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.

One thought on “Series 4, Episode 4: The Sontaran Stratagem”

  1. I did expect General Staal to introduce Madness playing in a corner of the factory every time he spoke.

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