War of the Sontarans

Story No. 326 He wanted to ride a horse
Production Code Series 13, Episode 2
Dates November 7, 2021

With Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop
Written by Chris Chibnall Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive Producers: Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Nikki Wilson

Synopsis: The TARDIS lands in the middle of thre Crimean war, but nobody has heard of the Russians.


Hidden Figures by Jason A. Miller 9/12/21

We open the second installment of Flux on a Crimean war battlefield. In typical Doctor Who fashion, the first person the TARDIS fam meets is a famous historical figure, Mary Seacole --

-- wait, who?

Honestly, I had no idea who Mary Seacole was before watching the episode. Never heard the name before. A mixed-race English/Jamaican healer setting up a hotel/hospital near the front lines during the Crimean War? I can tell you for a fact this was not taught in my public school or college classes in the US in the 1970s, '80s or '90s. And it took Doctor Who to introduce me to this remarkable figure's life. I knew all about Florence Nightingale, of course, but someone like Mary Seacole is lost to history, at least here in the States.

That's one of the most positive aspects of the Chris Chibnall era on Doctor Who, putting the spotlight on historical personages who are mostly forgotten to history, but no less important than many of the figures who are taught in schools, colleges, universities.

The central conceit, Sontarans perverting the course of human history (now where have I heard that phrase before?) and riding horseback in the Crimean War, is a brilliant one, utterly Doctor Who, funny and serious at the same time. This takes up the bulk of Chapter Two, with a key subplot involving a Sontaran bridgehead on Dan Lewis' Earth of the year 2021.

Befitting Mary Seacole's status as a hidden figure in history, most the rest of Chapter Two consists of hiding. The hidden Sontaran forces in the Crimea. Dan and his (utterly hilarious, charming) parents, hiding from Sontar forces in 21st-century Liverpool. The hidden Temple of Atropos, which shouldn't even exist ("It can't be," says Vinder, enigmatically) on the previously unknown planet Time. And other key figures from Chapter One, not returning for Chapter Two -- Diane, Claire, the Weeping Angel -- hidden from sight entirely. And let's not forget an out-of-focus Jodie Whittaker, striding out of the mist to parlay with the Sontaran commander.

What's wonderful about War of the Sontarans is how it makes room for countless little character moments, in between the overarching and interlinking season plots. Yaz's written "What would the Doctor do?" reminder. Vinder cleverly getting the overly literal Priest Triangles to explain their mission. Dan Starkey's Sontaran character's death with dishonor and resigned final "Sontar-ho". Did I mention how awesome Dan's parents are? "And also, I wanted to ride a horse," justifies the Sontaran's commander's presence in the Crimea. And the Doctor, with great sorrow, quoting from "The Charge of the Light Brigade", as the Sontaran massacre of General Logan's Light Brigade is on.

The humor is also a fairly new development for Chibnall. The Doctor/Dan video communication across Sontaran ships is hilarious, owing a bit to a similar scene in Partners in Crime, but no less funny here. It took me until second viewing to get Karvanista's line about having "a human in this fight". OMG.

I wasn't crazy about Lt. General Logan's "final solution" to the Sontaran problem. Too many Jodie Whittaker-era stories seem to end with her standing there confused and upset as some male character destroys the fragile peace-with-honor that it just took her the whole episode to achieve. This, too, seems like a lift from an earlier Russell T. Davies script, here The Christmas Invasion, but unlike the 10th Doctor, Whittaker is not able to bring down the wrongdoer with just six simple whispered words. I love how Whittaker is able to deliver Chibnall's often-awkward dialogue with enthusiastic bewilderment, intentionally getting lost in some of his more poorly written sentences before triumphantly finding her way to the end, but I dislike how she always seems to end each episode on the back foot.

War of the Sontarans, then, is a good mix of a funny script, with adept physical comedy and wit from the Doctor, interesting historical perspectives, and enough scenes to drive forward the season-long story arc. It ends with a fine action cliffhanger involving a countdown, and a finger of death slowly reaching towards an imprisoned Yaz. This is some of the most effective and propulsive writing Chris Chibnall has given us so far, and it's a shame that it's taken him until his third and final season to get there.