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April 28, 2008

Potato Crisp

Doctor Who:  The Sontaran Stratagem

Sont_2 Well, that about wraps it up for what the Wikipedia gamefully describes as the UNIT dating controversy (controversy?!?  It's hardly the Kennedy assassination, which as we know was carried out by young Kiwi tabloid journalist James Stevens).  If the Doctor says they happened "in the Seventies...or was it the Eighties?" that's good enough for me, because actually they did happen in the Seventies and the Eighties and so along with Sarah-Jane’s recently revealed date of birth, our lords Lance and Lars can quite happily publish another edition of Ahistory integrating that sticky special UNIT section into the main text.  Pheeuw.  Glad that’s sorted out, because really in relation to inflating the importance of the unimportant that’s the big one.  Now if only someone would admit that C-19 is a code number for Torchwood, everything will be hunky-dory.  Except that wouldn’t be so much a kiss to the past as a full on shag.

What a stonking episode!  This was clearly Helen Raynor’s best ever script, perfectly paced, with all of the problems of Daleks Take, sorry In Manhattan cleared up.  That episode didn’t gel because the audience were too far ahead of the Doctor – we already knew it was the Daleks and had an inclining about what they were up to and essentially watched the timelord spending forty-five minutes getting up to speed.  This episode worked as a proper detective story, as the Doctor stumbled into the Sontaran’s ship refreshingly early which meant that the mystery rightly became what their stratagem was for him and us.  And no visible goal posts.

Now if only someone would admit that C-19 is a code number for Torchwood, everything will be hunky-dory.

If said stratagem wasn't entirely original – it’s another alien something pretending to be an ordinary something which has invaded the ordinary lives of the ordinary population – it did lead to a half decent if over extended cliffhanger which can’t be dealt with too quickly presumably.  Unless the Doctor suddenly reveals that his lungs are bigger on the inside and he breaths in all the gas – or he turns the Tardis into a catalytic converter or something.  It’s worth adding to the chorus of hackles which suggest granddad could be saved with a well aimed brick, but for that matter, was the lock on the car door deadlock sealed, or is it a dodgy Watchdog-bating make of car which can’t be opened using sonic devices?

There aren’t many other series that would run the alien invasion, evil twin and boy genius stories together in the same episode and unlike, say New Earth, which also attempted a similar conflation of ideas (evil medicine, mind swap) it actually worked because none of them seemed randomly placed and all were logically connected.  Into the mix there’s the companion’s return home, the revisit of a recent in the memory companion (which is something the television series has never done) and the already mentioned venerable organisation.  All in forty-four minutes.  With this much creativity, it's almost as though someone's been snorting the Ritalin, Elizabeth Wurtzel-style.  I’m surprised there weren’t clowns as well.

Has someone been snorting the Ritalin, Elizabeth Wurtzel-style.

Instead we had the Sontarans back and probably the best they’ve ever been.  It’s an interesting new strategy, reinventing one of the ‘classic’ alien races by doing nothing to them other than designing and producing some decent prosthetics so that the person behind the mask has more than his lips and voice to act with (Christopher Ryan stonking and stomping performance was perhaps the best we’ve seen from a long line of men to assume the potato head) and giving them some decent characterisation.  The key, as writer Raynor says in her commentary, was to acknowledge they had ‘small man syndrome’ and run with it.  So we’re making fun of them rather a lot, but also introducing some pathos in that they’re built for war but weren’t actually ‘allowed’ the participate in the big one.

Raynor wasn’t afraid to mess about with some of the tropes of the new series, particularly in relation to the Doctor.  That scene in which he got the wrong end of a very big stick about Donna’s trip home was a perfect antidote to similar slightly forced scenes and the expectation of a massive explosion from a jeep with the accompanied by the launch at the floor followed by a pfft from the sat-nav may well have been one of the funniest moment this series.  You could argue that the timelord’s visit to Rattigan saw Tennant channeling the favourite Baker, but the character is at his best when we can see that he’s the sum of his parts and would the Fourth Doctor have been so bold as to take down a Sontaran using a shuttlecock?

I hear she’s always been scorching on stage

Catherine continues to provide a multi-dimensional performance.  By now, all of the apparent baggage has melted away and I actually think she’s giving the best filmed performance we’ve ever seen from her (I hear she’s always been scorching on stage).  She was about the best thing about Planet of the Ood and it’s a testament to what she’s doing that the trip home feels so fresh even though it’s a scene we’ve seen at least twice since the show returned from its multi-medium sabbatical.  The chemistry with Bernard Cribbins is divine and you can believe that they’re relatives enjoying their giddy secret about who the Doctor is and were she’s been. 

Whilst we're here, might as well note that Donna was as the epicentre of the arc-clue additions.  The Doctor mentioned the Medusa cascade during his thank you speech, but also more curiously registered an interesting kind of surprise as Donna piloted the Tardis.  It wasn’t so much what he said, that he couldn’t believe she was working the controls, as to how he said it, as though she, in truth, shouldn’t have that kind of knowledge.  Connected with whatever’s supposed to be on her back, perhaps?  I really hope that it’s not revealed that she’s under some kind of alien influence or been lying all of this time about who she actually is, Turlough with a double X chromosome, a tool of The Trickster or whatever.

Turlough with a double X chromosome 

Martha’s back too of course, her eyes still sparking.  Freema’s received some rather mean spirited notices for this episode, but I really can’t see what the problem is.  She’s as good as she’s ever been, it’s just the character thats changed.  Like Sarah-Jane, we’re watching an ex-companion dealing with the after-Tardis-life and this is a perfectly logical extension – she’s become a scientific adviser, a professional albeit with less authority than the Doctor.  The potential misstep of having the character tied down and being experimented on again was nicely twinkled with the introduction of evil Martha, a figure who offers some of us the perfect opportunity to nip over to the dark side (or the bathroom).  Again.  And again.

We’ll hopefully see more of UNIT in action next week, five rounds rapid and all that.  It was very strange not to see The Brigadier in there somewhere, but it’s clearly a case of trying to strike a balance between the old and new elements and with everything else going on, to have yet another returning character would have been messy – and it wouldn’t have been fair to bring back such an icon simply for a cameo.  In any case, according to the good book, he's still retired in 2009 when this episode is set.  It is a shame that Bessie couldn’t have been dragged in from whichever Doctor Who exhibition she's currently parked in, with a nice ‘WHO 10’ already attached to the front.  But for story reasons, the Doctor had to be stuck in a jeep with a satnav so it kind of makes sense, and the interplay with young Ross Jenkins just about recalled similar scenes between the Third and Alistair.

My first episode reviews always turn into a few random thoughts and that’s largely because they're essentially giving half an opinion.  The first three episode of The Twin Dilemma are just rubbish, but the final part has that powerful scene between Colin and his mentor which dwarfs his entire era in terms of its emotional reality (honestly).  Which goes to show you never can what will come next.  On this occasion, I’m very optimistic that The Poison Sky will be as good as this.  The Sontaran Stratagem I mean.  Not The Twin Dilemma.   I'd hate to think Luke's got a sibling.  He was about the only real disappointment, a mirror universe edition of Wesley Crusher selling his own people out to the Whoniverse's own Klingons, Ryan Sampson’s sometimes pleasingly arch portrayal undermined by a slightly wayward accent.  Exactly why is he supposed to be American though? Are we suddenly trying to offer payback for the well-worn Hollywood villainy shorthand?

Next week:  I go blind and Terrance Dicks receives a royalty cheque as we’re given a status report on the Sontaran’s battle with the Rutans.

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