Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Sontarans written by Simon Guerrier and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The TARDIS arrives on a moon-sized asteroid orbiting two gas giants. With an amazing view, it’s a chance for the Doctor, Steven and Sara to unwind after their recent adventures. But they quickly find themselves in the midst of battle - on one side: a familiar group of space-suited soldiers - members of the Space Security Service. On the other: strange, squat aliens in body armour. Surviving the initial hostilities, the Doctor and his friends discover that the SSS squad is on a terrifying mission. With many lives at stake, they have to venture deep inside the asteroid in search of a hideous weapon. But who can they trust in the battle against these Sontarans?

Hmm: It’s been so long since I had last heard Purves’ cheeky first Doctor that I had forgotten how much I enjoy it. Unlike David Bradley, he remembers the twinkle in his eye, his insatiable curiosity, good humour and sense of wonder that really sells his more acerbic and authoritative moments. Bradley absolutely looks the part and sounds much more like Hartnell, but Purves gets the emphasis just right and for me that conjures up the spirit of the character that Hartnell played much more compellingly. I really enjoy his take on the character. The Doctor talks of making notes to figure out where they are, a wonderfully simpler time when he just roamed the universe as a scientific experiment, righting wrongs when he stumbled across them but essentially there to feed his curiosity. The Doctor has never met the Sontarans before and it’s great to finally catalogue his first impression of the race. He takes exception to the idea that all aliens are bad, some are quite civilised. The Doctor will say anything to prevent the TARDIS being taken from him, attempting to convince the Earth forces that it contains sensitive military equipment that the Sontarans could utilise. ‘It’s a long time since I fought in a war’ says the Doctor mysteriously. Wasn’t it wonderful before the Doctor’s origins were laid out that he could make cryptic comments like that that opened out a whole universe of speculation. It’s the sort of thing the new series did so spectacularly when it returned with regards to the Time War before Moffat and Big Finish began to chart out the entire narrative of the unknowable conflict. The Doctor is far shrewder than he likes to let on at times, keeping his eye on Gage when he doesn’t seem to be behaving like everybody else. The Sontarans see the Doctor and his friends running away from the Daleks as an act of cowardice, of deserting their cause. How refreshing to have the Doctor’s companions more in the loop about events than the main man. That he is learning about their opponents through their experience and knowledge. He’s willing to open the TARDIS for the Sontarans because he’s not willing to lose Steven and Sara, he’s lost too much already.

Aggressive Astronaut: Doesn’t Steven suffer enough misery in season three as it is? Torturing him seems to be as popular as torturing Chief O’Brien in DS9 and for similar reasons, because it reveals interesting shades of his character and because the actor portraying him does his best work under pressure. Peter Purves is one of the unsung heroes of Doctor Who as far as I’m concerned. I thought that on the strength of his TV performances alone but when you add in his stunning work on the Companion Chronicles and the Early Adventures and you have a companion performer who has simply never dropped the ball, attacked challenging material with gusto and given me feels in some complex and emotional ways. Steven suffers, and we suffer too because he is just so real. He’s a civilian who left the war a long time ago. Steven couldn’t let the Sontarans conceive of a weapon as damaging as the time destructor but that simply registered as him trying to conceal something from them and made them push even harder for the information. Steven is tortured horribly for an extended period and you can hear his screams echoing about the corridors for an entire dialogue scene. This would have been far too strong for sixties Who but it shows the callousness of the Sontarans and their interrogatory methods.

Security Agent: The Doctor notes it is extraordinary what has happened to Sara, developing because she is free. Sara knows of the Sontarans of old and understands just how powerful they are. If they descend into lava it wont polish them of, their space suits are designed to withstand radiation in space. She understands the probic vent weakness and has no qualms about shooting a man in the back. The Doctor doesn’t really give orders but Sara would follow them if he did. She thinks it is worth sacrificing yourself for a cause worth dying for. She’s a good officer, even the officers around her can see that but she has gone rogue and is concerned for the wellbeing of her friends, a weakness that she cannot really afford as a Space Security officer. She admits she would never go back to the world she knew, the life she knew.

Standout Performance: Jean Marsh’s voice has clearly aged, but I think it’s wonderful despite ill health that she is still giving these audios all she has got. There’s only a few moments in episode four when she is struggling, otherwise she’s giving a serious, measured performance.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘As the Sontarans emerged, lava dripping from their armour and guns…’ – it’s not often that narration gets me this excited.
‘You can’t have a war if one side wont fight back!’
‘You’ve declared war on the Sontarans. Honour demands they retaliate. They wont show mercy!’

