Keeping with the tradition of how every NuWho season reintroduces an antagonist from the classic series, another villainous race of alien warriors make their revamped return to the franchise in “The Sontaran Stratagem”, penned by Helen Raynor. This two-parter is also the first proper UNIT story of NuWho, after the organization has made several small appearances before now, putting the spotlight on the Doctor’s tentative military allies. The RTD era of Doctor Who has a pretty standard and effective formula at this point: the Doctor gains a new companion, he takes her for a few early spins in the TARDIS to show off what it can do, and then he takes her home to spend some time with her family and get her bearings.
I noticed that these designated episodes are often the most average ones in their respective seasons. “Aliens Of London” had some interesting dramatic material in regards to the Powell Estate drama with Jackie and Mickey, but the A-plot of that two-parter, with the Slitheen’s master plan, was easily the most cringeworthy story of Series 1. “The Lazarus Experiment” was a pretty solid and standard episode of Doctor Who (albeit one with some dated effects) that was easily overshadowed among all the other good material in Series 3. “The Sontaran Stratagem” is not the weakest adventure of Series 4 (that would either be “Partners In Crime” or “The Unicorn And The Wasp“), but it doesn’t quite buck the pattern of these sorts of episodes being safe and workmanlike; in fact, the first half of this story is pretty low energy. Like many two-parters from the RTD era, most of the main conflict is saved up for “The Poison Sky”, while a lot of “The Sontaran Stratagem” is either devoted to our heroes standing around, making plans, or the villains standing around, waiting for their traps to spring. As a result, this story can drag in places and it takes a while for it to pick up. Plus, I have some gripes about the way the main characters are handled, and how some of them are totally wasted.
Compared to his usual cheery, affable demeanor, enjoying every opportunity for a new adventure that presents itself, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) is not in a good mood this week. There was a pretty sizable period of Classic Who, during the Third Doctor’s tenure, when the Doctor was exiled to Earth by the time lords and his TARDIS was rendered defunct, stranding him there – so he wound up taking a job at UNIT, as their alien adviser. He certainly met a lot of interesting people, but he didn’t particularly enjoy it. The Doctor has always had a distaste for the military that’s only grown stronger over time, now that fighting in the time war has left him with all sorts of issues that he tends to freely project onto others.
In fact, the Doctor is probably at his most irritating when he’s dealing with soldiers in NuWho, since he rapidly turns into a condescending, self-righteous snob who assumes he knows everything there is to know about someone and the content of their character based on whether or not they’ve ever carried a gun. The Twelfth Doctor’s first season, Series 8, explores this aspect of the Doctor’s personality when Danny Pink calls the Doctor out on how much of a judgmental prick he can be without an actual leg to stand on, and it is immensely satisfying. Ten is not happy to be called upon to help UNIT once again, and he’s even less happy to discover Martha, one of his good friends, is on their payroll now, disapproving of the company she’s keeping. Ten has made it no secret that he hates guns and any types of killing machines in general, but this guttural revulsion the Doctor has gained towards the military goes a bit deeper than that: he very clearly has some issues with authority figures.
Ever since Series 1, it’s been clear that fighting in the time war changed the Doctor, in big ways and small ways, and he did not come back the same man he was before. From his perspective, being a soldier means signing off moral responsibility and becoming someone else’s tool. It leads people to do horrific things and gets other people killed senselessly, and the Doctor knows that from personal experience, since he betrayed many of his own core principles during the war. There’s a very telling scene where a team of the colonel’s men get violently slaughtered by the Sontarans – including Ross, a soldier the Doctor had befriended – in a massacre that could easily have been avoided, and Ten goes silently numb for a minute, apparently having a PTSD episode, before he lashes out at the man responsible.
So the Doctor tries to close himself off and distance himself from that sort of hell by turning his nose up at soldiers and the very concept of them, acting more self-righteous than he actually is, hence the projection and the hypocrisy – since the Doctor shows a complete lack of self-awareness about the fact that he not only still thinks like a soldier (or an officer, in Danny’s estimation), but he also tends to cause his friends to become more like him overtime. This is something both Jenny and Davros (of all people) point out to Ten when they decide to share some uncomfortable truths with him later this season. During the climax, we’re reminded how much the Doctor’s principles mean to him, and how much they make him who he is, when he almost gets himself killed trying to give the Sontarans one last chance to retreat before Luke takes his place on the suicide mission. It’s a futile endeavor that’s both noble and foolhardy, and it nicely sums up how different the Doctor’s character can be from most heroes, who feel a lot more comfortable with solving their problems by blowing up their enemies.
