THIS EPISODE TAKES
EPISODE "PLANET OF THE
OOD" AND IMMEDIATELY
'THE COMPLETE FOURTH
SERIES' HMV EXCLUSIVE
DVD BOX SET (BBCDVD
2609) RELEASED IN
DOCTOR Martha Jones
summons the Doctor
back to modern-day
Earth, but an old
enemy lies in wait...
26TH APRIL 2008
(45-MINUTE EPISODE, PART 1 OF 2)
Like the Silurians and the Yeti, the Sontarans are certainly one of Doctor Who’s more memorable second-tier monsters, and as such I wasn’t at all surprised when the news broke that they were being resurrected for the new series. However, I can’t say that I was especially excited by the prospect as I’ve always found the Sontarans to be rather generic. Stormtroopers. Footsoldiers. Skinhead thugs. Little more.
However, I’m pleased to report that the Sontarans of The Sontaran Stratagem are much better rounded and much more imposing than the bland Sontarans of yesteryear. Helen Raynor’s script is head and shoulders above those that have preceded it because it is fundamentally about the Sontarans. They aren’t just bludgeoned into a story for the hell
of it because they’re reasonably popular; on the contrary. Raynor’s story is built upon the Sontarans’ more noteworthy traits, such as their proclivity for cloning and their unrivalled
love for war.
There’s also been a lot of hype surrounding this episode as it sees Freema Agyeman return to the fold as Martha Jones. Now a Doctor in her own right, Martha is a very different woman to the one that walked out on the Doctor at the end of Last of the Time Lords. She is all bus-iness; so much so that Donna accuses the Doctor of having turned her “into a soldier”. This observation is perhaps a little harsh though; as Martha is keen to point out, she doesn’t carry a gun.
“When you have two hearts, three is clearly not a crowd.”
I was pleased to see that Raynor doesn’t dwell too much on the reunion. Though the scene where the Doctor and Donna meet Martha is undeniably tense, it is succinct and it doesn’t descend into the sort of catfight that the Doctor had on his hands when Rose met Sarah Jane in School Reunion. Indeed, the boyfriend mentioned in Martha’s recent Torchwood appearances has now become the fiancé, and any lingering lust for the Time Lord looks
to have long since departed. This, coupled with the fact that Donna’s feelings for the Time Lord are platonic, means that there is nothing for the pair to fight about. David Tennant and Freema Agyeman are both marvellous here, and Catherine Tate – who during filming took two weeks to realise that there were actually actors inside the Sontaran costumes, having originally assumed that they “ran on electric”! – is really at her best.
I also think that it’s very fitting for UNIT to return in full force in this episode as the Sontarans are, essentially, a race of soldiers. And on the whole I was very impressed with how Raynor portrayed the modern UNIT, although it does have to be said that they look naked without the Brigadier!
Nevertheless, Raynor does a far better job than the classic series ever did in fleshing out the characters in the lower ranks. Not only do we have the Doctor’s pseudo-companion Private Ross Jenkins here, but we have also have the two privates who first discover the Sontaran presence and end up being brainwashed. All three of these characters are given sufficient screen time to be invested with a little personality, really making the viewer care about these mere “grunts”. Christian Cooke (Echo Beach, Demons) is particularly good as Private Ross Jenkins; until I saw his scenes I had forgotten how effective a military foil to the Doctor could be.
“It’s like a talking baked potato.”
There are also some nice nods to the old UNIT days too – the Doctor’s quip about being unsure as to when he actually worked for the organisation will have no doubt have amused many fans (it certainly did me), and it was also rather affecting to see the old call signs “Gr-eyhound” and “Trap One” still being used. What I don’t get though is why Raynor changed
the acronym to stand for the “Unified Intelligence Taskforce” instead of the “United Nations Intelligence Taskforce”, especially given that the organisation’s United Nations funding is referred to explicitly in the dialogue. Bizarre.
The character of Luke Rattigan is well done, albeit a little cliché. It
has long been a staple of Doctor Who that an invading alien force
will have a human agent of some description, but I don’t ever recall
it being a complicit adolescent before. However, these ‘boy genius’
characters always seems to work far better as heels (just look at
how reviled Adric was, or Adam for that matter) and here Raynor
has really cashed in on this antipathy. Ryan Sampson (who went
to the school that my sister teaches English at, incidentally) imbues
the megalomaniac youngster with a hint of mania that is really quite
disturbing. I think it is Jenkins who likens Rattigan’s academy to the
Hitler youth, a particularly pungent metaphor considering the might
of the army that is backing the little tyrant.
