21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

Attention Shortarses everywhere. You have nothing to fear.

Apparently the average height for a bloke in the UK is around 5'9”, although for some odd reason everyone seems to be taller than that even. And yet – despite the fact that media she-hacks still suggest that height is one of the most important prerequisites of a man – shortarses still seem to be doing spectacularly well. U2 main man, Bono. Snarling tycoon monster, Baron Von Sugar. ITV faves, Ant and Dec. The list goes on.

Since this particular writer stands as tall as he can at 5'9”, this is pleasing news. Actually I've never had a problem with height – or relative lack of it. Unlike the poor old Sontarans, a race who always seem to have some massive inferiority complex. Look at them strutting around, looking like baked potatoes with eyes and spouting the most pompous warlike gibberish you ever did hear. This is a sure sign of Little Man Syndrome – always trying to big yourself up in the most misplaced way possible.

The Sontarans have never really featured in the upper echelons of Doctor Who monsters. Admittedly in the beginning, they were a force to be reckoned with (i.e.: when they were played by Kevin Lindsay). But from then on, they either became Cockney louts or ineffectual stooges (and incidentally, growing taller in the process for some bizarre reason). The Two Doctors, especially, reduced the Sontarans to the level of useless simpletons, double-crossed by Servalan in a curtain and forced to stagger about drenched in copious quantities of green goo. Odd really, given that writer Robert Holmes had originally created the Sontarans.

They remain a bit of a joke in the 21st century update. They came back to grace the show in the two part story The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (or Sontaran Sky as it shall now be christened). What's different is the way in which they are handled. In The Two Doctors, the Sontarans were a bit of a joke because the story treated them in the most po-faced way imaginable and made them look foolish in the process. Sontaran Sky on the other hand works on two levels. It treats the Sontarans as a credible, scary threat for the under-10s and as a slightly amusing diversion for the older 'uns. Take the sequence in which cocky soldier upstart Harris starts ripping the proverbial out of the latest Sontaran commander, Staal. Harris goes through every short insult in the book, only marginally stopping short of breaking into a chorus of 'Short People' by Randy Newman. “Well we're not the ones who got out of school early,” he chortles. “So stop playing Humpty Dumpty and tell us who you are.” On he goes with salvos of “Short answer? Yes!” and “What are you going to do bite our ankles?” But all this tomfoolery is turned on its head when Staal disables Harris and his buddy Grey and turns into a genuine threat for the youngsters. Clever writing from Helen Raynor.

Raynor comes back from the mixed reception of Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks. If that story had nearly but not quite got it right, then fortunately, Sontaran Sky is a more successful second attempt. This is an unashamed love letter to 1973 style Doctor Who, a welcome Old School story (a bit like its predecessor, Planet Of The Ood which had a similar feel to older style stories) that has a simple tale to tell of evil monsters getting up to no good and threatening the Earth. We have the Sontarans, the return of UNIT and even a faithful salute to the great man himself, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Ah, if only Nicholas Courtney could have made a cameo appearance, but still.

All told, this may not seem like the most original story in the Whoniverse, but it has a clear vision of entertaining the public with a healthy mix of excitement and some genuinely funny lines and situations. The Sontarans make for a great monster – as I said, on the one hand they're unsettling for the young ones and a source of amusement for older fans. They still strut about making pompous speeches - “Prepare the subjugation of Earth for the glory of Sontar!” - and even sillier still, start doing a bizarre war dance while chanting “Sontar-ha!” on a loop. If that makes them look a bit silly, well maybe it's meant to.

There's clearly a grudge thing going on, since they seem to think that the universe regards them as a laughing stock. When discussing the 652nd reference to the Time War, Staal moans: “The finest war in history and we weren't allowed to be part of it” like the geek that didn't get an invite to the coolest party in town. Even the Doctor treats Staal with amused contempt, even changing channels while talking on a TV intercom when they start doing their war dance again.

Luckily the realisation of the Sontarans is very good, keeping in line with their traditional appearance. The masks are excellently designed, although the costumes are a bit too Batman for my liking. Christopher Ryan turns in a superb performance as Staal. He's got the perfect voice for the huffy Sontaran leader and gives a performance that combines the usual pomposity with a genuine malevolence. Excellent stuff, and just as good as his earlier showing as Lord Kiv in the Sixth Doctor story, Mindwarp.

The Sontarans also have their own human lackey in the form of bratty child genius Luke Rattigan. Luke's another classic case of Little Man Syndrome, an over-compensating control freak who lives in his own little bubble in which he thinks he reigns supreme. Rattigan has founded his own creepy college called the Rattigan Academy, a think-tank of the most creative young brains across the globe. However, he's duped the students by announcing that he's using their creative talent to destroy the rest of the human race and make a brand new start on a new world – Castor 36 (ho ho) or what he plans to call Rattigan's World.

