Friday, 18 September 2015

Terror of the Sontarans written by John Dorney & Dan Starkey and directed by Ken Bentley

What's it about: Once it was a mining facility. Then later its corridors rang with screams generated by grotesque military experiments. However when the Doctor and Mel arrive on a hostile alien world after detecting a distress signal, the base they find themselves in is almost deserted. But not for long. Soon the Doctor's old enemies, the Sontarans, have landed, and are searching for the remnants of their previous research team. Before long they uncover evidence of strange occurrences on the planet. Of madness and death. They are warriors bred for war, strong of spirit and unafraid of death. To fear the enemy is an act of betrayal. Nothing holds terror for the Sontarans.

The Real McCoy: I've always said that McCoy seems at his most comfortable during the light entertainment period of season 24, being much more of a showman than an actor. This trilogy has given that argument some weight as torn free of the continuity and burdens of the Hex arc, McCoy is turning out one energetic, enjoyable performance after another. It does us good to remember that the seventh Doctor wasn't just the cosmic manipulator, juggling the fate of a thousand worlds but also something of a jolly showman who too great joy in adventuring the universe in his first year on the job. It's the seventh Doctor I prefer if I'm honest. When has he ever been cautious, even when answering a distress beacon? The Doctor hypothesises that if they had time to launch a distress beacon then they can't have been in that much distress at the time. I'm not sure if the Doctor wants to head into potential danger because he genuinely wants to see if their are people that need help or simply because he loves something of a mystery. Probably a little of both. When Mel suggests that people in cells are usually dangerous the Doctor chips in that he has been in cells throughout all of his lives and he is little more than a puppy dog. Does he play the clown to lull you into a false sense of security? Despite having spent a great deal of his life bringing down men with dreams of avarice, the Doctor will never understand them. He never thought he would compliment a Sontaran on the nature of aesthetics. There's a lot in the Doctor's head that a psychic creature would not want to see. Is this the first suggestion of the darker Doctor to come?

Computer Programmer: Mel is not combat trained, she has only had a few self defence classes in the village hall. She's brave enough to stand up to Sontarans even when it is clear they could do her great harm.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Present arms. Present legs.'

Great Ideas: IMC often springs up in future based Doctor Who stories, a mining conglomerate that is set upon mining the wealth out of every civilised world to line their pockets with credits. Naked fear in the face of adversity, entreaties for help and clemency...what could possibly cause a Sontaran to act in such a way? The idea that there is a greater menace than the Sontarans at the mining facility and that they have to work together with the humans is a novel one, I suppose. I love the assertion that the Sontarans use over elaborate vocabulary to make their points because that was certainly a gift that Robert Holmes instilled in them. They are obsessed with the hollow myth of their own superiority and their lives have little meaning beyond empty parade ground bombast. Psychic creatures feeding on everything around them like a newborn, learning about it's surroundings. The gemstones are part of a larger organism, using the people here to carry them from the mineral seams below into the atmosphere above. Like corral polyps and the dust cloud pollinates them. Whilst the summation of how these creatures came to be makes sense of all the elements of the plot (the power cuts, the dust, the statues), the culmination of a species that leeches on emotions is hardly a thrilling (or original) prospect. It works insofar as it dovetails all the plot points together but it never threatens to raise an eyebrow of interest.

Musical Cues: Quite minimalist, I thought. Sometimes Big Finish stories are wallpapered with music and it smothers. Sometimes they get it just right, creating a unique atmosphere and pace. And sometimes the story is too quiet for it's own good and the dialogue dribbles on interminably. This is definitely a case of the latter. A more dominant musical score might have pushed things along a little. It wouldn't revolutionise the story but the nearest comparison I can think of is something like The Stones of Venice. That was a similarly verbose tale (albeit with much crisper, frutier dialogue) but it was supported by a stunning musical score that enhanced the dialogue and made it bloom like a beautiful flower. The near silence that accompanies the wealth of words in Terror of the Sontarans flattens the atmosphere even further.

Isn't it Odd: The first episode is nothing special and if I'm honest I expect something a little more attention grabbing from John Dorney given his past form. Whilst I was perfectly prepared for this story to develop into something a bit more substantial there was no real attempt to pull off another 'the Doctor answers a distress call' which is one of the most obvious ways of kick starting a Doctor Who plot. Despite the presence of IMC, a mining facility isn't the most inspiring of settings either. I got the impression that the frightened Sontarans and growling nasties in the darkness were supposed to send chills down the spine but neither worked out of context. I always say that a story should grab you from the off to prevent fatigue from setting in. Most Doctor Who stories ace their introductory instalment and run out of steam as they progress. Terror of the Sontarans reverses that trend. A common complaint that I have had about Big Finish audios is how they use old monsters as a marketing ploy (an absolutely sensible approach) and yet still try and plot their appearance as a surprise within in the story itself. There is no mention of the word Sontaran throughout the first episode and so their appearance at the climax is clearly supposed to be a surprise...to anybody but those who have read the title (more than likely) or looked at the cover (again there is a damn good chance). I also question how effective the Sontarans can be on audio as they were originally devised - a clone army of thugs. Audio tosses aside visuals and so the most memorable hook of the species (their stature and hideous masks) cannot be factored in and so to make them more memorable than stock military heavies you have to deviate from the norm to make them stand out. But if with every appearance you have to stray from the original concept of the race...doesn't that mean you might as well use a different species anyway? I've lost track of how many Big Finish stories have featured the line 'it's inside my miiiiiiiind!' A silicon based (groan) psychic (groan) life form. Hardly a novel idea in Doctor Who. Halfway through the third episode and I was still a little unsure what this story was all about aside from an awful lot of waffle about the Sontarans. The plot kept being halted by lengthy dialogue scenes about what it means to be a Sontaran, which isn't as thrilling as it sounds. With an ending that is practically blink and you'll miss it after four episodes of posturing without atmosphere there is a general feeling of 'is that it?' at the climax.