Despite some rocky moments of self-doubt so far, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) is still going strong with her travels in the TARDIS and enjoying herself. She’s gained the Doctor’s trust to the point where she’s not only received her own TARDIS key (a rite of passage for the companions), but she’s also learning how to fly the TARDIS already; so Ten and Donna have clearly hit it off quite well, and their friendship remains one of the most consistently entertaining aspects of Series 4. When it comes to the Doctor consulting with UNIT, Donna naturally wants to pitch in and help out – and she does manage to contribute something by putting her super temp skills to good use and tipping off the soldiers that there’s something wrong with the Atmos factory workers – but as the newbie of the TARDIS team who’s still learning the ropes, Donna naturally feels a bit out of place.
Donna has heard about Martha Jones before now but this is the first time the two characters meet, the first time Donna meets any of the Doctor’s former sidekicks (it won’t be last time), and since I like both Martha and Donna a lot, I’m quite glad to see that they get along swimmingly and become friends a lot faster than Rose and Sarah Jane did (mainly because they don’t have any desire to compete over the Doctor’s attention). Since Donna is quite a bit older than Martha, some of the advice she gives her feels almost sisterly, and since Martha is a lot more experienced with TARDIS travel than Donna, she gives her some advice in return, so Donna won’t make the same mistakes she did when it comes to handling her personal relationships and having a healthy support system. When the gang splits up, Donna decides to pop back home to check on her family, and what she finds is a lot to take in.
After all the incredible things she’s seen that only a small circle of people would ever understand, things that have changed her already, her daily mundane life in the suburbs feels so far away now – it’s the same sort of culture shock that Rose experienced in Series 1. Thankfully, she still has Wilfred as her confidant. Wilf has always served as her support system more than her mother Sylvia, and now she can share her true thoughts about the universe with him, their mutual enthusiasm about life out in space that lets them become closer still. Their father / daughter relationship which we saw back in “Partners In Crime” is developed upon here, and it’s still just as heartwarming to see how much faith Wilf has in her. Wilfred is written in a very fatherly light in general in this two-parter. While Ten and Donna are away, it falls upon to Wilf to console his daughter Sylvia (who’s very much out of the loop and convinced that they’re both going to die), and his place in the Noble clan becomes apparent. Wilfred is usually the one who tries to keep up morale in the family, while Sylvia is much more cynical and pessimistic.
With the world choking on poison gas, Donna wants to help out, but she doesn’t know where to start, and she spends about half of this two-parter separated from the Doctor, forcing her to stand on her own for the first time. As you would expect from a companion, Donna rises the challenge in spite of her fears, and does her part to help save the world. When Donna flew away with Ten back in “Partners In Crime”, it was an impulsive decision – albeit one she had wanted to make for a while – and now it’s an official choice that she’s fully committed to. In a way, she’s finally moving out of her mother’s house and moving on with her life so she can see the stars, but saying goodbye to Wilf and leaving him behind is easily the hardest part – the penultimate scene in “The Poison Sky” wrings one last bit of pathos out of their bittersweet farewell.
One of the sweet positives of the RTD era, in my opinion, is that it wasn’t uncommon for former companions and current companions to meet up once a season and swap stories about their experiences, which had a way of making the show feel a bit like a superhero series (and that vibe is definitely coming to a head soon in “The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End“). In this two-parter and the following episode, “The Doctor’s Daughter”, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) is brought back as a guest star. Martha only left the TARDIS a few episodes ago, but I can’t say I’m opposed to checking back on her and seeing how much she’s changed since she set out on her own to forge her own path.
After everything she saw at the end of Series 3, Martha seems to have given up on being a regular doctor and has instead gone to work for UNIT as a doctor and a consultant who’s very knowledgeable about time travel and alien races, a job that’s not unlike the Doctor’s position in Classic Who. After surviving the Master’s year of hell and completing her training with UNIT, Martha has gained the mentality of a soldier, which the Doctor does not approve of. There’s just one thing that bothers me about this conflict. Martha claims that the Doctor got her the job at UNIT by recommending her, and Ten doesn’t deny it. So why would you land her a job with people that you don’t like, and then be surprised and annoyed that she took it? In what world that does make any sense? I mean, it’s not out-of-character for Ten to send Martha some mixed signals, but it’s one more reason why the Doctor is irritating in this two-parter. Thankfully, Martha does not tolerate Ten judging her and shuts that down early on.
