Watching New Who: The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison SkyMarch 28th, 2013 at 10:18
David is coming to New Who for the first time, having loved Classic Who as a kid. Tehani is a recent convert, and ploughed through Series 1 to 6 (so far) in just a few weeks after becoming addicted thanks to Matt Smith – she’s rewatching to keep up with David! Tansy is the expert in the “Doctor Who in Conversation” team, with a history in Doctor Who fandom that goes WAY back, and a passion for Doctor Who that inspires us all. We are working our way through New Who, using season openers and closers, and Hugo shortlisted episodes, and sometimes a couple of extra episodes we love as our blogging points. Just for fun!
Thanks to everyone who nominated us for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review, we are chuffed and delighted and might even be inspired to run through these a bit faster than we have been doing. No promises, obviously!
Righto, so we’ve skipped over “The Fires of Pompeii” and “Planet of the Ood”, moving along to “The Sontaran Strategem/Poison Sky” double episode (not Hugo nominated, but Tansy felt they were important to talk about – we agreed!). I would like to mention a couple of things about the preceding two episodes though. In “The Fires of Pompeii”, we saw Donna make the Doctor to rescue just one family from the eruption, effectively forcing him to remember that EVERYONE MATTERS, and clearly setting her up as his conscience and moral compass. This is interesting when followed by “Planet of the Ood”, when his compassion is demonstrated in his fight to save the Ood despite their apparently murderous tendencies. Donna’s impact is swift and cannot be overstated, as it becomes so important later on!
“Planet of the Ood” is an excellent episode, because it highlights the idea of the Doctor as an outsider who challenges the status quo of the times and places that he and his companions arrive in. The episode manages to ask some important moral questions and has some genuinely creepy and shocking moments, like when we find out what their translation sphere has actually replaced.
And, I always enjoy a good historical episode, especially one where we know exactly what *has* to happen to fit into history as we know it, and wonder how the Doctor is going to save the day (or the people in the episode that we care about) given that catastrophe is going to strike, no matter what.
“The Fires of Pompeii” is one of my favourites. Not only did they use some of the very authentic sets from HBO’s Rome, but they also used some really delicious snippets of real Roman social history. And Donna is wonderful in it. He needs her so much … and it’s wonderful to see how much she blossoms and grows in confidence as she realises that.
Two good episodes to set us on the right path for the Donna/Doctor relationship. And then we come to “The Sontaran Strategem/Poison Sky” duo!
Given the title, it is hardly a spoiler to talk about how excited I was to see the return of one of my favourite alien races from Classic Who. I always loved the concept of the Sontarans and their endless war with the Rutans, so this was a bit of a fanboy moment. We’ve noted how there has been a concerted effort to show the New Who is a continuation of what has gone before, and it always thrills me to see one of the familiar foes of the Doctor. They may not be the Daleks, but the Sontarans have certainly given the Doctor some trouble. In fact, they are one of the few races to successfully attack Gallifrey itself, IIRC.
Oh, Sontarans. I love them. I may love them more that Cybermen and Daleks, even if mostly when I think of them it’s of the first appearance of one Sontaran in “The Time Warrior”, a wonderful Pertwee story which was also Sarah Jane Smith’s debut.
I really like what the new series has done with this classic monster, and this story by Helen Rayner (the only female writer of the new series!) is a really good reintroduction to them. The premise of the Sontarans as a ruthless clone race eternally at war, and their motives for what they are doing to the Earth in this particular strategem of theirs, all comes together really nicely. The clone aspect was not overly significant in the old series, so I like the way that is emphasised here along with the military obsessions.
They’re short but feisty! I know some fans winced a bit at the Sontar haka, but I loved it as a pointed, effective way to show what the Sontarans are like to a modern audience. It’s also great to see Christopher Ryan back in Doctor Who playing the leader, and oh I did spot Dan Starkey and the gap between his teeth as one (or many?) of the less high ranked Sontarans. I WONDER IF HE’LL BE IMPORTANT TO US IN THE FUTURE.
There’s a lot to like about these episodes. I hadn’t encountered Sontarans before, from memory, and it was good to revisit this double episode in light of more recent ones! I got a bit annoyed with the American genius this time around (hello, X-Men riff, anyone?) but the tie-back of the work of the genius school to the ending was well done.
I don’t think you’re supposed to like him! I think the idea is that if you had a super SUPER genius kid (which is a common SF trope) who also happened to be a millionaire then realistically they would be more likely to end up a supervillain than a hero. Also, he had been less annoying his sacrifice would have been far more tragic. I really love the scene where his fellow students use to join him on his quest because it’s just not a good idea. His grand plans come to nothing because they’re not sociopaths. It’s a very effective moment.
I thoroughly enjoyed Wilf again – he’s just fabulous! And I liked the little nods to continuity: in particular, “Are you my mummy?” made me giggle out loud!
Of course, Wilf and the Sontarans aren’t the only familiar faces to pop up in this episode! There is another moment for the old school fans with the return of UNIT, but I think everyone would have been delighted to see the return of Martha. I like this version of Martha, I thought she showed that she had grown as a person since she had left the Doctor and was a bit more mature and more sure of herself that she had been previously.
Oh Martha, I do love her really. So glad to have her over that whole crush thing and she can get on with being awesome. I feel like she gets a bad rap as a companion because the crush on the Doctor gets more and more annoying in hindsight and it’s hard for many fans to see past that. I worry I might be one of those fans.
