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Doctor Who 4[XXX].4: The Sontaran Stratagem

April 26th, 2008 (09:58 pm)

Difficult to evaluate episodes in multi-part stories. There are always undeveloped strands which might come into their own next week, or performances which might suddenly acquire more weight with more context.

There was much that was good in The Sontaran Stratagem. The Doctor and Donna continue to have a splendid relationship that makes David Tennant's Doctor seem that bit more credible. The Doctor's assumption that Donna was walking out on him was entirely in character; this Doctor is an addict of high emotion, whether it is peril or grief and self-pity. His immediate leap to the tragic conclusion that Donna can't take any more TARDIS travel and wants to go home was splendidly self-regarding without being self-aware. He is, after all, a dunce.

Freema Agyeman made a welcome return, and seemed to have more to do with this version of Martha Jones than she did with the Martha of the 2007 series. Martha has her own critique of the Doctor now; she is her own person and if he can't cope with what his influence has made her, she can't be held responsible. We are back to the Doctor as dysfunctional male who is in denial about his relationships with women, an idea viala_qilarre first brought to my attention with what looks like prophetic grace.

It's impossible to successfully recreate the Sontarans' appearance from The Time Warrior or The Sontaran Experiment, still (adjusted for technology) the most successful Sontaran masks. Kevin Lindsay is long gone, but to me ideal Sontaran face will always be a parody of his. This being said the prosthetics applied to Christopher Ryan and Dan Storkey were far more flexible than anything John Friedlander was able to devise in the 1970s. I was a little disappointed with Jenkins deciding that Staal looked like a 'baked potato'; as a child I could never see why my classmates thought that the Sontarans looked like potatoes, as I found potatoes a harmless root vegetable most welcome on the plate, whereas the Sontarans were hideous distortions of humanity, the most frightening Doctor Who monsters, nightmare-stalking creatues that could not be tamed. I still experience a frisson of disturbance on seeing the first dishelmetings of Linx and Styre; Stor is a different matter, as the storyline of the last episode of The Invasion of Time is undermined by the seemingly insoluble challenge the production faced in trying to make Derek Deadman's mask fit successfully.

There were some things about the Sontarans that I thought this script got right. The Victorian country house setting of the Rattigan Academy allowed Staal to make his first appearance in a reasonably Gothic setting. The Sontaran costume was originally designed to appear in a story set in a castle, and until fairly late in the day The Sontaran Experiment was to be set in a ruined abbey, continuing the Gothic theme. Linx and Styre were both bachelor army officers devoted to their regiments, and Christopher Ryan's delivery was both reminiscent of Kevin Lindsay's but bringing his own characterisation to someone whom Helen Raynor had written to be worthy of more respect than the obsessively saluting, blank space that was Colonel Mace. Unfortunately I didn't take to the final rugby chant at all, which seemed out of keeping with Staal's austere character.

Presentationally there was something wrong with the Sontarans. They are steely grey figures, creatures of gun metal and cannon. I don't think they ought to be blue. Dan Storkey's Skorr seemed a little flat compared to his superior: I was reminded of Stike and Varl in The Two Doctors, never one of my favourite Doctor Who adventures.

Otherwise I'm not sure where the Rattigan Academy is going. Luke's gifted boy genius inventor reminded me of John in The Tomorrow People, and the academy could potentially be a sort of TP-lab-gone-bad. Yet I'm not sure here whether anything more is going to be done with it beyond more background for Luke, unless the answer to the defeat of the Sontaran plan is to lie there. The whole pollution-caused-by-aliens premise seemed unsubtle and also unthreatening, as if the Sontarans' intervention was excusing the damage human beings have done to the atmosphere. There were a few moments of humour which didn't quite work, like the aforementioned Mace salutes; the Doctor's talking out the ATMOS device didn't seem to make sense either. So far, my least favourite episode of the season.

Comments

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: April 26th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC)

I really liked this one. The things that I disliked most last series - cringe-making gurning from Tennant, and the general failure of the show to take itself seriously enough - seemed to have gone. I've always liked Martha, and there is great scope for the various companions that the new Doctor has racked up conspiring with each other to
produce interesting new interpersonal dynamics, though they need to be careful not to overdo the "ah, this is a new age of feisty females, so the women don't fight over him, they insult him instead!" vibe. I particularly liked that
the immature evil genius geek was not taken down a peg or two by the plucky normals, as per just about every other episode of any series, but in fact shown how to be a mature genius geek. In general it was full of lots of action and managed to get me genuinely swept along by the story. And the episode didn't send itself up every 20 seconds.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 12:21 am (UTC)

You saw much more in the episode's treatment of Luke than I did; though his role model seems to be General Staal.

