The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky
|Production Code||Series Four Episodes Four and Five|
|Dates||April 26 and May 3 2008|
With David Tennant,
Written by Helen Raynor Directed by Douglas McKinnon
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.
|Synopsis: Luke Rattigan summons the Sontarans to Earth, where they instigate a terrible destruction.|
The Worst So Far by Hugh Sturgess 3/7/08
There's a school of thought out there that says that Underworld only has such a poor reputation because of the... well, shitness of its CSO and if it had the same quality of effects as the New Series we'd say it was "all right", at least. This is the most effective counter-argument so far. With more money and resources than probably the whole of Season Fifteen, The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky still manage to be something dull and inane. Underneath all the uniformed extras and CGI and triumphal music, there's a sense that the programme doesn't even need to try to get the audience on its side anymore, a programme so firmly embedded in the public consciousness that its original mandate of "taking the viewer to strange places" has been almost contemptuously forgotten.
From the moment the story begins - with a journalist kicked out of a mysterious establishment by zombie-like orange-jumpsuit-clad heavies - you know you're in for a feast of sumptuous mediocrity. That the journalist is subsequently contrived to her death by this week's gimmick to engineer a pre-titles bang is so totally expected that if she had survived I would have been more surprised. This is the same contrived token death in order to demonstrate that things-are-not-what-they-seem that I railed against in my review of the 2007 season, a lazy narrative device designed to drum up drama but in the end just cheapening the characters and the function of death in a narrative. Doctor Who did this... yeah, six times last year, and yet they do it again here, as if no one is going to a) expect it and b) notice it (or, at least, think "this is all very familiar" as the unfortunate sacrificial lamb screams in panic as her car hurtles into the Thames).
I've said the word "familiar" already, and that's the central flaw of the story: it's just lazy and it's difficult to tell exactly how much is Helen Raynor's fault. The dialogue is engaging enough (though the Doctor's by-now-tired "I've got to give them a chance" routine is particularly ill-conceived), and presumably Russell gave her a story outline that basically approximates what we see here, but there is nothing in the script to suggest she has made any effort to whatsoever to make it in anyway original or engaging. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine a summary this conservative and unimaginative. It's as if Russell and Helen think that going over old ground is in some way entertaining rather than just dull by definition. Here, the aliens attempt to conquer the Earth by infiltrating an institution of some sort with a human as a spokesperson and turn a piece of mundane, everyday technology against us; there's nothing to distinguish this from (say) The Invasion or Spearhead from Space, except that those stories are actually entertaining. This is Alien Invasion by numbers. There's the old question of what constitutes a cliche and what an archetype, and I'd argue the division lies in the execution. The Christmas Invasion's Sycorax are the age-old alien invaders desiring "your land, your rocks, your precious stones" etc. They have no motivations beyond material gains, and yet they never seem tired or cliched because the script manages to create a vision of a universe full of predators like these, with their own little ecosystems (like the pilot fish). Yet here, the Sontarans do have an aim that is beyond mere theft (turning the world into a source of food, that is so reasonably different as to be potentially interesting), but they never seem real or - more importantly - remotely interesting.
And Luke Rattigan - what was going on there? Once again, a human with a twisted view of the "greater good" is duped by ill-meaning aliens into becoming their Earth-based gimp. The fact that he isn't even a remotely interesting character (he's meant to be an annoying, American smartarse-nerd - as if an annoying American smartarse-nerd is in some way entertaining) makes the entire activity seem pointless. His "heroic sacrifice" at the climax is the ultimate proof that the show has stopped caring about such little concerns as "characterisation". Oh yes, the companions still have their own little emotional hang-ups (in this case Donna, a subplot that stops the story again, again and over again), but the other characters simply do what the story tells them to do. So what if the Doctor can destroy the Sontaran fleet with no danger to himself? We can simply have him decide to literally go out of his way to get into danger (he wants to give a very proud warrior-race - and a general who's never lost a battle - a chance to give up and go home: one need not be Cicero to see a flaw here). If the Doctor's now in a no-way-out situation, we can just have Rattigan come over all selfless and sacrifice himself to save the Doctor. Rattigan's death really does perplex me: what was it for? Was it just a cynical way of extricating the Doctor from a danger he'd been contrived into? Were we actually meant to feel sorry for Rattigan, and realise we'd misjudged him? Or was it just a convenient way to remove a character who would be too much of a problem if allowed to live?
