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Doctor Who - The Sontaran Stratagem

The Slitheen, The Cybermen, The Daleks again, and now The Sontarans - as ever, the fourth episode in the series of New Who is the first of a two-parter featuring a large scale invasion of Earth by an alien race of some sort. It's come to be known as the "blockbuster" two parter for it's lightness of tone and bigness of explosions, but The Sontaran Stratagem is a curiously un-engaging episode, and neither is the scale of it particularly impressive.

"Our stratagem proceeds as planned... hey, that's the name of the show!"
Some Sontranas, there

The first shot of the episode establishes one of it's major flaws - the "Rattigan Academy" is clearly the same building that has been used for multiple Whoniverse exteriors. The only one that springs to mind is the Medusa episode of Sarah Jane, but I distinctly recall saying "they used that building on Sarah Jane" during some other episodes. What's more, it's all lit up purple - re-using sets is one thing, re-using the purple lightbulbs every time you want to make any set look slightly different and people are going to start noticing.

RTD has spoken out against the re-use of the same quarries in Old Who, but the crucial thing to remember about a quarry is that it's a big fucking hole in the ground, and most big fucking holes in the ground look the same, more or less. It doesn't stretch the credibility of the programme in quite the same way as having every other villain living in the same house, or inhabiting the same stretch of corridor. Quarries don't have cornices, bannisters, recognisable elements which no purple lightbulb can disguise very well.

It might seem like a little thing to gripe about, but I can't see what would be so difficult about finding another building, so anyone who has the temerity to be familiar with the previous episodes isn't constantly pulled out of the action. There's loads of buildings, everywhere. Even in Wales. The majority of the audience won't care, but then, the majority of dogs won't care that much if they eat vomit for their dinner. Here's some other ways this episode of Who made me think "Golly! How unoriginal!" or "the guys in charge of Doctor Who must smoke big delicious lumps of heroin aaall day long!"

1. The plot is something to do with a load of clones. You might remember the "loads of clones" plot device from Helen Raynors last spell on Who, writing Daleks In Manhattan. Load of clones? Load of REHASHED CRAP, more like.

2. Seemingly innocuous modern technology integral to evil scheme? What, like in Rise Of The Cybermen? It's like these plot elements are decided by cycles of the moon, and at the same time every year we have to sit down and watch more or less the same episode. A jumble of the same elements. Only for 2008, they decided to not bother moving the big Earth invasion to an alternate universe or Manhattan. Look, why the fuck is Doctor Who so bound by formula? I mean, across an entire series? No central concept of any programme is better suited for keeping the audience on their toes, throwing them the odd curveball, but it's something this show apparently can't be arsed doing. Thanks guys!

3. Who does the character of Luke Rattigan remind me of? Hmmm. I think it's probably Adam, from the episode Dalek. Mostly because they are both diminutive child-prodigy slash teenage geniuses who look the same, only Luke has a shit American accent, and Adam was just friends with someone who did. Either way, just pay someone to sit in the room with you and point out these overt similarities, so you can cast around them. When casting a "genius", why not try casting someone who doesn't radiate stupidity from his bulging shiny face? Little tip, there.

4. Why would you invent the Judoon if you were going to use the Sontarans a year later? Why rip off the Sontarans, and then do the Sontarans? Were the Who production team really organised in making sure this episode was boring? Did they pick all the sets and ideas, and then go out of their way to use them all in the previous three series?

5. Dear Doctor Who,

Please stop referring to your companions by their forename and surname and then lapsing into a drivel speech about a load of made-up places with stupid names in space, like the crumbling azure waterfalls of mars fifteen, or whatever. It was cool the first two times or so, but no more!

Lots of love,

Michael Lacey

Second Opinion

Series Four’s traditionalist approach continues here, with a story remarkably evocative of the Pertwee era’s mix of military manoeuvres and killer household objects. Although contemporary social preoccupations such as detention without trial and carbon footprints are dropped into the action, Helen Raynor delivers a deliberately lightweight script, with none of the introspection that weighed down her first attempt at an early season “blockbuster”. The result is extremely successful, with each of the story strands being advanced at just the right moment, while still imbuing events with a sense of fun. The more mature Martha is used as link between the returning UNIT and the modern programme’s more domestic setting, although the show’s two spheres are still being noticeably kept apart. Catherine Tate’s performance here is probably her best to date in the programme, but unfortunately is still outclassed by the remainder of her family- Raynor’s selection of Donna’s Grandfather as the Noble to place in peril for the cliff-hanger is astute.

