Sunday, 9 February 2014

The King of Sontar written by John Dorney and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What's it about: Dowcra base. The third Elite Sontaran Assassination Squad closes in on its target. A dozen trained killers, but even they will be unable to bring down the invincible Strang… Manipulated by the Time Lords, the TARDIS also arrives on Dowcra. And the Doctor is set to encounter the greatest Sontaran ever cloned...

Teeth and Curls: 'A machine warping space time? That's practically my bread and butter!' The Doctor complains about the Time Lords' continual interference in his life but accepts that they must have sent him to Dowcra for some good reason. It makes more sense to surrender to the inevitable than to fight them, after all they would probably just drag him back again. He doesn't like being an odd job man who gets called in whenever necessary. As you can imagine he is utterly facetious in the face of the Sontarans, not giving a damn that he is in danger of a good throttling when he can get a good jibe in at them. What's interesting about the Doctor here is that how badly he surrenders to stereotypes, thinking that the scientist Rostaro will be reasonable when it comes to the terrifying prospect of handing the Sontarans matter transportation technology on such a scale (he isn't) and that Strang is your typically bullyboy Sontaran warrior that can be felled by a blow to the probic vent (he isn't). I like it when the Doctor pigeonholes people like this and gets it wrong, it makes him a more realistic, flawed character. The Doctor resorting to attacking a Sontaran with a pipe is uncharacteristic but I have never objected to him using violence when needs must (it is a real sit up and pay attention moment too). It's a very rounded interpretation of the fourth Doctor, where he gets to be silly and insulting (especially when face to face with Strang) but also gravely serious when the situation requires it (his reaction to the news that Sontar is in the firing line was excellent).

Noble Savage: 'Whether you should kill me does not matter. Whether you could, does....and you could not.' Either some of the feedback from the first season from various portions of the audience has reached Big Finish Towers or they have simply decided to adopt a new approach for Leela's sophomore year on audio with the fourth Doctor. There is a definite feeling of trying to push them away from the traditional and into more troubled waters, given both Tom Baker and Louise Jameson something to get their teeth into. The way Dorney approaches this is to have the two characters get on better than ever before (their chemistry is at an all time high during the first episode of The King of Sontar) and thus setting them up for a big fall at the climax. Leela insists that the Doctor likes to meddle in the affairs of others, which he tries to argue against and fails. I loved how the action was split in two and the Doctor and Leela have their own subplots. Both Leela and Louise Jameson have proven time and again (via Gallifrey and Jago & Litefoot and simply because she is such an attention grabbing character/actress) that Leela has the legs to hold up her own story and her relationship with Vilhol is terrifically handled. We go on a real journey with the two of them from mortal enemies to respectful comrades to a point where Leela is devastated when he is murdered without honour. Leela understands that malnourished prisoners have nothing to lose and that gives them a strength of their own.

Standout Performance: David Collings has turned up in many a Big Finish audio (from the Unbound range to Sapphire and Steel) but he is one of those actors like David Warner who you know is going to give an outstanding performance no matter what role they hand him. His turn as the tortured, morally ambiguous scientist Rosato is one that he can really get his teeth into, teetering on the edge of being both an ally and enemy of the Doctor's with the audience not sure which way he is going to jump. It's a choice between his principles and scientific glory, and that's a dilemma that Collings brings to light with some aplomb.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Everyone tries to kill me Rosato, given time. If I held that as a bar to collaboration I would never do business with anyone.'
'He's just about to murder me in cold blood. You know how it is.'
'Who are you learning from, Leela. me or the evil out there in the universe?'
'You wish me to leave the TARDIS?' 

