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April 27, 2008

How to fix the Sontarans

Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem

GrabTiming is everything.  Comedy, drama, coincidence and chance all rely on perfect timing.  The Sontaran Stratagem's timing couldn’t have been more unfortunately perfect if it tried.  A story about using cars as weapons, airing on a day when the Grangemouth refinery is closed down due to strike action and the nation is warned of a potential fuel crisis. 

It rather makes David Tennant’s line about the converters using up all the oil quicker by encouraging more motorists out onto the roads seem perfectly chosen, anyway.

But then, in a way it’s appropriate.  The UNIT stories of the 70s aired to a country of strikes and energy shortages, incidents that coloured the show’s storylines for almost the entire Pertwee era.  Thirty five years on, and while the technobabble may be more advanced, the situation isn’t.

And wasn’t it great to see that, after all this time, with their new shiny black combat suits, their red berets, advanced automatic weapons and massed legions of troops, that the fighting men and women of the Unified Intelligence Taskforce can’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo at two paces?  Did you see that squaddie trying to hit the poison gas emitter on the exhaust pipe?  I’m a better shot than that, and I’m barely able to complete Call of Duty 4 on easy mode.  Although, given UNIT's apparent shoot to kill policy is still in effect, it’s just as well, really.

In many ways, this episode felt like a throwback, and I don’t just mean because of the presence of UNIT and the Sontarans.  Donna’s return home to see the folks aside, so much of this felt like your typical old-school episode of Doctor Who.  There was something reassuringly retro about it all - the direction, the pacing, the concepts behind it, and done in an affectionate way, rather than a tiresome Saward-esque greatest hits package.  Even the dialogue seemed littered with nods to the show’s history - the zapped private echoing Ian’s “I can’t feel my legs”.

Actually, the dialogue was one fo the best things in this.  Now that the writers (well, specifically every writer except Russell T Davies) have started writing Donna as a character in her own right rather than an extension of Catherine Tate’s sketch show, Tate’s performances have grown in confidence and stature, and Helen Raynor served her particularly well.  Her hitting the personnel files with a temp’s eye for office management was a nice touch, befitting the character and giving her a small but important role in advancing the plot amid all the technobabble and soldiery.   

Her by-play with the Doctor is fun to watch too - this screwball comedy vibe that kept being mentioned in all the press gubbins when Tate was cast is now becoming evident in the best possible ways.  Anyone who saw Tate and Tennant last year at the recording of Chain Reaction knows how well they spark off each other and we’re now seeing the best of that on screen.

Tennant, too, was on particularly good form in The Sontaran Stratagem, with the most Doctorish of his performances so far.  And by Doctorish, I mean you believe in the authority, the knowledge and energy of him rather than just lifting character traits from his predecessors.

That said, there were times when he seemed to be channelling Tom Baker during proceedings - nowhere more so than when confronting the Generic Evil Teen Genius.  Sympathising with Rattigan yet putting him in his place, correcting poor grammar, and KOing a Sontaran with a squash ball... transplant all that to late Hinchcliffe/early Williams era and it’d have passed without a blink from the audience.

Freema was less impressive though.  In fact, this performance wasn’t so much phoned in as sent on a time-delayed e-mail while she was on her holidays.  Three episodes of Torchwood seem to have knocked the stuffing from her as an actress - not exactly surprising - and she’s got one of the charm or feisty appeal of last year.  Hopefully it’s a temporary aberration - seeing Martha return was one of the things that I looked forward to going into The Sontaran Stratagem, yet it turned out to be one of the least memorable aspects.

Sontarans were never a-listers. - they weren’t the ones you’d stick front row for An Audience with Doctor Who

The Sontarans were far more memorable even if, by their return, we’re starting to scrape well into the b-list of classic series monsters.  I mean, the Macra were fair enough in Gridlock - even most of the mums and dads watching with their kids won’t have remembered them.  But the Sontarans were never a-listers. They weren’t the ones you’d stick front row for An Audience with Doctor Who.  They were the ones you shove half way up the seating, sitting with the Monk and the folk who won their tickets in a TV Times competition.

But here, in their reworked, fun-sized version, they felt fresh and interesting again - especially when you consider what they were like last time we saw them.  Christopher Ryan as Mike the Cool Sontaran was a measured performance in alien menace and I’m desperately hoping for a face-off between him and Col. Mace next time out.  Not sure about the redesigned body armour though.  Less a baked spud in tinfoil and more a miniature version of Boba Fett.  Or Baby Fett, as it’d be in this case.

For all that retro feel to the episode, that cliffhanger was weak - it just cried out for a close-up of the Doctor among all the poison gas, looking round desperately, as the music crashed in.  Few of the two-parters have got that midpoint cliffhanger right, even after ten attempts.  And there was just one too many coincidences in the story - the entire Noble/Mott family having remembering their encounters with the Doctor one by one, the satnavs not being removed from every government vehicle the moment the company were under investigation.  But then, as I said earlier, coincidence is all a matter of timing - in this case, fitting everything important into 44 minutes...

Oh, and I’ll ignore the music - not easy without earplugs, mind you - after Murray went all the way up to about 20 when Donna was walking home.  Once again, a soundtrack that comes with a noise abatement order.

But by and large, The Sontaran Stratagem was a fun and likeable addition to what has been an ever-improving season of Doctor Who. Given what a pig's ear (all puns aside) Helen Raynor made of last year's returning monster two-parter, the tedious Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks double feature, here she managed to pull off something I thought impossible to now - fix the Sontarans.

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