Result: Middling without ever being inspiring, Terror of the Sontarans continues the current popular trend to turn the Sontarans into something rather more gentle than we are accustomed to in classic Who. Your reaction to this story might depend on what your opinion is about that development. I'm on the fence. Whilst I enjoy Strax in small doses on the TV, he's little more than a one trick pony and I'm starting to get scared that that is how the Sontarans will be remembered, as comedy buffoons rather than an impressive military force. The last time I felt that the race was treated as a serious threat was Sarah Jane's reaction to Kaarg's presence in The Last Sontaran. Even Big Finish have jumped on the bandwagon with comedy Sontarans propping up stories like Heroes of Sontar. Terror of the Sontarans wants to paint them as individuals rather than a clone race and give them personalities, something that would be a laudable goal with any other species but this essentially continues the redefinition of the species. What I was hoping for with this story was for them to claim their title as warrior badasses and to get on with some mass slaughter to show that they can still mean business. Instead what we get are a number of uninspiring dialogue scenes that attempt to define what a Sontaran is whilst displaying examples to the contrary. Whilst the trilogy format can still be used effectively, I'm starting to wonder if shaking up the schedules might not be the way forward with the main range. After the initial excitement of the return of the seventh Doctor and Mel in standalone stories in We Are the Daleks the rest of this trilogy has suffered in comparison. What generally happens is that there is an initial buzz of excitement as we switch regulars in a new trilogy and then unless something out of the ordinary is done with them it is same old, same old for the next two months. McCoy and Langford have done solid work in all three adventures it has hardly seen the most inspiring use of either of their characters. Imagine if each month we were treated to a shake up. Given that these are stories unencumbered by an arc there is no reason at all that they couldn't be spread out amongst the year. One concession though (and I think I have mentioned it in each release) is that McCoy seems far more at home in his debut season than he has been for some time, revelling in the mad professor rather than playing the master manipulator. It is nice to hear some other actors get the chance to play Sontarans but this feels like an indulgent exercise for Dan Starkey to play an array of new Sontaran characters. He's superb, but I don't think we really needed a four episode story to indulge that kind of whim. Terror of the Sontarans is a clich├ęd story that contains some interesting characters. Rather than a return to form for the race, it confirms that they have mutated into something quite different from what Robert Holmes originally envisioned. But with a story that is two episodes too long featuring a lifeless setting, plot and resolution it's hardly the best vehicle to do so: 5/10

2 comments:

dark said...

Well I'll agree this one disappointed a little compared to the last two releases, though there were still things I liked. As you said, some definitely interesting characters, (I loved the way Anvil Jackson reminded me so much of Zap Branigan from futurama). Also the creapy horror definitely worked for me, or at least it did most of the way.
I don't know why, but the Sontarans seem ideally suted to horror elements, precisely because! they're so militaristic and oblivious to fear, I also did get a kick myself out of the descriptions of the opalescent gem stones and clouds on the planet's surface, indeed I rather wish a little more time had been spent on that angle sinse it's an interesting take on horror to have something associated with colour and light rather than things going bump in the dark.

I agree this one wasn't pacing wise one of my favourites, but mostly I attribute that to the Sontarans themselves.
While I agree on Strax being a one trick pony and these days not that interesting having been run into the ground for comedy potential, (it'll be interesting whether a meeting with jago and Lightfoot and presumably some better writing can give him more scope), I personally rather like the individual approach to Sontarans.

With most monsters like Daleks and Cybermen, making individual characters out of the amorphus mass of threat often doesn't sit easily (especially with the Cybermen sinse that's sort of the point of them).

But with the Ice Warriors or Slithene that isn't the case.
The Sontarans as individuals I find interesting precisely because! they're in the middle of this devide. They're clones with a similar upbringing and an overriding military philosophy, however they have different experiences and often different genes, and thus can! differ in personality.
Despite those differences though, because they are an army and a clone race, they can also be as faceless and menacing as any other group of monsters.

This is another reason I personally really! like Heroes of Sontar, sinse it treats the Sontarans both ways and gets away with it, making them both commical Dad's army style military bunglers, and a harsh and ruthless army who engage in duels to the death.

King of Sontar was another one, indeed I loved how King of Sontar showed probably the most down right scary Sontaran we've met sinse styr or Links, but also made at least one Sontaran a bit less of a faceless threat.

What I take exception to here however is that the Sontarans really didn't feel dealt with consistantly. To say the title is "terror of the Sontarans" it wasn't really about the Sontarans that much, indeed none of the Sontarans felt like half as strong or well defigned characters as the humans, well only the insane one, and he was so insane he wasn't really a Sontaran at all, just stock random mistical mind manggled man :D.

Also speaking of Sontarans, where was the Sontaran theme? Sorry but sinse Heroes of Sontar I really miss it not being there, and after all if any species deserves their own national anthem it's the Sontarans, "Sontar! sontar! we die for Sontar!" it's just so dam catchy :D.

Rob James said...

Shit a brick, that was even duller than The Warehouse.