Great Ideas: Louise Jameson is right, being and actor John Dorney does know how to set a scene with a bang and to draw the audience straight into the action. Considering the opening couple of minutes is an action sequence on audio, not the easiest of things to pull off without visuals, he manages to thrust the audience into an engaging story which left me with no doubt what was going on without having to spell out every move (although to be fair Nick Briggs was just as responsible for that). Strang is an immediately arresting character too - why would the Sontarans be storming a facility that is being spearheaded by one of their own? What could he have possibly have done to have been targeted like Rutan scum? Dowcra is tactically advantageous to the Sontarans and they landed three months ago with the idea of setting it up as a staging post for further expansion.  There was an Earth scientific research station manned by only a small skeleton staff already there, an irrelevance to be brushed aside. They were betrayed by Strang, with the prisoners that they brought in to work the closing machinery now his guards to ward off any advance from further Sontaran interference. You cannot put something as powerful as the ability transport matter to any point in the universe in the hands of the Sontarans. The effect would be catastrophic, giving them an incalculable advantage over any planet that they wish to conquer. Imagine legions of Sontaran troops appearing instantaneously in all the vulnerable points of a world? Planets would fall to the species like dominoes across the universe. Strang is the result of an aberration in the Sontaran cloning process, a ghost in the machine. Rather than birthing a platoon, an entire platoon was condensed into one - Sontaran concentrate. He doesn't need armour, he's stronger and smarter than any single Sontaran. He was shipped out to Dowcra to get him out of the way. Why bother make an army of Sontarans when Strang can make an army of himself - stronger, faster, fitter and smarter. That would be an intergalactic war between the two sets of Sontarans with Strang setting his sights on Sontar itself. There's the Rutans to think about too...if you take out the Sontarans then the Host will swarm all over the galaxy. Whilst the Sontarans and the Rutans are fighting each other they are leaving the rest of the universe alone. Interfere and take out one of the combatants and the consequences could be ruinous. Rosato makes a compelling case for why the transportation technology should be salvaged and completed, eliminating famine in the universe and such like but I couldn't help but think this had more to do with scientific glory on his part. Especially when one of the consequences is the mass slaughter of an entire species. Rosato comes good in the end...but it took him long enough!

Audio Landscape: Extreme gunfire from lasers, alarms, sensors, screams, falling from a gantry, explosion, dripping water, a Sontaran being shot down at close quarters, guns cocking, the Trell voice, steel on steel, the Doctor and Leela being throttled.

Musical Cues: I am massively keen on the Big Finish Sontaran theme that has accompanied their appearances ever since Heroes of Sontar. It is catchy, bombastic and immediately lets you know which of the Doctor's enemies is about.

Isn't it Odd: Leela didn't quite kill an entire species in the first series of 4DAs but she was certainly quite handy in a scrape and the Doctor didn't seem as fussed as he is here. Whilst I prefer his reaction here and the consequences for their relationship it certainly does seem that he seems to have forgotten the trail of corpses she has left in their travels through the universe previously.

Standout Scene: Leela's decision at the climax seems to be an important turning point between her and the Doctor. She sees no problem with destroying Strang's clones and preventing his evil from spreading into the universe. The Doctor on the other hand wanted the chance to try and rehabilitate them. Having the decision taken out of his hand by his bloodthirsty (or you could say moralistic) companion is not one that goes down at all well. The quiet tension that brews between them in the last scene really made me sit up and pay attention in a way that I hadn't to date with the 4DAs. The Doctor is appalled by her actions and asks her outright if she thinks he has been taking her on a tour of the universe to try and teach her to be a better killer. He sets the co-ordinates for her home planet and is ready to part company. In his mind she does not understand the consequences of her actions and she is picking up too many tips from the evils that they face. Leela can see how hurt he is but doesn't know how to make things better. She's apologetic but sticks by her decisions. The last thing she wants to do is to upset the man who she respects above all others. A superb scene, and one that I hope will have ramifications throughout the rest of the season.

Result: A confident, memorable opening to the second season of adventures for the fourth Doctor and Leela. I'm getting to the stage now where the name John Dorney on a script is an instant stamp of quality because I cannot think of the last time he delivered anything that wasn't worth listening to. Whilst this does feel as though it could just about squeeze into season fifteen, Dorney is too original a writer to simply go for the nostalgia factor and he takes on a fascinating journey that allows us to look at the Sontarans in a fresh and interesting way. You've got the poignant relationship that builds between Leela and Vilhol, enemies with a common cause. You've got Strang, a legion of Sontarans amalgamated into one terrifying individual. And you've got the fascinating prospect of Sontarans fighting Sontarans in a war to the death plus the chilling thought of them being able to transport anywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye. There is far more innovation going on here than initially meets the eye. Then there is the climax which sees a massive tear form between the Doctor and Leela, a gripping conclusion and the sort of character development that I have been waiting for in this range for some time. A fantastic script then, buoyed by Nicholas Briggs' typically immersive direction and strong performances from a memorable guest cast (Dan Starkey ably brings a very different kind of Sontaran to Strax to life). This is exactly the sort of direction that the 4DAs need to venture into, I was mightily impressed by The King of Sontar and look forward to seeing where this season of adventures heads: 9/10


Anonymous said...

I have to admit, while I like the fact that big finish is pushing this series into a more serious direction, the ending where leela destroyed the tanks and the doctor being upset about it doesn't seem to ring true in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what would have been happened had been the Doctor in the company of Leela when he was sent to avoid the birth of the Daleks...