Season 30 Episode 4 – The Sontaran Stratagem, by Helen Raynor

May 11, 2008

review by Martin Odoni.

What a clunky title! And the bad news doesn’t stop there.

I tend to find, when I’m watching an episode of Dr Who with the Sontarans in it and they’re the most interesting thing on show, that the story’s in trouble. They really are just Who’s hairless Klingons, so I don’t hold them in high regard. The trouble is, they’re probably what I hold in highest regard here.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the episode at all, it’s just most of the pleasure I took was of the guilty variety. A guilty snigger at the acting-by-shorthand of the guest cast, a shamed giggle at the painfully out-of-character strategy of the returning monsters, a red-faced chortle at the lazy, by-the-numbers plotting, and a discreet chuckle at the heavily-derivative scenario.

The opening scene of the Doctor teaching Donna how to control the TARDIS was all right – nice to have them using their time constructively rather than just standing around wittering much too fast for a change – but it’s not exactly a moment that breaks giddy heights, and it’s largely downhill from there.

When the TARDIS arrives on Earth, Martha and Donna meet for the first time. The conversation that follows seems to be a very deliberate, very self-conscious turning-of-the-tables on the nasty sniping that took place between Sarah Jane and Rose back in School Reunion. Like with the Doctor’s “I-just-want-a-mate” monologue in Partners In Crime, they’re right to avoid a re-run of things past, but, also like in Partners In Crime, they’re wrong to shout at the audience from the rooftops about it. Let us make the comparisons for ourselves, dammit, we’re not thick!

The Sontaran Stratagem must be just about the most jarringly-paced Dr Who story I’ve ever seen, and it really ruins some genuine good details; the episode is quite engrossing at times early on as the plot unfolds quite rapidly and smoothly, but then you can hear the brakes screeching and the driver’s head clattering into the dashboard as we’re ‘treated’ to another of new Who’s Obligatory Emotional ExpositionTM moments, with Donna being warned to be careful of travelling with the Doctor. From there, the episode keeps speeding up and slowing down like one of UNIT’s jeeps with engine trouble as it tries to cover the actual storyline, while being forced to make room for the manufactured business with Donna’s family.

This second scene between Martha and Donna is basically another rehash – a direct one this time – of a conversation between Sarah Jane and Rose in School Reunion. These rehashes are symptoms of a far worse problem with the story, which is that every key plot and character element on display appears to have been derived from somewhere else in recent Who history.

Let’s start with Atmos; here be the likely thought processes… “Hmm, we need a mystery for the story to open with. I know, we’ll have a successful new item of technology on the market with a cool-sounding name, which suddenly turns out to be part of an infiltration plan by a hostile alien. We haven’t used that idea before have we? Well, except for the chip fat in School Reunion of course. Er, and that orange drink in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Oh yes, and the diet pills in Partners In Crime…” (for pete’s sake, guys! That was just three weeks ago, and you’re already using the same plot device? At least, pretend you’re trying.) In this case, it’s a sat-nav system rather than something people eat, but does that distinction really count for anything?

Next we have all that sh*t about Donna’s family. Is there really anything to distinguish her mum from Rose’s or Martha’s? They’re all the same! They all talk much too fast, they appear constitutionally-incapable of listening to anybody, they all whinge about how much housework they have to do, they always rant about what a terrible burden their husbands/children are, and they all hate the Doctor when they meet him! You know, I’m starting to wonder whether we’re dealing with another renegade Time Lord; –

“First we had… the Doctor. Then we had the… Meddling Monk. Next we brought you… the Master! Then came… the Rani. And now, we bring unto you… the Companion’s Mother!”

Only when this Time Lord regenerates, only her appearance changes. Her personality doesn’t shift one bloody iota! The series has created its own clichés, and is sticking to them like glue. (NOTE: This turn of phrase is a joke. Just explained that for the hard-of-thinking among you.)

Then we come to the overall scenario. As mentioned, Atmos is just a tired old plot device used more than once before, including in this very season. But look at what it’s part of. It’s the first gambit of an alien invasion of Earth… again. I mean, come on, how many more bloody times is there going to be a giant fleet of alien invaders poised above the Earth, ready to move in and take over? First we had the Unquiet Dead invading through Cardiff, then we had the Slitheen, then we had the Daleks of the year 20,000. Hot on their heels (or at least it would be if the Daleks had feet), we had the Sycorax. Then came the Cybermen from a parallel Earth, in conflict with another huge Dalek army. Then came the Toclafane. I might even have missed out one or two others in between times. I swear, I find more and greater variation of plot every time I play Space Invaders on my old 286.

Even the popularity of the Atmos devices has an echo of the past, not least in its unconvincing scale. Everyone appears to have one. Why? It’s not completely clear, but it seems that everyone has decided they must have one on their car. I didn’t realise sat-navs were so trendy, I thought they were pretty much a novelty, nothing more. But not here. Apparently every car owner wants a sat-nav, and furthermore, they all have to have the Atmos brand. The whole population of Earth of one mind again, and all making the same decision and taking the same action simultaneously, just as in Army Of Ghosts and Last Of The Time Lords. And just as implausibly.

