...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Day 2673: DOCTOR WHO: The Sontaran Stratagem


The Sontarans are back and they are NEW! But will they be a SMASH or have they had their CHIPS? Are they hard BOILED or is their Stratagem HALF BAKED? Is the Earth in for a ROASTING, will UNIT be able to repel the alien SAUTEE/SORTIE or, er, something about CROQUET/CROCKET…

[R: enough, enough of the potato jokes!]

A Sontaran Battle Group, yesterday
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Size, as they apparently also used to say on Gallifrey, matters.

Sontarans (pronounced Sont-ar-ans by everyone in the galaxy except Christopher Eccleston and Donna Noble it would seem) are famous for being short. Nasty, brutish and short, was the Doctor's description when he was abusing a quote from Hobbes. Except in "The Two Doctors" when, even apart from being the embarrassing comedy stooges for Servalan in a bacofoil robe, even apart from the director's baffling choice to reveal them in the middle distance of a long shot, even apart from having flappy necks and wider collars than a 1970s sports presenter, they are notoriously far too tall.

Possibly reacting against that, the 2008 new model Sontaran army is positively tiny. Too tiny, in fact. They look like children in toy suits of armour, and there is no sense of power or squatness about them. I think it's that they just taper away to nothing, with their wasp-waists and chicken legs. From the chest up, they're rather good, but in full length there's just something that looks wrong. The masks are rather good – Alex agrees about General Staal, but thinks that Commander Storr looks gormless, and I suppose he has a point – but they don't fulfil the original joke of the head being almost exactly as big as the domed helmet: those suits of armour necks are much larger than the Sontaran neck within. And those comedy Hobbit ears aren't good.

It looks, on the whole, as though the Cardiff production team are once again raiding Lawrence Miles' back catalogue. In the first "Faction Paradox" audio play and much more of the same in "About Time, Volume 3" the Sontarans are described as "troglodytes" and that is very much what they seem to have gone for here. But they're just not "hobgoblin-y" enough.

That's not to say that Christopher Ryan doesn't give us a wonderful performance as the General, truly a memorable villain but also and interestingly with an almost paternal air about him at times.

At the other end of the scale, though, their "fleet" is too small too.

As has been remarked of their surprisingly minimalist attack on Gallifrey: the Sontarans reproduce in millions: surely their fleets should have dozens of star-carriers, each capable of launching hundreds if not thousands of fighter-spheres.

Here they have only one medium-large ship with a few dozen support fighters – Alex really dislikes the fact that the elegant Sontaran sphere design, capable of motion in any direction, has had clumsy rocket pods stuck on the back to make them look more "spacey" – and yet Staal refers to it as if he has the whole of the Sontaran Tenth Army on board.

The only possible explanation – though there's nothing to establish it on-screen – is that this is an advance probe on a deep recon mission. That would fit with what we think we know of the Sontaran/Rutan conflict, namely that our galaxy is occupied by Rutan forces for some time until the twentieth century during which the Rutan Host stage a series of "strategic withdrawals" ("Horror of Fang Rock"), leaving the galaxy unimportant to their conflict until the Sontarans decide to occupy it some fifteen thousand years into the future ("The Sontaran Experiment").

Then there is the question of what the heck they are up to. As Alex has already remarked, skulking about in hiding, using a human proxy, developing ludicrous weapons that take advantage of our own technology rather than relying on their own strength: they are behaving like late sixties Cybermen. But why? They have a cruiser-class spaceship in orbit and almost certainly the technological superiority to defeat any possible Earth counter-offensive, even if – for whatever unmentioned reason – they don't have a full million-strong invasion force.

And even if they did think that Earth could mount an effective retaliation, these are Sontarans we are talking about: they love a fight and relish the opportunity to rush headlong into death or glory situations. I'm relatively surprised that no one has had Staal shot as a coward by now.

Again, it's possible that there's an explanation for this: either they're being cautious of Torchwood's Death Star or there are significant Rutan forces in the neighbourhood who might be alerted to their presence by a more traditional assault. It's possible, but there's no hint of an explanation on the screen. In fact, there's no mention of the Rutan at all – which is a surprise given that David Tennant is forced to gabble almost all of the rest of the Sontarans' backstory. And that's a shame, because one of the strengths of the Sontaran stories is that by framing everything they do in the context of their unending conflict with the Rutan enemy, it gives a sense that what's going on is meaningful as a part of a larger context. Basically, it's the much needed excuse for why this bunch of aliens are invading the Earth this week. Without that, it becomes run-of-the-mill.