The return of the Sontarans has been met with a reasonable level of apathy. Unlike the Daleks or Cybermen, they don’t really have enough of a hold on the general public to be able to bump up the viewing figures merely by appearing. However, no monster can achieve multiple returns to the series by accident, and it isn’t long before they’ve knocked the Slitheen into a cocked hat in the “comical yet threatening” stakes. Surprisingly this is done through characterisation and wordplay, as fans’ initial misgivings over the realisation of the clones appear justified. Hopefully the second part of the story will validate the design team’s decision to prioritise costume manoeuvrability over achieving a sense of weight. The programme’s other comeback is more solid visually, distinguishing UNIT from the faceless soldiers often used as cannon fodder whilst remaining consistent to their cameos in Aliens Of London and The Sound Of Drums. The production team’s decision to bring the taskforce back into the frame properly is interesting, and may be an acknowledgment of the increasingly public alien activity over the last three series. Torchwood One-style total secrecy would obviously no longer be credible.

Unfortunately Raynor’s dialogue is sometimes heavy handed, such as Martha’s initial phone call and the Doctor’s condemnation of Colonel Mace for carrying a gun. The latter is eased somewhat by the character’s subsequent besting of the Doctor over TARDIS’s status as a weapon, but it remains a remarkably clumsy way of re-establishing the Doctor/UNIT dynamic. Far more appealing is the inclusion of the other military Doctor Who cliché, as a pair of hapless squaddies encounter the dark secret at the heart of the ATMOS factory. The performances here are a delight, perfectly suited to the tone of the story, which oscillates between the old-school horror of the lethal SatNavs and the light-hearted bombast of the Sontarans. The only weak element of the cast is Christian Cooke’s boy genius, but the minor nature of his part makes this easy to overlook. What really makes the episode work is the contrast of approaches, as the Doctor’s light-hearted meddling wrecks havoc in Staal’s carefully calibrated war machine. By ranging across the show’s entire spectrum of approaches, Raynor manages to please all of the viewers, most of the time.

Four Stars

6. When introducing a new alien, you may be unwilling to reveal them immediately, and tease the audience for a while as to their appearance. One way of doing this is to have the alien shown from behind, watching a computer screen. We will hear their voice, and perhaps see their hand. Maybe they will be wearing a helmet! Maybe there are OTHER WAYS to achieve this effect, and maybe not having your alien staring out of the Radio Times cover for a week beforehand would make it more effective. Perhaps you could all stop drinking Lambrini and fucking eachother for long enough to write some new plot devices, eh?

Here's another problem, and it's one that's so fucking easily fixed it makes me want to spew. I'm pretty drunk, so I might spew anyway. Yes, I'm sometimes drunk when I write these things. Who'd have guessed? It's obvious that with science fiction, and especially science fiction aimed at a family audience, a large part of what the characters are going to be saying is utter bollocks. Just total bollocks. It's unavoidable - for the purposes of advancing the plot, you need to introduce ludicrous concepts, and have characters be able to accurately describe things that would make normal people recoil in fear. You don't want what they're saying to sound like bollocks, or what they're doing to look ridiculous, so you introduce characters who are intelligent and well-versed in the paranormal. That way, when they look at something, and say "it's a pansexual clone alien!", you'll believe them, even though it sounds ridiculous. Here Raynor fumbles again - it's a lowly footsoldier who discovers the first weirdy treat of the episode (a blank clone in a puddle of green piss) and his identification of it as "some kind of embryo!" sounds just as ludicrous and vague as it actually is, because it's delivered badly and without gravitas by an unknown character who's also a bit of a dick. The fact that Sontaran General Mike Off The Young Ones turns up a second later and says "well done, ten points!" doesn't really manage to patch up this overlong and terminally rubbish scene.