Martha quickly takes a liking to Donna as a clever woman who has no problem standing up for herself and gains respect for her, so she decides to pass along some wisdom to her from one companion to another. In a rather sad scene, we discover that Martha still feels partially responsible for what happened to the Jones clan last season, and she doesn’t want Donna to make the same mistakes she did by staying distant from her own family. From that point on, the rest of this two-parter does almost nothing with Martha’s character. To elaborate, Martha gets kidnapped by the Sontarans early on and replaced by a cloned impostor while she’s in a coma for two-thirds of this story. Freema gets to play a slyly wicked villainess for a change, who’s been sent to sabotage UNIT from the inside by withholding information and preventing them from going nuclear. In a way, Freema has come full circle portraying a sinister double agent in this episode, since that was also her very first role back in “Army Of Ghosts“.
Clone Martha has the real Martha’s memories and her appearance, but none of her warm, caring personality, which is a dead giveaway. She doesn’t react to Ten subtly throwing shade at her, she isn’t concerned for her family during the Atmos crisis (which is incredibly out-of-character for a companion who always made her family’s safety a top priority, and eventually left the TARDIS to care for them), and she’s generally apathetic to everything. Naturally, Ten sees right through her from the start. As dysfunctional as their friendship can sometimes get, Ten and Martha know each other quite well. Once she’s freed, the audience is treated to a bizarre but semi-sad scene where Martha watches her clone die (another victim of the Sontarans’ senseless war in the end), and she manages to appeal to her better nature, showing some of the spirit that makes her unique. Martha didn’t get to do much in this two-parter, but thankfully, she’s better served in the next episode.
Like most UNIT stories, “The Sontaran Stratagem” starts with the organization calling upon the Doctor for help. Colonel Mace is a pretty seasoned military man who wants to impress the Doctor, since he respects his work in the past, but Ten is not interested. He serves as a stand-in for the Brigadier – the straight man to Ten’s wild card, the Doctor’s ideological foil and a mouthpiece for UNIT’s ideals, who’s primarily concerned with following protocol but is willing to think outside the box if needed – a role that’s later passed on to Kate Stewart in the Moffat era. Colonel Mace has a nice arc over the course of this story, where his irritation with the Doctor grows from the man frequently treating them all like idiots and blatantly looking down on them. Eventually, he decides to take initiative himself, which winds up getting some of his men killed. Afterwards, he decides to use his head and be smarter with his next move, building on what he’s learned to make a difference. It’s too bad we never saw this character again, because I quite liked him.
Despite this story being pretty critical of military practices, “The Poison Sky” also demonstrates why UNIT has a place in the series, even if the Doctor doesn’t particularly like them, and it ties back into a point Harriet raised in “The Christmas Invasion“. As much as Ten likes to sing humanity’s praises, he also has a semi-paternalistic view of them. He wants the human race to rely solely on him to solve every hostile alien conflict that comes along, since he trusts their judgment about as much as he would trust actual children. But he won’t always be around: the Doctor frequently swans off somewhere else in history to have some fun adventures. So the humans have to learn to defend themselves and fight their own battles eventually. UNIT will always need the Doctor’s help sometimes for cases they can’t handle, but the Doctor also needs to know when to give them some space and let his favorite species grow up.
The Sontarans prove to be fitting villains thematically for a two-parter where the Doctor’s secret ties to the British military are exposed. The Sontarans are a clone-race, comprised of angry bald dwarves, who are born and bred to be soldiers – some of the universe’s greatest warriors. They’re conquerors who love war, viewing it as bloodsport and a rite of passage for their kind, and they’ve nationalistic to a fault. The Sontarans basically embody every idea of what a brash, bullheaded, amoral military man is, since they’re all pure bluster, machismo and testosterone, entirely willing to die for their foolish pride. In many ways, they encompass everything the Doctor dislikes about a military force: greed, ruthlessness, brute strength, and some seriously unchecked egos.
They do have some depth to them: their culture has its own twisted honor code about how great it is to die as a martyr for the cause, and they’re tactical geniuses when it comes to playing a long game. In particular, they’ve reached out to Luke Rattigan and played on his delusions of grandeur so they can exploit his intelligence for their own ends – weaponizing all the cars on Earth so they can kill the world with the fumes. Advanced alien races taking advantage of stupid, greedy locals who want to advance their own station in life has been a commonly used trope in Doctor Who for a long, long time now: it was in the Sontaran’s first story, “The Time Warrior” in 1973, and Helen Raynor herself used it in her last story, “Daleks In Manhattan“. The Sontarans made quite a tactical error though, smugly exposing their deception to Luke without disposing of him properly, since he gets some of his own back in the end. After this story, the Sontarans won’t be the main villains of an episode again until Series 13 in the Chibnall era, though Strax was a recurring character in several Moffat era episodes and he made for a fun change of pace, being a brash and violent-minded Sontaran character who wasn’t an antagonist.
