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May 10, 2008

The Sontaran Experience

Doctor Who: The Poison Sky

Rat2The shadow of The Two Doctors is all over this one, but in a good way.  Sontarans, Quislings, impugning the honour of Sontaran Generals and Group Marshalls, a think tank of geniuses holed up in a well-defended space-station and/or vocational school, poison gas traps...the parallels are stunning.  Sadly, The Poison Sky doesn't have the overt homoeroticism of the earlier story ("Come here, Jamie...look at that." "Look at the size of that thing, Doctor!" "Yes, Jamie...it is a big one."), but at least the Sontarans this time around aren't played by sock puppets.  By the end I found myself thoroughly enjoying most of the ride, despite more than a few painful moments.

Unfortunately, after it was all over, I had a few minutes to think about the plot, and try as I may I just can't ignore the more glaring errors in logic and plausibility...

...but you know what they say about hindsight: it makes an ass out of u and me.  No wait...that doesn't sound right.

Why do turds suddenly appear...?

Oddly enough, I'm not particularly bothered by a number of the things that have all the rest of the fans up in arms.  Sure, the Sontaran stratagem itself is pretty ridiculous, but inappropriately convoluted plans which don't hold up to scrutiny are par-for-the-course in this sort of thing, and I can forgive it, if only for nostalgic reasons.  I'm similarly nonplussed about the lack of roast pigeons and burning buildings in the wake of the the Doctor lighting the atmosphere on fire, as there have been some at-least-reasonably-plausible ideas floated around to explain away at least portions of this.

Martha's magic nuclear-weapon-halting iPhone, however, is just beyond the pale.  Sure film and television have never been anything but disastrous in their attempts to portray actual computer use, but that still doesn't justify why full control of the collected nuclear arsenals of the assorted nations of the earth would be given to a medical student working for a shadowy British organization.  In fact, try to imagine the assorted nations of earth, particularly the ones listed, agreeing to let anyone else have control.  (It's interesting to note that Russia and its thousands of nuclear weapons seem to be exempted from this arrangement, as well as Israel.  They're probably the stubborn countries who don't want to play nice.)  So she somehow has total control, except only so far as she can hang around her Blackberry in order to press "no" every time it asks "Do you want to play global thermonuclear war?"

Birds sing.  People applaud. Officers snog.  I cringe.

Some people have cited the "atmospheric converter" as just another RTD/Helen Raynor deus-ex-machina solution to all of our problems.  I don't think it quite falls into that category, but they sure could have let us onto it a little earlier.  In the The Sontaran Stratagem, the Doctor has the opportunity to gurn about Luke's lab, excited at all the nice terraforming toys he had to play with.  You'd think that would be a fine time to mention an "atmospheric converter."  As for what it did  (essentially just start the clone-food on fire), as I mentioned, that isn't particularly appalling to me...but some of the details on how they handled it were.  Did you see how fast that stuff went?  That fire propagates around the entire world in less than a minute.  This is fast. We're talking, like, sonic boom fast.  Maybe if they get it to burn around the world backwards and fast enough they can make time go in reverse ("everyone get down!  Time is reversing!") like in Superman. Strangely, however, when the flaming sky is burning its way past, say, the Empire State Building or the Valiant, it's just crawling along. And then the worst bit is how it all clears up.  Instantly.  It's calm.  Blue skies staring at you.  No dust is sucked up into massive mushroom clouds or any of that.  Birds sing.  People applaud. Officers snog.  I cringe.  The scientific implausibility of this is bad enough...but the worst part about it is how nauseatingly clichéd and obnoxiously, hollowly uplifting it is.  If this had been the actual climax of the episode, I'd have been much more disappointed, but fortunately when this is over, we still had to deal with...