The "one-line dialogue fix" is also a common sci-fi trope - throw your protagonists into ludicrous situations, and some smart-arse is bound to think of an easier way out for them than your convoluted ending. So, you throw in one line of dialogue that explains why that option is not an option, and the audience is back to relating with your characters rather than thinking that they are idiots. And I know this show is aimed at children, but surely even the most dim-witted child on a dizzying sugar high would wonder why AN ARMY MAN can't BREAK THE WINDOW OF A CAR. Or, perhaps, take the keys out of the ignition? How many drafting processes did this episode go through without someone saying "guys, this is a bit stupid"?

On Confidential, Raynor explains that the "buzzword" she was given for the tone of this episode was "military", a box she cleverly ticked by having a load of soldiers run around allover the place. I think a better buzzword would have been "stupid", because a character of The Doctors intelligence needs to occasionally say intelligent things rather than just grimace and point his sonic screwdriver at things. The cliffhanger of this episode - BERNARD CRIBBINS IS TRAPPED IN A CAR WHICH IS FARTING DEADLY GAS (OUTSIDE THE CAR, SO I'M NOT ENTIRELY SURE WHY HE'S SO WORRIED) actually happens about five minutes before the end, and we're treated to a delightfully long scene of The Doctor GRIMACING and POINTING HIS SONIC SCREWDRIVER at the car. In the absence of any intelligent dialogue, this resembles the actions of a man who, when he realises that his remote control isn't working, carries on pointing it at the telly and pressing the buttons anyway, like a big stupid gorilla. Weren't we told halfway through the episode that the sonic screwdriver didn't affect the devices (yes, we were)? The Doctor arguing his way out of being driven into a river by ATMOS resembles the kind of logical quandary Tom Baker would often find himself in ("one tells the truth, one lies, you have one question" etc), but it's simply paying lip-service to Old Who without even attempting to craft a genuinely challenging mental problem.

Also, Martha's back! Hooray! Or to put it another way, what? Martha's role in this episode depressingly underlines the fact that the writers have never known what the fuck to do with her, at all. I'm still not a fan of Catherine Tate's character but at least the character itself has some definition, so that everything Donna does in this episode is somehow motivated by her own will. She wants to go and see her family, she doesn't like the army man, and we understand and relate to these things. Conversely, everything Martha does - summon the Doctor, provide a way in to UNIT, get cloned by Sontarans - is in service of the plot, and says nothing about her as a person. She's a void. A sexy void. This utter shabby lack of on-screen character development (she's engaged, so she doesn't fancy the Doctor anymore, but this doesn't seem to affect her relationship with him at all, so why do we care?) makes her sudden rise up the UNIT ranks seem like a trite plot device dreamt up one boozy afternoon as a flimsy excuse for reviving a still-born character. It's not that I have a problem with trite or flimsy plotting - how could anyone who enjoys science fiction? - it's that Doctor Who as a programme seems to have forgotten that established genre conventions and emotionally engaging the audience are a more effective means of telling a story than having boring one dimensional characters explain off-screen events.

That said, what's good about the episode?

The bit where they're shown walking into a van, and then once they're inside a van it's clearly a much larger set than would fit in the van - that bit was good!

The bit where a familiar warehouse set is lit pink to look like somewhere else, even though it's already been lit pink to look like somewhere else in an earlier episode? That bit was good!

The bit where a soldier pre-empts the audience by saying "he looks like a giant potato!", in a kind of ironic meta-reference that was trendy about 12 years ago, even though the new Sontarans look more like old maltesers than potatoes? That bit was good!

The bit where everyone passes around and looks intently at an empty file as if they're going to discover an important piece of evidence, which is ridiculous because it's just an empty fucking file, and nobody says "couldn't these bits of paper just have been lost somewhere?"? That bit was good!

The way no set actually resembles what it's supposed to be, ie, the Rattigan Academy is a posh house full of weird shit and the factory doesn't seem to have any machinery in it? I totally loved the way this made the episode really bewildering and hard to follow.

The scene where a Polish guy looks blank and confused and overworked and talks in stilted, basic English? I totally loved the way this made Martha look racist against Polish people.

The way The Doctors anti-gun policy seemed to change from furious to tolerant depending on who he was talking to? This made his stance seem totally well thought out and worthy of inclusion in the episode!

Oh no, what I've done there is list a load of other things that were shit about this episode. Literally the only thing I can imagine praising about it is Sontaran General Mike Off The Young Ones, who was pretty good.

