Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Sontaran Stratagem & The Poison Sky written by Helen Raynor and directed by Douglas MacKinnon

This story in a nutshell: It’s the moment you've all been waiting for…the Sontarans invade the Earth!

Mockney Dude: The Doctor is in a tetchy mood around UNIT and clearly the good old days of them fighting side by side are over. He declares that people with guns are usually the enemy in his book and I’m really not sure when his vision became so black and white. He can be quite a moody git like this from time to time, a fully flawed character who often thinks that he is right. Martha describes the Doctor as being like fire and if you stand too close people get burnt. If that seems like an exaggerated statement then hold judgement until Journey’s End when we see a poignant montage of just how many people have lost their lives because of him. Donna literally touches his fire and pays the price. I remember when I first saw the moment where the Doctor mistakenly thinks Donna is going to leave him and found it a bit cringe worthy but the more I see it, the more it amuses me (I think it is the performances). The way he tries to sell the wonders of the universe reminds me of the final scene of Invasion of the Dinosaurs but what really makes me chuckle is how Donna lets him go on saying how marvellous she is simply because she enjoys making a bit of a fool out of him. It's not malicious, it's just bursting that ego of his a bit. The Doctor’s reaction to the truly unspectacular explosion of the ATMOS device is a great gag. Wilfred wants the Doctor to promise that he will take care of his only grandchild but the Doctor has to admit that she takes care of him. He can see through the fake Martha in about five seconds flat but plays along for an age. It is interesting to hear him considering the idea of settling on the Earth again when the TARDIS is stolen - he thinks it would be hell to be stranded in one place and one time. I was initially infuriated by the Doctor’s arrogance when he barges in and conducts the negotiations with the Sontarans until he put his feet up on the desk and switched over to a cartoon during their war cries. That was pretty cool. My husband is terribly fickle when it comes to his Doctor’s and seems to switch allegiances every time he regenerates. He was very fond of Tennant until Matt Smith came along but now finds more to criticise than to praise. One of the criticisms Simon levelled at Tennant was that he was far too excitable and that sometimes underplaying moments is just as effective as shrieking uncontrollably. Watching The Poison Sky I begin to see his point because he gets awfully shouty at times, doesn’t he? Screaming his head off at Colonel Mace in a way that, had it been the Brigadier, he would have gotten a cuff around the face to remind him to remain mannerly. The tenth Doctor really needs Donna to keep his monstrous ego in check. Watch out for the scene where he brings the real Martha Jones back to life and he treats the clone with no dignity or kindness, he rips the life right out of her. Don’t get this guy mad. He’s not all tantrums though, I love the bit where he tosses away Luke’s gun without breaking his stride. His method of defeating the Sontarans by igniting their ship and wiping out thousands of them is very bloody but considering they are on a war footing what other option did he have? Diplomacy? At least he tries to give them a choice. They made this rod for their own back. Helen Raynor provides a mixed characterisation of the Doctor but given a touch of magic of season four, it is still most fabulous.

