The Sontaran Experiment
Target novelisation
Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment

Author Ian Marter Cover image
Published 1978
ISBN 0 426 20049 7
First Edition Cover Roy Knipe

Back cover blurb: Landing on Earth, now a barren, desolate planet, Sarah, Harry and the Doctor are unaware of the large, watching robot. The robot is the work of Styre, a Sontaran warrior, who uses all humans landing here for his experimental programmes. What has happened to the other space explorers who have come here? Why is the Sontaran scout so interested in Earth and in brutally torturing humans, including Sarah Jane? Will the Doctor be able to prevent an invasion and certain disaster, and save both Earth and his companions?


A vote for three digits... by Tim Roll-Pickering 22/3/04

Ian Marter stated in interviews that no-one else wanted to novelise this story and so he wound up doing it. As the first two parter to be novelised the natural trepidation of trying to turn barely forty-five minutes into a 128 page novelisation is understandable. It doesn't help that The Sontaran Experiment is very weak to start with, serving little more as a time filler and not offering much anyway beyond some action and location filming, so a novelisation has very little to work from. Ian Marter struggles bravely, adding in extra scenes such as Harry roaming about in some underground caves or later exploring Styr's (this spelling is used throughout the book, despite what the back cover blurb implies) spacecraft which is much bigger than onscreen and contains extra Sontarans and robots. But all this fails to convince as anything more than just extra padding which makes the novelisation exceedingly tedious to read, with few redeeming factors.

Marter does make some good contributions, usually correcting previous erros. So the Doctor, Sarah and Harry now arrive on Earth in the TARDIS (tieing in with Marter's previous novelisation Doctor Who and the Ark in Space) whilst Styr has three fingers/talons rather than the five that appeard onscreen. We also learn about Styr's oiley breath, a feature that has been returned to in the New Adventures. But these are mere scraplets in an otherwise dull novelisation. The blame cannot be laid solely at Ian Marter's door though, since the original source material is not the best for turning into a book. Target's policy at the time of producing straightforward novelisations must also bear some blame as the plots could not be substantially restructured to make them workable - something which might well have helped turn the story nto a more bearable form. What we're left with feels all too much like a mere attempt to produce a money spinner than anything good. As noted above this book is clear that Sontarans have only three fingers, not the five seen in the televised story. And holding back the thumb there is a very easy gesture that can be made with the remaining two fingers. A coincidence or is it being made to the readers? 1/10

An experiment in padding by Andrew Feryok 22/8/12

"The Doctor was so kind and so gentle..." Sarah whispered, "and he never wanted to harm anyone or anything..."
"Unfortunately, Sarah Jane," began Erak, "we live in a universe where that is not possible..."
"The Doctor lived in a universe all of his own," Sarah interrupted quietly.
"He certainly did, Sarah," Krans grunted...
- Sarah and Krans mourning the death of the Doctor, Chapter 8, pages 115 + 116
The Sontaran Experiment is one of those Doctor Who stories that just seems to exist in the general background noise of fan awareness. It doesn't offend anyone, but it's not a classic. It just sits there and does its business in the most efficient way possible and bridges the gap between two classic stories while continuing the story arc of the season concerning Space Station Nerva and the future Earth. In fact, the only reason this story is remembered at all is for its memorable Sontaran villain and this may be about as good as the Sontarans got on Doctor Who.

So an average runaround that was crying out to be written by Terrance Dicks was instead adapted by Ian Marter. This was Ian Marter in the early days of his novelizing so he would go above and beyond to really make the stories as gruesome and different from their TV counterparts as possible and this story is no exception. Clearly Ian Marter feared that the two part story was too slight to be able to fill a 100 page novella. As a result, whole chapters center around just one idea, whether it is Sarah undergoing her fear test or the Doctor dueling with Styre.