Rattigan’s inclusion in the script also allows Raynor to have great fun with another Doctor Who tradition – taking the mundane and making it frightening. “Evil SatNav” is, simply put,
an inspired idea - I certainly won’t be looking at my TomTom in the same way again! The
SatNav element is only the tip of the iceberg though here – Rattigan’s terrifying ATMOS project, designed with the intention of making every car on the planet a weapon, is simply too unsettling for words.
“We stare into the face of death!”
As for the Sontarans themselves, Chris Ryan
(The Young Ones, Bottom) is extra-ordinary
as General Staal; he has far more in the way of
personality than any of the other Sontarans –
Linx included – that we have seen on television
before. The design of the Sontaran armour and
their credible make-up are both magnificently
effective, and the realisation of their spherical battleships is perhaps even better. I’m very
pleased - and even a bit relieved - that the distinctive design of the Sontaran ships has
remained much the same as it always was. I’m also gratified to see that the ‘probic vents’
on the back of the Sontarans’ necks are present and correct.
For me though, the Sontarans’ most powerful scene was one of the episode’s last, where they are preparing to go to a war footing and they are all chanting “Sontar-ha!” and punching their hands. It put me in mind of highly regimented military organisations like the SAS, and also of soccer casuals and their primal and communal craving for combat. Raynor’s script really gets across the love that the Sontarans have for what they do.
“There is an enemy of the Sontarans known as the Doctor. A face-changer.
Legend says he led the battle in the Last Great Time War.
The finest war in history and we weren’t allowed to be part of it.”
What I don’t understand though is why Ryan didn’t play all of the Sontarans. As they are a clone race, in theory at least they should all look the same. Even in practice, Linx and Styre were identical, for example. This aside though, the cloning thread of the story worked very well; through it Raynor was able to treat us to some truly creepy scenes like the two UNIT privates discovering the amorphous, gollum-like clone festering in the tank, as well as truly iconic scenes like Martha’s evil clone rising up out of the slime. Brilliant stuff.
“He’s wonderful. He’s brilliant. But he’s like fire. Stand too close and people get burnt.”
Furthermore, Martha’s return has not seen Donna short-changed: indeed, The Sontaran Stratagem sees Donna make significant contributions to the plot – her discovery about the ATMOS employees’ lack of sick days, for example – as well as being given the chance to return home for the first time. I love the scene where Donna gets out of the UNIT jeep and walks down her old street. Douglas MacKinnon’s direction is gorgeous; the unusual angles work extremely well. The way the camera starts off above Donna and then slowly levels off
in a way represents her return to ordinariness; her return home. Her tearful reunion with her Grandfather, Wilf, is also nicely done. Raynor didn’t even need to write any dialogue for the scene – everything that needed to be said is there in Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins’ heartfelt performances.
However, in this week’s episode of Doctor Who Confidential, Russell T Davies makes a very good point – Doctor Who is not a soap opera. Fair dues, a companion’s family may form part of the show’s tapestry these days but, when all is said and done, when they show up it is only so that they can be put in mortal danger. And this series has spent so much time building up Wilf’s amiable character that when he is put in danger at the end of this episode, it hurts. The audience really don’t want to see anything bad happen to the old stargazer…
Overall there is very little not like about The Sontaran Stratagem. The only grumble that I could have is that the episode doesn’t seem to rattle along quite as quickly as the foregoing three episodes have done. I’m hesitant to call The Sontaran Stratagem slow though; it is perhaps better described as being ‘traditionally’ paced. As the story gets longer and the canvas gets deeper, the pace can often suffer a little bit. This is more than made up for by the episode’s virtues though. This one is certainly not to be missed.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
When is now? This story takes place between Partners in Crime (late December 2008) and Beautiful Chaos (Friday 15th May 2009). As Beautiful Chaos suggests that these events took place only shortly before that novel, we take the view that they took place in late April 2009, approximately a year ahead of transmission.
When were the Blunder Days? Here the Doctor comments that he worked for UNIT in either the 1970s or 1980s; he’s not sure which decade. He’s not the only one…
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.