And then there's the question of "why use the Sontarans at all?". Dalek and Rise of the Cybermen are stories tailored to show off their respective monsters' strengths, while here the Sontarans have been pasted onto a story to give it a bit more gravitas. If this story had been called The Oolian Stratagem and featured a race of giant badgers instead, would it have been any different? The obvious answer is no: though perhaps it wouldn't have had its nostalgic shock-padding of a returning monster to distract the viewer from its innate hollowness. Why have a story featuring the Sontarans that is only tangentially about their War, when this is the first time the series could actually depict it? It's later revealed that the Sontarans are going to turn the Earth into a source of new Sontaran clones - as if this is a logical, meaningful justification, when really the author could have made up any old piece of nonsense to make the fee to the estate of Robert Holmes seem worthwhile. You want me to come up with a better idea? OK: a Rutan spy with vital information is hiding on the Earth and the Sontarans are here to pick him up, with humanity caught in the crossfire. I just made that up then. Do I get a BAFTA now?
Really, the overwhelming conclusion that I can draw from these episodes is that the author, the script editor and the producer have all just become staggering bores, insisting on doing the same party tricks again and again without remembering why. Just as a Little Britain marathon will inevitably end with you throwing things at the screen, after this story you'll never want to see an invasion of Earth, a UNIT soldier or a return-to-a-companion's-family ever again.
Aside from such little concerns as "originality", "characterisation" and "entertainment value", the real problem with The Sontaran Stratagem is that it's just lazy in every way that actually matters. In 2005, Rose demonstrated with a remarkable degree of shamelessness that it was of the modern world, and Aliens of London strove to be a political satire (and at least had the good grace to be a grotesque parody when it failed). Yet now the producers think they can just plonk something "topical" into an otherwise unremarkable story and its somehow becomes "relevant". Apparently, Gridlock is "topical" because it has a never-ending traffic jam in it (using this logic, The Fires of Pompeii is "topical" because volcanoes sometimes erupt in "our" world too); The Sound of Drums is a clever political satire because the Master uses the BBC to label the TARDIS crew "terrorist suspects" (since he has convinced the BBC to do this with an alien hypnotic signal beamed from satellites in space, this is like saying that Independence Day is a satire about terrorism, since landmark-buildings blow up); and here the Sontarans plan to poison the world with zero-emission cars. It could have been ATMs; it could have been shoes; it could have been steam engines. But it's cars, because the production team think they're being "relevant" by doing so.
They're not, obviously. The problem continues in Midnight (which is probably my favourite episode of the season, as it at least tries to be different), where a character responds to the Doctor's claim to be a traveller with "what, like an immigrant?". This is probably the most ill-advised attempt to appear "topical" and "relevant" and "keyed up to social concerns" since Torchwood attempted to evoke Guantanamo Bay; plus, the characters' paranoia turns out to be completely justified, as the mysterious alien visitor really is out to get them. That story is also burdened by an unnecessary "heroic self-sacrifice".
Drained of style, drained of meaning and drained of all but the crudest kind of characterisation, The Sontaran Stratagem nevertheless represents an important landmark in the history of New Who; it represents the series at its most ordinary. In years to come, when people will look back at Doctor Who and remember a cliche of invasion-of-Earth stories with increasingly desperate gimmicks, this story - more than any other - will be what they're thinking of.
Attack of the Clones by Mike Morris 15/9/08
Helen Raynor is one of only two writers, apart from Russell T. Davies, to write two two-part stories. After getting to take on the Daleks last year - with, it must be said, mixed results - she's back to write a Sontaran story this time out. I was certainly glad to see her name in the credits, because - although she freely admits (or so I'm told) to making something of a mess of the Dalek story, and it certainly falls apart towards the end - it was at least an interesting failure, with great moments and a genuinely different voice.
And so, to the question that underpins this review. What's better; an interesting failure, or a boring success?
Two things should be stated about The Sontaran Stratagem. First of all, it's well-paced and well-structured, with decent performances and little obviously wrong with it. Secondly, and more tellingly... Regular readers of my reviews might remember that, a while back, I started giving "proper" titles to the two-parters, and I still do it privately. That gas mask one will always be Shell Shock to me, the Series One finale is unquestionably called Transmission, and Helen Raynor's previous offering is clearly called Stage Fright. I call this story... well...
I don't call it anything, actually. If pushed, I'd call it The Sontaran Invasion. Because that, literally, is all that happens. Some Sontarans invade Earth. That's it. That's the whole thing.
To paraphrase EcclesDoc; what's The Sontaran Invasion for? What's the point of it? It might be the least interesting Doctor Who story that's been made since the series began, if it wasn't for The Lazarus Experiment. The first part is mildly diverting, in a well-obviously-it's-not-that-good sort of way, but the second completely fails to drum up any interest whatsoever. You keep waiting for there to be some additional layer of storytelling, something that's going on beyond people shooting each other, but there's sod-all.
