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.
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,
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.