Tempestuous Temp: Showing the trust he has in her, the Doctor is teaching Donna to fly the TARDIS but she keeps veering too close to the 1980s (‘What am I going to do? Put a dent in them?’). I cannot tell you how glad I was that Davies and Raynor did not go down the obvious route of having Donna and Martha bitch fighting each other over the Doctor. Knowing how fiery Donna is and how much Martha was in love with the Doctor it is easy to understand why people might think this might be a powder keg of resentment but nothing could be further from the truth. They are both very adult and get on like a house on fire from their first meeting. Donna’s maturity never ceases to amaze me because it always shows up when I least expect it. It's great to see Donna sticking up for the ordinary people who are being bullied and treated like criminals by UNIT. It would seem that she is everybody's conscience. Her work as a temp comes in handy as she figures none of the ATMOS workers have had sick days. I bet she had the odd duvet day and sneaky shopping trip. Donna’s homecoming is beautifully presented; from the soaring crane shot that follows her down the road, the autumnal colours suggesting a melancholy feel and Tate and Cribbins reactions when they see each other from across the street. She admits to her grandfather something that she would never tell the Doctor, that he is amazing and that she trusts him with her life (although Gramps still comes first, naturally). This family just feels so real especially with Sylvia always coming down hard on Donna and considering her a bit of a failure (she’s definitely the matriarch in this household). It is Sylvia's presence that stops this unit from becoming too twee. Donna's time travelling exploits are like a naughty secret between Gramps and Donna and I love it that way. The Doctor and Wilf recognising each other from Voyager of the Damned is cute but not as sweet as the very human line of ‘you must be one of those aliens!’ Sylvia’s dislike of the Doctor is very consistent. Mind you the Earth nearly comes to an end every time they meet and that sort of thing sticks with you. DO NOT if you value your life try and burgle Sylvia Noble’s house because she has an axe and she’s not afraid to use it. Both Rose and Martha were thrilled to be trusted with a TARDIS key but Donna, ever the realist, says they can get sentimental when the world stops choking to death. Until now Donna has been protected from the aliens she has met by the Doctor but this time she is alone and trapped on a Sontaran ship and I think it is a testament to her bravery that she ventures out with a bloody great mallet and gives one a whack right up the probic vent even though she is terrified. It is lovely that Raynor allows Donna to be afraid because one of my biggest problems with the new series companions as audience notification figures (especially Amy and Clara) is that they seem to take every threat in their stride. If they aren't afraid for their lives...why should we be? It's astonishing how much emotional weight the families of the companions can bring to a story; it was exposed with Jackie in Love & Monsters when she turned on Elton and reminded us how awful it must be to be left behind and it is just as devastating here where we cut to Wilfred in the middle of the action trying to comfort his little girl as she breaks down on the kitchen floor. Just heartbreaking, and an angle the show hadn't really touched on before Davies took the reins. When the Doctor is beamed back from his suicide mission Martha hugs him but it's Donna that provokes the biggest reaction,  making me howl when she smacks him on the arm for being so stupid. Wilf’s parting sentiment to Donna that she should get out there and see the stars for him because he is too old to do it himself was so beautiful it left me in tears (what is it about Bernard Cribbins that makes me cry?). It makes me smile inside to think that one day he would be able to see the stars for himself.

Marvellous Martha: How lovely to see Freema Agyeman back in the show and forming such a great rapport with Catherine Tate. Martha is engaged to Tom Milligan from The Last of the Time Lords although What happens there is best left to the imagination because she is engaged to Mickey come The End of Time. Perhaps he never came back from Africa (or perhaps Tom Ellis is off filming Miranda?). We’ve always suspected that the Doctor’s companions go on to have fulfilling lives after they have left him but here we actually get to see it with Martha working as a Doctor in UNIT and doing just dandy for herself. Donna questions if this is what the Doctor did to Martha – turn her into a soldier - and considering she was originally going to have a quiet career in medicine you have to concede that she might have a point. The point about turning his companions into fighters is driven home in The Stolen Earth. It feels as though Martha's potential is being exploited to the full now; showing off her bravery, her compassion and her intelligence. She refuses to carry a gun and she figures that if she can surround herself with men that do perhaps she can make them better people. Martha learnt the hard way what keeping your life with the Doctor a secret from your family can do to them and so she is in the perfect position to warn Donna of the deadlier side of travelling with him. Evil Martha is a great idea and it gives Freema Agyeman a chance to do something other than enthuse about everything – this is one of the better evil duplicates I have seen in a while because it is nicely underplayed. I kind of wish she had been given a bit more to do than stand around in the background, fake Francie style (Alias) and I don't like the idea of a stinky Martha!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It's like a potato! A baked potato! A talking baked potato!’ ‘Now Ross don’t be rude. You look like a pink weasel to him.’
‘I admire them! The bravery of idiots is bravery nonetheless!’
Back of the neck!’ – best Donna line ever.
‘You go with him, that wonderful Doctor. You go and see the stars. And then bring a bit of them back for your old Gramps’ – how is it Cribbins always makes me cry?