Just look at the pre-titles sequence. Satnav, it reveals, has gone evil. This is revealed by driving a journalist into the river... for no reason whatsoever. There's some sort of scripted explanation about having to silence her before she goes to UNIT, but this is clearly bollocks; UNIT are already on to Rattigan and are unable to do anything about it, so why would he care if someone tells them what he's up to? Like so many scenes in this story, it seems to be there because that's what Doctor Who stories are supposed to do.
One of the good things about Stage Fright was that it had so many ideas going on, a mix of shameless cliche and clever conceits. This, on the other hand, has none. The Sontarans and UNIT both come from classic Who, and they aren't very interesting here; Donna's return to her family is a less inventive take on Rose's journey home in Transmission; the Valiant returns from Final Chapter (another one of my own titles, but I'm not that happy with it - alternative suggestions welcome); the Atmos device is the least interesting version of the "consumer device threatens Earth" storyline which we've done way too much, thank you; and the Spoiled Teenage Genius and the Evil Double have both been done to death elsewhere, even if the latter does mean we get to see Freema Agyeman all wet. Yay.
Atmos is the story's central whirlamagig. It smacks of an attempt to bring eco-concern into the story - hey, Guardian jounalists talk about that stuff a lot - but it's desperately limp and pretty half-arsed (a bit like an awful lot of carbon-footprint related stuff out there, come to think of it). It presupposes, for example, that everyone would stick a carbon-reducing thing in their car out of the goodness of their heart, and a desperate desire for Satnav (which can't be switched off). Sorry, but that just doesn't fly; nor indeed is it convincing that this device reduces carbon emissions to zero, but can make these claims without having released details to anyone how it works. There's even a weird bit where the Doctor demolishes Luke's claims about eco-friendliness, pointing out that more people driving means that the oil will run out quicker. This, I'm afraid, is bollocks. I don't know of anyone who doesn't drive because they're worried about the environment, and who cares if the oil runs out sooner - it's going to run out anyway, so why not make it cleaner while it does so?
The Sontarans are... okay. I seem to be a bit out of synch with everyone on why the Sontarans work. What I like about them is their sheer malicious thuggery; if you look at the early stories, like The Time Warrior or The Sontaran Experiment, the energy of the species comes from their glorious sadistic edge, and one of the better things about their Invasion of Time appearance is that they were quite happy to blow up a galaxy out of pique. The "pompous warrior race" model that we get here is too stylised to convince, and it's not even consistently applied. The Doctor notes early on that skulking in the background and killing by stealth isn't the Sontaran way - but it's never fully explained why they're doing it. The reason given for their invasion vaguely explains the tactic, but not in a satisfactory way; besides, it's such a rubbish reason that it's difficult to care. It's yet another Earth invasion story that falls apart when you start asking yourself why they couldn't just have settled for an uninhabited planet and saved themselves some bother. There are some good set-pieces, but once the Cordelaine signal is switched off (another contradiction to the Sontarans' "we loves fightin', we does" characterisation) they're essentially cannon fodder.
The story brings UNIT back into Doctor Who, fully, for the first time. Nice and all as it is to see them, there's very little to make you care about them. The thing about UNIT, first time around, was that it had characters; you'd remember Benton and Yates, and then there was the dear old Brig - witty, good-hearted, but still prepared to blow the Silurians to kingdom come. This time there's just... um... that guy who leads them (a stiff English-type who doesn't get a single memorable scene). On their own merits, sadly, UNIT just aren't very interesting; certainly, they're far less interesting than Torchwood were at the end of Series Two (bright 'n' shiny yuppie-office, secretly working to restore the British Empire and fight off the alien hordes; I'll take that over soldiers with red berets, thanks). They seem to be there to allow the Doc to do some wholly hypocritical spouting off about people who carry guns - presumably he's forgotten Dalek and The Parting of the Ways, then - which is almost as strange as the retort, in which Captain Forgettable implies that the TARDIS is a weapon. Quite how something with no offensive capabilities qualifies as a weapon is anyone's guess (but understanding what constitutes a "weapon" isn't something Series 4 is particularly good at).
The plot holds together in a superficial way, but there's never a point at which anything feels real, and the motivations make no sense. The obvious question is why the Sontarans - a cloned species, who must therefore have billions of soldiers to spare - don't just take the earth by force, but even if you swallow the basic premise there are other difficulties. By now we've become so desperate to give Donna something to do that we've started establishing her as SuperTemp (in much the same way that Peri kept collecting flowers during Colin Baker's era because no one could think of any discernible character beyond "Botanist"). So it's Donna, rather than UNIT, who notices that none of the staff in the Factory Under Alien Control have taken sick days. But you just know that the paperwork would be the first place that any bureaucratic organisation would look, and even that's not as annoying as the fact that it doesn't make a blind bit of difference to the plot anyway. In much the same way, the "evil double" is almost entirely extraneous, and feels like the story padding it so clearly is.