Just like the Sontarans, Luke's prone to making big, empty speeches that don't have much power when it comes down to it. “We can build and breed!” he declares. “We can prosper, we can do anything!” All this, despite his chosen few gradually catching on to the fact that the kid's one bung short of a test tube. Luke's delusions of grandeur mean nothing in the real world – he even tries to make out he's superior to the Doctor with his sad attempts at correcting him on grammar: “Do you see, Mr Conditional Clause?” As the Doctor wearily replies, “It's been a long time since anyone's said no to you, isn't it?”

Luke inevitably gets his comeuppance when he finds that he himself has been duped by the Sontarans, to which he retreats back to Earth sobbing in a curled up ball, like a sulky teenager whose mummy and daddy wouldn't buy him the latest fast car as a treat. Still, at least he redeems himself by blowing himself and the Sontaran squad into floating pieces of debris in space. A good performance from Ryan Sampson, who deftly avoids making the character into a silly cliché. There's something quite chilling about Luke's single-minded vision and Sampson plays it deadly straight, with mad staring eyes and manic speech.

Mind you, it does seem like Earth's maybe facing too many deadly threats from outer space. The way the past few series have been going, it seems like the planet should brace itself for a terrifying attack on a weekly basis. I'm surprised that there's not more people grimly walking round with sandwich boards claiming that The End Of The World Is Nigh. The planet's been threatened by Slitheen, Sycorax, Daleks, Cybermen, Toclafane, The Master, The Racnoss – hmmm, put forward the argument that this style of storytelling is getting a bit stale and you'd have a point. It's admittedly done with a great deal of style and panache, but sometimes I do think that it's a shame that there are so many Earth-bound stories, since at times, they seem to merge into one and lose their shock value as a result.

This time around, the planet's at risk of choking to death from poison gas released from the dreaded ATMOS devices (the end product of Rattigan's labours) in a typically topical spin on the then-trendy concept of a talking navigator in your car. Of course, this isn't cowardice on the Sontarans' part – they are converting the atmosphere and changing the Earth into a clone world. But all this poison sky talk does suggest an ecological message, again harking back to the Pertwee days when there'd be underlying moral codes at the back of each story. While it's a slightly different take on the usual Aliens Invade Earth With Big Guns, there's still that feeling that more alien planets wouldn't go amiss.

Another problem with this story is the return of Martha. Having endured the unrequited love storyline in the last season, Martha's still having to make do with sloppy seconds by occasionally appearing during the course of this season. And that's just the start of the problems. For one thing, the production team don't seem to know what to do with her. Is she a feisty, independent companion? A weepy, bawling baby? Or a gung-ho soldier? It feels like the writers have hastily crowbarred Martha in to this season's stories without much real thought or attention, so that Freema would get the consolation prize. For some reason, she's saddled with some terrible dialogue. “Doctor, it's Martha and I'm bringing you back to Earth” is the most oft-quoted example, and Freema's evidently looking a bit ill at ease with such nonsense.

It's a shame this – Agyeman's a good actress, but she's fighting a losing battle this season with so-so lines and a lack of anything really substantial to do. Luckily the other two regulars are on form. David Tennant delivers another strong performance with an even mix of wacky humour and straight-ahead drama. Some particularly good moments – the bit where he faces off against Staal with a tennis racquet (“Intruder window” indeed), his defence of apparently insignificant “grunt” Ross, and also his laconic chinwag with the Sontarans over the on-screen communicator. The reference to the gas-mask people in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances is a bit too self-conscious, but that's a fault of the writing rather than Tennant's acting.

Catherine Tate also does well again, although she doesn't quite get as much to do this time around. It's quite nice the way in which she casually walks back to her mum's house without any real fuss. She also proves again that she has great rapport with her fellow actors, Tennant, King, Agyeman and Cribbins.

Talking of which, Cribbins again threatens to steal the show with his ever-endearing portrayal of Wilf – full of hilarious deadpan comments about subjects such as Donna's iffy boyfriend taste or warm-hearted emotional speeches, which are now fast becoming his forte. Jacqueline King also impresses, and shows a more vulnerable side to Sylvia's usual Ice Maiden persona.

Director Douglas McKinnon does a fine job on this story. There are some well-shot set-pieces including the initial ATMOS attack prelude, the Sontarans in space and the amusing build-up to the self-destructing bomb in the UNIT car which actually turns out to be a small Pffft. His casting is generally good, although the new UNIT team is a bit faceless. Colonel Mace, in particular, seems like a stereotypical butt of the Doctor's sarcastic taunts, along the lines of the Brigadier in the early Pertwee stories.

Despite these minor petty niggles, Sontaran Sky is an entertaining 90 minutes of traditional Doctor Who, served up with a soupçon of 21st century pizazz. Helen Raynor's script is more consistent and fortunately isn't marred by an inferior second instalment. The production values are great, and it's a good return to form for the Sontarans, who would actually prove to be quite popular with the kids, reappearing in both Doctor Who and The Sarah-Jane Adventures.

In short, big applause please for another successful comeback of one of the giants of Old School Who – well, if you'll pardon the expression.

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