A better parallel in old children's TV for the Rattigan Academy than The Tomorrow People is probably the school in Richard Cooper's 1981 serial Codename Icarus, where young maths geniuses are abused for military purposes.

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 09:10 am (UTC)

The whole Rattigan Academy stuff was a bit naff, and I would have disliked it entirely were it not for the Doctor/Luke interaction. The Doctor seems to be describing his own isolation when describing Luke's, which rebounds to give the character some of the sense of genuine, all-round alien superiority (for want of a word with no moral overtones) that he often loses in new Who. And at the same time he makes a complete idiot of himself saying 'goodbye' to Donna, so he's not just an idealised icon.

I got a better flavour of the Doctor himself in this episode than I have from any other new Who.

However, in reality, as we know, tender young things with a flair for maths are sent to sport-riddled boarding schools in order to "make them more normal" and emerge swearing to undo and remake the world by the power of words.

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 09:11 am (UTC)

P.S. Ponder hated it of course. He says it's a Cybermen story with Sontarans shoehorned in, though if RTD had written it it would probably be even worse. Ponder does not like things that have emotions in where they could have an extra five spaceships.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 12:27 pm (UTC)
Styre

I wouldn't have said that it was a Cyberman story necessarily. We still don't know the Sontarans' motives, for example. The Sontarans are more complex than the Cybermen; although clones they have distinct personalities, with Staal giving notes on the performance of his opponents.

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 06:54 am (UTC)

I think the Rattigan Academy probably gave a nod to Terence Rattigan, and The Winslow Boy.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 12:02 pm (UTC)

I wonder if it's going to be relevant in any way, though? In what way is a teleport pod analogous to a postal order which Ryan may or may not have stolen?

Posted by: wellinghall (wellinghall)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 12:02 pm (UTC)

I had assumed it was just a passing reference.

Posted by: richenda (richenda)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC)

I sulked when Confidential mentioned that they'd spent a lot of time looking for five-footers. I qualify to act a baked potato alien, and the phone didn't ring?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 02:46 pm (UTC)

I think you need to make sure that you have your height listed in Welsh Spotlight, preferably with an illustration showing how you compare to David Tennant.

Posted by: Amanda (neohippie)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 04:33 pm (UTC)
K9 Geek

as a child I could never see why my classmates thought that the Sontarans looked like potatoes, as I found potatoes a harmless root vegetable most welcome on the plate, whereas the Sontarans were hideous distortions of humanity, the most frightening Doctor Who monsters, nightmare-stalking creatues that could not be tamed

Hmm, I think you're the first fan I've found who thinks the Sontarans are the scariest monsters. Interesting.

It's been a while since I've seen "The Time Warrior", but isn't it a usual thing for humans to be shocked by the Sontarans' appearance and for humans to underestimate the Sontarans?

I think that's where calling Staal a potato and making fun of his height comes from. I'm also reminded of that line about how Sontarans can't tell humans apart. I liked that. They look like silly little potato-men to us, but they think we look just as silly, and it turns out we're weaklings compared to them.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
Styre

Hmm, I think you're the first fan I've found who thinks the Sontarans are the scariest monsters. Interesting.

I was three years old, which probably had something to do with it; and probably with my teenage neighbour rather than with my parents. The Daleks were never very frightening when I was a child, as I became aware of them as ice cream at about the same time I became aware of them as television characters. The Zygons, the Kraals, the Krynoids - anything that involved the distortion of the human form; then that scared me.

It is a usual thing for humans to be shocked by the Sontarans' appearance. It's also one of the most-remarked upon phenomena that children around the UK spontaneously started calling the Sontarans 'potato-heads' not long after they first appeared, and it's probable that a lot of the audience will be more familiar with that name than 'Sontaran', never intended as a catchy name to be remembered easily, I suspect.

Might I friend you, btw?

Posted by: Amanda (neohippie)
Posted at: April 27th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)

Might I friend you, btw?

Sure.