Series 4, Episode 4: The Sontaran Stratagem

“This is your final destination.”

OK, as usual of late a rather drunken weekend prevented me reviewing this on Sunday! Now I sit here with a stinking cold, and the muse is on me yet again.

“Is that how you spell ‘stratagem’?” asked my boyfriend as the title appeared. Yes it is, but I’m not sure it’s how you define one. The return of the Sontarans in a story Russell had defined as “military” got off to a low key start as apparently an episode of Torchwood with a lethal satnav system that can apparently take over your car and kill you. It seems churlish to quibble in a show that features a time travelling alien and a race of cloned militarists, but how exactly did it control purely mechanical bits like the gearstick and the handbrake? And the name “Atmospheric Omission System” seemed to be a misspelling of “emission”, though I suppose it did cause the “omission” of certain gasses from the exhaust. My guess is that they just wanted a snappy acronym, though.

In keeping with the story’s military flavour, it generally felt like it had strayed from an early Jon Pertwee season, with all the shallow action and gunplay that entails. It was nice to see UNIT back again properly, though the insistence that it now stands for “Unified Intelligence Taskforce” was immediately undermined by references to it having a remit from the UN. In light of recent history though, it’s just as well the connection with the UN was played down; else we might have seen a years long story in which weapons inspectors were sent to disarm the Sontarans while Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart composed strongly worded letters to them.

In light of his rather advanced age, it’s understandable that Nick Courtney wasn’t back as the Brig, though it’s a shame some advisory role couldn’t have been found for him. Rupert Holliday-Evans’ Colonel Mace seems a rather hollow replacement, just like all those interchangeable COs we saw whenever Courtney wasn’t available in the Tom Baker era. Still, he seems to be developing a good rapport with David Tennant’s Doctor, who seems unusually antagonistic towards an organisation he used to work for. Pertwee’s occasional spat with the Brig was nothing on Tennant’s cold contempt of anyone who carries a gun to keep the peace – a viewpoint that seems idealistic but rather naive for a man who happily manipulated the Daleks into blowing up their entire solar system.

The fanboys were kept happy with some nice continuity references that, as usual, were kept discreetly away from alienating the casual viewer. Best of these by far was the Doctor’s assertion that he used to work for UNIT “back in the 70s… or was it the 80s?”, nicely ripping the piss out of those fans with a pedantic obsession for noting the contradictions in dating UNIT stories.

Also in keeping with the classic Pertwee stories was the “stratagem” of keeping the bad guys hidden for the most part. Initially (if we hadn’t seen the somewhat spoilery title) we might have been looking at the creepy public school of Luke Rattigan as the villains. Reminiscent of 70s kids’ drama Codename Icarus, a public school seems a great place for a villain to hide in plain sight. Rattigan himself was a great character, a spoiled teenage genius whose decision to become a quisling seemed perfectly understandable given his attitude to the rest of humanity. It also helped that actor Ryan Sampson is rather easy on the eye! The scene with the Doctor correcting his grammar and his peevish attempt to do the same back was brilliantly played by Sampson and Tennant, with the even prettier Christian Cooke standing pointlessly around in the background as Private Jenkins. I hope he gets more to do in the next part, though the apparent requirement that most episodes should have at least one really pretty young man in them can be very distracting!

Eventually though, the true villains had to be revealed, and rather less than amazingly, it was the Sontarans. Now I have to be honest here and say I’ve never really understood why they were so popular. As militarist allegories go, both the Daleks and the Cybermen do it better, not to mention the Klingons. The Sontarans aren’t especially interesting to look at, and with the exception of their debut story The Time Warrior they’ve never really been involved in any of the show’s most interesting plots.

So it’s probably no fault of writer Helen Raynor that I was still unimpressed with them here. The rather cartoony design of their armoured spacesuits didn’t help; why are they suddenly bright blue? And while the make up was undeniably impressive, Christopher Ryan’s performance as General Staal seemed somewhat less so. Ramming the miltary allegory home with a sledgehammer, he delivered lines that put a soldierly connotation onto everything. Obvious though that was, it wouldn’t have been so bad if his voice hadn’t instantly called to mind Mike from The Young Ones. Still, in his favour, at least he isn’t a cockney Sontaran like Derek Deadman in The Invasion of Time.

The one thing the script did best concerning the Sontarans was to include their skill at cloning as part of the plot. We’ve always known that they reproduced this way, and it seems odd that this aspect of their technical skill was never really exploited in the classic series. Mind you, if all they’re doing is creating emotionless replicas of senior government and military figures I shall be very disappointed. At least, though, they’ve given us evil Martha.

