The Sontaran Stratagem


Ahem. Hello everyone. Could we all stop crying, please. I’m looking at you, Donna, I saw that tear. Oh for heaven’s sake, Wilf. I know you’re old, but suck it up. You’re a man, sir. A british man. I was under the distinct impression that you poms had upper lips which stayed rigidly firm under pressure. And if you think this is pressure, then you just wait until the inevitably more epic and distressing season finale. What will you do then? Cry more?1

There, I think we’ve got that straightened out. In future, I’d appreciate it a lot more if everyone tried not to cry, visibly. It’s about 5 million percent more moving. Oh, and turn down those sweeping chords. We’re not watching The Bold and the Beautiful.

There’s a lot more to say about ‘The Sontaran Strategy’ than just whinging about the rapidly encroaching sentimentality. For a start, there’s some familiar old school faces in town. Militaristic, with a predilection for battle and peculiar facial hair, they were first seen in Who over thirty years ago, and their popularity has never waned. Yes, UNIT is back.2 The Doctor is characteristically wary of the organisation under new management,3 but it was quite pleasing to see the group get to be vaguely competent and for key personnel to survive the entire story.

There we go, I’ve said something nice. And I didn’t necessarily expect to. Helen Raynor’s previous script, ‘Daleks in Manhattan’, was not my favourite thing ever. This year’s follow-up I found better in almost every respect. The science was pleasingly squintable, for example.4 The characters feel generally well-rounded. The villains even have a plan which is vaguely sensible.

And what villains they are. I was quite skeptical of the Sontarans’ new design when it was first unveiled, and I still don’t love it, but they have so much more character than the Daleks and Cybermen often manage that it’s not really a problem.5 General Staal is particularly endearing, with an impressive voice and some excellent lines. In general, a villain with character and some wit gives the Doctor a much more interesting foil. It’s a bit shocking, just how few times that our Time Lord has gotten into ye olde verbal sparring matches in the new series.6 Indeed, the Doctor is generally quite impressive this week, responding cleverly to Donna’s unexpected kidnapping and spotting the dull ‘evil companion’ plot twist as soon as he meets her.

But while the plot hangs together reasonably, some of the dialogue is less impressive. I’ve already gone to town on the soppiness of the family scenes, but perhaps just as annoying is Martha’s helpful little warning to Donna about the danger of hanging around the Doctor. Cheesy dialogue aplenty, interspersed with even more wittering about how awesome the Doctor is. Which I’m completely sick of, by the way. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but we all know he’s awesome, and even if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be convinced by watching all hist mates and their dotty grandfathers stand around telling us he is.

I like a bit of double companion action, too. Unfortunately, it’s not until the dying minutes of ‘The Poison Sky’ that we really see Martha and Donna both actively involved in the plot. Having Mr “As If I Would Ask Her To Kill” politely request a spot of hammer-swinging violence from Donna was a genuinely interesting and slightly disturbing moment. Having Martha naked in a vat of goo was also interesting — because, of course, it raises fascinating moral issues of what it means to be a clone and how much our memories affect us, and also, how damn hot Freema Agyeman is. Sadly for the most part, the triumphant return of Martha is a bit wasted, what with her spending the lion’s share of the episode not being Martha. Happily, her immediate and very clever pleading with her clone reminded me just how awesome she is.

When all’s said and done, ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ isn’t so much a mixture of good and evil as it is a mixture of stale and fresh. Having yet another plot revolving around aliens using modern trends in technology against us: stale. Introducing a new generation of UNIT with an ex-companion as their scientific advisor: fresh. Having the Doctor save himself from a homicidal satnav by just telling it to do the opposite of what he wants: stale. Having the resulting explosion a piddling little thing: fresh.

Doctor Who, in it’s latest form, is four years old. The patterns that repeat from season to season aren’t all intrinsically bad. I don’t mind if every year there’s a celebrity historical episode. I do mind if every year that episode uses much the same plot. ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ is frequently amusing, but when you peer at the cracks, there’s a lot that feels like the reanimated corpse of previous stories. I enjoyed it — especially the second part — but the gap between fresh and stale in Who is starting to get bigger, I feel. And I want to see more episodes on the other side of the line.

Here’s hoping this starts with ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. But if he didn’t acquire said spawn in something even vaguely near the traditional way, you’re going to have a pretty grumpy reviewer on your hands next week.

  1. N00b.
  2. Oh, what a tortured web I weave. Disappointingly I didn’t notice any false moustaches amongst the Unified Intelligence Taskforce.
  3. Oh, the whinging on the interwebs about the Doctor’s attitude to UNIT. To me it’s all perfectly simple. The Doctor doesn’t like guns and armies. He did like the Brigadier, Benton and the rest. By the end of the story I think it’s clear that Colonel Mace has earned his respect. And, the respect of Captain Price. If you know what I mean. Fnar fnar. Around the offices, it’s become common to shout “SNOG!” at the screen whenever two people share even the tiniest of glances. Imagine our surprise when the television responded to Jackson’s demands. He immediately gave it some further requests, but to no avail.
  4. It’s a new term I’ve invented. All I want from Doctor Who, science-wise, is for me to be able to squint at it a bit and believe that it could vaguely happen.
  5. Besides, the Sontarans are a rare Who monster in that they’ve almost looked worse every time they’ve returned.
  6. I’m still a bit upset that even when the Master managed to come back, the Doctor was just a sourpuss for the whole time.

2 Responses to “The Sontaran Stratagem”

  1. You didn’t seem particularly grumpy after ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’.

  2. I’ll be having words about that.