Monday, May 05, 2008

Doctor Who - The Sontaran Stratagem

My overwhelming feeling after watching this episode was one of familiarity. I had seen it all before. This is not good for a television series as soon people will stop watching and turn over as the drama didn't deliver what was expected.

New Doctor Who seems to have fallen into a very predictable pattern ... and this is after only four series. It makes you appreciate even more the first 26 years of episodes where, good, bad or indifferent, it always felt different.

For Series Four we have a light hearted opening episode, a historical, something set on an alien planet which is a little off the wall, a two parter re-introducing an old monster ... and later on we apparently have something scary from Stephen Moffat, a Doctor-lite episode ... and a conclusion which brings lots of old faces back onto the screen. This pattern has been repeated for the last three years, so little wonder that it's not feeling new any more.

But back to 'The Sontaran Stratagem'. The modern technology being used by evil aliens is ATMOS, a device connected to cars which gives them zero carbon emissions. Oh, and it also runs the sat nav as well. It cannot be disabled, and can also literally take control of the vehicle! Did no-one notice the extensive modifications which would be needed to all vehicles to make this able to happen? No-one questioned it? This is just too hard to believe and so totally fails as a dramatic device on this occasion. There is a principle of technology that the user must always feel that they are in control, so it can always be turned off. To have something which quite blatantly tells you it cannot be disabled is something I'm sure that most people would not buy into.

But a nosy reporter, Jo Nakashima, is killed in the pre-credit sequence and we know that something is up at the Rattigan Acadamy and that young Luke Rattigan is in league with the returning baddies (who we already know all about thanks to the Radio Times).

Meanwhile the Doctor is giving Donna driving lessons in the TARDIS and the music is stupid and annoying. Cue the Doctor's mobile phone - it's Martha and she wants him to come back to Earth. As soon as we see Martha, her dreary theme music kicks in ... it's really rubbish that they feel the need to underpin every character with a theme and then to ram this down our throats every time they appear. It's really not necessary and some subtlty is needed once in a while. I dread to think - really dread - what the final episodes will be like if we end up with all the rumoured characters appearing. Snatches of their themes here and there, a veritable collision of sound and character. We shall see.

So the Doctor and Donna arrive and Martha orders Operation Blue Sky to start, this being the invasion of the ATMOS factory by UNIT troops. I smiled when they announced 'This is a UNIT Operation' to the workers as though they'd know what it meant. But then I realised that UNIT must be a well known organisation as even the journalist's sat nav at the start knew where to take her when she asked it for UNIT HQ.

The Doctor meets Colonel Mace and learns that ATMOS is believed to be behind the deaths of 52 people worldwide, all at exactly the same time. While the Doctor is looking into this, a couple of UNIT troops exploring the basement (on their own?) stumble across a secret lab and find a casket-like object inside containing a partially-formed humanoid creature before being disabled and 'processed' by General Staal the Sontaran. This sequence was very nicely handled. Lots of tension and wonder, and the half-formed clone was excellent. A really spooky design and I loved the partially closed mouth on it as well.

Now we get to see the Sontarans, and I loved how small they were. That was a great concept and was pulled off well by all concerned. They did look rather like toys and this gave totally the wrong impression to those they faced. The costume design worked well, and the helmet of course retained the 'classic' look - a nice piece of reinventing and updating by the design team. My only complaint was that, good though Chris Ryan was, he sounded as though he was speaking lines of dialogue rather than it being natural. He also sounded too human wheras Kevin Lindsay (who played the Sontaran in their first two appearances) managed to make the creature sound alien. Makes you appreciate Lindsay's performance all the more that no-one since him has matched the power and effectiveness of his performance.

Back to the plot, and the Doctor heads off with a UNIT soldier called Ross Jenkins to see Rattigan at his Academy while Donna goes to see her mum and grandfather. Martha meanwhile carries out medical checks on the staff at ATMOS, apparently not noticing that they don't blink, and speak in a hypnotised monotone. Some doctor she is! But she's soon marched off by the processed UNIT men to the underground lab. The scenes here are very well directed, and her scream echoing as all the lights go off was very effective.

The Doctor soon realises that Rattigan has access to some hi-tech kit, including a teleporter, and he pops up to the Sontaran ship only to come racing back again with General Staal in hot pursuit. Now we see the face of the Sontaran (well, assuming you'd not got the Radio Times) and it's well done indeed. Very alien and effective. I liked the Doctor using the ball and racquet to hit the ball to bounce off the creature's probic vent - very imaginative ... and of course nothing like using a satsuma to disarm a Sycorax.

So Rattigan and Staal head for the Sontaran ship where we discover that Rattigan thinks Sontarans all look the same when it's obvious that they don't - Commander Skorr (why, oh why wasn't he a General!) has a Madonna-like gap in his teeth for a start. Meanwhile poor Martha is strapped to a table and her memories used to finalise a clone of her to be used to create havok amongst UNIT. When Skorr arrives and oversees the last part of this, his line about the female having a weak thorax ... oh please! Apart from the fact that the dialogue makes no sense in context, this joke of writer Terrance Dicks, whereby every Sontaran is contractually bound to make a reference to females of the human species having different larynx structures from the males, was old ten years ago!

So we're into the endgame now ... and the Doctor and Ross arrive back with Donna as Staal puts his plan into action, sending Sontarans down to Earth in space pods (Why? They have teleports!) and activating the true function of ATMOS - to emit a gas from the car exhausts. But first the Doctor has to endure some RTD baggage in the form of Wilf and then Donna's mum, Sylvia, recognising him. So Wilf ends up locked in a car as the gas floods out and the Doctor can't open the door - what about breaking a window then?

As if this wasn't all exciting enough, the Sontarans, for no discernable reason other than to provide something to put on T-shirts, launch into a Maori-like Haka of 'Sontar-Ha!' while smacking their fists into their hands. I shook my head in disbelief here ... it's obviously rubbish, but they take it all so seriously.

So the Doctor looks into the distance as the air is filled with gas, and Wilf collapses in the car ... and we crash into the end credits.

As I said at the start, it all seemed so familiar and rumbled by without really registering on the excitementometer at all. The shock of the Sontaran appearance was diminished by good old Radio Times in shades of the CyberController and the Dalek Sec Hybrid, and the themes of modern technology gone bad was done before in 'The Age of Steel'/'The Rise of the Cybermen' as well as 'The Idiot's Lantern' and 'The Lazarus Experiment'.

UNIT seemed to have turned into a generic army unit - even their name has been changed from the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce to the UNified Intelligence Taskforce. But why? Sounds like a dollop too much of political correctness to me. I notice that Robert Holmes was credited for the Sontarans at least.

So will Wilf live? Will the chanting, dancing midget Sontarans take over the world? Will evil clone Martha turn out to have a goatee beard? Tune in next week for the answers ...


OrangeDog said...

It is indeed increasingly sounding like the music is being produced with all the subtlety of a Wagnerian brick in a sock

Anonymous said...

"UNIT seemed to have turned into a generic army unit - even their name has been changed from the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce to the UNified Intelligence Taskforce. But why? Sounds like a dollop too much of political correctness to me."

Apparently, the real United
Nations were unhappy with a
fictional organisation using
their name, so they made a
request for the BBC to
change it.

David said...

Re changing the name of UNIT ... still seems daft to me. It was fine in the 60s, 70s and 80s, so why not now? Some people have too much time on their hands ...