible, it really rather depends on who you ask. I suppose it's a fairly successful piece of design and construction for its time but it looks too delicate to do all of Styre's hench work. The GalSec men, apparently, faked South African accents in order to give the impression of being rough and ready frontiersmen types. Well, Glyn Jones manages to pull the accent off well enough but I'm not so sure about the others. They share a similar role to the humans in Death to the Daleks and therefore, the same problems. They further the plot but don't look too closely.

Kevin Lindsay is suitably sadistic as Styre, giving a performance which is subtly different from Linx. The titular experiments, though, are something of a mystery. Or just a lapse in common sense on the part of the writers. Styre is simply torturing people. Ok, that's all well and good. It's certainly in character for the Sontarans. But Styre is actually carrying them out as though they are genuine scientific experiments. Which makes him seem somewhat dense. Or unimaginative at the very least. Or maybe it's just a lack of foresight. Anyway, I digress. My point is that it must be obvious what's going to happen. Styre has a gravity bar of increasingly heavy weight gradually lowered over Vural's chest. Oooh, I wonder what the result might be? Perhaps there's just a slight chance that it will break his ribs and pulp his internal organs. Styre also says that after immersion in water, humans die after three minutes. Mmm, funny that. Bob Baker and Dave Martin could have been a bit more creative about the experiments. Ok, so they're just an excuse for torture. Probably. But they could have been done in a way which makes Styre look like less of a simpleton.

But this is a Baker/Martin script. Paucity of logic is an occupational hazard. But I'm not going to complain too much. This duo have been responsible for some of the worst travesties in the entire series: The Mutants, The Invisible Enemy, The Three Doctors... And Underworld is just boring which is an even worse crime. But they can do it when they really make the effort. The Hand of Fear is mosly successful, bar some ranting and I've always had a soft spot for The Claws of Axos.

So don't overlook this charming little two parter just because it's rather unenviably sandwhiched between two highly regarded classics. It's a lovely piece of Bakerdom.


One of the year's least essential DVDs by Jason A. Miller 27/8/07

Well, I shouldn't say "least essential". The Doctor Who DVD production team made a herculean effort trying to salvage this rather awkward little story. There's not much you can do to give the hard sell to a 45-minute episode from 1975 when releasing it on a standalone DVD. However, the folks at "2 Entertain" gave it their all. The story has been visually restored so that it looks as if it had been videotaped yesterday, and the few special features are meticulous.

Unfortunately, the episode being supported is not deserving of such kind consideration. The Sontaran Experiment was the first production from the Phillip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes producer/script editor team, which gave us a dozen of Doctor Who's finest hours in the mid 1970s. As an opening act, this is not one of those hours. Featuring the return of the Sontarans, created by then-writer Holmes one season previously, Experiment features a villain not nearly as resourceful, clever or memorable as The Time Warrior. The actor is the same but the writer is not, and that's most of the difference.

Since Sontaran actor Kevin Lindsey was in the final stages of heart failure, his character only appears in the final episode and doesn't get much to do. The rest of the story features the small cast running around a pile of rocks on Dartmoor. The rocks are very pretty. Indeed, the digitially remastered outdoor-broadcast video from 1975 looks fabulous; this story could have been produced yesterday. Compare that with the feeble non-remastered look of the 1977 baseball World Series, recently released to DVD in the U.S., and you appreciate that this is a terrific restoration job.

The text commentary, as usual, is a lively affair written by Martin Wiggins, sharing with us some gruesome on-location anecdotes (mostly about Tom Baker's broken collarbone) and interesting discarded ideas from the story's first drafts (the mating habits of the Sontarans, and the British relics the authors intended should protrude from the Earth's surface thousands of years into the future where the story's set). The three-man audio commentary team -- Hinchcliffe, writer Bob Baker, and actress Lis Sladen -- share their crystal-clear memories from 30+ years ago. Compared to the commentary track from the sister DVD release (1969's classic The Invasion) one begins to appreciate an inverse ratio between the quality of the story and the quality of the commentary.

