Friday, 1 July 2011

Heroes of Sontar written by Alan Barnes and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Planet Samur was once a peaceful haven. Pilgrims journeyed across the seven galaxies to meditate in the courtyards of the vast Citadel that spanned its equator. It was Samur’s misfortune, however, to find itself situated on the furthermost frontier in the eternal war between the amoeboid Rutan Host and the belligerent, troll-like Sontarans… Twenty years after detonating a bacteriological weapon over Samur, rendering it uninhabitable, the Sontarans are back: a select platoon of seven has landed here on a secret mission, carrying sealed orders given to them by Fleet Marshal Stabb. The TARDIS has landed here, too, bringing the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa into the second great Battle of Samur. Fighting not only the Sontarans but mystical mercenaries… and a deadly, decades old curse…

An English Gentleman: He always had a bit of the Boy Scout about him. One of the results of the Sontarans being quite as useless as they are means that the Doctor and Tegan have some fun running rings around them. Why couldn’t they have been this much fun to be around on TV? There is actual…dare I say it…chemistry! Usually the Doctor just does as he is told by his ladies because its less painful all round. When a Sontaran calls you heroic you are clearly doing the wrong thing. He proves to be quite the fighter as he avoids blows from Stabb and indulges in verbal wordplay at the same time. Observation, experience, a little intuition sums him up perfectly.

Alien Orphan: She’s not the helpless young girl that Tegan thinks she is, not anymore. She begs the Doctor not to leave her because she doesn’t want to die on her own. Nyssa admits to Tegan that she is married to Lisarti and has a boy called Adric and a girl called Tegan. I really like how firm she is these days; she really has grown up and refused to be pushed around. She thought her death would be painful. Nyssa and the Doctor carry on each other’s sentences like an old married couple.

Mouth on Legs: Having not yet reviewed her return in the Cobwebs-Cradle of the Snake trilogy this is the first time I am properly exposed to Janet Fielding’s return to Doctor Who. Please please please please please say that they have calmed her down a little bit! Big Finish is not averse to playing about with television characters giving Peri a homecoming story and Nyssa something to do (neither of which were considered by the TV series) so lets see if they can take this miserable, aggressive, misanthropic character and turn her into something likable…

Bloody hell they’ve done it! I mean I wont be recommending her for companion of the year but with a little humour and lot of loosening of the character Tegan is by far the most entertaining regular in this story! She’s not going tramping about outside without a pair of sling backs! After her experiences with the Mara Tegan doesn’t need a respite or to hug a tree and sing kumbya! All she wants is to go somewhere that isn’t dull. I was laughing my head off when she started mouthing off at the rubbish Sontarans! ‘All you’ve done is swagger about with that stick like Napoleon, colour me unimpressed!’ Tegan Jovanka declares war on the entire Sontaran army by calling one of their number ‘shorty!’ Because she is such a gobby bitch the Sontarans find a use for Tegan as a human shield! ‘Turlough!’ screams Tegan and he replies succinctly with ‘her I’m afraid of…!’ On reflection almost causing their certain deaths might not have been Tegan’s best plan. She speaks like a warrior. As her Auntie Vanessa always said…’bog off!’

Over the Shoulder: Nyssa thought that Turlough should have a penknife being a boy…but she should have known better! I’m not sure about Barnes highlighting Turlough’s cowardice quite so brazenly – stories like Loup-Garoux and Phantasmagoria did a much better job of bringing this to the surface without making him look like this is his only character feature. ‘I’m only thinking of your safety!’ he screams as he runs away from Nyssa being captured by Sontarans and she notes he has the speed of a gazelle when he sense a threat to his own neck. He is described as a ‘humanoidling!’ Where his cowardice does work is in the scenes between Turlough and the trooper, they are a genuinely poignant pair as the Sontaran opens up to having unnatural feelings of fear and Turlough empathises. Very sweetly he refuses to let Vend sacrifice himself and in his one moment of depth he orders the trooper out of the ship.