Martha is used reasonably well in this story, but it's hard to see why she had to be brought back; the character's pretty much the same old Martha. Never the greatest actress, Freema Agyeman nonetheless has a vulnerability that makes the character work, even if her evil twin is really rather likeable. As for Catherine My Favourite Actress... actually, the TateWatch meter is relatively idle in this episode, largely because the script doesn't really give Donna anything to do. Her main job is to go home and emote, but - even if affectionate chats with Bernard Cribbins are one of the few things Tate can do reasonably well - this domestic storyline is getting tired by now. Besides, it's horribly scripted. Remember how EcclesDoc brought Rose back a year late by mistake, therefore emphasising the disconnection from the real world that travelling with the Doctor brings? Well, Donna walks down the street and has flashbacks. Gee, that's original.
(It should also be mentioned that bringing Donna home has the unfortunate side-effect of comparison; Donna's mum is pretty much the same character as Donna, and the actress who plays her is about ninety-one times better than Tate is.)
In fact, the flashback scene is pretty much the story's problems in microcosm. It's not a particularly terrible scene, just a desperately uninventive one, which only appears to be there to ape previous Doctor Who story formats rather than having anything to say in its own right.
Which brings me back to this review's central question. Objectively, you simply can't call this story a failure. It touches all its bases with efficiency, and it resolves itself neatly. And yet, that just isn't enough, really. Fundamentally, "efficiency" just isn't enjoyable. There's no invention, no wit, nothing to say, no reason for the story to exist at all. At the conclusion, The Sontaran Invasion leaves you with nothing but a bitter sense of wondering why you bothered. It's as cloned and generic as the Sontarans it portrays. The only reason you can't call it a failure is that it doesn't set out to do anything interesting in the first place; it doesn't fail, because it doesn't try.
Final reaction; Ho, hum, I think I'll get a takeaway tonight. And I'll try not to remember that Doctor Who used to be really, really, really good, or I'll just start getting depressed again.
A Review by Joe Ford 2/10/08
Some people really have it in for this story don't they? Is it because Helen Raynor wrote what is now considered as the worst two-parter since the series returned? Is it because it contained so many kisses to the past but refused to re-imagine them? Or is it because we simply demand more these days than to be simply entertained for a couple of hours? I genuinely feel that if this story had taken place in the middle of, say, season nine, this would be revered as one of the best of the Pertwee era and, let's be frank, this harks back to that golden age beautifully. Again, it sounds like I am making a case for season four which in spots featured some of the best Doctor Who, but there were a few moments where the naysayers might have actually had a point. Whilst I enjoyed this two-parter, I think it took the time of a more deserving mutli-part episode (especially when compared to the quality of the other double-length stories later in the season).
It is a warm welcome back to Martha Jones who, played by the charismatic Freema Agyeman, was one of the warmest and most energetic companions yet. In this post-Rose world it seems that thinking any companion could match up to the all conquering Piper is heresy but I must admit I much prefer Martha's professionalism and charm, and Donna's no-nonsense attitude as they are what I look for in a companion (not syrupy doe-eyes). The reason Martha called the Doctor back to Earth might be a bit tenuous, but it is great to see through his eyes how much she has changed. Let's be honest, this is the best embodiment of female empowerment post-Doctor in any companion we have seen and it is refreshing for the show to continue to open new avenues when it comes to his assistants. Martha could have strolled off into the sunset never to be seen again, but here she is, stronger, fitter, moral and an integral part of the biggest military organisation in the world. Sarah Jane might be similarly empowered, but Martha has some real muscle behind her. Gone is the unrequited love story of yesteryear (Martha has hooked up with that gorgeous Tom Milligan from last year's finale) and in steps a woman who knows and understands the Doctor, and, better, is willing to stand up to him.
Such a shame then that the story teases us with this strong characterisation and then has Martha abducted, cloned and put out of action. Whilst this bears a striking similarity to an Alias plotline in season two (its Fake Francie... I mean Martha!), it seems that new, improved Martha is destined to be sidelined as she was in her Torchwood triplet (well maybe not Reset, but what did she do in the other two?). The upside (there usually is one) is that Agyeman gets to play evil for this two parter and to give her her due she doesn't overdo it, even when the script gives her an easy opportunity to. I do like "the killer among us" storylines, but evil Martha is not the best example I have seen, simply because this is a family show so the worst she can do is stop a nuclear war...
...say WHAT NOW? A nuclear war? What could possibly lead to that? Which deadly species could possibly make things THAT bad?
