Tuesday, July 07, 2009

My Review of Doctor Who's 4x04: "The Sontaran Stratagem"

Written by Helen Raynor
Directed by Douglas MacKinnon

Martha: “Doctor, it’s Martha and I’m bringing you back to Earth.”

Four episodes into the fourth season and we’ve hit a series of fours. With the start of this episode we’ve got our first two parter of the season but mostly importantly we’ve also got the returns of Martha Jones, the Sontarans and UNIT to contend with as all of them have been greatly advertised.

The episode opens up with a rather creepy note as a journalist named Jo finds herself being thrown out of Rattigan Academy, which is owned by child genius Luke. Apparently she’s suspicious of the chaos that Atmos has been causing and Luke is more than evasive with her.

The fact that Luke also looks he’d tried to knife you for change probably doesn’t help with that either. However while Jo might not have gotten any answers from the lad, it doesn’t stop her from deciding that a trip to UNIT HQ is her next best step. If Luke won’t give her answers willingly, then force is a good plan B.

Sadly for Jo, Luke’s a hell of a lot cleverer than she thinks and upon commands from his own superiors, Jo gets a nasty surprise when her own sat-nav directs her car straight into the nearest river. I know it might be a tad silly but I’m wondering if I can use this moment the next time someone asks me why I don’t drive to further explain why I plan to stay a pedestrian for another while.

Still Jo isn’t the only person who feels that Atmos have something to hide. UNIT do as well and what better to bring The Doctor and Donna back to earth than a phone call from Martha? Well she did give him a phone with the specific intention of calling him again and let’s just say the girl doesn’t break her promises.

Looking as radiant as ever, Martha’s return is without a doubt the best thing to occur in this episode. As much as I’ve enjoyed her antics in Torchwood, I really wanted to see how much she really has changed since walking out of the TARDIS at the end of “Last Of The Time Lords”.

Okay to get the obvious changes out of the way, we’re reminded again that she’s a fully qualified Doctor working for UNIT but now her mystery man is not only revealed to be Tom Milligan but she’s also engaged. It would take Donna of all people to figure out that Martha has managed to get hitched.

Now the dynamic between The Doctor and Martha feels just right in this episode. Because she’s done a fair amount of growing up, that doe eyed innocence is out of the picture but while Martha may no longer fancy The Doctor she still respects him and it’s a delight to see good feeling among them as well as a little tension.

One of the things that I was looking forward to in this episode was the how both Martha and Donna would interact. Given that both of them are two very different types of women, they could instantly clash. In fact judging by his experience with Rose and Sarah Jane in “School Reunion”, The Doctor’s first reaction was to tell them not to fight it out.

In all fairness he need not have bothered. Martha may have looked a little taken aback when Donna stepped out of the TARDIS but she soon changed her tune when Donna accepted her with open arms. Although Martha did look a little surprised when Donna started making with the conversation.

To be honest I was rather relieved with that and it is rather funny to see Donna emphasise to Martha just how much she doesn’t fancy The Doctor without making such a huge effort. I’m going to enjoy these two for the next two episodes. It also bodes well when Donna will get her chance to interact with Rose.

Of course we do get to move away from the soapy stuff when Martha brings The Doctor and Donna up to speed on what’s been going on. The Doctor might have been glad to meet up with Martha but he isn’t exactly glowing with enthusiasm over the idea of having to deal with UNIT.

Taking a big leap into the future, UNIT may have been around in both Seasons One and Three, but it’s only now do they actually factor significantly into the storyline. They’re determined to use military means in order to find how Atmos are causing so many deaths at the same time and The Doctor isn’t best pleased with their methods.

I have to admit that for once I actually sided with UNIT a little. Given the extreme behaviour they had with Toshiko in the Torchwood episode “Fragments”, them turning over the Atmos factory is hardly the worst thing they’ve ever done. Plus The Doctor might not like guns but even now and then they do come in handy, especially when the baddies of the episode are an army with a major hard on for war.

This leads to our other great big return of the episode, which is the Sontarans. Last seen back in 1985’s “The Two Doctors”, this lot were just another of the old series’ original baddies that were destined to return. I’m pretty ambivalent about the Sontarans in the sense that I’ll credit them with being smarter than they would appear but at the same time they don’t invoke the same “wow” factor that the Daleks, Cybermen, The Master or Davros do.

That being said, at least they aren’t exactly wasting time upon their return and a part of me is relieved to have an old race back on the show that The Doctor didn’t think was long dead. It didn’t take much to realise that this lot are also responsible for the Atmos deaths and are also the same bunch that are controlling Luke’s little operation at Rattigan Academy.

It’s also quite interesting to see that for once we do see some actual cloning going on. When two of UNIT’s not so finest soldiers Harris and Grey find an underground cloning chamber at the Atmos factory, the silly pair then end up becoming hypnotic slaves for the sullen, war-obsessed General Staal.

Their fates are bad enough but it also doesn’t take long for Martha to get suckered into the brunt of things when Harris and Grey kidnap her. Martha might be able to take pleasure in the fact that Commander Skorr doesn’t see her fit for hypnosis if the alternative didn’t involve her being cloned. Well it’s one of those things that we haven’t seen on this show and I’m all for the idea of two Martha’s even if one of them is evil.

It’s also great for Freema Agyeman who is not wonderful in reminding viewers why Martha was so brilliant in the first place but seeing her being able to act a little evil as well is also fun to watch. Not that the Martha clone does anything more than blatantly lie to Colonel Mace about the progress of the investigation.