1 Stars

About this entry


I liked this episode - my favourite of the series so far. Yes, Martha is still just there for plot exposition, but I thought it was quite tense and I liked the characterisation of everyone (bar Martha)

By Simon
May 02, 2008 @ 2:20 am

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> Load of clones? Load of REHASHED CRAP, more like

But it's not a rehash because Evolution of the Daleks has been erased from existence. Also, RTD wanted to show the Sontarans, a cloning race, doing some cloning, which they never seemed to do in the classic series. Come on, it wasn't THAT bad, for fuck's sake. Despite Tennant being on autopilot, Freema acting like someone who's acting a part in Who instead of actually acting that part, the GPS story just trying to be cool because everyone's got GPS now (except me).

Btw, I can't believe I just read all that, I must be crazier than you, Michael. A word of advice - STOP WATCHING DOCTOR WHO. Then these bile-fueled seizures you keep having may cease.

One thing that took me out of the episode was the Doctor looking down the street, seeing about three other cars being filled with the gas and saying 'it's the whole world!' in his best trailer voice. I hate 'whole world' stories. That's one reason why Casino Royale was so great, it wasn't about fucking nukes going off or someone wanting to take over the world

By performingmonkey
May 02, 2008 @ 3:52 am

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If you want to do a two part blockbuster episode about the Sontarans doing cloning, why the fuck would you hire a writer whose last episodes were a REALLY BORING AND SHIT two part blockbuster episode about cloning? It's like hiring a bull to clean the china in your china shop. You can go on about how successful RTDs reign has been ETC ad nauseam as you specifically are wont to do, but essentially the facts are these - Raynor wrote a double episode that was about as shit as it could possibly have been, and RTD said "that was great! COME BACK AND DO IT AGAIN, BUT WORSE."

FUCK THIS SERIES. Until Moffatt comes back.

By Michael Lacey
May 02, 2008 @ 4:40 am

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>The only weak element of the cast is Christian Cooke’s boy genius

Wasn't Christian Cooke the solidier? The annoying kid from that awful Lyndhurst sitcom was the boy genuis.

By Pete Martin
May 02, 2008 @ 9:38 am

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>The only weak element of the cast is Christian Cooke’s boy genius

Wasn't Christian Cooke the soldier? The annoying kid from that awful Lyndhurst sitcom was the boy genuis.

By Pete Martin
May 02, 2008 @ 9:38 am

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>The only weak element of the cast is Christian Cooke’s boy genius

Wasn't Christian Cooke the soldier? The annoying kid from that awful Lyndhurst sitcom was the boy genius.

By Pete Martin
May 02, 2008 @ 9:38 am

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Triple-post there, because I, um, can't spell.

By Pete Martin
May 02, 2008 @ 9:41 am

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I thought it suffered from the same problems as the Dalek two-parter - too many disparate elements. Last time, I though Helen Raynor's failure in her previous two-parter was because of the brief Russell T Davies gave her - 'Okay Helen, I want Daleks, I want pig men, I want 1920's New York, I want... etc etc'. But this suffers from the exactly the same problem and again it ruins the episode. We could have done with losing the SatNav ATMOS thing or the genius school or the cloning or something like that. What would have worked is Alien Invasion plus one of those threads but there's just too many of them and they don't click. Also, while I don't want to asssociate myself with the main review which is too harsh for me, this episode did look very cheap. And the Sontarans are just terrible. I actually thought the Series 2 Cybermen were a failure but these guys are much worse. Helen Raynor's two-parter didn't suffer from a bad enemy and it did look brilliant. So, it's wasn't a enjoyable episode for me. Good news, I thought in the second part of the Dalek two-parter last year all the threads came nicely together so maybe that'll happen again here. Hopefully. 2/5.

By Rad
May 02, 2008 @ 11:59 am

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Whilst I have to concede many of Michael's criticisms (especially the bad use of locations and the re-hashing of plot devices we've seen before) I nontheless quite liked this episode simply because it managed to be entertaining if not especially memorable or challenging. I thought the Sontarans looked fine, myself; they're an interesting contrast to the daleks because whilst that monster is cold and nazi-ish the Sontarans are rather more like sub-fascist Colonel Blimp-types with a certain pomposity and emphasis on honour. The only real problem with them is that they didn't feel very threatening but it was a light episode in many ways so I'll forgive that.

