Season 30 Episode 5 – The Poison Sky, by Helen Raynor

May 11, 2008

review by Martin Odoni.

Okay, fair’s fair, this episode was a reversal of the two-parter trend in new Who where the second part is usually greatly inferior to the first. On this occasion, it is the second part that comes close to rescuing the whole.

I slagged off much of The Sontaran Strategem, and with good reason, but The Poison Sky isn’t just an improvement in the title, it manages to repair a substantial amount of the damage. Some of the ridiculous logic errors from part one have been explained away fairly soundly, and the episode was also paced far better, probably because the zaniness and suffocating sentimentality of part one were both toned down enormously (the clone’s death-scene apart). Meanwhile, there was a marked improvement in some of the performances, especially Freema Agyeman and Catherine Tate. Freema was still a shadow of her old self, and Catherine again never reaches the dizzy heights of average, but even so, they weren’t a pain to listen to this time. And Bernard C was back to his best, head-and-shoulders above all the other regulars on show.

However, let’s not get carried away, because although many of the inner details of the Sontaran plan – such as the nature of the poison gas – now make some kind of sense, the fundamentals still scream, “CONTRIVANCE!!!!!” in a very loud voice. Chiefly, I just don’t get why the Sontarans chose to do things in the order that they did them.

Okay, they decided to infiltrate Earth to turn it into a breeding ground for clones, which I can buy. But why did they start out by doing that, and not leave it until after they had control of the Earth? They knew all too well that the humans would resist them. And the Sontarans, as they demonstrated once more, love a fight to the finish against an enemy that doesn’t just surrender. So, why didn’t they just invade Earth at the outset, destroy the military and exterminate the population, and then begin the work of seeding the planet? I suppose we might be able to infer from the conversation the Doctor had with Staal that the Sontarans were too few in number, thanks to the ravages of the war against the Rutans, to have a real chance to win, but this doesn’t really tally with the way they were speaking previously about how helpless the primitive humans would be.

On the subject of the Sontarans not being quite as dominant as we were led to believe, the UNIT counter-attack with their airborne battle-cruiser rather came out of nowhere. So after all that talk about their primitive, inadequate military resources, the humans just happened to be well-enough armed after all? That’s a bit feeble isn’t it? Bit of a cop-out, in fact?

Rousing echoes of the credibility gaps in Aliens Of London/World War Three, we appear to have a rather bizarre situation where the defence network of an entire alliance of nations can be hacked into on someone’s personal organiser. That it took Donna’s mum to spot the blitheringly obvious way to rescue Wilfrid from his car means I’ve decided to give the Doctor an extra couple of stupid points. A stupid point also goes to Colonel Mace for somehow not noticing the Doctor supposedly contradicting himself with the “Code Red Sontaran!” / “Don’t engage the Sontarans under any circumstances!!!” business.

The scenes with the newsreaders were pretty empty, and that tiresome routine with the camera zooming in really close to a TV screen so you can see the dots the picture is made up of is becoming yet another modern cliché the series has fallen in love with.

Luke Rattigan redeeming himself by sacrificing his life was also a cliché, and predictable, but I didn’t mind it in fact. I guess it’s just after seeing his bug-eyes routine and hearing his, “I’m-cleverer-than-you!” ranting, it was a real pleasure to see him get blown up.

Which leads me onto the latest resolution-approaching-technobabble. Not too bad this time, but the atmospheric converter perhaps needed a smidgeon more explanation to convince me that it isn’t another deus ex get-out. Its effects in particular need a lot more clarifying. For instance, if the device caused a chain reaction that set fire to the gases in the upper atmosphere, why didn’t it set fire to the gases at ground-level? Oh, and er, seeing it didn’t set fire to the gases at ground level… where exactly did they go? How come no people appear to have been burned alive? Why did the Atmos gases get burned up, but the oxygen in the atmosphere, which should also be flammable, appears completely unaffected? Did the fires not destroy the satellites orbiting the Earth, rendering international communication impossible?

Oh, still on the subject of the wildly-unconvincing, why didn’t the Martha clone just shoot the Doctor as soon as she drew the gun on him? Another repetition of the eternal question that has plagued Dr Who for decades. “Doctor, why is it they always capture and imprison you when it’d be easier if they just killed you?” – “I’ll explain later.” It’s happened so many times, old Who and new. Really, the series should have grown out of the ancient “I-will-kill-you- but-only-after-I’ve-pointlessly-explained-my-plans-to-you- and-given-you-enough-time- to-stop-me” routine by now.

Pity Ross died. He was quite a smart, level-headed kid, I really quite liked him.

Couple of minor observations…

The Doctor was having another bad hair day, especially when he and Martha’s clone were in the alley just after the TARDIS disappeared. And did anyone else spot a brief image of Rose on the TARDIS communication screen just before the Doctor spoke to Staal?

Colonel Mace’s motivational speech sounded suspiciously like it was lifted from President Whitmore’s address to the pilots in Independence Day, while the flames filling the sky also looked reminiscent of cities being burned to the ground in that same movie.

Was the mention of the Brigadier anything other than a superfluous, unnatural continuity reference? I mean, when was Lethbridge-Stewart ever any use in these situations? Most of the time he’d come up with the same unimaginative methods the Colonel was resorting to, usually resulting in a blazing row with the Doctor. So why would the Doctor now assume that help from him of all people could save the day? “Are you my Mummy?” could be seen as another continuity shot, but at least it flowed naturally from what was going on, more or less.

Some extra pluses…

The Doctor’s pomposity about guns thankfully didn’t dominate the episode, and I suppose you could even argue that the story demonstrates a sad truth that George Orwell once noted; in many situations, those who are self-righteous about violence can only be so because others are committing violence on their behalf. The portrayal of the Sontarans was again terrific; they’ve got to get Chris Ryan back if they appear in another story in the future. “Have I ever told you how much I hate you?” was a great line for a reunion moment, and again Tate was rather convincing in the scenes with her family. And I think DT was pretty good, didn’t pull the crank too hard in the now Obligatory Doctor-Has-A-Dramatic-Revelation moment – or perhaps I’m just too used to it by now to react violently to it anymore – and over the piece he played the part with a kind of nervous authority that the story probably needed. Still get the feeling he looks a bit disillusioned with the series though.

Aaaaahhhhh, not another “What?! What?! What?!” moment at the end. And is Martha about to become the new incarnation of Tegan, always screaming at the Doctor to try and get her home? As for the trailer… wow! The Doctor’s daughter is hot! Can she really be Susan’s mum?

Overall, it’s still far too silly and the flaws are too fundamental to rescue it. But individually this episode stands up okay; indeed it almost feels like it’s the second half of a better story than the one it’s actually latched onto. I’ll give it a 7/10. Taking the story as a two-parter, however, it’s still less than the sum of its parts because the entire basis of the plot was completely out-of-kilter, and so I can only give it a 5/10.

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