Lawrence has got there ahead of me, but this week I think that he's rather got a point. After "Aliens of London", "The Christmas Invasion", "Rise of the Cybermen" (on a technicality: yes it is a parallel Earth but the aesthetics of the monsters rampaging around "home" are identical), "Army of Ghosts", "The Runaway Bride" and "Last of the Time Lords", modern day Earth has been invaded so often that it's becoming a bit silly.

(And that's without getting into Sarah Jane: "Invasion of the Bane", "Revenge of the Slitheen" and "Eye of the Gorgon". And all of Torchwood.)

My suspicion is that what this reflects is that Russell was weaned on the Barry Letts version of Doctor Who – where the third Doctor was exiled to Earth as a careful budgeting exercise, allowing one or two off-world adventures to be paid for by cheaper London evacuated while UNIT fights off Yeti/Cybermen/Silurian plague/Dinosaurs – while Larry is a child of the Hinchcliffe era – where the fourth Doctor roamed away from present-day Earth into a range of psychedelic, budget-busting adventures.

It's actually a disappointment that this back on Earth story is the one that gets two episodes.

Last year I was happy to defend Helen Raynor's writing of the Dalek two-parter, yes "Evolution of the Daleks" as well. But something has gone wrong this year. Perhaps last year the setting in time and place gave some scope for some interesting facts to hang the story's themes around; this year, some wafer-thin environmentalism aside, there's just not the same framework.

Where episodes like "Partners in Crime" and "The Fires of Pompeii" seemed packed with incidents that flow into one another, "The Sontaran Stratagem" seems slow and disjointed. It's almost as though it can't quite decide what it wants to be. The teaser opens like a thriller, with a journalist meeting a mystery death. (Does she count as one of the fifty-two, or did she tip UNIT off to the others? It's never said which and it leaves the opening isolated from the rest of the story.) Then there's a full UNIT invasion, like something that Douglas Camfield might have made really spectacular, but oddly placed at the start, going in all guns blazing before they know any of the facts (though this maybe links to the less kind, less gentle UNIT that Russell seems to have developed in Torchwood). But then there's a "Thing from Another World" something-in-the-basement horror story, with the two UNIT troopers (and look, if a soldier doesn't get a response from his radio then he won't just ignore it of forget about it, no matter how gung-ho daft his mate is). And then, surreally, the Doctor nips off to a junior Bond villain's palatial home to swap grammatical bon-mots with him.

Oh dear, Luke Rattigan. What did they think they were doing?

I almost sense an older version of the story buried underneath, where Luke is a genius but bullied for being short, and now he's found some big butch soldiers who appreciate him and he's actually taller than they are. But instead he's a patronising idea of what a "clever" person might be like, the complete opposite of season one's amoral Adam Mitchell, dumbed down and with an irritating accent and no motivation whatsoever.

How and why he teamed up with the Sontarans is just another of the maddeningly avoided questions in this episode.

He only seems to be working with them because he likes that they kill people. So, he's a sociopath too, but not up to getting his own hands dirty.

Without any understanding of what he's doing much less why he's doing it, we can't develop any sympathy for him whatsoever.

What is worse, there are moments where we are expected to empathise because he's supposed to be like the Doctor but gone bad.

So, it probably doesn't help him any that the Doctor is at his lowest ebb of likeability in quite some while. I mean fair enough, he's been thrown onto the back foot by Martha calling for him and turning out to be in charge of a battalion of UNIT troops (and sorry, Martha, not carrying a gun personally when you are giving orders to an army of soldiers is a bit of a cop out… though it's the same cop out that the Doctor makes quite a lot. As a serving member of the armed forces, she's in no way in the same position as the wandering Doctor, with a responsibility to anyone she'd going to order into battle, and a responsibility to obey her commanding officers too. And she's not even remotely in the same sort of position to make improvements as, say, Cap'n Jack: he's big, butch and the boss, immortal and all the way from the fifty-first century; she's, er, UNIT's medic).

But he's really not so sympathetic to UNIT anyway. Yes, the in-joke about "back in the Seventies… was it the Eighties" was much appreciated (and already there are OG-ers in denial about that second half of the line). But he's cold towards them, and it serves to emphasis how callously he can treat troops sometimes, using them as he might use any other tool, but not caring for the tool he has to use. The Doctor is positively rude to Colonel Mace, though, while he seems to take to "pretty young thing" Ross who is not substantially different, indeed seems actually more xenophobic on occasion, while his commanding officer seems to be making an effort. Yes, Ross makes a few jokes; so does the Colonel.

Am I alone in thinking that there's something actively wrong with the Doctor making the same lame "intruder" joke that Henry van Statten made in "Dalek"? Maybe Martha's not the only one with an evil clone.