Luke Rattigan is the human antagonist of the two-parter, in league with the Sontarans. A former child prodigy and an insufferable teen genius, Luke has always felt isolated from other people – partly because it’s implied that other people his age looked down on him for his genius, and partly because Luke himself is an incredibly arrogant, condescending person and has a fragile ego, which is shown best when he gets epically triggered by Ten correcting his grammar. Luke is an incredibly bratty, immature teenager and disturbingly detached from the consequences of his actions, being something of a sociopath. He thinks people being horribly murdered is cool, and he treats world domination and the death of his entire planet as a game. It’s clear that his emotional development went horribly wrong somewhere. “The Sontaran Stratagem” wrings a lot of humor out of how out-of-place this bratty teenager looks compared to militant alien dictators, and eventually, he gets in over his head.
Luke gets a harsh and well-deserved slap of reality when his former students do not in fact abandon their families to die to follow him into space, where they can bolster his ego and help him live out his fantasies. Instead, they ditch him, tell him how much of a maniac he is, and leave him to throw a hilarious tantrum. Then the Sontarans inevitably, gleefully stab him in the back – which is even more delicious – leaving him to realize that not only is he not the most super special man alive, he was the fool who sold out his entire species with nothing to show for it in the end. At the end of the day, Luke takes Ten’s place in his suicide mission to blow up the Sontarans, and I don’t entirely believe that was for Ten’s benefit. At this point, Luke is pretty much broken and has nothing to go back to on Earth as a known traitor to his entire species – so I’m sure he wanted to get some agency back and take his revenge on the aliens who used him and tossed him aside himself.
“The Sontaran Stratagem” is directed by Douglas MacKinnon, who shows plenty of range behind the camera, directing this story with confidence: giving us tracking shots, perspective shots, panning shots, overhead shots, shots that are out-of-focus, shots that purposely conceal important information from the viewers until the time is right. The camera is rarely ever static throughout this two-parter, and it definitely helps to immerse the audience into the story. The costume and make-up department is once again called upon to redesign an alien race from the classic series: the overall look for the Sontarans is very consistent with their appearances in the previous show, except now it’s sleeker and more streamlined, allowing the actors to emote more effortlessly.
The lighting team are on top form as well with the work they did on the Sontarans’ ship: all the scenes that are set there have strikingly bright, purple lighting that make the environment feel distinctively inhuman, and are easily some of the visual highlights of this two-parter. The CGI from the Mill is used sparingly for a change in these two episodes, since most of the stunts in this story can be achieved through practical effects, but the few that are utilized are all rendered well (like the establishing shots of the Sontarans’ ship, orbiting the Earth in space), reflecting the upswing of quality the show is currently on when it comes to its production values. Murray Gold’s score is consistently, reliably pleasant this week, reworking numerous melodies and motifs from the previous season, like “Martha’s Theme” for Ms. Jones’ return and Ten’s theme from “The Doctor Forever”, which is used extensively throughout “The Poison Sky”. His militant theme for UNIT is given a more confident revamp on the electric guitar in “UNIT Rocks!“, and the electronic call to action in “A Pressing Need To Save The World” makes a few more appearances as well as Series 4 chugs along.
“The Sontaran Stratagem” is a two-parter that ticks all the right boxes well for a ‘companion returns home’ story, and it does a great job of reintroducing the Sontarans to the franchise. But on the downside, the Tenth Doctor’s personality is at its most annoying here, and the show brings back a former companion as a guest star and then does almost nothing with her except put her in a coma. “The Poison Sky” is a perfectly watchable, serviceable two-parter, with its share of positives and negatives.
* “Getting a bit too close to the 1980’s” “What am I going to do, put a dent in them?” “Well, someone did” Considering what happened in “Father’s Day“, I’m guessing it was Rose.
* “Doctor, it’s Martha, and I’m bringing you back to Earth!”
* “A modern UNIT for the modern world” “What, and that means arresting ordinary factory workers, in the streets, in broad daylight? It’s more like Guantanamo Bay out there. Donna, by the way. Donna Noble, since you didn’t ask. I’ll have a salute”.
* “A hothouse for geniuses. I wouldn’t mind going there. I get lonely”.
* “It wasn’t the Doctor’s fault, but you need to be careful. Because you know the Doctor. He’s wonderful, he’s brilliant, but he’s like fire. Stand too close and people get burnt”.
* “He’s amazing, Gramps. He’s just dazzling. And never tell him I said that. But I’d trust him with my life” “Hold up, I thought that was my job!” “You still come first”.
