Well, that was a lot of fun!
Helen Raynor is forgiven for the ambitious but ultimately muddled Dalek two-parter last year. She’s clearly learned from her mistakes. She’s made better use of her settings, augmented the character of the Sontarans in consistent but interesting ways and, more importantly, had fun doing so. And we the audience have had fun following her. The plot may not be strong and reliant on some trickery, but the confidence this two parter exudes makes this the best serial of the series so far.
Before I continue, I should note that in my ongoing effort to prevent the accidental spoilage of the episodes I reviewed, I’ve altered the Atom feed that gets picked up by Google Reader. Right now, on the main page of my blog, I can write the post in two parts, putting a non-spoiler excerpt on the main page and allowing people to click through for the rest of the entry. I’ve noticed that my Atom feed doesn’t do that, and instead posts the whole post. Well, no longer. Spoilers are carefully hidden behind the break.
So, to read the more detailed review, click on the link at the break…
In The Sontaran Stratagem, after heading back to ancient Rome and out to the planet of the Ood, here comes true terror: Donna is learning how to drive the TARDIS. Actually, she’s not half bad. But the fun and games come to an abrupt halt when a mobile phone in the console rings, and the Doctor discovers that a call that he clearly didn’t want to take is about to bring him home.
On the other end of the line is Martha Jones. Now, the Doctor genuinely pleased to see Martha again, but the phone was only supposed to be used in the event of trouble. And after a brief but fun meeting between Donna and Martha (much to the Doctor’s chagrin), the Doctor gets an up-close look at what that trouble is.
In charges UNIT, a ghost of the Doctor’s past that the Time Lord is quite ambivalent about. Yes, he worked there through multiple regenerations, and yes he was quite close to the personnel there, but he was never comfortable around soldiers. He hates the hero worship that UNIT personnel show him, he’s uncomfortable with how well Martha has adapted to the soldier’s life, and he definitely hates the salutes. And yet he takes to the UNIT setting like an old coat, offering expert advice on the mystery that has UNIT’s whisker’s quivering.
That mystery is ATMOS, a miraculous car accessory that eliminates carbon emissions and appears to have solved climate change (though not, as the Doctor sagely points out, peak oil). There’s no way even a whiz kid like Luke Rattigan is going to design technology this advanced. Whose helping him, and why?
Two weeks ago, I suggested that the two-parter The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky would be a check-your-brain-at-the-door monster thrash, and I believe I was largely right. However, the story works much better than your average brainless action fare. The action is great, but there’s more here, including good character moments for the Doctor, Donna and Martha, and a bold revival of both UNIT and the Sontarans. Most of all, the two episodes exude a confidence that allow it to paper over the flaws of its storytelling. Helen Raynor wrote this two parter, and she was sort of on probation in this household after the ambitious but ultimately muddled Dalek two-parter last season. On paper, The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky share the problems of Daleks in Manhatten and Evolution of the Daleks, but you hardly notice. It’s as if Raynor learned from her mistakes and put together the story she wanted to tell last year.
Let’s get the flaws out of the way, and the big one is the number of plot contrivances Helen Raynor uses in order to move the story forward. Too many characters act like idiots for the sole purpose that the plot wouldn’t function otherwise. There’s the freelance journalist who, after being thrown out from Rattigan’s Academy after investigating fatal and sinister flaws in the ATMOS contraption, gets in her ATMOS equipped car and tries to drive to UNIT headquarters. Of course she doesn’t make it. And had she had the foresight of a goldfish, she would have known that she wasn’t going to make it, and instead taken public transit or walked.
This plot-development by stupidity even infects UNIT, like when Colonel Mace allows the Doctor to investigate the Rattigan Academy accompanied by Private Ross Jenkins in an ATMOS-equipped Jeep. In this scene, writer Helen Raynor tries to play the card “you can’t fire me, I quit”. The Doctor notices the ATMOS on the dash and mentions this to the Private, who acknowledges the stupidity of this, and then tries to explain this away by saying that the equipment comes standard on all vehicles, now, and they can’t take them off unless they have evidence that the system is dangerous.
Which is cute, except it comes after the scene where UNIT storms a factory, guns drawn, and summarily arrests about a hundred factory workers. So, UNIT had sufficient evidence to overthrow U.K. sovereignty and suspend habius corpus, sticking guns in the faces of hundreds of workers, but insufficient evidence to take a monkey wrench to the suspicious devices in their cars. Hmm…
The scary thing is, now that I write this out, I’m not sure that this is as unrealistic as it sounds.
But that aside, it’s impossible not to like the revival of UNIT here. Colonel Mace is a perfect foil for the Doctor, undeniably likeable for being out of his depth, knowing it, and going forward anyway. I think, despite the Doctor’s distaste for guns, the Time Lord respects the Colonel’s indomitable spirit (after all, the Time Lord was wrong, UNIT could fight Sontarans). And I also think that, although the Colonel knows that UNIT and the Doctor will sometimes find themselves at cross-purposes, he accepts that and welcomes the Doctor as an independent ally. It’s a good match to the Doctor and the Brigadier’s relationship of old, and I hope we see more of him.
That said, Privates Harris and Gray must have slept through several training sessions at the UNIT academy. Such as Recognizing Evil Hypnotized Guards/Clones and the Merits of Running Away, and Recognizing Superior Alien Technology, Realizing You’re Outmatched, and the Merits of Clearing Out. And, most importantly, If You Can’t Raise Command On Your Walkie Talkie, Get The Hell Out of There.