The Littlest Sontaran:

Last week, in my review for The Sontaran Stratagem, I bemoaned the inevitable redemption of the boy genius.  I thought for sure Rattigan would inevitably see the error of his ways, decide killing the rest of the human race was just too horrible, stop being a Collaborator, and then jump ship to help the Doctor save the planet.  I'm pleased to note that things turned out better than I feared.  Luke became an enemy of the Sontarans not because of some sort of moral salvation, but because the Sontarans betrayed him.  The closest thing he got to redemption was revenge.

While I thought perhaps his temper-tantrum, when the other members of The Bloodhound Gang in their red hoodies refused to play an impromptu game of space explorer with him as the world asphyxiated, was a bit over-the-top, I enjoyed watching Rattigan's world crumble around him.  From his displays of cocksure arrogance ("It's time I made a move, sir...I have soldiers of my own.") to his panic at the defection of his gang ("I'm cleverer than everyone...you hear me??  I'm clever!") to learning of his betrayal ("but you promised!") to the final insult of the Doctor casually emasculating him ("If I see one more gun..."), the Decline and Fall of Luke Rattigan was a wonder to behold.

...I have no doubt that the Doctor would have ultimately pressed the button after giving the Sontarans his obligatory eighteen or twenty chances to surrender...

Despite Luke's seeming impotence, however, the biggest irony of the episode is that General Staal succeeded in making him into a better Sontaran than most, including Commander Skorr (star of AIP's "I Was a Teenage Sontaran"), who, despite his own youthful glee about battle, might as well have just thrown himself in front of a bus.  Luke, on the other hand, was not only unafraid to die in battle, but when he does his "something clever" he glories in taking his betrayers down with him.  While I have no doubt that the Doctor would have ultimately pressed the button after giving the Sontarans his obligatory eighteen or twenty chances to surrender, deep down he was keeping hope alive that the Sontarans just might manage to come around to his wholly un-Sontaran solution; Luke, on the other hand, didn't give a rat's ass about offering them the option, and although Luke's substitution may have been predictable, it was so well executed (no pun intended) that I couldn't help but grin happily as he yelled "Sontar-ha!" at a bunch of dumbfounded Sontarans.

The Secret Weapon:

Five episodes into Series 4 and Catherine Tate is continuing her tour-de-force performance as the Doctor's most well-constructed companion.  Although she's required to lay on the emotion a little heavy with Bernard Cribbins, as usual, and we have to deal with too many scenes of Sylvia being annoying (what is with RTD and making every companion's mother a godawful harpy?  Even the one in The Sarah Jane Adventures is dim as a post and thoroughly unlikeable), she once again manages to imbue her character with wit, convincing emotion, and genuine likeability.  And I think the scriptwriters even managed to avoid having her say "dumbo" in this one.

Among the highlights this time around are the scene where the Doctor gives Donna her own key to the TARDIS, which contrasts nicely with the way it's been handled with the other companions: "maybe we'll get sentimental after the world's finished choking to death," and her heroic turn on the Sontaran space station where she's largely on her own sabotaging teleporters and tattooing Sontarans' Diocese on the backs of their necks.

That Appalling Mongrel Dialect:

The Poison Sky, despite all its faults, provided some excellent screen-chewing opportunities for David Tennant.  Best among these is probably the conference call he sets up with General Staal posing as a diplomat.  This provides some excellent exchanges between the Doctor, Staal and Colonel Mace.  Tennant should get more of these opportunities to lay into his enemies.  In addition to managing some exposition in a less clumsy manner than unconvincing news-anchors, and being generally highly entertaining, this short interlude includes as a bonus a reference to the war with the Rutans and no less than two allusions to The Two Doctors.