But she’s so good here – she’s found her own life and the fact that it’s one the Doctor disapproves of it’s actually quite satisfying. I am not keen on the whole ‘UNIT pushed my degree through’ aspect, though, would prefer it if she had qualified properly and this was a few years later.
Martha and Donna together are one of the great joyful aspects of new series Doctor Who, and it’s sad that it didn’t last long. Even less time than Jack-Rose-Nine, sob! The scene in which the Doctor expects them to fight and instead they hug and start gossiping and refuse to be jealous of each other is GLORIOUS and THE BEST THING EVER.
It’s definitely refreshing to see two woman NOT fighting over a man in a TV series, rather than the usual trope. There was an element of that in “School Reunion”, for example, that I didn’t really enjoy. It makes sense to me that Martha and Donna would bond over the shared frustrations of travelling with the Doctor. After all, how many people are you ever going to get to talk to who understand what it is like? So, I am glad that they went that way with their encounter.
As I’ve said before, Martha is one of my favourite aspects of New Who, and it is great to see that she hasn’t simply stopped living her life because of the Doctor, but is getting on with things and being who she wants to be. Just like we know Sarah Jane did, whatever “School Reunion” might have implied!
It’s definitely nice to see more of Martha, and find out that yes, she’s doing pretty well actually. It makes me even more sad for what happens to certain other companions when they leave the TARDIS…
Having UNIT back is also important to me, and while they’ve flirted with it in the past this is the first one that feels like a real UNIT story. It does however make me miss Nicholas Courtney quite fiercely. The Doctor gets to use military resources while grumbling about guns, which is a nice Doctorish thing to do. His misappropriation of Ross into a kind of alternative companion was really sweet and I like that Ross had a snarky sense of humour that came out after an hour or two in the Doctor’s company. We like Ross! Don’t kill off Ross!
(I do think that the Doctor went a bit far with chiding the general at the end for not treating Ross like a real person after his death – DUDE, think about how many letters home this man has had to write in his career, put your judgy hat back on the judgy hatstand…)
One aspect of this story that I think could easily get lost in all the awesomesauce is the great use of Sylvia, Donna’s mum. Sylvia is a hard character to like, because her role is to show us all the reasons Donna doesn’t think she’s worth anything, and to balance out the supportiveness of Wilf. But I think they realised their mistake with Francine in the previous season, who was written as so unrelentingly horrible (all her scenes have her complaining about Martha or someone else in her family, and then she betrays Martha and then she hates the Master – she never gets to crack a smile).
Sylvia then gets some nice positive moments amongst all the negative ones, and it’s good because we really need to sympathise with her later in the season, and this is the story that sets us up to do that. The cliffhanger in the middle of this one is one of my favourites – Wilf is trapped in the car choking to death, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver can’t get him out of the car, and the same thing is happening to everyone around the world. the Doctor is in total despair … and when the second episode starts, Sylvia (last seen cowering in her doorway) turns up with an AXE because she’s not an IDIOT, and does the obvious but still valiant thing of smashing the window in to save her dad.
The mum/daughter relationships of New Who are interesting. Rose and Martha do still clearly love their mums, despite the flaws we are shown, but Donna, being a bit older, is less obviously a loving daughter. Part of that could also be she gets to have a much more supportive relationship with Wilf, but I agree Tansy, it’s good to see Sylvia get to be a bit of a hero in that scene. And perhaps the companions’ families are something to chat more about when we get to Amy and Rory, eh… Interesting to see what effects a different show runner has!
I know that Jackie has had a massive re-evaluation by fans retrospectively (and some of us loved her all along) and she’s still the cuddliest of the mums, but I do appreciate Sylvia more and more. She’s every bit as trapped in mundanity as Donna was – where was the Doctor thirty years ago, eh? A trip in the TARDIS back then could have done her the world of good.
By the end, I had grown to appreciate Jackie a whole lot more, but Francine really grated on me. I think it is a mistake to write completely unsympathetic characters because, really, it’s very hard to keep them believable. Francine sometimes seemed more like a plot device, acting in certain ways to ensure the story went in a certain direction, rather than a real person. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go with Sylvia, and the whole dynamic of Donna’s family, because already it is very interesting.
I never really minded Francine – I felt like she’d had a pretty rough trot with Martha’s dad, and her bitterness was quite understandable! And in all, she really was just trying to look out for Martha, only she had no clue what was going on.
To bring us back to these episodes, I was pleased with the ending – I thought boy genius Rattigan’s sacrifice to save the Earth was logical and nicely redeeming.
And I’m interested to know what David thought of the cameo appearance of Rose again?
Didn’t she do something similar in “Partners in Crime”? It’s intriguing, I assume it is setting up for something in future episodes. I never really believed that Rose was completely cut off from the main universe, I had a feeling that she’d be back at some point. But, I hope we find out she has moved on from the Doctor, except for fond memories, and has built a fulfilling new life for herself. But, I think I might be setting myself up for disappointment!
Well, we should just get a hurry on through the episodes so YOU CAN FIND OUT! Onwards!
“The Christmas Invasion,” 2005 Christmas special
“New Earth”, S02E01
“School Reunion,” S02E03
“The Girl in the Fireplace”, S02E04
“Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel”, S02E05/06
Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, S02E12/13
Season Two Report Cards: David, Tehani, Tansy
“The Runaway Bride”, 2006 Christmas Special
“Smith and Jones”, S03E01
The Shakespeare Code & Gridlock, S0302-03
Human Nature/The Family of Blood S0308-09
Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Timelords S0311-13
“Voyage of the Damned,” 2007 Christmas Special
Season 3 Report Cards: David, Tehani, Tansy