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.

  • “In the hands of Ronald D Moore, say, the Sontarans would simply have nuked the Earth from orbit… Because that’s what Sontarans do.”
    You sure? I got the impression that Sontarans like fighting and tactics, rather than destruction. Nuke from orbit is a Dalek method (and that’s exactly what they did back in Series 1).
    I liked the episode (apart from BREAK THE SODDING WINDOW!), but ten minutes in I did think to myself ‘Rob is bored now.’

  • I must have been sending out psychic signals. Actually, it took me at least 15 minutes before I thought, “GET ON WITH IT”, since I’d been bracing myself for the worst.
    My impression of the old-school Sontarans was they liked strategies, etc, but only so they don’t lose in battle. Do the recon, work out the enemy’s strength, then do what you need to win afterwards. Here, they’ve done the recon, know that we’re a right bunch of pansies in comparison and have decided to gas us all, rather than kill us. It’s like the US army coming to the Amazon rain forest, finding a bunch of blokes with bows and arrows, and deciding, “Hey. Why don’t we poison their berries?” instead of dropping a cluster/fuel-aerosol bomb or two. The Sontarans might enjoy face to face fighting, but there comes a point where they probably wouldn’t lower themselves to the level necessary to have an ‘even’ fight with us.
    Besides, I was more going for the difference between old school BSG (Cylons just faff about a bit firing at things from their raiders) vs RDM’s BSG (Cylons nuke everything from orbit) in the reimagining of an old enemy as something scary for the modern age. Like how everyone used to laugh at Daleks before they turned out to have forcefields, etc in Dalek and be capable of winning a war with the Time Lords.

  • Rob, now I NEVER laughed at the daleks as a child. I can still remember being terrified by an episode where they appeared on BBC News going across Westminster Bridge and being utterly convinced it was true (in my defence I was five years old at the time). Although of course the fear was always contained by the knowledge that the daleks couldn’t go upstairs. Only RTD did away with that particular get out clause didn’t he, so now they’re scarier then ever.
    The Sontarans on the other hand never spooked me at all, and here they reminded me mostly of the fighting Uruk-Kai (Sp?) in the Lord of the Rings. I quite liked their mad dancing at the end.
    The window thing was stupid. As was the behaviour of both the Unit soldiers (even my nine year old was saying call for back up) and Martha.
    But there was lots to like, and I did think it built up to quite a menacing conclusion.
    And I too love Bernard Cribbins. Plus I felt smug as I was the only one in the family to spot him from the Christmas episode…
    I do wish they’d given the Brig a more worthy successor though – wobbly chinned toff type Colonels are so cliched. And why didn’t the Doc ask where the Brig was???
    Bring back the Brig, that’s what I say…

  • Since you asked… 😉
    Technically, the “Daleks and stairs” issue was sorted years ago, notably by the Sylvester McCoy episode Remembrance of the Daleks.
    The Brigadier’s shown to be retired in both Mawdryn Unded and Battlefield, so the Doctor wouldn’t need to ask. And that’s not even including the Big Finish audio adventures and the New Adventures.
    But the Brig’s successors (eg Colonel Crichton, Brigadier Bambera) have always been rubbish, so that’s consistent at least.
    I’m hoping they can make the Sontarans scarier next episode. After the cock-up with the Cybermen (scary monster made rubbish), I’m hoping they manage to take a monster that was mostly there for laughs and turn it into something impressive.

  • Ah now, Rob you are scaring me with your vastly superior knowledge… I never paid much attention to Dr Who after his fifth incarnation and Sylvester McCoy was just too dreadful to even look at so my knowledge post Tom Baker is woefully inadequate…

  • “I never paid much attention to Dr Who after his fifth incarnation and Sylvester McCoy was just too dreadful to even look at so my knowledge post Tom Baker is woefully inadequate”
    Perfectly understandable. Colin Baker: good actor, bad scripts; Sylvester McCoy: awful actor (but probably the best they could get for £10 grand a year) but good(ish) scripts.
    Still, my sister’s glad of my subjecting her to Sylvester McCoy – it gives her much kudos with men, these days, to be able to explain that Daleks were flying back during Remembrance
    Compared to many, my Who skills are weak. Remember that.

  • My husband always blames Michael Grade for the deliberate downgrading of Dr Who. Apparently MG hated it and (ha!) has had to eat his words and admit the new series is pretty good.
    But Sylvester McCoy? Honestly. Who can ever have thought he’d make a good Doctor. Didn’t these people WATCH Vision On????

  • He’s almost acceptable in the Frank Langhella version of Dracula (he doesn’t say much). But, it’s really down to what actor they could get for £10k (it might have been 12k) a year. You can’t really get Sir Ian McKellen for that kind of cash.
    Grade did hate it because (he mentioned this on a recent Mayo podcast to Gaby Logan) it looked arse compared to Star Wars, etc and he didn’t think the production team had taken that on board – although I suspect there’s a certain chicken and egg situation there. He loves it now though.