Ah, Martha. Having spent most of last year failing to convince as a doctor, she now gets the chance to fail to convince as a soldier. The scenes of her barking orders at a troop of UNIT soldiers seemed rather forced, though to be fair, she played it brilliantly when she met Donna. In a nicely written scene overturning expectations formed by School Reunion, present and former companions didn’t fight. Instead they teamed up to laugh at the Doctor’s expense. Nicely done, Miss Raynor!

With first Martha then evil Martha taking up a lot of screen time, Donna seemed to have less to do this week than usual. It was, however, perfectly in keeping with her character that her office knowhow solved more mysteries than UNIT’s military might. And after her one to one with Martha, she got that cracking scene when she seemed to be leaving the Doctor, ony for him to open his hear to her before realising his mistake. Given my dislike of Catherine Tate as a comedienne, it’s telling that I’ve really warmed to her in Doctor Who; she’s a breath of fresh air in this era of companions who have to be consumed with sexual tension for the ascetic Time Lord.

And her family are less irritating than the last couple too. Granted, her mum is a paragon of the kind of middle class snobbery incarnated by Hyacinth Bucket, but her Grandad is Bernard Cribbins! It was great to see him back, and the scene where everyone realises they’ve already met was a corker, played to perfection by all concerned. Fitting then that the cliffhanger is nicely personalised by Grandad being stuck in a car filling with poisonous gas.

Less terrifying was the Sontarans prebattle stomping ritual, which gave you more the impression that they were about to embark on a game of rugby. But overall, a cliffhanger that works reasonably well, as the Earth’s atmosphere is choked with concentrated exhaust emissions. A message here, do you think? Shame UNIT didn’t bring Bessie back with them to undermine that.

The Sontaran Stratagem was generally, a fun but shallow romp. Its roots lie very much in the early Pertwee UNIT era, and it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone of the early 70s. But we’re not in the early 70s any more. Let’s hope The Poison Sky has a bit more substance to it. Somehow, I rather doubt it though.

Series 4, Episode 3: Planet of the Ood

“The circle must be broken!”

It’s a planet. It’s where the Ood come from. Yessir, this episode certainly does what it says on the tin. But under the expert direction of Graeme Harper, it did so much more. The script, by newcomer Keith Temple, was actually rather a mixed bag, with moments of profundity balanced out by somewhat clumsy messages about slavery and greed, but the sci-fi concepts explored were truly imaginative.

Last time we saw the Ood, they weren’t much more than a cipher, an impressive looking bunch of aliens without much in the way of background. But they plainly made an impression, especially to those of us dedicated to the worship of Dr John Zoidberg. An episode with the spag bol faced creations was an inevitability, but who would have expected it to be so deep? It seemed uncharacteristic the last time we saw them for the Doctor to be so uncaring about what was obviously a race of slaves, but then he had other things on his mind, what with the Devil coming back and all. Clearly there was unfinished business, and as befits an alien so … alien-looking as the Ood, we had a glimpse into a truly weird life form.

The concept of the Ood having multiple brains, one of which was some sort of centralised hive-mind, was intriguing, although perhaps a little above the heads of some of the show’s younger viewers. But it gave the script the right kind of moral outrage when we realised that one of those brains was ripped away to be replaced with the translator that was a symbol of servitude. Shame, then, that the giant “central” brain was about as convincing as something from a 1959 Ed Wood movie. In fact, visually it looked like nothing so much as the even more giant brain in naff Blake’s 7 episode Ultraworld, proof if proof be need be that hi-tech CG can look just as ropey as good old miniatures.

Donna got to display some fine moral chops again in this episode, albeit with the irritating “Why do you call me miss, do I look single?” line to remind us that we’re watching Catherine Tate. Only three episodes in, and she’s displaying the kind of self-righteous rectitude that Tegan always had. And I’m rather enjoying that. Her compassion towards the Ood was somehow more convincing than I would have expected from Martha or Rose, but then maybe it’s the shock of the new. Or the refreshing change of a companion who doesn’t spend every couple of minutes gazing wistfully at the Doctor.

With the moral focus squarely on Donna, the Doctor’s function this week was mainly to explain the plot. Which occasionally got a little lost in the melee of concepts and subtexts. Still, David Tennant had a whale of a time running around being chased by a giant claw, all the while managing to keep his improbably styled hair immaculate. And he got that marvellous continuity nod to The Sensorites, neatly explaining the Ood’s slight resemblance to that noble race who can’t tell each other apart. So Ood Sphere is twin to Sense Sphere? That makes… sense.

