Doctor Who – The Sontaran Stratagem Review (or “Redemption For Raynor”)

Helen Raynor didn’t have the best of debut stories when she wrote the poor two parter, Daleks in Manhattan & Evolution of the Daleks. In my review I finished with the rather damning line “A pretty resounding failure on the whole”.

In hindsight that might not be the best English ever written on this blog, but the point stands.

And yet, here she is back again to write another two-part affair.

Jobs For The Girls, eh?

And on the surface, it looks a little bit like she’s using every gimmick under the sun to potentially mask a poor plot.

For you see this story – The Sontaran Stratagem & The Poison Sky – not only includes the return of The Sontarans, but also the return of both Martha Jones and UNIT too.

So does she glide through on the basis of the gimmick or is this a story worth commending?

Doctor Who – The Sontaran Stratagem & The Poison Sky Review: What’s This One About?

With the help of an irritating boy genius, The Sontarans plan on turning Earth into a clone birthing planet thanks to a gas emitting Sat Nav system fitted on every car.

Playing the long game then, I see.

Thoughts – Redemption For Raynor

It seems as though Helen Raynor has redeemed herself; The Sontaran Stratagem & The Poison Sky is surprisingly good.

In spite of the gimmicks, this turns out to be a well told story that actually manages to be the best “big” modern Earth story they’ve done since the show came back.

What do I mean by big?

Well I’m talking about ones where the world is aware of invasion; stories like The Aliens of London, The Sound of Drums, The Christmas Invasion, The Runaway Bride (ok, that maybe doesn’t fit the criteria), Smith & Jones and The Army of Ghosts.

To me, The Sontaran Stratagem is better than any of them.

And you wanna know why? I’ll tell you.

The Sontarans

First and foremost there’s the Sontarans themselves, who are wonderfully realised.

The Sontarans are looking good here. It would have helped if Luke was called Vivian, Neil or Rick though; I'd have laughed

The Sontarans are looking good here. It would have helped if Luke was called Vivian, Neil or Rick though; I’d have laughed

This is certainly their best appearance since The Time Warrior, and in fact it’s probably a little bit better.

Not only do they look good and not only are they performed well, but they are also written as interesting characters.

The Sontarans have a solid backstory which a decent writer will always be able to get mileage out of, and Raynor manages that, but she also adds to it with stuff like the Sontaran war dance.

Mainly though, what brings them out is the acting of Christopher Ryan. He’s a great casting choice because he’s the right height, but also because he’s good enough to take the lead with them.

Sure, you watch it and think he’s going to call a character “Vivian” at any moment, but you can also appreciate that he adds more depth to “Doctor Who Monster” than most manage.

The other guy is good as well, and it’s actually a bit weird to think that he still plays a semi-regular part in the show as Sontaran Strax.

So yes, I’m impressed with the Sontarans.

Credible Plot & Casting Choices

Another aspect I like about this story is that it has a credible plot.

Using Sat Nav as a plot device is a nice idea. And it was relevant to the time as well, as that was the time when they were probably at their most popular and most used in the UK. Now in 2013 we have them on our phones, but I recall actually buying a Sat Nav for the first time in that year.

And linking it to a boy genius was also quite clever.

Nobody likes a boy genius; nobody. Especially a small boy genius.

So they cast well by bringing in the 5″3 Ryan Sampson as Luke Rattigan. Not only does it make him a more whiny and annoying runt of a character, but he also works alongside the similarly diminutive and well cast Sontarans.

What’s more, while we’re on the subject of height, they also did a nice job in hiring massive blokes to play the UNIT soldiers who were taken over. By hiring guys who are over 6″2 and having them in the same shot as the 5″0 Christopher Ryan, it makes the Sontarans look more impressively scaled.

Good Humour

Then of course there’s the humour, which invariably works.

Whether it’s the bit with the Doctor wrongly thinking Donna is leaving him for good, or his Tom Baker-esque exchanges with Luke, there’s humour that works throughout.

Some of my favourite examples include…

  • The reactions both Wilfred and Sylvia give to seeing the Doctor again.
  • The ATMOS device “exploding” in a fizzle
  • The brilliant line from Staal in response to Luke saying something is “Cool”. “Is the temperature significant?” he asks, followed by an awkward pause.
  • And the line that cracks me up the most is Wilf’s “Oh, an alien hand….” line after he shakes the Doctor’s hand. It’s such a small and insignificant line but it’s natural.

What I like about the humour here is that it doesn’t feel forced at all, and that’s the most important aspect in making it work in a show that’s not a comedy.

Donna And Her Family, Again

Once again, I also have to commend the acting of Catherine Tate, but also that of Jacqueline King and Bernard Cribbins.

Bernard Cribbins; can bring the emotion out of anything

Bernard Cribbins; can bring the emotion out of anything

All three of them are quality actors who really raise the bar in Doctor Who.

It’s a treat to watch.

