Monday, 26 July 2010

Doctor Who: The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

The Sontaran Stratagem

“Is that what you did to her? Turned her into a soldier?”

I like the pre-credit sequence a lot; there’s something brilliant, effective and very very zeitgeisty about the concept of killer satnav. Almost an updated version of the chair and the doll from Terror of the Autons, in fact. And it’s nice, if a little Sarah Jane Adventures-y, to have a young genius as villain; Doctor Who has another trope to add to its collection.

Oh, and we get a proper UNIT story, in spite of odd glimpses for the first time since Battlefield. And Martha’s back. Yay! Except that the context of both Martha and UNIT has changed. This is handled brilliantly. I love the initial meeting between her and Donna, nicely subverting both our and the Doctor’s expectation of School Reunion-style fireworks. Martha’s doing very well (“She’s engaged, you prawn!”), but clearly still damaged by her experiences. But UNIT is not what it used to be (“back in the ‘70s. Or was it the ‘80s? But it was all a lot more homespun back then”). In Fragments it was seen to be doing reprehensible things, and it’s good that this is acknowledged in the Doctor’s frosty attitude to Colonel Mace, and his initial semi-doubts about Martha. But it’s also good that the Doctor and Martha later resolve this with their little chat; just as the Doctor tries to make people better, Martha means to do this with UNIT. This works, more or less, allowing the character to keep her integrity.

Notwithstanding UNIT’s moral dodginess, though, I don’t like the implication here that the Doctor has some kind of moral objection to guns and blowing things up per se. He doesn’t. At all. Oh, he may think they cramp his style a bit, granted, but he had no qualms about using guns when necessary in Day of the Daleks or Frontier in Space for example.

Incidentally, on the theme of (yawn) UNIT dating, the Doctor’s dialogue rather tends to support my view that all UNIT stories exist in some sort of shifting time zone of quantum uncertainty. Or something. And it’s good to hear greyhounds talking to traps again.

Oh, and it’s great to see the Sontarans again, of course. Christopher Ryan is fab, as is the design, although I could do without all the “Sontar-HA!” stuff. I imagine this means we’ve been well and truly told that Sontar is the name of their planet then. It’s a particularly nice touch that they’re actually jealous that they weren’t allowed in the Time War.

Their re-introduction is well done and integrated well into the also impressive plot; the necessary exposition about the probic vent is done as a cool little action scene with a tennis racket, making the Doctor look rather cool. And once again, I notice, he presses the big red button. Plus we get a bit of body horror with the proto-Martha clone. Impressive stuff from Helen Raynor. Oh, and we also get more nostalgia as one of the soldiers shot by Staal cries “My legs! I can’t feel my legs” just as Ian did in The Daleks. Please tell me I’m not the only person who noticed that. Because it would be rather tragic if I were.

This being contemporary Earth, we also get some good stuff for Donna, as Martha urges her to not repeat her own mistakes in not telling her family where she was. But as before she’s only able to connect with Wilf and is unable to tell Sylvia. There’s something genuinely troubling in this mother / daughter relationship, and the subtle way this is handled is quite impressive; it’s clear that there are character arc things going on here. Of course, the Doctor’s abortive farewell speech to Donna, and her reaction (“Dumbo!”) is the best thing in Doctor Who ever. It’s official; from now on I not only like Donna. I bloody love her.

The Poison Sky

“Good work. For a female.”

Things are bad, so it’s out with the news reports. This time it’s Kirsty Wark who joins Trinity Wells in a nice little bit of exposition telling us what peril we’re all in. This is pretty much an all-action episode, and doesn’t have anything like the depth of the first part, although there are some nice bits. I like Donna’s understated reaction to being given a TARDIS key. Again, though, we’re reminded that RTD is starting to mine the same ground. It’s not a problem at this point, but it has the potential to become one eventually. Again we’re reminded that his song should probably end soon.

Luke, the Tobias Vaughn of this story, gets some nice moments in this episode which gives his character arc a pleasing trajectory. First there’s his speech to the students (“I’ve designed a mating programme! I’ve planned the whole thing!”) which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t go down well. Then there’s his shocked realisation that Staal was planning on betraying him all along; as Donna would say, well duuuh! And then, of course, there’s his final sacrifice.

We also get a big and rather impressive gun battle, in which Skorr has a wonderfully Sontaran reaction to being killed. No less impressively, we get a reference to “Sir Alastair”. Yay! UNIT are redeemed a little from last episode; Mace’s weapons are effective, plus we get to see Valiant again, which is cool. They and the Doctor are not quite reconciled (and shouldn’t be, considering what they did to Tosh, and no doubt others), but it’s also acknowledged, rightly I think, that the Doctor has also been guilty of rudeness and tactlessness. Still, I loved the “Are you my mummy?” I like a bit of metatextual fun, even when it’s totally gratuitous, like this.

The Doctor’s willingness to sacrifice his own life because he has to offer the Sontarans a chance he knows they’ll never take- this Doctor’s guiding ethical principle, it seems, the flip side of “No second chances”, is wonderful. And so’s the aftermath, as Martha takes his arm and Donna slaps him. But soon they’re off again, this time with an unwilling passenger.

Well, that was the epitome of what we used to call trad Who, albeit with some good character work, mostly in the first part. A good 3/5.

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