* “If only that was possible” “If only that were possible. Conditional clause” It was at that point that Luke decided he wanted Ten dead more than he had ever wanted anyone dead.
* “You’re smarter than the usual UNIT grunts, I’ll give you that” “He called you a grunt. Don’t call Ross a grunt. He’s nice. We like Ross”.
* “Staal the Undefeated!” “Oh, that’s not a very good nickname. What if you do get defeated? ‘Staal the Not Quite So Undefeated Anymore But Never Mind?'”.
* “Umm, how do you tell each other apart?” “…We say the same of humans” Luke, boy, that is racist. Now, hush up.
* “What is that?!” “Soon that will be you”.
* “There is an enemy of the Sontarans known as the Doctor. A face-changer. Legend says that he led the battle in the last great Time War. The finest war in history and we weren’t allowed to be a part of it. Oh, but this is excellent. The last of the Time Lords will die at the hands of the Sontaran empire, in the ruins of his precious Earth!”
* “What, have you met before? And you never said?” “Well, you never said!”
* “Some of the boys Donna used to turn up with. Different one every week. Here, who was that one with the nail varnish?” “Matthew Richards. He lives in Kilburn now. With a man”.
* “I don’t know, men and their cars. Sometimes I think if I was a car-” Thirsty Sylvia.
* The solution to the first episode’s cliffhanger is hilarious. Ten and Donna are panicking about how the sonic screwdriver won’t work on Wilf’s car and he’s going to choke to death. Then Sylvia shows up, finds something really heavy, and smashes the windshield in like they should have done ages ago. Sometimes, I think the Doctor relies a bit too much on the sonic.
* “This is it, isn’t it?! Oh man, this is war!” Luke, boy, calm down.
* “It’s the Sontarans, they’ve taken it. I’m stuck on Earth like, like an ordinary person. Like a human. How rubbish is that? Sorry, no offense, but come on!”
* “My God, they’re like trolls” “Yeah, loving the diplomacy, thanks”.
* “So, tell me, General Staal, since when did you lot become cowards?” “How dare you?!” “Oh, that’s diplomacy?” “Doctor, you impugn my honor!” Well, Ten certainly has a talent for triggering villains today.
* “Fifty thousand years of bloodshed, and for what?” “For victory! Sontar-Ha! Sontar-Ha! Sontar-Ha!- Sontar-Ha! Sontar-” “Oh, give me a break” Sassy Ten.
* “I guess that just proves it. I’m cleverer then you. I’m cleverer then everyone, do you hear me? I’m clever!” You are a sad, strange little man, Luke, and you have my pity.
* “Ha! The planet is going nuclear! I admire them. The bravery of idiots is bravery, nonetheless”.
* “Greyhound Forty, report!” “He wasn’t Greyhound Forty. His name was Ross. Now listen to me, and GET THEM OUT OF THERE!”
* “A pity. We’ve lost our target practice. Upon arrival on board this ship, your students would have been shot down. Perhaps they were more clever then you thought” Top ten anime betrayals.
* “Are you my mummy?” Ten, there’s a time and a place for a callback.
* “Thank you, Doctor. Thank you for your lack of faith. But this time, I’m not listening!”
* “Whoa, that’s brilliant!” “Getting a taste for it, Doctor?” “No, not at all. Not me”.
* “In your mind, you’ve got so many plans. There’s so much that you want to do” “And I will. Never do tomorrow what you can do today, my mum says, because-” “Because you never know how long you’ve got. Martha Jones. All that life”.
* Luke’s students quite rightly mock him for his ‘breeding program’. Ironically, the Sontarans’ whole plot turns out to be turning the Earth into their own ‘breeding program’.
* The climax is an excellent example of Doctor Who taking some liberties with science. The Doctor rids the world of the Sontarans’ poison gas by igniting the whole atmosphere on fire. Wouldn’t that cause massive ecological damage as a consequence? And if it did, the Doctor didn’t stick around to see it.
* “I won’t tell her. Best not. Just keep it as our little secret, eh? And you go with him, that wonderful Doctor. You go and see the stars, and then bring a bit of them back for your old Gramps” Doctor Who really lucked out when Bernard Cribbins was cast as Wilf, because he is phenomenal in the role.
* The unexpected cliffhanger always makes me laugh. Martha is saying goodbye to Ten and Donna, telling them about how she’s happy where she’s at, and then the TARDIS basically kidnaps her and drags her off into the next episode anyway (because Sexy has a mind of her own). To say Martha was not expecting that betrayal would be an understatement.