Standout Performance: Janet Fielding by a million miles – this is the quirky character that turns up on the DVD commentaries let loose in a Doctor Who story! For the first time ever I get a sense that she is actually enjoying herself and she gives a glowing performance. Derek Carlyle as Trooper Vend was the only actor who really appealed to me out of the Sontarans, he was remarkably sweet throughout.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It has all gone quiet’ – first time I laughed.
‘Me and my big mouth!’ – Tegan is making me giggle…what’s going on?
‘Tegan Jovanka! You have vexed me for the last time!’
‘I shall have to Sontaran up!’

Great Ideas: The planet Samur marks the furthest incursion of Sontarans into Rutan space. The citadel of Samur stretched the length of the planet, it has its own eco system as a symbiosis of the building itself and those who dwell within. People came from all over the galaxy to Samur in search of peace and solace. The moss is eating the floor and working at consuming the entire planet (‘Attack of the purple astro-turf!’). I rather enjoyed the scene between Turlough and the Sontaran where he cannot help him until he is his prisoner – they clearly have a very strict moral code. There were only seven Witchguard but they managed to deflect the Sontaran weapons and destroy six Divisions of soldiers. Years later they unleashed a weapon that housed their enemy – Samur. Standard field equipment is a choronic acid pill in case you are so damaged you need to commit suicide. This platoon of Sontarans are obviously poor stock but they were saved by Stabb to be sacrificed on Samur. They are still a bit sore about the Gallifrey business. The Witchguard corrupted the gene banks and made the Sontarans marginally more clumsy – that is why their empire is taking a right old pounding.

Audio Landscape: We open with a Sontaran march of glory, a howling wind, ripping moss from trees, a crack in the floor that swallows the Doctor, the Sontaran craft losing its batteries, a ship crash landing on the planet, flickering flames, blowing a hole in the wall, Sontaran communicator (love that sound), blades sheathing, shifting rubble, laughing in the darkness, chanting, humming pod, the Doctor being shot at by a Rutan scout ship, the Witchguard tearing itself apart, rain splattering,

Musical Cues: Absolutely the best thing about this story is Jamie Robertson providing another whopper of a score! Go listen to the scene where Nyssa first mentions Sontarans and we get a beautifully cinematic militaristic theme. I guess if you are going for all out farce you should extend that to the music but the comedy trumpeting whilst good music only added to how ridiculous these Sontarans were. The Doctor’s execution has an impressive bell tolling at the end of episode one. The synchronised action scenes of the Doctor blasting into the stratosphere and Tegan blowing ship out of the Sontaran ship out of the ground are build up to a delicious bombastic crescendo by Robertson’s music.

Isn’t it Odd: I have to say that isn’t one of my favourite covers…the Sontaran looks like his head has literally been gouged out of a spud and that he desperately needs a crap and the older Nyssa definitely looks as though a new picture has been squeezed in with an assembly of hastily pasted together publicity shots. The first scene doesn’t inspire much confidence with throaty voiced, comedy Sontarans larking about and singing ‘Sontar! Sontar! We die for Sontar!’ I hate to be prejudiced against a new angle for old villains (because that is something I would usually admire) but this opening would probably turn off anybody who was giving Big Finish another go after being away for a while. The scenes of the mute Sontaran making comic mouthings at the proximity sensor is painfully unfunny. These Sontarans are so rubbish they can’t even work their way out their own ship without getting into a hissy fit! Lets just be glad it wasn’t this rotten lot who stumbled out of the ship in The Time Warrior – we never would have seen the Sontarans again! More humour that fails dismally occurs when Nyssa asks Turlough for support and he tries to go Clare Rayner on her. This story is trying too hard to be funny – Alan Barnes’ Death in Blackpool managed it effortlessly – I haven’t seen this humour this forced in the main range since Bang-Bang-a-Boom and we all know how well that turned out! Groan…the sequence of deciding how in which order to execute the Doctor was…you get the idea. On a plot level this story feels extremely padded in places too. When we learn that the troopers are going to Samur and the moss is eating the planet quite early in the story the plot dances about for two episodes of comic shenanigans before actually pushing the narrative forward. I’m glad that the trooper translates what the Witchguard myth was because I could hardly understand a word they said! I’m not sure if the continual cuts to Turlough and company screaming is hilarious or wince making so I will err on the side of caution – I laughed and I cringed. The Witchguard turn out to be nothing special and provoke no great danger. Aren’t the Sontarans supposed to be clones? The five that we meet here all have very distinct personalities and voices – wouldn’t it have been a lot better to have had one actor play the role in slightly different ways to accentuate the most distinctive aural detail about the creatures?

