Sunday, 27 April 2008

Doctor Who Series 4, Episode 4: The Sontaran Stratagem

After witnessing Martha’s opening line this episode (yes folks, Martha is back, and pretty much as uninteresting as ever she t’were) I sighed with pain. Not only was it overblown, but it effectively wastes what should have been a great opening. All she has to do is say “Doctor – we need you!” but instead she says “I’m bringing you BACK to Earth!” Sigh! That aside though, this episode generally managed to keep things restrained, to its credit, and was a fun enough opening to a two-part storyline.

This episode brought the Doctor and Donna back to Earth to help ol’ pal Martha Jones solve a mystery that had been going on, which eventually revealed itself to be the work of the Sontarans, a classic Dr Who foe brought back here. This show has a history of bringing back classic villains well, and this episode is no exception. The Sontarans prove to be the most interesting baddies we’ve yet seen on the show, due to their code of honour. It gets old very quickly when every alien race is shown to have no honour, thus making it clear that their human allies will be killed off as soon as they stop being useful. Not so here, for the Sontarans have a strong sense of honour, which made them, for me, highly likable. They seems smart for once, a proper villain for the Doctor. And this is what makes the episode work – the characters. Although Tennant’s acting remains worryingly tic-ridden (he’s becoming more a collection of reactions than a character, sadly), the Doctor is portrayed as clever, for once. Not just in the cooing over gadgets sort of way, either – his banter is smart, and you can see the way his brain is working while he talks to people. The scenes where he checks out Martha and brattishly brilliant baddie Rattigan to see where their motivations lie are very well done indeed, the Doctor holding back to what reactions he gets from them. It was nice to be reminded of just why The Doctor is the main character here, for once.

The characters were all written very well by Helen Raynor, who has a lot of things to juggle here but does so with tremendous grace. The interactions between Donna, the Doctor, and Martha was all fascinating and entertaining in equal measure, as was the way in which UNIT (whom Martha now works for) were shown as goodies. We’ve had quite enough of agencies with double-standards, and it’s great to finally have a heroic organisation who we can actually root for. I don’t really know why UNIT were brought back when Torchwood remains woefully ignored – is that still going? How powerful is it? – but it fit into the story well. Ah yes… the story. This was the downfall of the episode. There simply wasn’t enough plot to go round, which meant Raynor had to start writing filler scenes to keep things going. This involved a protracted sequence where two guards are captured and brainwashed by Sontarans, and a sub-plot involving Donna which didn’t ring true at all. Donna, having been told by Martha to make sure her family are okay with her travelling through time and space, returned home. Now this is a little annoying, because again it plays with the character’s mental reasoning. Donna is, I’d assume, in her thirties, yet she keeps acting like a teenager. It was nice to see her interact with her family again, but she should surely act in a more grown-up way by now. If she’s so old, how come she needs to keep going home every few days? It doesn’t make sense. Martha’s speech warning Donna about the Doctor was well-played by Freema Agyeman, but didn’t ring true. We haven’t seen nearly enough destruction caused by the Doctor to believe any of the talk that he brings chaos wherever he goes, and it seemed out-of-place for Martha to mention it.

There were some moments that didn’t seem relevant, such as Martha’s questioning of a Polish worker which came off as hilarious simply because of the actor’s ridiculous accent. He was trying to pretend he was brainwashed, but he seemed like something out of the Mighty Boosh more than anything else. Also the idea that GPS systems could turn evil and kill people, as well as the entirety of the Sontaran plan, seemed silly. Why didn’t anyone just break a window when that happened? Three times someone was trapped in a car, yet nobody ever broke a window to get free. And the idea that the Sontarans, who are an honourable race, would think that gassing Earth while they sit in their space station was a worthy victory was ridiculous. They’re finely-tuned warriors, with straight-laced voices (seriously: I love the voices, guys), they’d surely want to go and fight face to face, wouldn’t they? And why did they need to clone Martha, when surely they could just’ve brainwashed her? It seems like a roundabout way of doing things. The new look for the baddies was great, though, but it was hard to tell what they looked more like – a baked potato? A muddy teddy bear? A melted Mr Potato Head? With their armour on, they looked like walking bottle banks. I couldn’t tell if they were meant to be adorable, or if that was just me. I hope they return after these episodes though.

There were no looks of disbelief, everything was played straight, the baddies were sympathetic and honourable, the Doctor gets some allies who aren’t morally dubious… this episode was very different from a typical Dr Who episode. All in all, The Sontaran Stratagem was short on plot, but big on character, which just about equals off as a B rating.

Rating: B

Stray Points:

  • Now we have three main characters, the show really struggles to get them all in before the title sequence finishes. Considering that the last few episodes are scheduled to have six main cast members (yes – SIX!), I wonder how they’ll fix that.
  • How long did it take Donna to walk to her Grandad?
  • Finally the Doctor does something aggressive! He’s been sadly passive ever since the sword fight he had in his first episode.
  • Pfft! Anticlimax explosions are always fun.
  • Line of the Episode: Tate’s haughty. “I’ll have a salute.” “Thanks.”

Next Week: Lots of running and shouting, lots of shooting. The Sontaran attack continues.


  1. Stephen...i think you'll find that you thought the sontarans were adorable because they looked like burnt teddy bears...not just muddy ones.

  2. Just finally got around to watching this episode and pretty much agree with you on every comment.

    I have to say I do find it slightly amusing that sat nav units are used to drive cars in to rivers and stuff. It makes you wonder, what with all the stories in the press recently about users blaming their satellite navigation systems for directing them on to a trainline...

    As for Donna being 'so old'; I'll have you know mid-thirties ain't that old!!

    And yes, you're right: why didn't somebody just get a brick and save the old guy in the smokey Peugeot?