He's like fire. Stand too close, and you become chips...
Mmm.... fried Sontarans.
Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem
Three things needed to happen in order for this episode to impress me. Well, three and a half (kindly imagine the previous sentence as David Tennant would have said it, if you get the idea). Number one: reintroduce the Sontarans as a credible threat in spite of how ridiculous they look. Number two: reintroduce Martha as a credible member of UNIT that allows us to forgive her for her lackluster Torchwood appearance. Number three: reintroduce UNIT as a credible government agency that is separate from Torchwood and not made redundant by it.
Number-Three-and-a-Half, was, of course, a dismissive reference to UNIT dating, which was quite early, quick, marvelously infuriating, and adequately discussed by every one of my more punctual fellow reviewers. It's the other three that are of main importance. And I'm confused. I'm not sure whether I'm satisfied, and so I'm going to have to wait until next time to see whether this story passes or fails, which, I suppose, is my usual attitude toward two-parters. Meanwhile, however, this episode was still a bit of fun, and left me wishing for more. In a one-parter that would be a criticism but here I suppose it's highest praise, isn't it?
I've never really liked the Sontarans as villains. This might have something to do with the fact that prior to this, the only Sontaran story I've even seen was The Two Doctors (see my painfully embarrassing confession in my author bio) and they were of secondary importance in that story, the primary plot of which was the creation of Season 6B. Suffice it to say that Sontarans are not a major part of my Doctor Who fandom and so no amount of potato-flavored nostalgia would save them if this episode didn't make me interested in them. Thankfully, in this area the episode succeeded. True, they were played for laughs, as was inevitable. But I'm now more interested in them as a concept than I ever was before, owing to the two wonderfully played Sontarans. It's mostly Staal that gets the credit, as he is the Sontaran presence in this story and he's by far the best villain we've seen this series (which isn't saying much, as we're only four episodes in and our villains have been a bit dull). In any case, the Sontarans were never the A-listers that RTD and the Radio Times wants us to remember them as, but now they seem poised to take on that position. Meanwhile, the Sontaran's pet genius Rattigan intrigued me but ultimately hasn't delivered yet. He's not the most well-rounded or likable character, but he's a decent complement to the Sontarans and he also serves as a dramatic foil to the Doctor, which is a concept that I hope is followed up on. If his character is handled well in the next episode, then It might almost be enough for me to forgive Helen Raynor for again writing an obnoxious American whose ambition leads him to cast his lot in with the alien invaders. Except Mr. Diagoras never joined in any tribal Dalek dances. And given what dancing is nearly always a direct metaphor for in nu-Who, that's probably for the better. And Katy Manning got there first anyway.
I can't have been the only one who expected Martha to continue, "... and ice, and rage, he's like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun," et cetera.
Turning our focus away from fascists both human and potato, this episode carried with it a terrible revelation with regard to Martha: it turns out I like Donna better! If you'd told me I'd feel that way a couple of months ago (hell, a couple of weeks ago), I'd have had a difficult time believing it. But while I quite liked Martha in series three, she gives a rather poor performance here which highlights the few things about her that have annoyed me. And yes, it's been said, but she was given some terrible lines here, particularly when she said "He's like fire." I can't have been the only one who expected her to continue, "... and ice, and rage, he's like the night, and the storm in the heart of the sun," et cetera, per Family of Blood. Perhaps next week, Freema will have more to do, especially since she'll be playing two versions of herself, but for now I don't exactly find myself regretting her departure last season as much as I did at the time. Of course, she was fine before, and it's probably just the fact that I'm seeing her in an episode where Catherine Tate soars and she just sort of stands there reacting to things. I just hope I won't walk away next week with my good memories of Martha Jones forever tarnished.
UNIT, meanwhile, is brilliant in a hokey, inefficient, bullish sort of way. Even though I can't really wrap my head around how or why Martha is working for them (so the Doctor recommended her for a job in an organization he has such disdain for. Right), they work very well alongside the Sontarans and the Tenth Doctor. As for how UNIT is still useful despite the existence of Torchwood, they established the relationship between the two groups in the best possible way: by completely neglecting to mention Torchwood's existence. A casual, new, viewer doubtless wonders what the difference between UNIT and Torchwood is, and they let UNIT speak for itself. UNIT is a big, blustering military operation. Torchwood is a big, corrupt corporation. Or, if you like, a ragtag group of horny losers in Cardiff. The character of Colonel Mace has a silly name and is almost dryly funny and even likable, if you can get past the fact that he obviously ignored his mother when she told him that if he made funny faces then his face would be stuck that way. But I can't help but feel he's little more than a stand-in for the Brigadier. It would be good to get Nicholas Courtney in while he's still interested. And alive.
For those keeping score at home, that means this episode was two for three (ish), but I'm not entirely sure whether it was helped or hurt by David Tennant's performance. I've heard it characterized as both insane and bored. Or, to combine the two thoughts, he's channeling Tom Baker. I think there was often a sort of bored intensity to Tom's performance (if that makes sense) and David has brought a bit of this to his portrayal of the Doctor. It's evident in the way he pops "in tru da window" to check on the Sontarans and immediately pops out to taunt the Sontaran by mockingly telling him to die with dignity. It's evident in his almost-condescending friendliness to his assigned (and armed) UNIT grunt, who occasionally looks like he's about to break into tears from the merciless teasing. "He called you a grunt! Don't call Ross a grunt! He's nice! We like Ross!" It's evident in how he blatantly recycles the tired old "I know your name, how could I know that? Keep me alive!" argument. He's given some good lines, but this is like nothing we've ever seen from the Tenth Doctor. This Doctor is bored, crazy, and just plain spiteful toward the Sontarans. Like I said earlier, I'm going to have to see the second half of the episode before I pass judgment on Tennant's performance here, because it's either brilliant or terrible. Or, you know, somewhere in between.
Donna, meanwhile, has my unambiguous approval as I mentioned earlier. In my review for Planet of the Ood, I feared that Donna was becoming a one-note character who does little more than criticize the Doctor's moral failings. Well, she's still doing that ("Is that what you did to her? Turned her into a soldier?"), but she's also doing much more in this episode. Her ability to ask the questions nobody else would think to ask (the sick day file) and make the comparisons nobody else will dare to make (Guantanamo Bay), the writers are continuing the moral theme of the character while keeping her useful, entertaining and likable. The moment between her and the Doctor where he thinks she's leaving him is one of the best moments of series four so far. And the moments with her family are wonderful, although it's sad to see that her granddad is trapped in a lame cliffhanger.
And what a lame cliffhanger it was! Not only was it poorly shot, but it was poorly thought out (can they really not get Bernard Cribbins out of that car?) and it's destined to be wrapped up poorly. We'll suddenly find out next episode that the gas is not a deadly toxin, but something far worse: the glorious fanfare of the returning Slitheen. Or maybe it's gratuitous use of a fog machine. Only the next episode will reveal the truth, and hopefully in doing so it will rectify the flaws of this two-parter and make it into the classic that it's trying to be.