Doctor Who might have become a victim of its own success as the return of the Sontarans was heavily publicized (and indeed in the title) and thus did not have the wow factor of the return of the Macra last year. The fact that I have just written that sentence fills me with horror but hey ho. I love the Sontarans, they have always been a great monster because they have that little touch of Doctor Who magic: they're different to anything you have seen anywhere else. Like the Daleks, Erato, the Vervoids, the Slitheen, the Autons, etc, you cannot imagine them popping up on any other show. Short, mean and armed to the teeth, they have a glorious backstory imagined by the late, great Robert Holmes and a unique visual feel about them.
Their backlog of stories chronicles their success: The Time Warrior is a delicious piece of historical whimsy, introducing the race through one lone warrior who is characterised to the hilt; The Sontaran Experiment continues their run of luck with a biting two parter that reveals their sadistic nature; The Invasion of Time sees them step up a notch and ingeniously piggyback off of an existing failed invasion and attempt to conquer Gallifrey; and The Two Doctors take us one step further to their goal of defeating the Rutans by attempting to master time travel. What I like about this two parter is its continuation of that over-arching story. What at first appears to be a mere invasion of Earth (why would they bother when they have a war to fight?) becomes another important step in their glorious conquest of the galaxy. The poison they are pumping into the air is not just a (rather odd but effective) weapon, but a key to their very survival. The story builds up for us to expect a the usual power-hungry conquest of the Earth for no other reason than the subjugation of its people and pays us off with an unexpected turn that Sontarans just want the planet, not the people. Very clever.
I agree with Russell T Davies, I think SatNav is a really creepy idea. Oh it works don't get me wrong, I got to a party in record time the other week but the idea of a machine in your car that can direct you where it likes is creepy. That is a ripe idea for Doctor Who and Raynor gives us a superior pre-credits sequence for the first episode. I remember seeing the car diving into the water on the cinema trailer and thinking this was going to be the best year ever. Maybe the story stresses the pollution angle too far (I really didn't like Sylvia's blatant mission statement dialogue in The Poison Sky: "All that stuff about pollution, its really happening, isn't it?" - yeah all right Raynor, no need to beat us round the head with it; even kids can pick up a theme) but this really is a new take on an alien invasion. The hypno-Cybersignal, the plastic manniquins coming to life, the War machines on every street, the aggressive vegetation... we thought we had seen every form of invasion but the Sontaran plan is insidious because it relies on human laziness and ingenuity. We build cars so we don't have to walk, we build SatNav so we don't have to think, put the two together and you have an effective weapon. Millions and millions of weapons. Whilst confining the smoke-filled areas on screen to a suburban street and an Asda carpark might have been underselling the idea, the shot of the gas-soaked Earth from above really strikes home the scale of this problem. Whilst the Hartnell era saw Doctor Who genuinely experiment, everything since bar a few exceptions has been a variation on those ideas. The Sontaran Strategem two-parter proves quite nicely how, 40 years on, you can still tell fresh stories using the same tools.
So we have the Earthbound setting, the monster, the only thing missing to make this a true Pertwee adventure is UNIT. Oh wait. If any story desperately needed the Brigadier in it was this one. Not The Android Invasion, or Seeds of Doom, this one. I quite liked Mace but could you imagine the thrill of seeing Lethbridge-Stewart back in charge saving the world from an invasion on this scale? It's nice to know that UNIT have improved their recruitment policy; no more drippy Mike Yates or Benton, instead we have a squadron of hot and fit young men. Ross is our Yates for this story and he has bags of charm; what a shame we won't be seeing him again. When UNIT unveil their big surprise in the second half I was pleasantly reminded of Stargate and their deadalus-style spacecraft; clearly UNIT are salvaging and using technology (in this case the Master's design) to their advantage. For a while you wonder if all this muscle is just for show but then UNIT kick ass in spectacular style that leaves you punching the air and bristling with fanboy pride. I did like the little touches, the UNIT dating comment, Sir Alistair, the kiss, the lingering shot on Ross' corpse... little moments that add to the experience of having UNIT back.
Mike comments in his review that Donna does't do anything and her family reunion is passe. Donna, like in every story of season four, gets some great moments. What fans forget is that these people the Doctor drags off the street are normal people, like us. The truth of the matter is if you were whisked off into time and space you would be totally out of your depth. Would you smash a Dalek up with your baseball bat? Would you blast a Cyberman at five paces? You'd probably fall to pieces! That's why Sarah Jane worked so well because she was so often completely out of her depth and terrified, that's why we could empathise with her. Donna is the Sarah Jane for the next generation. When she returns to Earth she wants to see her family (after her hair-raising adventures it is not surprising, there was every chance she may not have seen them again) and when she is transported on board the Sontaran ship she is absolutely terrified. I love the scene where she is just sitting in the TARDIS waiting for the phone to ring, with no plan. That is exactly what I would be doing. We have seen companions take on hordes of Sontarans before but the simple act of taking a mallet and killing one seems so much braver when the companion is this frightened. There are lots of other nuggets: we all expected Donna to hate Martha and instead they get on like a house on fire, her lack of reaction when the Doctor gives her the TARDIS key, "Back of the neck!", Catherine Tate's chemistry with Bernard Cribbins and more importantly with David Tennant. I could have done without the comic "parting" scene but that is mostly because, for once, Tennant doesn't pull it off but Tate's comeback is superb. No wonder they gave her Turn Left.