Oh well. As grunts, they played the role with the requisite sinister attitude and earned their keep.
The other weak point in this story is Luke Rattigan, a warning on the perils of performing one-too-many wedgies on your local nerd. Actor Ryan Sampson does a good job bringing the man to life, and making his final decisions stick — every time he speaks, you can hear the echo of whippings with wet towels in the high school change room — but unfortunately, in terms of real character development he’s little more than a plot device tossed about at the whim of writer Helen Raynor. The scene where he unveils his grand plan to his students is a prime example, here. When he tells them that they’ve destroyed the Earth and it’s time to head elsewhere, they basically do what any human being would do and tell him to sod off.
You’d think that a man (okay, a pimply-faced teenager) who was as megalomaniacal as Rattigan would also be paranoid enough to root out dissention among the ranks rather than assume that everybody will just go along with his “brilliant” little plan. Mind you, I don’t entirely fault Helen Raynor for this, since such a development is hardly unknown in fiction. And the scene where Rattigan watches his empire crumble is very satisfying. The only way it could have been more satisfying is if Rattigan’s students had all given him an atomic wedgie as they walked out the door. So credit to Sampson for giving life to a very challenging role.
But while this two-parter asks you to check your brain at the door, it doesn’t play you for fools. There’s a lot of good material here, not least of which comes in the form of the augmentation of the Sontarans. Unlike her ambitious efforts with the Dalek two-parter, Helen Raynor shows an understanding of the Sontaran culture that rivals their creator Robert Holmes, and adds tweaks that are wholly in character, from their obsession with honour, to their war dance.
Eating this material up with a spoon is Christopher Ryan, who as General Staal gives us a wonderful performance that puts life in the eyes peeking out of several pounds of prosthetics. His respect for the bravery of his enemies, the sense of distaste at the tactics he’s using, make for fascinating scenes. His final confrontation with the Doctor is a wonderful moment, saying, basically, “you’ve won, Doctor. Now pull the trigger, or I’m going to snatch your victory from you.” The poor Doctor must have known that he’d face this attitude as he came aboard the Sontaran battleship. Expecting to change the mind of a Sontaran in that moment seems harder than changing the mind of a Dalek, and yet he still tries to give them a chance. The poor man. And if the Sontarans do come back, I hope Christopher Ryan takes up the uniform once again.
Raynor also shines in developing both Donna and Martha, and comparing and contrasting the two characters. Martha is older and wiser, more capable (and this manages to shine through despite the fact that the actor is forced to hide herself in a whole bunch of evil-clone acting), and pretty much over the Doctor. She surprised me by coming across as an older sister to Donna, who while taking to her role as TARDIS companion as a fish does to water, is still coping with the changes the Doctor has brought to her life, especially to her family. Actors Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King anchor Donna’s scenes at home, and give us some wonderful material that’s different from what we saw from Rose’s family or even Martha’s. I just love Wilfred cheering on his granddaughter, something that neither Rose’s mother, nor Martha’s, were ever willing to do.
And let’s not forget Catherine Tate herself, who shows remarkable range, even as her character, in some respects, has less to do than Martha. Her reunion with her grandfather is a standout. Then there is her work on board the Sontaran ship (which is wonderfully played alongside David Tennant). It’s great comparing and contrasting Martha and Donna here. Whereas Martha has built up several layers of bravado to her persona (which come crashing down when she’s captured and cloned), Catherine Tate has mastered a sort of vulnerability that makes her character’s tentative steps towards heroine all the more satisfying. Say it with me, “probic vent!”
The scene at the end, when both Donna and Martha react to the Doctor’s miraculous escape after the Doctor basically admitted he was going off on a suicide mission (Martha hugs him. Donna hits him for scaring her so) is the relationship in a nutshell. That they could boil it down to this degree shows that the actors and the crew are totally in sync on this one. Wonderful stuff.
The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky is, indeed, the revived Doctor Who in a nutshell, with all its strengths and weaknesses on display. We have the shoddy (or non-existent) science and the plot contrivances, but we also have a solid understanding of character and emotional pacing. Unlike the Dalek two-parter last year where too many elements (like the New York setting) were tossed in and wasted, the story here is tighter, the flaws easier to overlook in all of that action, crisp dialogue, special effects, and acting.
And, you know what? To heck with it all. So what if some parts of the plot didn’t make sense and some characters acted like idiots to push the plot forward. So what if the Doctor setting fire to the Earth’s atmosphere (as one audience member sagely put it, “won’t that release a whole lot of carbon dioxide?”) is explained away with a lot of burbling about building an atmospheric converter (this must be one of those strange — read, non existent — fires that consume smog and release nitrogen and oxygen). It was fun! And it had things to offer with an old enemy, old friends, old companions, and the new one. I was entertained for a full 90 minutes and, in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Thanks, guys, for two episodes of some solid, fun, television.
Random Notes on the Two Parter
- Private Ross Jenkins was a nice character, and I couldn’t help but notice that they never saw him actually get shot by the Sontarans. Instead, he just flopped over. Was he wisely playing dead? Did I see him open one of the loading dock doors later with a bazooka? Was material cut from this two-parter due to time constraints? Dare I hope we’ll see this character again?
- I liked the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inclusion of Rose in this episode. Short, sweet and disturbing. Miles better than the heavy handed approach taken at the end of Planet of the Ood
- I also noticed General Staal’s reference to the Last Great Time War — a war which the Sontarans were not allowed to participate in. My response: “yeah, and I bet that really cheeses you off.”