Doctor Who – ‘The Sontaran Strategem’

There are a couple of trends in RTD-era Doctor Who that are potentially relevant to this episode. One is that episode four of each series is always the first of a two-part aliens-invade-Earth type story, which is usually a bit below par. The second is that many episodes are good at the build-up, but offer poor, or at least overly simple, resolutions. The Sontaran Stratagem might fit the latter characteristic, though as it’s part one of two and is all build-up, as an episode in its own right it won’t suffer as a result; but it has so far not disappointed.

As a return for both the Sontarans and UNIT, this potentially had fanwank written all over it, but overall restrained itself. Inevitably, the Doctor entering the mobile HQ was reminiscent of the last full-on appearance on UNIT, in 1989’s Battlefield; it’s a shame the UN’s unhappiness at being associated with a military force dedicated to defending humanity (!) has meant they have had to dispense with the blue berets and change the name to “Unified Intelligence Task Force” – but on the up-side, the joke about UNIT dating was, to me at least, hilarious. I didn’t get much of a sense of today’s UNIT, however: the commanding officer was well-played, but lacked depth – much as Lethbridge-Stewart did at times, of course, but Nicholas Courtney’s strangely bluff charisma was sadly not replicated. I do hope he gets a cameo in next week’s episode – it will be a sad opportunity missed if not.

As for the Sontarans, I am a bit baffled that RTD chose them from among numerous other potential “second tier” monsters to bring back – they were always a bit rubbish really, weren’t they? Still, their visualisation worked better than the initial promotional pictures had suggested – their faces had been made to look rather too cute in the stills I saw. Overall, they are a credible monster, though I’m not sure their “returning” status really adds anything to them. Still, no point reinventing the wheel, I suppose.

Also returning to the show, throughout this year’s series, is some surprisingly strong horror: after the Ood transformation last week, the shrivelled old woman the week before and the grotesque belly-bulging antics of the season opener, the clone-in-a-tank was perhaps the most grotesque and unnerving monster ever seen on the show. Utterly horrible, brilliantly realised. But is it really appropriate for a pre-7pm transmission? Well, it’s the BBC’s problem.

Oh, and also also returning: Martha Jones. I tried hard last year to give Martha the benefit of the doubt, but after the series ended, and after her stint in Torchwood, I concluded rather sadly that Freema Agyeman just can’t cut it, unless (as in Human Nature, for instance) she’s given some really good material to work with. Obviously Helen Raynor’s script provided sufficient grist to Freema’s mill, as for the most part she was decent here, although at times, for instance the “I’m bringing you back to Earth” line she still seemed a bit too stagey.

But Martha’s character development is excellent: I can’t recall seeing a companion come back having been in many ways transformed: engaged, newly qualified, and in a new line of work. The only comparison is Ace’s development into a battle-hardened soldier in the New Adventures – thinking about it, it’s hard not to think there might have been a bit of an influence going on there.

And before I forget, also also also returning: that bloody bridge at Cardiff docks! As seen in Army of Ghosts, the Torchwood episode with the people being taken and returned by the Rift, and now as the (admittedly very effective) backdrop to the episode-opening car crash (yet more strong horror for a 6:20 TX!)… They really need to find some more varied locations. The re-use in Partners in Crime of the corridor in the Millennium Stadium previously seen in Dalek and The Runaway Bride – even shot at almost exactly the same angle as in the latter – has also been blindingly obvious, and I’m sure there must be other examples of re-used locations that have been spotted by people more eagle-eyed than I.

The story itself in many ways re-assembled the staples of an Earth-set Doctor Who story, but with enough twists to make it interesting. So, an alien attack plunges the planet into chaos – but this time it’s a threat on the ground rather than a spaceship looming out of the sky or marching alien hoards breaking cover. Again, the Doctor meets the companion’s family – but this time, actually, he’s met them before. Again, UNIT responds – but this time, the Doctor is an integral part of the operation, and the outfit takes centre stage in the narrative. Indeed, the matching-up of the militaristic Sontarans with the military UNIT is surely a deliberate decision.

The teenage genius… not sure we really needed another riff on this, but I suppose Doctor Who hasn’t done it before (has it? Maybe Adam in the 2005 series…). I particularly liked the Doctor’s reaction at the academy-thing: striding around, identifying all the massively sophisticated technology at a glance, teleporting casually off the planet and back again, then defeating the alien with some improvisation using everyday sporting equipment – it doesn’t get much more Jon Pertwee, albeit the pacing has been appropriately upped.

All told, this episode does very little that’s totally new, but manages to get a lot of thing spot-on right that have only been more-or-less right, or worse, in the past. And for that reason, it counts as one of the more successful episodes of its kind.

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