Standout Scene: Oh my God somebody slap about the face with the longest, suckiest octopus tentacle you can find but…how much fun was Tegan in that story? Whilst I don’t know if I liked it within a Doctor Who setting I was howling with laughter as she insulted the Sontaran warriors and they were trying figure out if she has and I have pitched a new sitcom for the BBC, Tegan and Thurr, Sontar-hahaha!

Notes: Does this mean that every inept Sontaran we have met in Doctor Who (that fella who trips over the deck lounge in The Invasion of Time and hands-on-hips Stike from The Two Doctors) are all from the same corrupt stock as Field Major Stabb? Nyssa makes Tegan promise to take the Doctor back to Terminus with the data recorder – there is still much to be resolved for her character.

Result: The worst first episode for a release in many years…Heroes of Sontar had to get better as it went along and thankfully it does. The biggest problem is that the humour fails more than it hits the spot and there is nothing more painful than something that is trying too hard to be funny and failing. It’s in its moments of pathos that the story scores its biggest triumphs; the trooper who cannot admit he is afraid, questioning his people’s warlike attitude and refusing to commit suicide because of who he is are all great moments that actually mean something. Tegan and Turlough are a fantastic pair and work far better on audio than they ever did on TV and the story at least skips along a fair old pace. But the narrative itself is pretty mediocre, the ideas tired and beyond the few moments that I smirked and overall it felt more like filler material than the impressive reintroduction of one the Doctor’s greatest enemies. An energetic failiure: 5/10


Anonymous said...

5/10??!! 10/10 more like!

This is one of the best BF Doctor Who plays. This is classic stuff.

The first episode, one of the best first episodes ever, hits the ground running with an intriguing scenario and atmospheric alien world. The comedic sontarans are very funny never putting a humourous foot wrong, but also creating an atmosphere that something isn't right that ultimately becomes ever so tragic and bittersweet in the last episode.

By the last episode this play is completely soaring. It is one of BF's very best. I was completely absorbed and gripped by it and moved by the Sontarans plight and near total inability to break out of their conformity and militarism. Vend is a wonderful character and performance and
the regulars seize upon this brilliant material for all its worth. The key scene between Tegan and Nyssa in the final episode is very touching too.

The cinematic score and epic sound design help make this an instant classic for me.

NX84904567890 said...

My reaction to this story can be summed up in six words: "Doctor Who" does "Dad's Army". Badly.

Anonymous said...

This is the very first BF episode that I want to hit with a club, and I'm glad I didn't start with it. All the characters are reduced to caricatures of themselves! I like intelligent characters with complex relationships, quirks and flaws, which the BFs did unitl now, but suddenly...ack.

I tried to enjoy it as a comedic farce, but it was a bit jarring right after listening to Spare Parts, which was depressing but had so much emotional depth. (cf the understated but moving moment when Nyssa brings up Adric.)

ali said...

Stumbling around on an alien world, like a bunch of Keystone Cops....this is like the antithesis of Star Trek's "Rocks and Shoals"!

Comedy is subjective, so I think you are a little harsh on the Sontaran crew.

But I agree with the rest of you review. The story is twice as long as it ought to be, the stuff with the alien moss was unnecessary, and how sad that a few interesting ideas can be buried under a dung pile of mediocrity.

Also, is it just me, or did Davison and McCoy get the short straw when it came to dialog?

David Pirtle said...

I often complain about the 5th Doctor's TV adventures being very dry and in need of a bit of humor, but not like this. The worst thing you can say about a comedy is that it's not very funny, and this is not very funny.

Dan Hall said...

This is the first Bf story I have not enjoyed in a long long time and I normally love Alan Barnes, so unfunny, I didn’t realise it was meant to be! We get the new series cartoonish Sontar-ha! Sontarans rather than the calm intelligent Linx or Steyr and one of them sounds like Zippy from Rainbow. Poor dialogue, poor acting, only the regulars come out well…