Doctor Who – “The Sontaran Stratagem” (1 of 2)

Sontarans! Not much more I need to say, really. Oh, go on then.

The thing about Sontarans is that they’re very well-loved but with the exception of their debut in Pertwee’s ‘The Time Warrior’ every one of their stories has been a bit shoddy. Thankfully this one bucks the trend, at least so far. It’s a very Old Skool story, full of sinister groups of aliens hiding behind shell companies and plotting the end of the world while UNIT run around in lorries looking for excuses to shoot things and throw themselves on the floor.

The Sontarans are extremely well realised, looking just as “nasty, brutish and short” as they always did only more convincing, and Christopher Ryan in particular does an admirable job of capturing the curmudgeonly military persona from past stories. They still have probic vents (no snerking please) and spherical spaceships (which did elicit a small cheer from me, sadly.) Even the hypnosis harks back to the captured scientists in ‘The Time Warrior’. The only thing I’m not sure about is the extremely Zygon trick of having a copy of Martha linked to her memories. (And the way Martha summons the Doctor back also reminds me of ‘Terror of the Zygons’.)

What’s perhaps less Sontaran is the sneaking around. Although typically stolid and cautious to a fault, the Sontarans are typically a bit blunter than this plot of theirs. The script gets around this by, well, pointing it out. It’s amazing how often this works, and they just about get away with it here. The Sontarans are chomping at the bit to get into battle (liked the line about not being allowed into The Time War) and so lovably warlike you just want to cuddle them.

I do enjoy the idea of car exhausts / catalytic converters being used to destroy the planet. It’s exactly the kind of mildly satirical thing the series likes to do these days, picking up on a topical concern and having the alien plan riff on it, and it’s familiar from the Pertwee era too. Unlike an RTD script it isn’t hammered home to the nth degree — at least not yet. The big question is whether the Sontarans are working for someone else, given their strangely Auton plan to pollute the atmosphere.

UNIT themselves (now the Unified Intelligence Taskforce for reasons that are unclear) are splendidly familiar even if they, like Torchwood, appear just that little bit darker than in the past. The bland Brigadier replacement notwithstanding things seem fairly business as usual. After all this time they’re still using those old “Greyhound to Trap One” call signs too. I’m sure the Doctor’s reference to working with them in the 1970s is a continuity error since the UNIT stories were technically supposed to be “futuristic” and set somewhere around the 1990s, but it’s a mistake that ‘Mawdryn Undead’ made too by linking the Brigadier to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Also Sarah Jane’s timeline implicitly assumes that her time with UNIT happened when the original stories actually aired in the 1970s, so really the ship has already sailed.

Martha is good to have back, and this would make a fine continuing role for her. Donna remains less annoying than I could ever have dreamed, and Catherine Tate’s performance is becoming more and more consistent with each passing week, much as Tennant’s did in his first season. Tennant himself is on fine form, as he always is when bringing a little chaos to those in authority, and his scenes with the boy genius are absolutely archetypal Doctor material: hardly original, but highly enjoyable.

Much like the episode.

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