The story sort of washes over you with spectacle. You've got to love how the story has no other ambition but to fill up two hours of your life with feel good treats. The first half has some pacing problems; I certainly wouldn't have made the scene where the soldiers discover the clone so long and you have to wonder why the Sontarans were revealed in such unspectacular fashion (is the director Peter Moffat?). I get the feeling that the entire Rattigan subplot is there just to pad out the plot and feel that the story would lose the majority of its problems if it was excised. The second episode is easily the superior of the two with the scale, the action, the performances and the writing all stepping up a notch to make this as epic as possible. The huge warehouse action-sequence is about as flash bang (well that describes it as well as anything) as Doctor Who has ever been and the conclusion provides a great moment of satisfaction as General Staal's smile drops as he sees he lands on the teleport. As a package, the story lacks ambition; despite the smart ideas, it never tries to push its storytelling beyond evil duplicates and explosions but at least it doesn't pretend to be more than it is.
Lots of moments make the overall experience more attractive. Martha leading the raid on the warehouse, Donna pointing out the sickness folder, the Doctor and the squash racket, the brilliantly pathetic explosion in the UNIT jeep, Sylvia and the axe, Donna's face as she sees the Sontarans marching towards her, the Doctor switching over to CBBC during the Sontaran war chant, "The bravery of fools is bravery nonetheless", the flames tearing through the Empire State Building, "and to be honest you smell", Rattigan's "Sontar-HA!" and, of course, that brilliantly overdone cliffhanger that belongs in the classic series. This is a story that is less than the sums of its parts but lots of those parts are very good.
Christopher Ryan deserves a huge round of applause for the energy and charisma he gives Staal. Let's not underplay what he has achieved here, introducing children to the Sontarans, scaring the pants of them, chewing up and spitting out some marvellous lines and standing up to the Doctor in two brilliant scenes. All at four foot tall! Staal is a terrific villain and deserved a rematch; he gives Kevin Lindsay a run for his money as the best Sontaran yet.
A triumph of style over substance, this early fourth season two-parter plays the nostalgia card, bringing back elements of old and new Doctor Who and finally locking them together to create one. This is exciting, funny, hugely entertaining and about deep as a puddle.
A Review by Finn Clark 14/11/10
I don't understand. I went off to read a few reviews and found everyone slagging off this story, even people who like it.
Let's look at the themes. Notice the mirroring of the heroes and villains, for instance. Each side has a civilian genius working alongside a military force. There's examination of attitudes to war, death and glory. Ironically, the Sontarans and UNIT basically agree on everything that's important, except that the Sontarans are doing it because they want to. They believe in this nonsense. They live and breathe honour. In other words they're complete twonks and I had to laugh at the way they think it's glorious to get needlessly killed. Gigantic Cliche #1 (the "tell your ally too much information and make him your enemy" scene) works better than I've ever seen before, since it's all characterisation for General Staal. He's an evil git and he's gloating. Obviously all this makes him look like an idiot, but that's just what he is!
Similarly, the difference between the Doctor and Rattigan is that the latter's excited by it all. Death is "cool". This of course is hiding a nasty mix of hatred, alienation and self-loathing, which is what eventually destroys him and makes his character arc so satisfying. Compared with other doomed collaborators with aliens, he's far more interesting and thematically significant than the usual greedy halfwits. The Doctor on the other hand is being obstructive and childish towards UNIT, in an "I read too many Target novelisations as a child" way that reminded me of certain Virgin NAs. His attitude towards guns in particular is overdone, but it's nice to see an example of apparently dumb 'n' shooty SF going against the tide of drooling gun fetishisation that seems to be inherent in, well, mankind.
Besides, the first time he starts getting silly, Martha challenges him on it. Then there's his reaction to Rattigan's gun, which immediately became one of my favourite moments in Who.
My one problem with the story is that the theme is being undermined by UNIT's dullness. It doesn't occur to you to compare them with the Sontarans or indeed almost anything at all, because they're generic soldiers who exist to shoot guns and give the rest of the cast something to react against. Martha works for them, yes, but she's not wearing a beret. If you whittle it down to actual uniform-wearing soldiers, they're bland. They don't even bear comparison with Bambera's lot in Battlefield, let alone the Pertwee family. In fairness, I really like Clive Standen, who gives lots of personality to Private Harris in just one scene and I'm not surprised at all that they brought him back in Turn Left. However, apart from him, there's no one you'll remember. Ross is okay, but nothing special.