Nice, too, to see Tim McInnerny, who’s developed a neat line in barking bad guys since his turn as Oliver Mace in Spooks. But even he couldn’t make much more than a cipher out of the character of Mr Halpen, who wasn’t well-drawn enough to be truly believable. Doctor Who is swarming with unscrupulous businessmen out to make a profit from the suffering of others, and Halpen was less compelling than the likes of Stevens in The Green Death or Morgus in The Caves of Androzani. His vanity about his hair loss was the only real humanising aspect to him, and McInnerney played that well, but like many a fine actor he descended into ham when confronted with the blunt edges of the script. And it has to be said, his final transformation into an Ood, while it made perfect sense dramatically, seemed a little too much like magic given what had gone before.

The sledgehammer message that slavery isn’t very nice would have seemed too obvious, but the writer counterbalanced it nicely with his comparison of the Ood to contemporary sweatshop workers. And the most sinister thing about the Ood since their first appearance was the way they seemed to like being slaves. The marketing exhibition was a nice touch, with the PR woman the most easily identifiable-with character in it. Would we stand up to injustice at the price of our cushy, high-paying jobs?

The real star, though, apart from Graeme Harper’s masterly direction, was Murray Gold’s music. Perilously skirting the border with schmaltz in the same way as Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands, Murray gave us some moments of genuine beauty, fitting for a story in which the aliens were bound up with song. The scene in which the Doctor grants Donna the ability to hear the Ood’s song was a little masterpiece, played to perfection by Tennant and Tate and made haunting by Murray’s music. The score for this should be the highlight of the series four CD when it comes out.

Overall, Planet of the Ood was more reminiscent of old Who than we’ve seen recently. It had a sledgehammer political message delivered by ciphers and a denouement hinging on a giant, unconvincing brain. And yet it also had moments of astounding beauty and profundity, and some nice foreshadowing of events. Why must the Doctor’s song end? Oh, and what has happened to the bees? Hmmm…

Series 4, Episode 2 : The Fires of Pompeii

“Thank you, household gods.”

OK, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Parties, baby naming ceremonies, mates getting made redundant… Is it any wonder I haven’t had time to write on here? Still, I’m back now. And the Doctor’s been busy too, not least revisiting the end of Pompeii, thereby confusing those of us that remember the last time he did that in the similarly titled Big Finish audio The Fires of Vulcan. So was The Fires of Pompeii preferable? Is Catherine Tate more or less annoying than Bonnie Langford?

Actually, to be fair, both companions were pretty well served in those scripts. And a fairly good script it was too, from witty writer James Moran, whose slyly funny screenplay for Danny Dyer horrorfest Severance I absolutely adored. True, there were one or two, welll, whopping contrivances, and the name Pyrovars was less than imaginative, but by and large this was a pretty darned good debut script for a Who writer. It took in plenty of clever references to the show’s past without alienating the casual viewer; I loved the Doctor’s oblique reference to the burning of Rome in The Romans, and finally Mr Moran addressed a question that’s burned in the mind of many a pedantic fan. Namely, with the TARDIS telepathic circuits translating for you, what happens if you actually try and speak the language in question? Yes, at last we know – you sound Welsh (Or is it Celtic?).

OK, so that gag might have been a little done to death, but it’s hard to complain when it’s being delivered by the likes of Phil Cornwell and Peter Capaldi. This episode had an astonishingly good cast, delivering lines that… well, may have seemed a little odd for a trained actor playing a classical Roman. Phil Cornwell’s Pompeiian Del-Boy was a bit of an instant shock to the system, and by the time teenage wastrel Quintus was grumbling “give me a break, Dad”, I was somewhat confused. But actually the modern colloquialisms tied in rather well with the TARDIS translation idea, the only real problem being that it made you think surely it would always translate language like this. Still, I suppose it might have shattered the image somewhat if the Time Lords had started saying things like “It’s the Master? No shit, Sherlock.”

But the quality of that cast shone through, uncomfortable dialogue or not. I’ve always thought Peter Capaldi was great, from his turn in The Crow Road through the angel Islington in Neverwhere to his monstrous Alastair Campbell-alike in The Thick of It. Here, he gave us a nicely balanced turn, from the light touch of John Cleese tribute lines about modern art to the despair of a man watching his city consumed by fire. Opposing him nicely was old hand Phil Davis, giving a darkly sinister performance as Pompeii’s resident augur, Wilfrid Brambell… sorry, Lucius. And I was rather taken with young Francois Pandolfo as the pretty young Quintus, though in truth my attempts to see up his indecently short toga somewhat distracted me from the action.