The lone featurette produced for the disc is a comprehensive 39-minute history of the Sontarans. Called "Built For War", the documentary covers all of the Sontarans' Doctor Who appearances between 1974 and 1985, and thus features interviews with many people who had nothing to do with Experiment at all. Script editor Terrance Dicks (who did not script-edit this episode) reminisces about his relationship with writer Bob Holmes (who did not write it). Future Doctor Colin Baker (who did not appear in this episode) and future script editor Eric Saward (who did not script-edit it) take turns harshing on the 1985 Sontaran entry The Two Doctors. The two men also take turns seeing who can reach 400 pounds first. Colin wins, although Saward grows an impressive mop of hair to finish in second place by a single ounce. Good heavens, Colin! The normally zaftig Dicks looks like Nicole Richie next to those two.


A Review by Finn Clark 3/11/08

There's a school of thought which says that since The Sontaran Experiment is the only Bob Baker and Dave Martin story that isn't rubbish, it must be their best script. (This overlooks The Three Doctors, which is magnificent, but the logic would seem to be that it's a multi-Doctor story so it doesn't count.) Personally, I don't buy it. Bob and Dave were bumblers, without a clue about how to turn their often fascinating ideas into good scripts. Thus you'll often get woeful TV stories but great Target novelisations, such as The Mutants and Underworld. Here are their stories, ranked by their rankness:

The Three Doctors
The Claws of Axos
The Sontaran Experiment
Nightmare of Eden (Bob-only)
The Armageddon Factor
The Hand of Fear
The Mutants
The Invisible Enemy
Underworld

That's worse than Pip and Jane Baker. I'd have to go to the novels for writers with a worse track record who nonetheless kept getting commissioned. These are writers whose median story is The Armageddon Factor, for crying out loud, while The Mutants is only not at the bottom of their list but couldn't even get there with a bathyscape. Admittedly Bob Baker is also part of the Oscar-winning Wallace and Gromit team, but look up his CV on the imdb some time. With the exception of a TV play called The Jazz Detective in 1992, that's all he's done in the past twenty years. Would you even call that a professional writer?

The Sontaran Experiment doesn't even have good ideas. Its production team did a wholehearted job and it's only two episodes long. Those are the script's only good points. Despite its length, it's even padded! However, the final product is grim and hard-bitten, which I'm sure for many viewers made it gripping.

Personally, though, I don't really like it. It's even slighter than you'd expect from a two-parter, although in fairness pace isn't a virtue of its neighbouring stories either. The Ark in Space doesn't wake its first Nerva sleeper until part two, while Genesis of the Daleks is a six-parter by Terry Nation. As far as I'm concerned, The Sontaran Experiment is a bit dull. It's like a Saward story, in fact. The guest actors are ugly and unlikeable hard-bitten blokes, while Styre's experiments look like gratuitous sadism as he tortures people to death for data with no military value. ("They're very methodical." Uh, right.) Admittedly, this makes for a memorable villain, but he's not even around for the first half of the story. Things improve in episode two, but overall for me it's ugly, unpleasant and not much fun.

The production of course is hitting the "bleak" button as hard as it can, making it the dullest-looking all-location story we'll ever see. There's nothing pretty or even interesting to look at, unless you count Sarah. There's no architecture, no cool gadgets, no attractive guest stars, nothing. The moors are bleak and often rain-swept, although this lends a touch of agoraphobic horror since one never knows what might be over the next ridge. The South African Galsec colonists are hardly glamorous either. However, that in itself becomes a feature. It makes the story oppressive. There's no escape or relief from those bloody moors. In a four-parter it might have been unbearable, but in a two-parter it's okay.

