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May 01, 2008

Sex Lives of the Potato Men

Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem

Doc_and_sontaransI’m starting to wonder if, a bit like this big squishy sofa we’re all hiding behind, Doctor Who is destined always to revert to its original shape.

In the early days of the revival, Russell T Davies went out of his way to impress upon us how shiny and new and modern this all was – so Gallifrey, RP accents and cravats were out; texting, Il Divo and Tina the Cleaner were in.

But much of what we’ve seen in series four so far wouldn’t have felt that out of place among the Doctor Who of 1970 (or, indeed, 1988). Except with one, crucial difference: It’s really, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny.

The Pertwee era’s idea of comedy was having a local yokel scratching his head and resolving to stay off the booze in a Mummerset accent. Today, we have non-exploding jeeps, comic monologues about petrol station pork pies and Catherine Tate calling the Doctor a prawn. This, I hope you’ll agree, is what we call Progress.

The other big difference, of course, (and you’ll forgive me gushing like an RTD Confidential soundbite here) is that today we are blessed with the finest leading man on television. Tom Baker once memorably described Jon Pertwee as being like “a tall light bulb” but, in reality, that dusty old stiffshirt would have struggled to illuminate a broom cupboard. David Tennant, by contrast, is a lightning rod of fizzing energy, turning on a sixpence between breezy bonhomie (“Don’t call Ross a grunt, he’s nice, we like Ross”), excitable boy scout (“Is it PE? I wouldn’t mind a kickabout, I’ve got me dabs on!”) and battle-weary Lonely Angel. (And yes, I know Tachyon TV has been Proudly Squee-free Since 2001, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves what a good thing we’re onto occasionally.)

Let’s face it, the omens for The Sontaran Stratagem weren’t good - Helen “I’m not a scientist,but...” Raynor, blue plastic Sontarans, the return of UNIT and the fact that the early season action double bills are always, always rubbish conspiring to not so much dampen expectation as piss right in its face. But – proving that life, unlike EastEnders, is rarely predictable – I absolutely loved it.

From the perfectly-formed pre-title teaser to the audacious Sontaran haka, there’s nothing about this episode that would have dissuaded Ricky Gervais from his view that Doctor Who is “frothy nonsense” – but surely even that inveterate snob  would have to concede it was frothy nonsense of a gloriously superior stripe.

Certain members of the Ming Mong fraternity no doubt found the treatment of the Sontarans lacking in due reverence, but I thought the script struck a perfect balance between slyly building on their mythology while not being afraid to poke them in the eye occasionally. After 35 years, it was refreshing to hear someone finally acknowledge the baked potato in the room, and turning the always nigglesome issue of the probic vent into a positive attribute (“We stare into the face of death”) was a neat twist.

Chris Ryan’s  General Staal was another example of the show’s increasing confidence in embracing the tropes of the past – I can’t image a series one Big Bad being allowed to get away with talking in such Classic Monster tones, rrrrolling rrrrs and all – and dialogue like “Words are the weapons of womenfolk” wouldn’t have disgraced Robert Holmes’ original toadface himself. Are we to infer from this, incidentally, that there are female Sontarans? And what role do they play, exactly, in a clone race that’s grown in the bath? (It’s no wonder they’re such a belligerent lot – they’re clearly getting even less than the Doctor.)

The episode also had a genuine sense of momentum, not least in the way it kept the Doctor on the move (TARDIS-factory-jeep-Rattigan Academy-jeep-Donna’s street) - a welcome change of pace after last week’s runaround in a factory and four square inches of quarry.

And it was nice to see Martha’s back… sorry, Martha back (though the scene in the gloop was as tentatively erotic as Doctor Who ever gets – squee with added squelch, if you will) - it was just ironic she returned in a story in which Donna really came into her own.

Donna_ss I’ll admit I was a fully paid-up member of The Tate Sceptics (we’re a bit like The Tate Cynics, only slightly more open to suggestion) but, here, she brought a genuine new dimension to the show’s dynamic, just like that nice Mr Russell promised she would. Donna also brings with her the most satisfying family baggage of the three new series companions so far – you gotta love Bernard Cribbins, trapped in a car full of poison gas jabbering “It’s them aliens!” while Jacqueline King’s lovely little monologue shows Helen Raynor has been studying RTD’s Big Gay Book of Comic Matriarchs very closely indeed.

Of course, this being big, dumb old Doctor Who, there was also much about The Sontaran Stratagem that was Too Stupid For Words.

It was particularly sobering to see The Last of the Time Lords, the man who led the battle in the last great Time War and saw a hundred thousand ships burning in the sky (or something), defeated by a car window any scally with a brick or a bit of coathanger could have sorted out in seconds flat. And UNIT, gratifyingly, remain the world’s least convincing military black ops outfit. All their troops looked about 12, and the two saps dispatched to check out the cellar were screaming for back up when all they’d seen was a room with a big box in it – it could have been a sunbed for all they knew. (Also, one of them was called Steve, which is an absolutely impossible name to say convincingly in any dramatic context – go on, try saying “Come on, Steve!” with any sense of urgency and you’ll see what I mean.)

But even this was fun in a nostalgic sort of way. And Operation Blue Sky (damn RTD and his ELO Agenda!) did present the opportunity for some cheeky satire about everything from Guantanamo Bay to the exploitation of East European migrant workers (not bad for a show that could easily have been called Attack of the Killer Potatoes).

Oh, and for the ultimate proof that Russell the T is lightening up and embracing his inner fanboy, we got a UNIT dating joke that would have brought a smile to the faces of literally hundreds of viewers. It would never have happened in Christopher Eccleston’s day, you know.

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