Great Ideas: An alien landscape, every inch of it covered in flowers…Simon Guerrier knows how to get my attention with an arresting opening. Are the flowers converting starlight into oxygen or do they grow because the air in the asteroid field is artificial? An asteroid belt in a figure of eight looped round two vast planets of gas. There’s no collision point because one path of the asteroid passes a lot higher than the others…but seen from above it is a perfect figure of eight. How do I feel about Doctors encountering monsters long before they appeared in the television? If it’s a chance to give a new spin on the monster, to show how they might have represented in a completely different era and if it doesn’t entirely contradict continuity…why not? It’s clear the Doctor has met the Sontarans before The Time Warrior. They plague the Outer Worlds, attack in their thousands, destroy every last trace of the colonies they attack. The Earth Empire has learnt to just run from them. I like the idea that the Doctor and company have been walking around in a war zone advertising themselves because of their heat signatures. A team of Sontarans lift the TARDIS away, a startling image. They are evacuating the system before the Sontarans swarm and take over. A whole platoon of Sontarans falling from the sky and plunging into a sea of lava. It makes absolute sense that the Sontarans would capture a human specimen to try and understand their military and biological weaknesses.

Isn’t it Odd: It’s a problem with the nature of Doctor Who as a whole. Whilst it is easy to suggest that a race of cloned aliens are an aggressive military force, it does rather damage the family feeling of the show to show the Sontarans behaving in a brutal and homicidal manner. In their one appearance I would say that the Rutans are portrayed more chillingly than the Sontarans ever have been. The Time Warrior introduced the most interesting Sontaran, a full formed character in Linx but he was mostly used to contrast entertainingly against the historical characters he was lumbered with. Styre was a nasty brute, but there was still no sense of the strength of numbers or military might of the species. He’s merely a sadist, performing experiments in the name of statistical data. The hired heavies of The Invasion of Time make an immediate impact when they show up in a twist cliff-hanger, but soon devolve into clownish bullies in the final two episodes. The Two Doctors features two Sontarans that are trying to exploit science to win strategic systems in their war but instead of seeing anything of the conflict we head on holiday to Seville with them. Whilst it is played for wonderful comic effect, the many maimings and eventual death of Group Marshall Stike reduce the threat of the Sontarans as something to laugh at in a very black way. His blown of leg being used for the blackest of gags polishes off any threat they might have had. Whilst it is sanitised conflict (lots of lasers, no blood), The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky probably showcases the Sontaran army at their most hostile and destructive. They take out some likable characters and prove to be very operative in great numbers, and I love the lust for fighting they display here. Even in the story where they are allowed to show military might there are gags about their height and baked potatoes. Since then, the extended use of Strax as a member of the Paternoster Gang has seen off any sense of danger these creatures might pose. Dan Starkey has created a fun character, but he’s a comedy buffoon essentially and occasionally too stupid to be entirely believable. There’s certainly no sense that this is a military species of some repute. Simon Guerrier could have looked at this abuse of a potentially terrifying species and thought that the chance to portray them in a serious and martial light is perhaps the most surprising thing you could do with them. Does the fact that the final episode gives this story a definitive placing in The Daleks’ Masterplan mean that this is last we’ll hear of Steven and Sara?

Standout Scene: The Doctor has figured enough out about the Sontarans to appeal to their sense of honour in the last, very tense, set piece as the human ships put themselves in the path of the space cannon. He’s a wily old fox, using psychology to save as many lives as possible. Also, I would have loved to have seen William Hartnell’s Doctor taking Sonatarans into the TARDIS only to have them shot in the back.

Result: You’ve never experienced the Sontarans quite like this before and it is about time that somebody portrayed them as an unstoppable, maliciously aggressive force. In the wake of Strax the comedy Sontaran, that is perhaps the ultimate refresher for the species. It turns out it isn’t just how you portray them, but how you portray the characters reacting to them. If your regulars are genuinely terrified at their military advance half your battle is done for you. If you squinted you could just about see how they could have brought this to life in the sixties, with a handful of sets, an asteroid landscape and some monster costumes. The sea of lava might be tricky to realise, but after The Web Planet I would have put nothing past the producers of Doctor Who in the mid sixties. However, the tone of the piece is quite fatalistic and much more geared towards the Battlestar Galactica school of conflict and this might not be for you if you like your Doctor Who laced with humour and colour. I rather love this extended season Big Finish have going on within The Daleks’ Masterplan. At 12 episodes long and with so many destinations, it is relatively easy to re-imagine the story as an extended period of time where the Doctor, Steven and Sara had adventures with the impending threat of the Daleks in the background. It gives all the stories told during the epic chase about for the terranium core have a distinctive voice and identity of their own because there is always that narrative thread to get back to when the adventure is over. The Sontarans is something very different from Simon Guerrier, essentially a four-part action story with a group of characters under constant threat in a dangerous location (asteroid under siege?). It’s incredibly pacy, lacking Guerrier’s usual depth of concept and characterisation but it’s made up for by its dirtiness, it’s exciting set pieces and it’s almost real-time directness. It’s not all furious action, mind. There are prolonged torture and interrogation scenes between Steven and a Sontaran in the second half of the story that really command the attention. Props to Ken Bentley for bringing to life such a challenging audio script, even though there is plenty of narration to help the listener the sheer amount of action means that there has to be plenty of aural clarity within the story itself. For how it portrays the Sontarans as a relentless, offensive, intelligent force, I was captivated: 8/10


Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of this review, but was the cheap shot at Moffat really called for? I understand not liking a showrunner's era but I don't see why it was called for at this instance.

Also, I do agree that Peter is one of the champions of Doctor Who and when we lose him it's going to be a dark day indeed.

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