The Good:
· It strikes me as something treasurable that the most classic NuWho two parter (try saying that three times fast) begins with the single most classic Who opening scene. A journalist cum UNIT secret agent (it's Sarah Jane for the next generation) being kicked out of the Rattigan Academy and suffering the shock of something very normal turning against her and killing her. It’s the sort of gloriously simple opening that could have taken place in the 70s, the 80s or even in the 2100s. I swear at points I thought I was watching classic Who. I love the idea of evil cars (it was originally Russell T Davies’ idea, I believe, but Raynor uses it spectacularly in the opening sequence) and that chilling parting line ‘This is your final destination’ justifies the idea entirely. It seems this is the year that consumerism is under fire because both fad diets (Partners in Crime) and cars are turning deadly and making the consumer pay for their vanity. What’s worse, the Sontarans are using our fear of global warning against us too with ATMOS reducing carbon emissions to zero. The car shooting into the river is one of those images that lingers in the mind.
· They’ve got those exterior shots looking into the TARDIS spot on at this stage (earlier episodes were clearly just photographic backdrops) and Donna walks down the ramp towards the doors as the Doctor stands outside the ship greeting Martha. Very nicely done.
· Finally we are treated to a proper, full blooded UNIT story. We have flirted with them in Aliens of London and The Christmas Invasion before the show turned it's attention to Torchwood (with the odd mention here and there) but this is the UNIT I remember from the Pertwee years (and Battlefield). A military force packed with buff young things clutching at rifles and trying their damnedest to protect the Earth from alien menaces. The idea that they are searching for ‘illegal aliens’ in a factory is a subtle political comment whilst still being entirely within their remit. An on site base inside a haulage truck – how awesome is that? They have massive funding from the United Nations in the name of home world security and it shows – I don’t think I have ever seen so many soldiers in a Doctor Who story. It's clear that the myriad of alien menaces that have been made public have forced UNIT into a position of power again. The nail biting sequence with UNIT attempting to set off nuclear strike at the Sontarans was very reminiscent of the last episode of The Invasion when UNIT were on tenterhooks for precisely the reverse reason – waiting to see if a nuclear explosion would tear the planet apart. Just when you think that UNIT might actually have lost their touch you realise that the writer has dragged them down under a Sontaran bombardment just to send their reputation sky high. You can't help but punch the air when they turn the tables and kick some Sontaran ass. Love the kiss between Mace and his subordinate, a moment of character I wasn’t expecting which poses some intriguing questions about their relationship.
· People consider Luke Rattigan a poor character but they forget that the whole point of him is that he is supposed to be annoying and Ryan Sampson pulls off that mix of insane genius and unpredictable childishness really well. He's as childishly unpredictable as the Master was last season. I always admire actors that aren’t afraid to make themselves look fairly idiotic and I sympathise with Luke because his monumental sized ego shrouds the fact that he is bring taken for a ride. In a way this is how Luke Smith could have turned out had he been exploited by the Bane rather than raised by Sarah Jane. Luke’s rant about the Doctor’s ATMOS system tautology says everything you need to know about this character and the Doctor sums him up perfectly with a curt ‘It's been a long time since anybody has said no to you, isn’t it?’ Luke looks out at the Earth and says ‘It was never big enough for me.’ Bless him, the way he mimics the Sontar-ha war cry is just a little bit pathetic but again completely in character. It is clear that Luke has probably played one too many combat games in his childhood because he is ready to explode when the Sontarans go on a war footing. Luke has surrounded himself with yes men for so long and when they are smarter than he is for seeing through the ridiculous Earth.2 nonsense he pulls out a gun because force is the only way to control them once that spell of obedience is snapped. He proves himself to be a weak little boy bullying people into obeying him and just like every Doctor Who villain with that spec you know he is ultimately going to be brought down by his own inadequacies. He was so deluded that he was going to be God of his own little world that he had the nerve to design a mating programme. Poor foolish little Luke. When he realises the truth he ends up crying in the corner, the fate of all fascists. Astonishingly, Raynor allows the character a final moment of redemption as he follows up on the Doctor’s suggestion that he do something useful with his life and sacrifices it so the Doctor can live. I never saw that coming on my first watch and it is a satisfying end to a fascinatingly twisted character. Love his final ‘Sontar-ha!’ In your face. Staal, like the audience, underestimated him.
· Their introduction scene aside, this is a great use of the Sontarans and the script is obsessed enough with them to more than justify their inclusion. Compare and contrast to the Autons in Rose who were little more than stock villains and you can see how badly this could have ended up. Their redesign is quite subtle compared to other aliens that have transferred from the classic series. Christopher Ryan has a gorgeous throaty voice that is perfect to portray an aged Sontaran commander and his performance never falters away from that stern, military mindset. The Sontarans are pretty miffed that they weren’t allowed to take part in the finest war in history – the Time War between the Time Lords and the Daleks. We’ve only ever seen single Sontaran ships before so imagine my delight at seeing their arrow shaped warship with a ring around its middle that can deploys hundreds of spherical scout ships. The Sontaran/Rutan war has been raging on now for 50,000 years and their plan to turn the Earth into a suitable clone world for more soldiers to be hatched suggests that it is not going so well for them. They pitched the sequence where the Sontarans go on the attack exactly right. It is almost hilarious watching these humpty dumpty numpties marching in formation a hundred strong but this is soon followed up with an agonising close up of Ross, a character we have come to like a lot, sprawled dead on the floor. The story is saying we know these guys are ridiculous but look what they can do. Suddenly the Sontarans are a genuine military threat. Even when UNIT begin fighting back and kick their shiny blue asses they are still grinning and getting off on the honour and glory of fighting to the death. This is 100% the same creatures that Robert Holmes created in The Time Warrior and it's great to finally be able to see a large scale skirmish worthy of them. At the risk of bashing Moffat more than I already have on this site this is the only time the Sontarans have appeared in the series and been a credible threat. Strax is a nice character but he has condensed the race into a comic parody of their former magnificence.
· I cannot believe it has taken four seasons to give us an Earth-in-danger cliffhanger like this. We’ve had Slitheen popping out of body suits, gas masked zombies attacking, Dalek fleets emerging, Cybermen on the march, the Beast coming out of the pit, Daleks and Cybermen revealing themselves, a Dalek human hybrid, John Smith having to choose between his best friend and his girlfriend and the Master sending down his Toclafane army to attack the Earth… The last one might qualify but that never happened but what I’m talking about is an attack from the Earth’s point of view with all of the Doctor’s friends caught in the action. Like the end of The Invasion episode six. Or Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode one. This feels like the definitive classic cliffhanger; cars emitting an evil smoke, Wilf in danger, the Sontarans having a little jig and the Doctor apparently helpless.
· The effects heavy second episode is packed full of great images. London is seen disappearing in a swirling smog, as is New York, Istanbul and Sydney. There is a shot of Donna phoning home to Sylvia in The Poison Sky where she is sitting just on the periphery of the console room and you can see the full size and scope of the size – it's easy to forget what a carefully designed and lit set that console room is. It's probably my favourite in the shows entire run. The director cleverly uses rapid camera movement to follow the blast of a Sontaran weapon to it's victim and there is an impressive pan across the warehouse as the UNIT troops are massacred. The Valiant was a highlight in The Sound of Drums but it is even more so here where we get an epic shot of its mighty engines clearing away the smog. No matter how daft setting fire to the atmosphere might be, it looks awesome. Oddly for a science fiction show Doctor Who has steered away from using it's CGI budget for battle scenes and spaceships ala Star Trek and usually pushed the money in a more imaginative direction (like the Krillatines, the Werewolf, Lazarus’ monster and the Adipose). Here however they get to go nuts with the warships destruction, escape pods flying off to escape the exploding mother ship but tearing apart as the flames reach out and consume them. It's gorgeous eye candy.
· The final burst of nostalgia is the little treat at the climax as the TARDIS veers out of control and the Doctor, Donna and Martha grip hold of the console. I felt as if I was back in the Davison era.