As for Colonel Mace, he's forgettable even when actually onscreen. The Doctor treats him like dirt, but you don't care because he's both so spineless and pig-headed. He never says or does anything to make the Doctor respect him, not even a little bit.
Then, on top of all that, we have the ecological aspect. Cars are poisoning us. Satnav and the internal combustion engine are taking over our lives. After it's all over, Donna's mum celebrates people starting to walk and use their bicycles again.
Most of the performances are good. Tennant and Tate are well up to their usual standard, with Tate in particular getting a number of trademark Donna scenes in which she undercuts what we'll call... oooh, a Russell T. Davies moment. I loved all of those. Then there are Donna's scenes on the Sontaran ship, which are hands-down the show's best "just an ordinary person" material for a companion to date. I still love her family, especially Bernard Cribbins. As for Freema, I remember thinking she was bad this year, but I'll be damned if I can see it here. I liked her too. In particular, I loved where they took the clone subplot.
Of the others, Ryan Sampson does wonders with the deceptively tricky role of Rattigan. He could have easily come across as a self-obsessed loser in need of a clue and/or a good kicking, but instead Sampson creates a character who's full of energy and is compelling even when not remotely likeable. I'm impressed. Sampson's work is a lot of why the finale works as well as it does, despite on the face of it being Gigantic Cliche #2.
Meanwhile, the Sontarans are stonking too. They're wonderful aliens, rich in personality and offering so much more to an actor than the usual "resistance is useless". Christopher Ryan is doing such an uncanny Kevin Lindsay impersonation that it comes as a shock to hear Dan Starkey's more conventional accent, but they're both cool. Apparently, when preparing for the role, Ryan bought all the Old Who Sontaran stories on DVD. Respect.
Raynor's work has always felt more to me like that of a fan than anyone else's on New Who. There are personal comments about Sontarans, comparing them with trolls and baked potatoes. For the first time, their cloning technology is important for the plot, while they're again shown to have some kind of time technology when the Doctor's examining the ATMOS in Bernard Cribbins's car. The line about Martha's "thorax" reminded me of The Time Warrior. We discover that their war started 50,000 years ago. Hell, they're even short again! I'm disappointed we didn't meet any Rutans, though.
I haven't even yet mentioned the Sontaran war dance, which is not only a wonderful peek into their psyche but also provides a scary character moment when Rattigan takes it upon himself to join in. It says so much about his needy loser personality, but of course the audience is expecting him to get smeared across a couple of star systems any second now for his pains. Then of course the Sontarans are also shown to be impressively nasty. "Reporting for duty, sir." Zap zap. You bastard.
However, my favourite thing in the story is Gigantic Cliche #3, which of course we can see coming a mile off until it gets subverted in one brilliant line. "I've got to give them a choice."
On the downside, though, I could see what Tomoko meant about the editing being too quick. For the most part, this is far too subtle a point for a layman like me, but check out the pre-credits recap for Episode Two. What the hell is that?
I really rate this story. It feels very familiar, but that doesn't mean we have to overlook the skill that went into its construction. It even has some good jokes, e.g. "are you my mummy?" and the non-exploding jeep. The bit immediately beforehand is like Captain Kirk blowing up a computer by saying "why?", though. If only we'd had a less generic UNIT, this could have been wonderful.
SONTAR HA! SONTAR HA! by Evan Weston 5/2/16
Helen Raynor puts me in an awkward position as an author. As the first woman to write for televised Who in the new series era, Raynor certainly deserves plaudits for breaking through and providing another perspective through which the show can be written. Unfortunately, and this is in no way a comment on her gender, Raynor just isn't very good at writing Doctor Who. Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks was a weird, deeply flawed attempt at spinning an old enemy, and almost nothing in it worked. The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky isn't quite as bad, but maybe that's because it's not nearly as ambitious. Instead, what we have here is a turgid bore, a piece that perhaps works on paper as a fairly straightforward actioner but comes out on the screen as a derivative mess.
Absolutely nothing happens in The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky that hasn't already happened elsewhere in fiction. We have so many tropes on display here: a good character cloned into a villain, an invading force with an ulterior motive, a teenage genius that sees himself ahead of mankind, a military commander who cannot hear a goddamn word the protagonist is saying, a hero who saves the day when given five seconds to do so. We even have a nuclear-launch sequence stopped at the last possible second. The worst thing about all this is that the tropes are being used without the slightest hint of irony. They are played in a totally serious manner that suggests Raynor thought this level of storytelling would work in 2008. Quite frankly, it's a little insulting, and my eyes got a real workout from rolling throughout the episode.
