TARDIS File 04-05: The Poison Sky

TARDIS File 04-05: The Poison Sky

The Big Idea: As the Sontarans flood the Earth’s atmosphere with deadly gas, UNIT steps up to the plate, and the Doctor desperately tries to avoid bloodshed.

What’s So Great…

  • Colonel Mace comes into his own and proves that UNIT is worth its tax levy. Despite the Doctor’s continuing admonishments, Mace takes it on the jaw, admits when he’s wrong, and changes tactics to meet the emerging situation—steel plated bullets and the engines of the mighty Valiant!
  • The episode has a nice rapid-fire pace from the moment Sylvia smashed that axe through the front window windshield of her car to the bubbling hand at the end!
  • And in this age of diminishing cliffhangers in Doctor Who, wasn’t it nice to get an extra one at the end of the episode.
  • Check out that lovely little moment when the Doctor returned safely from the Sontaran ship to be embraced by Martha and whacked by Donna—it said so much about The characters, with such economy.

Some Quick Bits of Trivia: UNIT (originally known as the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) first appeared in the 1968 Second Doctor serial The Invasion. Nicholas Courtney’s portrayal of Brigadier Alistar Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was a major part of its appeal. Later during the Third Doctor’s exile on Earth the organization became a central part of the program, with things getting quite cosy as the early 70s drew on, earning the moniker “the UNIT family” (consisting of a variety of beloved characters such as Captain Mike Yates, Sergeant Benton, Jo Grant, the Master and of course the Brigadier). The Seeds of Doom in 1976 was the last serial to feature the organization (albeit without any of the familiar regulars) until its brief return in 1988’s Battlefield with the Seventh Doctor, which featured Courtney’s Brigadier and several new UNIT characters. The organization came back in the new series in Aliens of London but the real world United Nations—unimpressed that the BBC ran a fictitious UNIT website during series one with the UN logo slapped across it—expressed concerns that viewers might associate UNIT with the activities of the actual UN and requested that they not say it was a United Nations agency anymore. The organization’s acronym was unelaborated in appearances in The Christmas Invasion and The Sound of Drums (and the Torchwood episode Reset). This year, the organization was rechristened “Unified Intelligence Taskforce” (although the logos still read “U.N.I.T.”—perhaps it’s actually spelled “UNified”?)

When the Doctor interrupts the Sontarans’ transmission, animated footage from CBBC’s part live action, part animation eco-adventure show Tommy Zoom is brought up on screen.

Things to Geek Out About…

  • The beloved character of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, head of UNIT back in the seventies (or the eighties if you prefer), is mentioned in passing as “a great man” who unfortunately “stranded in Peru.” He’s also received a knighthood and is now “Sir Alistair”
  • Rose is glimpsed briefly on the TARDIS monitor as Donna is monitoring the Doctor’s transmission. She appears to mouth, “Doctor!” This marks Billie Piper’s second cameo appearance of the season, after showing up at the end of Partners In Crime.
  • The Valiant, UNIT’s flying aircraft carrier, makes a welcome return, after last being seen during the climax of Last of the Time Lords, and is used in a highly creative fashion.
  • “Are you my mummy?” is uttered by the Doctor to Colonel Mace when they (and the rest of the UNIT troops) don gas masks—a reference to the 2005 episodes The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.
  • Mention is made of the Sontarans’ never-ending war with the Rutans (a blob-like, shape-shifting race finally seen, after many off-screen references, in 1977’s The Horror of Fang Rock.)

Not to Complain But… Okay, it looked really cool to see the sky ignite in a massive fireball, but really, the damage to people and property would have the Doctor in court until the end of the world. And Martha’s connection to her clone sort of came out of nowhere; it would have been nice to have a few indications earlier that the clone functioned in this manner.

All Things Considered… Hallelujah! The Poison Sky manages to keep up the momentum of last week’s episode, while offering even more traditional action, humour, nice character moments, held together with a bit of mild social commentary. No, it’s not perfect. As mentioned above, the burning sky solution was a bit inane, and Martha’s interaction with her clone was a bit too much of a wrap-up coda for the character. Perhaps the best one could say about the story was that the tone was just right—it felt like Doctor Who. Confident Doctor Who, even.

UNIT (through Colonel Mace) manages to regain some of its early-years effectiveness and gravitas. While the Doctor may be full of critique for his former employer, these are brave, thoughtful and resourceful people. It was hard not to cheer as Mace displayed his competency, showing that there are effective alternatives in his approach.

All of Luke Rattigan’s eye-rolling and bratty whining was piled on a little thick, and the poignancy of his final act is somehow undercut by a few missing and necessary character beats. It was the sort of OTT performance from Ryan Sampson that was definitely not out of place in the series history though.

In the end The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky will stand as one of those dependable, workhorse episodes of the new series.

Line of the week: “Sontar—Ha!”

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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