The CG, as usual, varied from the ropey (the early shot of Vesuvius) to the stunning (the final destruction of Pompeii, the Pyrovar creatures). But the real visual strength of the episode was obviously those exterior shots, filmed at Cinecittà’s sumptuous recreation of ancient Rome for the BBC/HBO series of the same name. Historical Who has rarely looked so lavish, with only the occasional story like The Masque of Mandragora, with its Portmeirion locations, looking like anything other than a BBC set. It seemed churlish to complain that I actually recognised some of the streets from having seen Lucius Vorenus walking down them in Rome.

Catherine Tate gave us her usual spirited performance as Donna; her bolshie personality nicely contrasted with her moral outrage at the Doctor’s refusal to warn the inhabitants of Pompeii of their impending doom. OK, so her reaction to being tied up by the Sisterhood of Scylla was rather too reminiscent of her comedy show, but at least she wasn’t screaming. And the climactic scene as she begged the Doctor to at least go back and save the Pompeiians they had met was staggeringly well-played, by both her and David Tennant.

Indeed, the final moral dilemma faced by the Doctor is at the heart of this episode. We’ve always wondered why he felt so free to mess about with the timeline of contemporary Earth, but couldn’t change moments of schoolboy history. Here at last, we got an explanation, as the Doctor explained about fixed points in the web of time. That seemed a little pat until we realised that Pompeii would only become a fixed point if he personally caused the deaths of 20,000 people. Tennant played the scene brilliantly, with Tate matching him as she took the decision with him. It was a scene reminiscent of Sylvester McCoy’s sometimes coldhearted calculation that some have to be sacrificed to save many.

And what of the bad guys? Phil Davis’ Lucius was an effective mouthpiece for a race of suitably apposite monsters, but the Pyrovars were in truth not that interesting an alien. We’ve seen races that thrive on heat before, and their actual plans seemed rather muddled and confusingly explained. It’s also hard to be that scared of a monster that goes to pieces when you throw cold water on it. That said, they were realised with some striking CG, and the offscreen thudding footsteps as they pursued the Doctor and Quintus were if anything even more effective.

While it was a good debut for James Moran, it has to be said that the climactic scene of Pompeii’s destruction was rather undermined by Peter Capaldi being forced to deliver some incredibly clumsy lines in which he invented the word “volcano”. And that tacked on epilogue was not only irritatingly obvious, but also made you wonder why a professional marble worker couldn’t have come up with a better bas relief of the Doctor and Donna than something that looked, quite honestly, like it had been knocked up as a third form art project.

Overall, The Fires of Pompeii was an interesting but flawed script made to seem better than it really was by a superb production. Not that I’m doing James Moran down; on the strength of Severance and this, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. Let’s just hope he doesn’t let his enthusiasm for Doctor Who carry him away too much, as it seemed to here.


“Planet of the Ood” was intriguing…

McInnerny’s potential for ham…

Graeme Harper, just, wow!

Series 4, Episode 1: Partners in Crime

“The fat just walks away!”

So we’re back, Doctor Who and me. The show was having its usual break between seasons, and I was caught in a soap opera plot involving my boyfriend having major surgery whilst I got all confused about where my affections lay, thus stymying my original intention to review all the episodes of Torchwood.

Still! It’s all dealt with now, and we can move on to the reappearance of Donna Noble, last seen as a typically gobby Catherine Tate comedy character in The Runaway Bride. Thankfully by the end of that rather lacklustre Christmas special her character had developed into something more nuanced, and able to convincingly tell the Doctor off when he effectively committed genocide. The Donna we see in Partners in Crime is a nicely evolved version of that, but the first hurdle for Russell T Davies is explaining her sudden change of mind about wanting to travel with the Doctor. Actually, this never really gets explained, but I guess people do change their minds, and Donna seems to have grown since we last saw her, having tried to travel the world and found it rather disappointing.

So she’s been trying to find the Doctor by the eminently sensible method of investigating anything weird in the assumption that he’ll eventually show up to check it out. Even so, you have to assume she was lucky here. She could just as easily have ended up bumping into Sarah Jane Smith, Captain Jack, or even Fox Mulder.

The opening half of the episode, Donna and the Doctor “comedically” just missing each other in their parallel investigations of Adipose Industries, quickly became a little forced, and reminded me of the really irritating episode of Survivors in which Greg and Jenny keep just missing each other and never actually meet again before he dies. Yes, it’s vaguely amusing, but also annoying. Plus, the script and the direction never really made clear that their investigations were actually separate, and I found myself wondering whether I’d dozed off and missed the scene where they actually met before embarking on a joint poke around the shady company.