On the subject of implausible, the Sontaran plan is far too elaborate to swallow. Neither is it in their nature to resort to infiltration, nor do the circumstances make it necessary for them to do so. The Sontarans themselves state very early on that the weapons of the Earth, even those belonging to UNIT, are far too primitive and can easily be neutralised, so why would they resort to this hugely over-cooked plan to infiltrate the satellite networks of Earth? Why not try the honourable, in-your-face approach they’ve always loved and attack directly? This unconvincing contrivance, again, feels familiar, because it seems as pointlessly indirect as the Daleks’ ridiculous Big Brother games at the start of Bad Wolf.

Even the American boy-genius, Luke Rattigan, feels like something we’ve seen before. To me, he’s a cross between Adam and Henry van Statten from Dalek. Even if he isn’t, he’s still a tedious stereotype, a la the trio of power-seeking nerds from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

While the recycling is merely annoying, the cliffhanger at the end is laughable, for two reasons. Firstly, I can’t believe that it hasn’t occurred to the Doctor simply to try breaking the window instead of trying more and more fiddly tricks with the door-lock. That’s at least ten stupid points to him. Second, this must be the most feeble poisonous gas ever used in warfare, if, after several full minutes of exposure, Wilfrid is not only still alive, but is in fact still conscious.

Incongruities do the story no favours either. UNIT continuing to use the Atmos devices even while they’re exercising a military occupation of the factory doesn’t wash at all. Who cares if they’ve been ordered to keep using them? Just remove them and don’t tell anyone; surely you won’t have informed the higher authorities about attacking the production line, and they don’t appear to have noticed you doing it, so why would they notice you removing a bunch of sat-navs from your jeeps?

In fairness, the most baffling non-sequitur in the plot isn’t just confined to this episode; why is Donna always such a squealing loudmouth with most people, but as soon as she gets home and talks to her mother or grandfather she suddenly quietens down and sounds rational? Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to get a few moments when Catherine Tate shows that she has more than one emotion in her repertoire – in scenes with Bernard Cribbins, I swear I spot real evidence that she can, in fact, act. But the relaxed Donna just arrives completely out of nowhere. Does her mum put sedatives in the coffee so no one can interrupt her while she’s nagging them, perhaps?

I liked Bernard Cribbins in Partners In Crime, and he continued to be good here initially, but after a while I began to find his constant use of the phrase “Is it aliens?!?” really grating. Not his fault I suppose, but his delivery was getting quite hammy the more he had to say it. And isn’t it a very Arnold Rimmer thing to say anyway?

While we’re on that topic, the general standard of the acting was poor, thanks to a typical blase attitude. Freema Agyeman, not exactly a BAFTA-winner-in-the-making to begin with, seems to have taken a ten-week “How-To-Impair-Your-Acting-Ability” course since last year – that’s Torchwood to you and me – judging by her showing here. Her performance as Martha herself is very much painting-by-numbers, while as the clone she looks embarrassed. David Tennant, meanwhile, is showing signs that he’s getting disillusioned with the role. He isn’t bad, but there are moments that he looks a little exasperated. Can we blame him? As for whoever’s playing Donna’s mum, I can sum her up in four words; failed her EastEnders exam.

So why don’t I hate the story? Like I say, guilty pleasure is part of it, but there were also some genuine good bits that stood out.

I loved the in-joke about the Doctor not remembering whether he worked for UNIT in the 70’s or the 80’s – a cute gag about the notorious clanger in the Fifth Doctor story, Mawdryn Undead (when it was stated that Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart retired from the army in the late-70’s, even though it was clearly-established in the Fourth Doctor’s time that the UNIT stories were set in the early-80’s). Nice to get a subtle bit of humour for a change.

UNIT themselves were tidily-presented – cocksure sergeant with cowardly-token-black-sidekick apart (the sergeant’s head-bobbing, strutting arrogance was so self-conscious and forced, I wanted the Sontaran to kick his teeth in) – and I rather like the mild-mannered Colonel Mace. He seemed quite vulnerable at times, like a boy who finally meets his lifelong hero and realises what an ass the man is. This makes a pleasing contrast with the pompous old Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

Best of all though, were the Sontarans themselves. Could’ve done without the cheerleader-style chanting near the end, dunno where that came from, but other than that they were very well performed, especially Christopher Ryan as Staal; he got the texture and belligerence of the voice absolutely spot-on.

So, it’s not good, but has some redeeming features, and a lot of the bad stuff is bad in a way that can at least make me smirk. But for all that, this two-parter had better get its act together quick, because so far it’s only enjoyable in the way that The Trial Of A Time Lord is enjoyable, and that is not a compliment. 5/10.

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