The Bad:
· What a shame that the Brigadier could not be involved in this story (for whatever reason) because if there was ever a place for him in the new series this massive snog to the Pertwee era is it.
· Clearly the director is channelling The Two Doctors because the Sontarans are introduced in the most undramatic way possible – Staal just turns up in the middle of a scene and starts nattering. This is a far cry from their astonishing reveal at the end of The Time Warrior episode one.
· Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have had the Doctor visit the Rattigan Academy in Bessie? Or is he too hip these days for a yellow roadster?
· This is going to seem like the oddest of criticisms but there is a very feminine purple light which invades most of the scenes that are supposed to be creepy. Note to future lighting engineers, electric purple = not scary.
· ‘Intruder window’ was bad enough the first time. We really didn’t need it repeated.
· I got the message without Sylvia having to remind me the story had a message about ozone and carbon. Don’t talk down to the kiddie winks because they are a lot smarter than you give them credit for. Smoke belching from cars and filling the sky is enough of a visual clue to suggest car fumes = bad news.
· Setting fire to the atmosphere? What about the planes in the sky? Did they ground them all? And the birds? Are there millions of birds frazzled around the world? I’m sure that I buy that as a solution but really want else could they do after setting themselves a problem this international to solve? If the Valiant had gone round hoovering up all the mist around the world it would have felt too anti-climactic so at least they went with the exciting (if ludicrous) option. And they did set it up adequately by introducing Luke’s terraforming equipment very early in the story.