Still, it did build up the anticipation for the scene in which they finally meet, which I have to admit was rather well done. Their little dumb show across the office of the bad guys was actually very funny, and presumably put in by Russell to exploit Catherine Tate’s gift for physical comedy. David Tennant rose rather well to the occasion too, and the whole thing was topped off nicely by Miss Foster’s frosty punchline “Are we interrupting you?”.

In keeping with the style of new Who, we also got to know Donna’s family rather better than previously. Her nagging mum was a good character, giving us the lovely “why don’t you look for a job?” kitchen montage, which reminded me rather too closely of various conversations between my boyfriend and me during my brief period of unemployment last year.

But surely the crowning glory of this new bunch of soap opera rejects (sorry, “characters”) was the casting of Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s Grandpa. Stepping neatly into the shoes vacated by the late Howard Attfield, who was to have reprised his role as Donna’s Dad, Cribbins was simply marvellous, his very voice conjuring up memories of The Wombles and The Railway Children. He was helped by being given the standard “Magically Contemplative Scene #227” automatically generated by Russell’s Sentimentatron computer. Actually, I’m being rather harsh, it was a well-written scene very well-played by Cribbins and Catherine Tate. It’s just that it’s so predictable that any Russell T Davies script will include at least one scene of this ilk.

Much like School Reunion, another episode with the job of reintroducing an old companion, the actual plot of Partners in Crime was slight to non-existent. We’ve seen shady companies with alien agendas plenty of times before, and the schemes of Adipose Industries didn’t actually seem that nefarious. It could be that I’m missing one of Russell’s subtle nuances (!), but it seemed to me that the original plan was simply to cream off some of Britain’s extra fat to generate the Adipose children, without actually killing anyone. Seems to me like everyone benefits from that one. Although Miss Foster’s assertion that Britain was “a wonderfully obese country” that she’d had to look rather hard for does make one wonder how her planetary survey somehow missed the United States of America.

With the real bad guys, the Adiposian First Family, never actually appearing, Miss Foster/Matron Kafilia (if that’s how it’s spelled) was a rather splendid main baddie. Russell has asserted that in some way she was inspired by Supernanny, a cultural reference that I have no knowledge of. But Sarah Lancashire’s marvellously unflappable, smiling cut-glass accented performance made it clear to me where her inspiration lay. Yes, the Matron was an evil, extra-terrestrial Mary Poppins! I mean let’s face it, she even flew up into the sky at the end, albeit without an umbrella and a song. The fact that she then fell gruesomely to her death was the icing on the cake for those of us who find Disney’s classic one spoonful of sugar too many, though for my money The Simpsons did it better having her sucked into a passing plane’s engines.

And what of the Adipose themselves? I still can’t make up my mind about them. On the one hand, they were infuriatingly cute, with their gap toothed smiles and little waves to the characters. I immediately found myself thinking of Ewoks, and merchandising opportunities to appeal to the kiddies. But! On the other hand, these cute little fellas were formed out of discarded human fat, which is actually rather gross when you think about it. In case we missed that point, Donna acknowledged it at the end with her shell-shocked remark, “I’m waving to fat…”

In keeping with the somewhat low key plot, Russell managed to keep the action set pieces down to a minimum, and at least they made sense within the plot. The main one, of course, was the whole “hanging on a cradle outside the building” business, which was rather well-done, and almost entirely convincing. Still, Donna’s slightly unbelievable dangle above the ground managed to be more convincing than Alan Rickman’s death plunge in Die Hard, though that was some 23 years before…

Other than that, we had the Adipose forming all over London, and then the actually rather good spaceship that came to pick them up. OK, it looked more than a little reminiscent of the Mothership from Close Encounters, but it was done very nicely. And that blaring noise it made periodically was a lovely sound effect.

But with all the concentration on Donna, it seemed like the Doctor didn’t get too much of a look in. David Tennant was his usual self, but the script hardly stretched him, confining itself to re-establishing the chemistry between him and Donna. In this, at least, it succeeded, with that marvellous final scene where she she acidly commented that she wasn’t about to “mate” with him. Thank the gods for that, I thought. Finally, an old-fashioned companion who doesn’t want to shag the Doctor. Let’s hope he doesn’t get any ideas himself.

Still, just while I was feeling happy about that, who should pop up but bloody Rose Tyler? It was rather a surprise ending to a somewhat slight season opener, but I’m guessing we haven’t seen the last of her…