Ian Marter's writing style is very good and he wrings every ounce of terror he can from the little story. Styre's death in particular is really horrific and blows the "deflating head death" out of the water. Ian Marter makes many additions to the story some of which are good and some of which are not so good. Easily the best are the fear tests that Sarah Jane is put through. Instead of a few brief moments of vertigo and a shot of a snake, we now get Sarah thinking she's drowning, menaced by monster faces coming out of the rocks, dying of thirst in a desert, or turning into a metal statue! The imagery he produces are really gripping and would have looked great on TV if they had the time and budget.

The fight with Styre is also really good, with the fight ending when the Doctor pours scotch down Styre's air vent. There is also a really cool scene where Harry gets to explore the inside of a Sontaran ship. Like the TARDIS, it seems to be bigger inside than outside and my imagination went wild picturing a black control room with a central black orb with alcoves containing other dormant Sontarans charging up on power. I also loved when Harry got to crawl through some old lava vents in the mountain and caught his first glimpse of Styre in a lava chamber. Harry thinks he is a Golem from Earth mythology and spends a good deal of the book in utter wonder at the possibility of this being real.

Marter also gives a better explanation of why the Sontarans are interested in invading this planet. The Doctor at first thinks they are looking to mine a rare mineral that formed due to the solar flares, but then learns that they are in a fragile alliance to invade the galaxy. The long delays of Styre's report makes the alliance shaky and it utterly falls apart when the report never arrives. We also get a much better Servo Robot for Styre which looks less like a flimsy erector set creation and more like those probe droids from The Empire Strikes Back.

Some of the less successful changes include an odd opening in which the time travelers arrive by TARDIS instead of by transmat. Why Ian Marter decided to do this completely puzzles me. He had written the story that immediately precedes it so there was no danger of contradiction. Instead you get this odd and confusingly written sequence in which the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah attempt to leave the ship and then it becomes invisible and disappears. The Doctor gives no explanation as to what just happened and it isn't readily discernable from the text. Why didn't he just have them arrive by transmat and be done with it?

Another strange moment comes from how the Doctor saves Sarah Jane from the fear tests. On TV, he simply uses his sonic screwdriver and blasts the force field generator to bits. In the book, he goes through this elaborate and just as confusingly written sequence in which he tries to push his way through the force field enduring the energy feedback and nearly getting stuck in the field for good. I guess walking through force fields was an ability the Doctor had never disclosed before? Marter also makes no mention of the Sontaran's war against the Rutans and instead states that they have entered an alliance to colonize the galaxy.

The characters in the story are okay. The spacemen are still rather faceless fodder for Styre to torture. Styre is a much more interesting character. He is shown to be an utter sadist and he is seems to be more into to the physical pleasures of torturing people than actually accomplishing any scientific data. He goes to enormous lengths to try and extend the experiments as much as possible simply so that he can go on indulging in his own pleasures. He could care less whether the invasion falls apart or not!

The Doctor is a lot wackier as written by Ian Marter. He analyzes robot circuits using an old-fashioned hearing horn, and pours scotch down the vent pipe of Styre. But at the same time, he's also really dark. His fury at Styre for what he did to Sarah through the experiments is visceral and his concern for the safety of his friends are greatly apparent. The finale in which he watches Styre and his ship burn shows a darker side of the Doctor that doesn't always show.

Sarah comes across a bit more pigheaded than she was on screen and her treatment of Harry is just downright nasty. But this gets balanced out when she shows concern for Harry when he becomes injured and, when she thinks that the Doctor has died at the end of the story, she wastes no time in going to aide of Harry inside the Sontaran ship. Harry comes off very well in the book, which isn't surprising considering that the actor himself is writing it. He plays up Harry's heroics a bit more but isn't above making him a bit bumbling, such as his attempt to save Sarah from the fear experiments in which he blunders his way and becomes a pray to the horrific images as well.

On the whole, Ian Marter's book is pretty good. It definitely falls into the "special edition" version, and is much expanded and changed from its original TV counterpart. However, despite all the changes and Ian Marter's prose, he can't escape the fact that the basic story just wasn't all that exciting to begin with. It was a run-of-the-mill story meant to fill a gap in the schedule and no matter how much Ian Marter dresses it up in glitter and silk, its still an underwhelming story at its heart. 8/10