However before Martha had the misfortune to get kidnapped and cloned, there’s also another illuminating moment between her and Donna. Clearly detecting Donna’s affection for The Doctor, she warns the fiery red head about getting too close to him. This was of course after the awesome moment where Donna was able to point out to everyone the suspect manner in none of Atmos’ workers missing a day.

It’s a good piece of advice and the fact that Martha is quick to mention the way The Doctor and devastation can also impact your family means that Donna has to reconnect with hers. After all, Donna hasn’t really thought about either Sylvia or Wilf since she left with The Doctor.

When Rose left with The Doctor a whole year had passed before she clapped eyes on Mickey or Jackie and Martha missed half a day without seeing Clive, Francine, Tish and Leo. For Donna only a few days have passed but there’s something deliberately poignant about her walking down her neighbourhood and the hug she shares with Wilf when he spots her.

Wilf so far has to be my favourite member of a companion and I absolutely adore his devotion to Donna. He asks some reasonable questions about The Doctor and when he actually catches a glimpse of the man, he behaves more like a fan boy rather than a suspicious relative. I wouldn’t worry because Sylvia’s reaction is more hostile, although it’s not quite as intense as Francine’s.

As for the other reunion, what can I say if the idiot UNIT soldiers had a hard time taking the Sontarans seriously, then The Doctor is only too happy to mock them as well. Well I’ve never really taken the Sontarans that seriously so I guess I can’t totally object to The Doctor’s childish response.

Using his knowledge of everything that Sontarans stand for is a good way of getting General Staal to lift his visor but it’s even funnier to see soldier boy Ross Jenkins point out that Sontaran does resemble a giant spud. Makes you wish that Donna had been included in that little scene.

That being said for all the jokes that are being made, General Staal does have the great ambition of poisoning the earth and having every car loaded with a special gas that gets released into the air is a wonderful way of wiping the smirk of The Doctor’s face. The Doctor might have been able to avoid death by sat-nav but he might not be so lucky in stopping the Sontarans from choking the earth.

The stakes here got upped with Wilf trapped in a poisonous car but even without that moment, the threat is still powerful enough. It also doesn’t help that you’ve got Sylvia blaming The Doctor for everything as well. Any chance that Donna’s successor can be an orphan or can have two gay fathers?

Another thing about this episode I liked was that the Sontarans mused over their history with The Doctor but if I’m being honest, Luke is a thousand time creepier than any Sontaran. His colder than cold response over earth’s imminent destruction followed by his participation in the Sontaran victory dance ended the episode on a chilling note.

Also in “The Sontaran Stratagem”

I’m not surprised to see that Freema Agyeman’s name is back in the opening credits. It does make sense to bill her last though.

Donna (re the 1980’s): “What am I gonna do, put a dent in them?”
The Doctor: “Well, someone did.”

I have to admit that after enough viewings, the UNIT soldier look does look very well for the year 2008. Martha particularly carries it off well.

Donna (to Martha, re The Doctor): “He is too skinny for words. You give him a hug and you get a paper cut.”
The Doctor: “Oh I’d rather you were fighting.”

Donna (to The Doctor, re Martha): “Is that what you did to her? Turned her into a soldier?”

Martha’s operation was called “Blue Sky”. The only UNIT people who were vocalised were Colonel Mace, Private Harris, Private Gray and Ross Jenkins.

Martha (re UNIT): “They’re dying to meet you.”
The Doctor: “Wish I could say the same.”

General Staal: “Is that a reference to my height?”
Private Harris: “Short answer; yes.”

Donna had flashbacks of the Adipose, hanging on for dear life, destruction of Pompeii and the Ood when she was going home.

Martha (re The Doctor): “I can see why he likes you.”
Donna: “Uh-huh.”
Martha: “You are good.”
Donna: “Super-temp.”

Martha (to Donna): “You know The Doctor. He’s wonderful, he’s brilliant but he’s like fire. Stand too close and people get burnt.”

Martha told Donna about what The Master did to her family without mentioning his name. The Doctor also told Donna he planned to take her to the Medusa Cascade.

Sylvia: “What were you going to tell me? What don’t I know?”
Donna: “Nothing, just nothing.”

The Doctor (to Luke): “Don’t call Ross a grunt, he’s nice. We like Ross.”

Isn’t it still a bit silly that UNIT would still have Atmos sat-navs even if they were suspicious of them? It’s not like they are the only company in Britain that make sat-navs.

General Staal: “We stare into the face of death.”
The Doctor: “Yeah, well stare at this.”

Luke: “How do you tell each other apart?”
General Staal: “We say the same of humans.”

General Staal is played by Christopher Ryan who played Lord Kiv in the Sixth Doctor serial “Trial Of A Time Lord”. This series does love to recast all the time.

Martha (looking at the creature in the cloning tank): “What is that?”
Commander Skorr: “Soon that will be you.”

General Staal: “War can never come too soon. Take a last look, boy.”
Luke (regarding Earth): “It was never big enough for me.”
General Staal: “I like your ambition.”

Atmos might be this year’s Archangel network as everyone seems to have it and it automatically puts everyone in harm’s way.

Wilf: “You must be one of those aliens.”
The Doctor: “Well yeah but don’t shout it out. Nice to meet you properly Wilfred.”

Chronology: Apparently a few days has passed for Donna since “Partners In Crime”.

Although there is a lot to recommend about this episode, I have to admit that even though I did mostly enjoy “The Sontaran Stratagem”, it is by far the weakest episode of Season Four so far. The Sontarans do have a good scheme and Martha’s return is a joy to behold but it’s quite tepid compared to the previous two episodes. Perhaps next week’s episode will pick things up.

Rating: 7 out of 10.

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