All Your stormtroopers and your sonics... rubbish!
Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem
If there's one significant gammy-leg hamstringing The Sontaran Stratagem, the leaden albatross around its neck, if you will, it's Martha Jones. Last year I rather thought that Freema Agyeman was a rather capable actor, despite the fact that the scriptwriting required her to do nothing much beyond pine after the Doctor. My misgivings were stirred up some after her miserable evangelism in The Last of the Time Lords, but, again, I thought incompetent writing was the culprit. Perhaps my judgement during the last series was impaired (by the opiates, no doubt), or perhaps having to appear on three entire episodes of Torchwood sucked away the last of her energy and creativity, because from the moment the cellular rings in the TARDIS Agyeman is, literally, phoning in her performance.
Both the character and the performance in The Sontaran Stratagem are so uninspired that during the scene where Martha is examining the mindless Polish automaton I almost had difficulty telling the two of them apart. From her thoroughly unconvincing argument about "So I've got to work from the inside, and by staying inside maybe I stand a chance of making them better," to the cramp-inducing melodramatics of her discussion about her family with Donna ("I didn't tell my family, kept it all so secret. it almost destroyed them."), Martha's character is a combination of wide-eyed, stilted emoting and forgettable droning.
Ironically, Agyeman stops sleepwalking through her part only when the real Martha goes to sleep. In addition to cloning Martha and her hair, they apparently cloned some extra personality, as the Evil Martha displays significantly more than the original.
Perhaps another reason that Agyeman fails to even leave much of an impression in The Sontaran Stratagem is that she has to share the episode with the unstoppable dramatic juggernaut that is Catherine Tate.
In what is getting to be disturbingly predictable, I was once again impressed by Tate's performance. Whether in comedic scenes (flying the TARDIS, complete with "denting the eighties" joke) or meatier material, Tate is proving to have the acting chops to pull it out of the fire. Even the worst of the treacly, tear-jerking bits, such as the scene where Tate returns home, can't keep a good actress down. Sure, that scene was marred by Murray Gold's aural atrocities and gratuitous use of flashbacks, but you can't blame her for that.
Part of what makes Donna so much more engaging a companion for the Doctor than either Martha or Rose is that she treats him as an equal, rather than gazing at him all glassy-eyed from episode to episode. A character trait I wish more people had, Donna clearly has no respect for authority. She has no reservations about referring to him as a "prawn" and making him feel like an idiot during the scene when he thinks she's leaving him. Likewise she has no compulsions about standing up to the folks in UNIT, not hesitating to draw comparisons to Guantanamo Bay and demanding a salute from Colonel Mace.
(An Aside: I think the fact that Donna is flying the TARDIS at the beginning of the episode and the seemingly-comical over-sentimentality of her return home could be an indication that The Sontaran Stratagem doesn't follow immediately from Planet of the Ood, and there may be other un-televised "adventures" that took place betwixt the two stories; you'd think she'd have flashbacks about those, too, however.)
With the exception of Jacqueline King's Sylvia Noble, who continues to come off far more as caricature than character, the assorted supporting performers seem to have acquitted themselves quite admirably. The talk over the kitchen table continues to show the good chemistry (and bad music) betwixt Tate and the returning Bernard Cribbins, but of special note are Ryan Sampson as the boy genius and Christopher Ryan as Napoleon. While Sampson's Luke Rattigan initially comes across as sort of a pompous git leading a street gang of maths students in red hoodies, his excitable boyish enthusiasm ("Is he...is he goin' in the water?? I love it with the water!") in the latter half of the program makes him a little more realistic as a teenager. I also enjoyed the father-son type relationship he has with Staal; the two actors play off of each other well, like in the poignant little scene looking out over the Earth and the exchange about how "cool" it is to kill 52 people in the same second.
My main concern, of course, is that we'll get Rattigan's redemption in part two as he reconsiders his role in the destruction of Earth. If there's one thing worse than super-genius kids who plots to destroy all of humankind, it's super-genius kids who plots to destroy all of humankind but then doesn't have the spine for it.
While I tend to feel that the entire Stratagem didn't seem particularly, well, Sontaran (though the Doctor notes as much), I was generally pleased with the way they handled the reintroduction of another classic series villain, and I think Ryan's General Staal was spot-on. His dismissing the Doctor's attempt to sabotage the teleporter as "Primitive sonic trickery!" before fixing it with a zap of his magic wand was sheer brilliance, especially given the endless debates in these parts about how powerful the Sonic Scwoodwivah has become. I even enjoyed the scripts explanation for the probic vents. In a parallel to his young human charge, Staal seemed almost almost pouty about not being allowed to be a part The Last Great Time War. The Mill's work with the Sontaran satellite and attack-marbles was also quite excellent, as was much of the design of the Sontarans themselves. It's more of a testament to Ryan that he managed to give such a good performance through all of that armor and prosthetics.
The dialogue was frequently sparkling, especially in all of the scenes at and near the Academy with the repartee betwixt the Doctor and Staal and Rattigan (and Ross, also: "It's all a bit Hitler Youth. Exercise at dawn and classes and special diets.") Ross was easily the best thing about UNIT, though I also sort of enjoyed the back and forth between the Doctor and Colonel Mace about guns and salutes and orders. Other than that UNIT was pretty much rubbish, Martha included, but even that had a certain Old Skool charm about it. I still miss when they were more homespun, and there were about six of them.
If I'm looking for another major gripe to make about The Sontaran Stratagem, it would have to be the inappropriately hamfisted music. I've never been one to harp on about Murray Gold's bludgeoning musical scores, but this episode pushed the bounds of good taste. The most egregious violation, of course, was during Donna's aforementioned multiple-flashback-laden return home to see her family, but during any of the theoretically-emotional portions of the episode, such as the Doctor's reunion with Martha and her weepy "My family was tortured!" drivel.
I try not to think too much about Helen Raynor's previous contribution to Doctor Who, but I seem to recall that the first half of her last two-parter featuring iconic aliens from the classic series was cracking good stuff, only to be forcibly sodomized by Evolution of the Daleks. As a result, I'm a little apprehensive about what we can expect from The Poison Sky. If The Sontaran Stratagem is any indication, Raynor has shown that she can write witty, light-hearted, humourous exchanges, such as the highly-entertaining scenes when the Doctor is dealing with Rattigan and Staal at the Academy. On the other hand, maybe she'd be better off avoiding anything that rings of the sodden emotional crap that has pretentious miscues such as "He's like fire. Stand too close and people get burned." I'm also concerned that neither she nor the script editors have considered running their scripts past an average chip-shop employee in order to catch any inaccuracies introduced by their utter lack of understanding of science. Nonetheless, I'm remaining cautiously optimistic about the upcoming "Part Two", because, in the end, The Sontaran Stratagem was yet another highly entertaining slab of television.
And that's the most frustrating thing of all. It's much easier to write an entertaining review for the really bad episodes. In order to make my review interesting I've had to make my own graphics (and no one even noticed it on my Planet of the Ood review), whereas in the past I've mostly gotten away with an endless litany of snide remarks and bitter scathing attacks about the nonsensical plot, inadequate grasp of basic science, messianic tendencies, poor acting, and general rubbishness of it all. Is it too late to go back and review those Torchwood episodes?