Review: Doctor Who – 4×4 – The Sontaran Strategem

Doctor Who: The Disco Years

Situation report
Saturday 26/04/08. 18.15hrs. 
New episode of Doctor Who about to start. Old enemy, the Sontarans, are about to appear for first time since slightly poor Colin Baker story The Two Doctors and an episode of Jim'll Fix It back in the 80s.

Very excited, despite having seen publicity photo of the Sontarans that makes them look like they've been designed by Mad magazine and Joel Schumacher. Not sure about appearance by Martha Jones either. Could be good. Could be bad.

But what's this? "Written by Helen Raynor"? Helen Raynor who wrote the uniformly bad Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks, as well two really dull episodes of Torchwood?

Abort! Abort! Pull out! We do not have sufficient caffeine to survive. Casualties will be heavy!

Anyone fancy going down the pub?

Was it any good?
First, my standard Helen Raynor boilerplate criticism:

There’s something about Helen Raynor’s writing. It’s always nicely put together, doesn’t insult your intelligence too much and has a certain sensibility about it that makes you think she’s trying to write proper drama. But it’s absolutely dull to watch.

And to a certain extent, that was all pretty much true this time. It was well written, with some good dialogue for the Doctor, Donna and Martha. The Sontarans were treated surprisingly well and not played for laughs as perhaps we were all expecting. UNIT is finally starting to look like an organisation geared up to fight aliens. It was a touch Sarah Jane Adventures at times, but on the whole, there was nothing really wrong with the script.

It was just too little for the time slot allocated. Take a scene, any scene. You could have chopped anywhere between 30 seconds and a minute off it – a good five minutes from some of the UNIT soldiers stuff – and not lost anything. In fact, you’d have gained a whole lot, since you’d have been able to sit there without a great big shining "GET ON WITH IT" lurking in the forefront of your thoughts.

It was, as always with Helen Raynor’s scripts, very poorly paced.

But that was the only big criticism for what is easily her best piece of work so far. Sure there are minor niggles.

In the hands of Ronald D Moore, say, the Sontarans would simply have nuked the Earth from orbit. Then nuked it again for a laugh. Then nuked it again because they had a few more nukes left over. Then gone back to home base, brought some more nukes back and nuked it again.

Because that’s what Sontarans do.

So the whole Atmos plan was a bit daft, largely unworkable and slightly uncharacteristic for the Sontarans. Particularly with the hypnotised workforce. Oh please. 

Plus sonic screwdriver, Doc. Did you not think about just breaking the car window with sound? Or a brick? And the sick-leave folder was a nice idea, but precisely which Sontaran office manager would have set up the folder in the first place?

Murray Gold was back to his old arseness. And UNIT appears to have started recruiting from the "pretty, thick but not desperately buff" branch of the British army. 

But there was good effects work, with a really top-notch updating of the Sontaran ‘spheres’. Some nice camera work and shots, too, which makes a nice change. Donna came out of it really well, as did Martha (although clone Martha was a bit OTT). The Sontarans came out of it looking pretty smart and nasty – probably the nastiest and scariest they’ve been since Tombo’s Sontaran Experiment (in which various companions and humans were tortured, just to see what they were made of) – although maybe a bit disco-dancing oriented at the end (and there’s bound to be a nice bit of heavy weapons work next week). I could hear David Tennant speak his lines. Bernard Cribbins is eternally excellent. 

So if it could just have been a little less boring, then it would have been great.

Incidentally, has anyone noticed how this and the last three episodes of the series have been really old school, rather than RTD-esque in their plotting and attitude? Is that going to scare off the newer fans?

The Helm of an ADHD eight-year-old
While wearing the patented Helm of an ADHD eight-year old, I left the room. So I took it off. Not sure how gripped they would have been by this one at all.

Classic Who continuity references
As well as the Sontarans, there were numerous references to UNIT and the Jon Pertwee-era UNIT stories, including the usage of classic UNIT radio call signs ‘trap 1’ and ‘greyhound’. There was also reference to the great UNIT dating controversy.

Other reviews
You want dessert? Then perhaps Sir or Madam would like to try one of the following: Marie‘s, Anna‘s, Rullsenberg‘s and Stuart‘s. If Sir or Madam has also written a review, perhaps they would like to leave their card with the Maître D’ below?

PS. Yes, I genuinely did go down the pub in preference to watching Doctor Who.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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