Completely agree with performingmonkey about "whole world" invasion stories. They're exactly the sort of thing that should be used very sparcely because otherwise the sense of tension and occasion is worn-away by overuse. New Who has done that thoroughly "It's the whole world!"; yes, doctor, just like it has been several times in the past few years.

A small point regarding Michael's review:

"The scene where a Polish guy looks blank and confused and overworked and talks in stilted, basic English? I totally loved the way this made Martha look racist against Polish people."

See, I actually really liked that because Martha was interviewing a man who clearly had something wrong with him and instead of doing the stupid TV character thing of not openly noticing she ends the interview with "have you ever been hypnotised in some way?" thus asking the question in the audience's head. It was a rare moment of actual good writing.

By Zagrebo
May 02, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

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> FUCK THIS SERIES. Until Moffatt comes back.

Consume your own faecal matter and depart from this mortal coil.

By performingmonkey
May 02, 2008 @ 5:36 pm

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>Wasn't Christian Cooke the soldier? The annoying kid from that awful Lyndhurst sitcom was the boy genius.

You're right, and I've just hit myself round the back of the head on your behalf.

By Julian Hazeldine
May 03, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

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'the "Rattigan Academy" is clearly the same building that has been used for multiple Whoniverse exteriors' - and it was the school in Hex!

By Matthew
May 04, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

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They just assume no-one will realise. Like when they kept using that descending lift shot from Rose in every episode featuring a lift. Also, just HOW many times can we see Millennium Stadium stairways and corridors??

By performingmonkey
May 06, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

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Also, just HOW many times can we see Millennium Stadium stairways and corridors??

I must admit, this IS getting on my nerves. I notice them instantly - and I'm usually terrible at noticing the reuse of locations.

By John Hoare
May 07, 2008 @ 12:56 am

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I enjoyed the episode (and it's second half) rather a lot as easy television, but re-watching The Sontaran Stratagem, one thing in particular grated:

"ATMOS - it stands for Atmospheric Emission System..."

Erm, how? Short for, yes, but stands for implies that it might, you know, not just be the first 5 letters. The Wiki has it as the "Atmospheric Ommission System" at one point, which I think would make me angrier, cute joke notwithstanding. Unless it was written as AtmOS; I'd quite like that.

By Rosti
May 08, 2008 @ 12:28 am

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"Would you like to join my project? I call it the TTP project."
"What does TTP stand for?"
"The TTP Project."

By Andy M
May 08, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

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> stands for implies that it might, you know, not just be the first 5 letters

Doesn't "stands for" just mean "signifies" or "represents"? I don't think it's worth getting your blood pressure up over.

By J Clark
May 08, 2008 @ 8:34 pm

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One star for The Sontaran Strategem?

What do you think of the Jim'll Fix It Sontaran special (here

By Indiana
May 13, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

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Without the question mark and parenthesis added to the link:

By Indiana
May 13, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

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That, and the 3D 1993 CiN Special "Dimensions in Time" are both unmissable slices of non-canon Doctor Who fun, and I will defend them both to the hilt. Jimmy Saville's appearance on the TARDIS screen, though, and the noise he makes, are perhaps the scariest parts of Doctor Who ever.

I probably don't need to say that the Fix It special is on the Doctor Who: Bred For War box set, on the Two Doctors disc.

By J Clark
May 14, 2008 @ 11:09 am

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>Jimmy Saville's appearance on the TARDIS screen, though, and the noise he makes...

"Ua-ua-ua-ua-ua-ua-ua, jingle jangle daleks!"?

(I've not seen it)

By Zagrebo
May 14, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

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He doesn't say "jingle jangle daleks" but he does the "ua-ua-ua" sound, and he does it twice with a pause in the middle. I find it very disturbing, in part because it reminds me of forms of mental illness amongst people who were close to me, when they started making a similar noise.

> (I've not seen it)

Watch it! Colin Baker and Tegan appear together for the only time in Doctor Who history! And she's more fanciable than ever!

By J Clark
May 14, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

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Just to appologise for the short break in NTS's Doctor Who coverage. We've been having a few technical problems posting articles recently, but hopefully we'll be fully up to speed in time for Mr Moffett's return in a fortnight.

By Julian Hazeldine
May 18, 2008 @ 11:31 am

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