What this all boils down to, of course, is Series 4 intentionally dumbing itself down again for what it believes is its audience. I've hinted at this in past reviews, particularly in The Fires of Pompeii (where a lot of the same themes crop up), but it's time to address the situation. At this point, Doctor Who was a global phenomenon, and it's apparent that Davies and the other writers felt they needed to write to a broader audience. So instead of the heart-stopping scares of Blink or deeply complex moral questions of Human Nature/The Family of Blood, we're stuck with the Doctor running around the rural outskirts of London with some dude named Ross. It's the fourth series' worst sin, and it's why it can claim to be the worst run of modern Doctor Who without much argument from anyone.
As for this overstuffed-yet-ephemeral two-parter, The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky is just sort of there. Yes, things happen, and I suppose it's entertaining enough for the kiddies, but nothing ever feels important or essential. UNIT is completely wasted, morphed into an outdated army platoon that refuses to make anything resembling an intelligent choice until the plot absolutely demands it. Unfortunately, Freema Agyeman's return to the role of Martha Jones is nearly tossed in with the UNIT drivel, with only Agyeman's reliably great performance saving the character. Martha is removed from the proceedings for about half the episode, as she's too busy being evil - hey guys, Billie was a villain once so let's make Freema do it too! - and then Raynor has the gall to try and play up the clone's death as something poignant. Good grief. We do get some fun banter between Martha and Donna in the opening few minutes, but that ends far too quickly.
Donna doesn't actually do all that much in the first 70 or so minutes of the story, visiting her family and then ending up trapped on the Sontaran ship. She gets to save the day at the end, and the Doctor working her through her ordeal is actually one of the few pleasant surprises the script offers. However, we have to endure Tate's yammering before that, and Raynor also has Donna suggest the proper solution to an early problem based on "I was a temp for years." Yes, Donna totally has the experience required to successfully navigate Atmos' files and find exactly what you're looking for. More ridiculous pandering. On a positive note, with Donna's return home, we get our first extended look at Wilfred Mott, and that cannot be a negative in any universe. Bernard Cribbins is among the finest actors to ever appear on Doctor Who, and, while I'll have more good things to say about him in my The End of Time review, he's easily the best thing in this episode. Though why Wilf locks himself in his car for the cliffhanger, I'll never understand...
The other performances in The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky are a mixed bag, to be sure. The best of the bunch is veteran character actor Christopher Ryan as the villainous General Staal, who is both easily the most convincing heavy in the story and the most entertaining. Ryan greases up his lines with a lovely zest, punching just the right notes to keep the Sontaran warlord from being completely ridiculous while also giving him an appropriately campy flavor. The same cannot be said, however, for Dan Starkey as Staal's right-hand man, Commander Skorr. It's no wonder Steven Moffat decided to use Starkey as the now-famous comic relief character Strax; Skorr is ten miles over the top, and impossible to take seriously as a threat. No one else in the episode stands out as particularly good or bad one way or the other, though I always enjoy Jacqueline King as Donna's neurotic mother Sylvia.
David Tennant ends up somewhere in the middle here, playing along with the silly script as usual. He gets the funniest line, a hilarious callback to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances that works on multiple levels. Interestingly, though, Tennant does seem a bit more exasperated with what he's being forced to do than he did in the first three episodes of the run. Maybe he's just annoyed with having to act opposite the insanely annoying Rattigan character, who makes no sense and is never remotely interesting, despite the best efforts of young actor Ryan Sampson. Rattigan is played up as a sinister brat throughout the episode, then randomly chooses to kill himself in order to save the Doctor and humanity at the end. Again, I can see why Raynor thinks this would work - it puts into use the "villain who loses everything turns good to make amends" trope to a T - but for a character that was so utterly selfish for the entire story, it feels totally out of place. That happens with almost every major plot point here, whether it's the clone's CRY NOW, DAMMIT death, the planned nuclear strike, the arrival of the Valiant, or Staal's ridiculous introduction, in which two presumably high-ranking UNIT soldiers are played as complete imbeciles. No development here is earned; it simply occurs.
It's really not worth getting into minute detail about this one, because everything just sort of sits there. The plot happens because it needs to happen, characters live and die based on whether or not they need to be in the next episode, and almost no good will is earned towards the script or the principles. The thing is, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky is competently made. I haven't said a bad thing about the production, nor do I have to; the Sontarans and their ship look terrific, and the set pieces are completely convincing, though the cinematography is merely good. It's just that if you're looking for engaging, intelligent science fiction, this story is a waste of 90 minutes, and that's not the level of work we expect from this show. A pat on the back to Raynor for her social achievement, but I wish the honor had gone to a better writer.