Notes: If you want to find out what happened after this story head over to the debut story of season two of the Sarah Jane Adventures which sees one Sontaran scout managing to escape their defeat and planning on bringing down the Earth in revenge.

The Shallow Bit: Too many gorgeous UNIT soldiers to mention! Ross Jenkins is up there as one of the five hottest males ever to appear in the show and his death is far more affecting than a bit part character has any right to be.

Result: Sontarans, UNIT, evil duplicates, a boy genius and everyday objects turned bad; the first episode of this two spectacular is a glorious nod to Doctor Who of days gone by. If there is a fault with this action movie slice of Who it is that the set up for the first episode means the pace slackens a little too often but that is more than made up for in the second episode which is pretty much one long magnificent action set piece. There is the odd moment that misfires (the Sontaran introduction scene is shockingly undramatic and I’m not sure if setting the atmosphere on fire makes any sense intellectually) and the direction might not be quite as tight as usual (although it is certainly imaginative in spots) but overall this story has a great deal of energy and excitement, a furious momentum peppered with lovely moments of character. The Sontarans make a stunning debut (mind you with Christopher Ryan in the driving seat how could they fail?) and there is fantastic reason for what they are doing to the Earth that is saved for the tail end of the story. David Tennant is a little too hysterical for my tastes and evil Martha means we are denied a proper return story for her but that is balanced by the gorgeous work being done with the Nobles who make my heart smile whenever they appear. Helen Raynor still hasn’t written her perfect Doctor Who story but she is definitely getting a lot closer and as a tribute to 70s Who we should thank her for this deliciously old school style adventure. This is terrific family entertainment just as the show promised to be when it hit our screens again: 8/10


Corpus Christi Music Scene said...

Awesome Review ! It is amazing that so many so called 'real' fans despise this . This is Classic Doctor Who. Like it or not.

Tango said...

The episode is excellent, the Sontarans are menacing (Although I am a fan of Strax) but the big problem was the Tenth Doctor characterization as a spoiled obnoxious brat.

I wanted to punch him in the face every time he shouted and was arrogantly irritating monstrously gigantic huge ego, I prefer the melancholic Tenth Doctor of Series 3 with Martha Jones (Yes, I'm also not a fan of Donna in this episode))

I dislike the UNIT of the RTD era, they seemed a group of fanboys who idolize the Doctor. Compare the Colonel Mace with Kate Stewart, there is a huge difference.