While much of UNIT was rather large and unwieldly, what with their platoons of junior-college soldiers and lorry full of computers (I miss the good old days, when they were about the size of Torchwood's Cardiff branch and they were lucky if they had silverware), I rather enjoyed the Doctor's interactions with Colonel Mace.  His sort of put-upon-ness and attempts to retain some sort of control while being clearly out-of-his-depth actually remind me of the Brigadier (much more so than anything else about UNIT 2008 reminds me of anything about UNIT 1970's-or-80's), and as a result he gets most of the best interactions with Tennant.  From the without-any-missed-beats "Are you my mummy?" to the Doctor's sheepish denial of "Getting a taste for it" to the Colonel's McCrimmonesque reaction to the Doctor's "diplomacy", the chemistry between Mace and the Doctor is top-notch.  I hope they bring him back and make him a regular Brigadier-type foil for the Doctor for years to come (in the 2010's-or-20's).

One last Tennant line deserving mention is the Doctor's reaction to the TARDIS going missing (again): "I'm stuck on earth, like...like an ordinary person...like a human.  How rubbish is that?  Sorry, no offense, but come on!"

Choking on it:

It would seem that, as the evidence piles up, that Helen Raynor has clear strengths and weaknesses in her writing.  Much like RTD, she seems to have a bit of a knack for those witty one-liners and humorous reparteé, but her more "emotional" bits are laid on with a trowel, and heaven forfend she try to shoehorn her "message" awkwardly into the plot.  I'm all for politicizing fiction, subtly or otherwise, but it has to done with some degree of finesse and it has to make some sort of sense, or we get humans and pig-slaves living together in connubial bliss.  (That's why it happens in all those shitty Ayn Rand books.)

...how did they manage to script you to be simultaneously thick and two-dimensional?

"All those things they said about pollution and ozone and carbon....they're really happening, aren't they?"  Uh...no, Sylvia, that dreadful fog was from an alien plot to destroy the earth; how did they manage to script you to be simultaneously thick and two-dimensional?  Sure, pollution, ozone and carbon are still, uh, "happening", and cars are still 800 million poisonous death machines spread across the globe, but that really wasn't the central motivation of the plot, and making that the moral of the story just sort of feels like you're peeing it in my eye.

The Undefeated:

Although it seems like only last week the Doctor described the Sontarans as "The Finest Soldiers in the Galaxy", and he spent much of The Poison Sky screaming about how UNIT can't possibly fight them, the Sontarans don't appear to be much cop when their oponents actually have working weapons.  Sure, Skorr is having a gay old time shooting UNIT's grunts in the face while their weapons don't work...he's like Dick Cheney at a quail hunt.  But, deal with the copper-excitation problem and a gang of Ritalin-addled Girl Guides could hold the Sontarans down and give them noogies until the cows come home.  Once Mace has made his little speech about how indomitable the human race is or whatever, the Death Star shows up to blow away all the fog and fire lasers at the factory, UNIT attacks with its shiny new bullets, and apparently the incredible warriors turn out to be sort of rubbish.  No wonder the Rutans have been holding them at a draw for fifty thousand years.

The Two Marthas:

EvilmarthaAnd, finally, once again, Martha is the soaring eagle sucked through the jet engines of Doctor Who as Freema Agyeman continues her downward spiral.  In her short visit to Torchwood she was less lively than the dead character, and that continues here. Whether it's Evil Martha's piss-poor attempt to deceive the Doctor or Less-than-Evil Martha's general blandness, she keeps coming up shorter than...well, than Sontarans.

...for fuck's sake.

The weakest Martha Moment in The Poison Sky would be the scene when Good Martha encounters Evil Martha and they commune over shared memories.  It was so cringe-inducingly over-sentimental and amateurly acted that I wished Martha coming in contact with Antimartha would have resulted in their mutual annihilation and an explosion big enough to be heard in Seville.  Overbearingly sappy music and dreadfully pretentious scripting don't help matters: Evil Martha's final line is "Martha Jones...all that life!", for fuck's sake.

At the end-of-episode cliffhanger, as the doors slam shut and the Doctor's disembodied hand begins to froth and sputter like an agitated otter, the Doctor delivers his obligatory "What?! What?!"  Realizing that we're going to be saddled with not-Evil Martha for who-knows-how-many more stories, I was left shouting "Why?! Why?!"

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