TARDIS File 04-04: The Sontaran Stratagem

TARDIS File 04-04: The Sontaran Stratagem

The Big Idea: Martha Jones racks up major long distances charges to summon the Doctor back to Earth to investigate a suspicious new “green” initiative called ATMOS. Oh, and you probably guessed— the Sontarans are back.

What’s So Great…

  • Bernard Cribbins. How many ways can this man move us to tears? He puts out the trash, sees his granddaughter and we all turn to mush. Don’t we all secretly wish he was our cheering gramps. And what a lovely little image of him “sneaking off to get pork pies at the petrol station.”
  • UNIT is back front and centre (after a few teases in The Christmas Invasion, The Sound of Drums, etc.). The Doctor’s reminiscences on his “company” days (more below), the raid on the ATMOS factory, a promising foil in Colonel Mace, and the poor, thick grunts who stumble into the clone-ery. Just like old times.
  • The lovely little scene between Martha and Donna when they first meet is a nice change-up from the Rose/Sarah Jane encounter.
  • The embryo clone that the UNIT soldiers discover at the beginning of the story is effectively creepy, and did you notice the umbilical cord emerging from the neck…where a probic vent would go. A nice little touch. And isn’t it great, after all these years, to see the Sontarans actually engaged in the practice of cloning

Some Quick Bits of Trivia: The Sontarans first appeared in the 1974 serial The Time Warrior, created by legendary Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes. Christopher Ryan, who plays General Staal, originally appeared in Doctor Who back in 1986 as Kiv in The Trial of the Time Lord segment known familiarly as “Mindwarp.” Some viewers may also recognize him as having played Mike in the BBC2 television series The Young Ones, or as Marshall, one of Edwina’s ex-husbands on Absolutely Fabulous. The scene where the Martha’s clone emerges from its embryonic soup is reminiscent to one in the film Alien: Resurrection involving Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley clone.

Things to Geek Out About…

  • UNIT dating! Was there ever a topic more apt to raise controversy and speculation! For the uninitiated, there has always been much confusion as to when the original UNIT stories were meant to take place—the shaggy seventies or the slick eighties? The Doctor cleverly evades the question by throwing it right back out at the audience.
  • And keeping with the UNIT geekery, apparently the Doctor never actually tendered his resignation and is technically still on staff
  • There are some nice shots of the Sontaran’s familiar spherical spacecraft in flight, often viewed on the ground in the 1970s or in a couple of cheap video effects in the 1980s.
  • When the Doctor mistakenly thinks Donna is leaving, he mentions his regret at not taking her to see the Medusa Cascade (its second mention this season).
  • Staal is familiar with the Doctor’s involvement in the Time War (he calls him the face changer) and expresses outrage that the Sontarans were not allowed to participate.
  • Humourously, and in quick succession, both Wilf and Sylvia Noble recognize the Doctor from their past encounters: Wilf during the 2007 Christmas special Voyage of the Damned (still unseen on CBC!) and Sylvia from the 2006 Christmas special The Runaway Bride (we also learn the reason we didn’t see Wilf in that story was that he laid up during Donna’s wedding with the Spanish flu.)
  • Martha is appears to be engaged to Thomas Milliken, the pediatrician turned freedom fighter she shared sparks with in The Last of the Time Lords.
  • Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that Donna’s car had an ATMOS sticker in Partner’s in Crime.

Not to Complain But… These aren’t your father’s Sontarans. Somehow they’ve lost some of their original gravitas. Christopher Ryan’s portrayal of Staal is fairly broad, as if he could easily be shoe-horned into anything from Star Trek: Voyager to Red Dwarf. And one has to raise an eyebrow over the fact that characters keep getting into ATMOS-equipped vehicles despite suspicions that the whole affair is dodgy. On the other hand, maybe that isn’t so different from our own reality.

All Things Considered… A vast improvement over last year’s initial two parter, Daleks in Manhattan. Viewers have come to expect that the kid-friendly first two-parter slot will be filled with light, silly action-oriented fare. But there’s a great breezy feel to the episode. It feels traditional…plus. We get UNIT, but with a bit more hardware. Martha’s back, but she’s got a life of her own, and we get to see Freema Agyeman do creepy as clone Martha.

And then there are the Sontarans. While the makeup has been suitably updated, it would have been nice to see them look a little more battle worn, with a bit more dents in the armour and grime on the helmet. They seem pre-packaged and ready for their eventual arrival on the set of The Sarah Jane Adventures. They also tend to work well with good foils, and here we have Luke Rattigan, spoiled super-genius, who either rubs you completely the wrong way or makes you snigger at his over-the-top teeth grinding. The scene where the Doctor puts him in his “conditional tense” place is very instructive: we love when the Doctor does it, but Luke’s comeback on the redundant “s” in _ATMOS systems_ is pure front-of-the class obnoxiousness.

Catherine Tate continues to shine as Donna, using her natural skills (super temp) to solve problems. The scenes with her and Benard Cribbins are pure gold. David Tennant gets lots of opportunity to express the Doctor’s eccentricities (his gleeful visit to the Rattigan Academy), and once again he uses a common everyday item (tennis racket) to disable the antagonist. Colonel Mace is a nice foil for the Doctor, and there are nice little glimmers of independent thought, but as yet he feels a little star struck. Perhaps next week’s episode will reveal further shades to the good man.

A cracking good cliffhanger—here’s hoping for a satisfying resolution.

Line of the week: “That’s not a very good nickname. What if you do get defeated? Staal-the-not-so-quite-undefeated-anymore-but-never-mind.”

Index of TARDIS Files

TARDIS File prepared by Scott Clarke

Read our review of Series Four in two special issues of Enlightenment

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