The director also plays a few visual tricks, such as letting us glimpse something moving in the background and then wonder if we saw what we think they saw. Some of those I only spotted on repeat viewings. That was good. Furthermore, this does produce a unique atmosphere in Doctor Who. Even the Saward era never achieved anything quite like this, mostly thanks to the horrific villain. Styre may be a potato-headed troll, but his experiments are loathsome and it's deeply satisfying to see his gruesome death. Note that when challenged to a duel, he grabs a machete. Hmmm. A machete fight in Doctor Who. Then there's torture, in what's ostensibly a children's TV show! We've seen some pretty vile things on Doctor Who, but I can't think offhand of anything much worse than hunting people down in Devon and torturing them to death.

Oh, and I can forgive Sarah's unconvincing snake, since it's only a hallucination.

Fanboy addendum. The Sontarans are portrayed yet again as being terrifically high-tech. They have a gravity bar and a surveillance device that the Doctor recognises on sight as being beyond the capabilities of human technology in the year 15,000! Furthermore all their other stories involved time travel, either using it (The Time Warrior) or attempting to steal it (The Invasion of Time, The Two Doctors). Invading Gallifrey is impressive too.

There's an oddity in the casting. Glyn Jones, who played the astronaut Krans, had also written The Space Museum, which means that two of this story's cast would go on to write Target novelisations. Only a handful of people have written and acted for Doctor Who on TV, the others to date being Mark Gatiss and Victor Pemberton.

Overall, a curiosity. It's easily as brutal as the two more famous stories sandwiching it, but that's not the same as being good. There's some surprisingly moderate acting and it feels as if we missed a scene at the end, with the Galsec colonists suddenly accepting all that Nerva talk they'd until then been dismissing. In fairness, it's hard to get too offended by a two-parter, especially one that's been shot all on location. If nothing else, I'm fond of it for the silly reason that it's the only two-parter between The Rescue (1965) and Black Orchid (1982). It's watchable, but we're talking about something that loses out to The Claws of Axos for the title of Bob Baker and Dave Martin's second-best story.


A Review by Robert Thomas 25/6/10

I like The Sontaran Experiment. It's got a lot to say and it's saying it loudly, which isn't surprising given it's only got half the time to say it in. Come to think of it, before slipping it in the DVD player, the only thing I remembered was its length, which isn't really saying much. Since the comeback, these little two parters have taken on an extra meaning. We get a chance to compare some of the earlier Doctors to their new counterparts; in Tom's case, we only get this snapshot.

It's interesting that this story's main message is something that the show would come back to when showing space travel in recent years. It's tough out there and it's saying it on the cheap. The Impossible Planet said it with CGI and sets; Experiment says it with a field and some plastic props. The guest cast of Experiment portray this toughness better the bitter South African accents and it's a world away from the cast of the previous story. In the previous stories, we had more well-off characters trying to keep the human race alive; in this one, we find out they are still going after some hard work. Listen to this dialogue: it's some of the bitterest and most real the guest cast ever got.

It's a shame the guest cast don't really stand out much. The human crew are quite numerous: we are told there are nine but a few are killed off before the story starts meaning we get to see six. Styre is absent for the first half so in a story only two episodes long he's only in half of it and sadly the silly robot isn't that memorable.

Three stories in and Tom's on fine form here, no stand-out moments like the previous story but he's nailed the character. Antagonising his captors and telling Sarah to politely bugger off when he does something technical. Interesting to note all the Doctors who get a two parter like this get into a fight, a machete with Styre here, Billie has fisticuffs with Koquillion and Peter gets a quick sword fight. Sarah doesn't really do much here but Lis is lively enough. Harry however gets his best treatment, getting to go around being jolly spiffing despite what's going on around him. I like his interaction with the crew member about to die of dehydration. It's interesting to note he saves the day: the Doctor providing a distraction and Styre suffering a satisfactory fate.

Unfortunately, it's all filler, dwarfed by what surrounds it and very little plot that effectively runs out part way through. Sadly, despite all I've just said, in a few weeks time I'll only remember this for the length.