Cribbins manages to make seeing Donna walk down the street into a genuinely emotional moment, which says a lot. Could you imagine Jackie and Rose Tyler managing that without layers and layers or emotive music and dialogue? Probably not.

And where Tate excels once again is in the drama.

Her scene where she has to be talked into going out of the TARDIS to knock out the Sontaran is another home run. Her character is genuinely scared, and Tate gets that across beautifully.

Well done again, Ms Tate.

Where It Falters

Although there are all these aspects of The Sontaran Stratagem that are praiseworthy, there’s also a few bits that let it down.

For example, when put up against Catherine Tate, Aga Freeman comes across as an incredibly stagey and wooden actress. Her line about how she’s “bringing (the Doctor) back to Earth” is awful, and she doesn’t get much better from there.

It’s odd that I didn’t notice this in the previous season, but it’s very obvious here.

Similarly wooden is the actor who plays off against Luke at the Academy in The Poison Sky. He may as well be reading his lines off a piece of paper held up by one of the extras.

And UNIT are a bit crap too, aren’t they? As we discovered in Battlefield, UNIT the organisation isn’t nearly as important as the UNIT characters.

Back in the 70s there was the UNIT Family, with the Brigadier at the heart of it. Without him – and that’s not just true of this and Battlefield, but also as far back as the Seeds of Doom and even the Android Invasion – they are nothing but nameless soldiers.

Oh, and one more area where I think it’s let down; a big thing is made of the Sontarans only having the one weakness (the Probic Vent), and yet they are gunned down as easily as humans once UNIT have their weapons sorted. I mean, I know it’s never been stated explicitly that they are immune to bullets, but still…

Random Observations

  • The “I order you to tell me your prime directive” line is getting a bit old is it not? How often has the Doctor got himself out of a scrape by doing that?

    Casting big buggers to stand against the diminutive Christopher Ryan adds a lot to the Sontaran visual

    Casting big buggers to stand against the diminutive Christopher Ryan adds a lot to the Sontaran visual

  • How come nobody other than Sylvia has ever thought the way to escape an ATMOS car is to smash the window?
  • That line about how Wilf missed Donna’s wedding with Spanish Flu was as subtle as a sledgehammer to the testicles.
  • The burning of the sky must have killed a lot of birds, or at the very least brought down a plane or two?
  • The doppelgänger Martha was a nice idea, and the look of it when it was in its embryonic stage was creepy.
  • I bet the Doctor gambled on Luke swapping places with him. He tries to be all smiles and sunshine but he’s never happier than when someone sacrifices their life to save his.
  • Ok, I can just about accept Rose managing to break through into an alternative rea…actually, no I can’t; it’s ridiculous. But even more ridiculous is her popping up on the TARDIS scanner. How did she do that? And what’s she doing? Just staring into one of the Doctor Who Universe’s makey-up two-way monitors and screaming “Doctor!!!” over and over until he looks? She needs committed, she really does.
  • The next story looks amazing. The Doctor has a Daughter? That’ll be a game changer!! Unless of course it’s false advertising and it turns out to be a massive cop-out. But they wouldn’t do that, would they?
  • With Strax being a reasonably large part of the show now as a good guy, can the Sontarans ever be brought back as villains? Possibly, but it’d have to be a story about them trying to reclaim him.
  • One last line I liked; where Staal complains about not being allowed to take part in the Time War. Brilliant.
  • DWM Mighty 200 Ranking: #91. Aye, cos it’s nowhere near as good as The Fires of Pompeii or Tooth & Claw, is it?! *sigh*

Doctor Who – The Sontaran Stratagem & The Poison Sky Review: Final Thoughts

So there are some elements that are weak about this, but on the whole, I think it’s another high quality story.

The Sontarans have been brought back strongly; a lot more strongly than the Cybermen were, and credit has to go to Helen Raynor for that, especially after she botched her Dalek story so badly.

And once again, Donna – and her family – add a lot to the show.

So I’m happy to give this one the thumbs up

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3 Responses to Doctor Who – The Sontaran Stratagem Review (or “Redemption For Raynor”)

  1. In RTD’s Writer’s Tale he talks about how Raynor went on Gallifrey Base after the Dalek 2-parter aired, and how all the negative commments about her episode left her sitting and shaking in the fetal position crying and had to be talked down by RTD over the phone to prevent her quitting as a writer.

    Having said that – I didn’t really like this episode, but it was better than the awful Dalek one. I’m amazed they gave her another 2-parter though. Perhaps it was affirmative action at good old Aunty Beeb.

    • Bob says:

      Well this was another one that RTD pretty much wrote isn’t it? That was the impression I got from that book. I think they have Helen Raynor these episodes as she is a fairly reliable writer who could be rewritten easily.

  2. Johnny BD says:

    Best little quip of the episode: When Doctor puts on his gas mask and says “Are you my mummy?”

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