  • I think that certain areas of BBC hierarchy had got so into the Doctor Who = Children’s Programme mindset that they weren’t even thinking about casting actors — they were just casting ‘entertainers’. Therefore Bonnie Langford and Sylvester McCoy. Sylv, at least, tried to act, and he’d had a solid background in fringe theatre with Ken Campbell’s bunch of loonies beforehand, but it didn’t really work. Imagine what a really talented character actor, like Patrick Troughton, would have done with some of those scripts – the change of expression and intonation he’d have pulled off with ‘Oh, I am so much more than just another Time Lord…’
    Speaking of the Brig, hasn’t Sarah Jane Adventures established that he is still around and in touch with UNIT? Though he wouldn’t be brought out of retirement for this, I’d imagine.

  • Stu, I think you’re probably right about the SJA… They tend to be on when I’m cooking the tea, so the kids watch and I don’t.
    Yes, I’d forgotten about the ghastliness of having Bonnie Langford in it… I would have definitely kept watching in my late teens if the casting had been better.

  • In Revenge of the Slitheen, Sarah Jane says to “give [her] love to the Brig”.
    Bonnie Langford pretty much suffered from the same problem as Colin Baker (rubbish scripts) and forgot to dial down her performance for TV from theatre-level shouting. One of the most remarkable things about the Big Finish audio adventures is that you discover not only that Colin Baker could potentially have been one of the best Doctors if he’d been given some decent scripts, you also learn that Bonnie Langford is actually really good (when given decent scripts and told to calm down a bit) and is probably (with the exception of Charley Pollard) the best of the audio companions. Which is somewhat akin to finding out that Gummo was the really talented Marx brother.

  • Which is somewhat akin to finding out that Gummo was the really talented Marx brother.
    HA! Agree about BL not being uniformally awful in the BF dramas but wasn’t Gummo the really talented one anyway?? 😉
    Loved the review (didn’t agree with some of it but still, thooughly enjoyable review!) and loving the comments exchange. I can vouch for two under 10s who loved it by the way so the ADHD 8 year old helm maybe wasn’t functioning to full capacity?

  • It might need to be retired. It was originally designed to make the point that Doctor Who is a kids show and although we’re all sitting around critiquing it with adult sensibilities, we’re not the intended audience and it’s only if the kids like it that it matters. My suspicion, though, is that I no longer have the capacity to think like an eight-year old – even one with ADHD – so it’s really just guesswork at best.
    Is there any way to tell if Gummo was the talented one, given he only ever appeared in their Vaudeville shows?
    Glad you liked the reviews: do come again!

  • Anonymous

    [it’s not in the Sun so it can’t be true] lol, anyways. I just watched this episode myself and i have to say that i was quite pleased with the episode. I only started watching Doctor Who from the 9th series and so i never saw the sontarans before but i was fairly pleased with them. The Only thing i would say bad about them is the ‘small’ plug sticking out of their neck, that’s just asking to be pressed *rolls eyes*
    Anyways, if you want you can take a look at my ratings and reviews for these episodes here:

  • Mark H Wilkinson

    Here, they’ve done the recon, know that we’re a right bunch of pansies in comparison and have decided to gas us all, rather than kill us. It’s like the US army coming to the Amazon rain forest, finding a bunch of blokes with bows and arrows, and deciding, “Hey. Why don’t we poison their berries?” instead of dropping a cluster/fuel-aerosol bomb or two.
    Maybe not. In the trailer for next week’s, the Doctor makes this cryptic comment:
    “They need this gas for something else.”
    I doubt this is quite as straightforward as wanting to take down humanity. Which would make sense of the Doctor’s comment of the Sontarans not using their usual MO.

  • MediumRob

    Good point. Let’s wait and see. Maybe they’re trying to fumigate the Earth of Rutans (Rattigan/Rutan academy anyone?)

  • I really wanted to wait until the episode to find out what the plan was, but thanks to Time Out’s hamfisted idiot TV guide writers, I now know. DAMN YOU, TIME OUT TV GUIDE!

  • Oh, that’s poor. Right, my Time Out’s going straight in the magazine rack with the last four weeks’ other Time Outs…

  • Electric Dragon

    Just watched it, having got back from the City of Death Light (great, sunny, hot, am now suffering art overload). Have to agree with many of the above comments. The bit where Donna’s having her own little clips show before running into Bernard Cribbins’ arms had me shouting “skip to the end” at the TV. And the end bit had me shouting “get a fucking brick, you idiots”. Love the dating controversy reference though. And Donna the supertemp gets better and better – showing that paper trails make the world go around, and getting away with calling the Doctor a dumbo.
    Also, again suddenly a gadget is being used by an improbable number of people. 400 million units? And how long was the roll-out on this? The “factfile” says that ATMOS was referenced in the first episode of the series, but how long is it since Martha left? Disturbing lack of thought about realistic numbers – cf. the fat pills being used by 1 in 10 Londoners, the “cyberbluetooth” earpieces etc.

  • “And how long was the roll-out on this?”
    Maybe they had EDS help out. Nothing could go wrong with that, surely. Or is there going to be a quick save?

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