TV Review: Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem, BBC One, Saturday 26 April, 6.20pm


Aaaahhhhhh. That’s the satisfied sigh of a life-long Doctor Who fan who has just, finally, seen an episode that ticked enough boxes to feel right. Expectations were high, and on many levels this fourth episode lived up to them, with only the most minor of misdemeanours. The modern Doctor Who series have most often been at their best when bringing back the Doctor’s old enemies, and the return of the Sontarans chalked up another success in that particular hall of fame.

There was some sharp dialogue and nice touches of humour in this episode, penned by Helen Raynor, whose previous Doctor Who outing was the slightly less successful two-parter from last year – Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks. I loved the only-slightly-hidden meaning in the ATMOS device’s declaration that: “This is your Final Destination” and the Doctor’s quip that he came “intruder window” after teleporting to the Sontaran vessel.

I loved little things, too, like the UNIT guy with his loud hailer. “This is a UNIT operation. All workers will put down their tools and get on the ground.” Or something. I would have paid money for an extra’s role like that. Five seconds of ultimate power.

The story was well plotted, and although a little bit slow to start, well paced overall, with a heap of action and information imparted quickly and effectively without appearing forced or stilted. Donna’s stint as “Supertemp” in particular I thought a clever touch, discovering something was fishy simply on account of there being no sick days logged by any of the staff.

It was great to see UNIT back in the frame, and not just old, tired UNIT, but a newly revamped and spiffy UNIT with lots of cool gadgets. It’s still populated by terminally thick grunts in the main, but I guess some things never change. At least they have Martha to call the shots. Two Marthas actually, in the end.

The Sontarans’ use of cloning provided another clever dimension to the story. They are, as modern viewers will know by now, a cloned race, so it’s perfectly logical for them to use their cloning technologies to further their ambitions and schemes.

The Doctor’s initial meeting with Rattigan at the institute was another inspired piece of writing, full of fun and energy and a timely reminder that this guy knows a lot of stuff. He’s 900 (and a bit) years old, he’s been everywhere and nothing much surprises or fazes him. Nothing really frightens him, either. Certainly not a cynical, clever young whipper-snapper like Rattigan. And he’s pretty good at aiming a squash ball at the old probic vent too. With such acute angle awareness and perfect muscle control I bet he’s a demon on the snooker table.

The ATMOS device worked well for me too. Believable, with some well-made props and a bit of humour thrown in (thinking particularly of the fizzling phut of an explosion when Ross and the Doctor expected the whole car to erupt in flames. “Is that it?” asks the Doctor, sounding almost disappointed) my only criticism here would be that it was obvious from the start there was more to ATMOS than met the eye. A little more tension building would have been preferable, but it was made up for later by the chilling chant of the Sontarans, as their plan was put into operation.

So what else didn’t work? Only a couple of things really. The Sontarans appear to have been softened slightly, and I don’t just mean that they’re encased in foam-rubber body suits. All that business about “you dishonour me sir!” and “I will look upon the face of my enemy,” was a little too new-age and in touch with its feminine side for me. We’ve had a lot of this in the modern Who. We were even supposed to feel sorry for the lone Dalek way back in 2005′s “Dalek.” Don’t get me wrong, on the whole it’s a good thing that the baddies are given more than one dimension (especially in a show that has four!) but the Sontarans are a warrior race. I think Staal would have shot first and asked questions later, not worried about a bit of taunting from the Doctor. Indeed at another point in the story he’d already said words were the weapons of women, so why was he so bothered about being “dishonoured” by what the Doctor said?

On the whole the interplay between Martha and Donna worked well, except for the part where Martha started handing out advice on travelling with the Doctor and its effect on family. This dragged on way too long and began to feel like filler, but on the other hand it did set up the reunion between Donna and her family which was well scripted and well played by all involved. For me this is one of the greatest strengths of the new Who – the human story behind all the assistants is much more realistic, so much so that you can almost forgive the producers for using it as a licence to spend more time on Earth-bound stories and hence keep the budget down. So “yes” to the humanity of the assistants, but “no” to the softer Sontarans. Although since they’re causing poison gas to belch out of 400 million cars, maybe on reflection they’re not that soft after all.

I love a good cliff-hanger, and this is one of the best yet. In the previous three series I’d be praying the sonic screwdriver doesn’t come glibly to the rescue again, but even the seemingly limitless power of this annoying little device has been reined in during this series, thankfully.

The two-part story concludes next week (still at the same time! 6.20pm) with The Poison Sky.

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