Oh, yes, getting back to the idea pile-up that is supposed to pass for plot, Martha gets herself cloned by the Sontarans. Remembering that this supposedly started out like a thriller, surely the most elementary plot decision should have been to keep secret who the clone infiltrator was. Suppose instead that the Doctor discovers the cloning lab and announces that someone is not who they seem: hours of who's-the-traitor fun rather than wasting great chunks of our time painstakingly showing us what we grasped in about two-seconds flat.

Does clone Martha actually achieve anything? It appears not, as she just glides around menacingly until the General sets off his gas weapon anyway. "Now we can begin," she says, when it looks like there's not much left to do.

Freema is lovely, and gets to play good and bad Marthas in delightful style, but really what's the point? When Rose met Sarah Jane, that dynamic took over the episode and lifted a banal A-plot into something special; here the Doctor and Donna and Martha barely spend any time together at all, a couple of perfunctory scenes each, and then they all pop off into their own little bubbles.

We finish with some more "domestic". Actually, we haven't really done domestic properly since the magnificent Jackie Tyler left. We meet Martha's family twice, and both times at parties, before the Master wheels them all off to prison and torture. Nor have we yet got a sense of what Donna's mum and granddad actually do, other than sit in the kitchen for a cuppa, or go up the allotment. Series one painted a vivid picture of the Tyler's real lives; since then we've barely got to know these families. It's telling that we're more concerned for the fate of Wilf because he's played by Bernard Cribbins than because he's Donna's granddad.

Oh, and as almost everyone in the entire world must have said: don't try and unlock the car, smash the window (you can even do it with the sonic, see "Army of Ghosts"). The "evil Sat Nav" might be able to take control of the car's locks but it can't possibly make the safety-glass indestructible.

I imagine Donna will do this in next week's pre-title sequence.

Next time… there's a big battle, there's a tense countdown, but will there be any explanations in "The Poison Sky"?


Aidy said...

I usually more-or-less agree with your reviews, but I really can't this week. Your main bone of contention appears to be that there are still lots of questions left unanswered.

But this is only the first of a two-parter. If those questions remain unanswered at the end of next week's episode, I'll agree with you but, at the moment, all we know is that they haven't been answered yet. And, let's face it, a first part of a two-parter which answered all the questions wouldn't be very good.

For example, the fact that the Doctor has challenged the Sontarans on their behaviour not being very Sontaran-like suggests that there is a reason for it which will be revealed, rather that there isn't one.

Millennium Dome said...

It's a fair point, and I hope you're right - and if you are then Daddy will put his hand up to being wrong (see, for example, "Human Nature")

But if you compare it with, say, Ms Raynor's own story from LAST year: "Daleks in Manhattan" DOES finish with some answers, by wrapping up the BIG question of what it is the Daleks are doing in such a way that it sets up a great "now get out of that"! The episodes sub-plots (Disappearances from Hoovertown, Solomon, Lazlo and Tallulah, Mr Diagoras, the Empire State Building and so on) all seem to focus in to the one big reveal of what Dalek Sec has done, and then that sets up the events of "Evolution of the Daleks".

(And that's not UNTYPICAL. Most of the two-parters' cliff-hangers come at a TURNING POINT where there's a reveal of information that answers some questions and poses new ones, whether it's the Slitheen showing themselves for the first time; or Doctor Constantine explaining about the Empty Child's infection before succumbing to it; or the Daleks appearance as the power behind the game station; or the Army of Ghosts turning out to be Cybermen AND the Void Ship having Daleks in it; or the Master regenerating; or the Master literally seeing through the Doctor's plans and taking over the World.)

Here, though Dr Who DOES discover something new (ish) – that the weapon is a GAS weapon – we already KNEW that Atmos was a threat (it's been killing people) and the SCALE of the threat (Dr Who spelled out that it was 800 million cars) so, it's not THAT much more that we know.

It means that the "turning point" event is PROBABLY General Staal deciding to declare war. But he's in orbit while the Doctor is stuck in a cul-de-sac, and UNIT is somewhere else, and Miss Martha's in two DIFFERENT places, and whatever's going on at Rattigan's academy is somewhere else again.

But, hey, on the PLUS side, you could say that for once the monsters are trying to react to the Doctor fast enough to keep ahead of him!

Let's see how it works out!

Incidentally, obviously Daddy will review the WHOLE story next week, but these are RARE times IN BETWEEN episodes when we DON'T know how it will finish which gives these rapid reviews a kind of special perspective that we'll never have again once we KNOW the ending.