Doctor Who: The Sontaran Strategem / The Poison Sky [Episode 4.4 & 4.5]

The Sontaran Strategem & The Poison Sky is the first two parter of Season Four of Doctor Who, featuring the return of classic series monsters the Sontarans, as well as former companion Martha Jones.

Previous Episode: Partners in Crime • Next Episode: The Doctor’s Daughter
(I know these are not consecutive – more will be filled in as I have the opportunity.)

The Sontaran Strategy: Martha Jones, now working for UNIT, calls the Doctor back to earth to assist with an operation investigating ATMOS – a popular system for reducing carbon emissions from cars.  UNIT raids a factory where ATMOS is produced and find the employees to be working in a zombie-like state.  ATMOS is really a front for the Sontarans, who intend to use it in some way to assist in their ongoing war against the Rutans. The Sontarans are working closely with young human genius Luke Rattigan, who believes that they will take him away with a select group of humans to populate a new planet once the earth is destroyed.  The Doctor investigates Luke and discovers the involvement of the Sontarans.  He is nearly killed when the Sontarans use ATMOS to  take control of his vehicle.  The Sontarans, meanwhile, have kidnapped and cloned Martha to use her against the Doctor and UNIT.  Donna has gone to see her family, and when the Sontarans realize the Doctor has survived, they activate ATMOS all over the world, causing it to emit a poisonous gas.  Donna’s grandfather Wilf is amongst those who are trapped in their cars when this happens…

The Poison Sky:  Donna’s mother is able to free Wilf from the poisonous car, and Donna’s family retreats inside, while the poisonous gas continues to fill the air.  The Sontarans steal the Tardis and bring it to their orbiting ship, not knowing that Donna is inside.  UNIT intends to attack the Sontaran ship with nuclear weapons, but the cloned Martha intercepts the signal and prevents the missiles’ launch.  Luke finds that the students that he is preparing to begin a new human race with are not interested in his grand schemes, and they walk out on him, concerned for their families.  The Sontarans begin to attack the factory, retaking control of it, but UNIT is able to fight back, wiping out many of the Sontaran ground forces.  Luke realizes that the Sontarans are going to betray him, but he is able to escape back to his home before they do.  Communicating with Donna by phone, the Doctor leads her to sneak through the Sontaran ship and give him access to their teleport technology.  Meanwhile, the Doctor finds the real Martha and sets her free, which destroys the clone, but before she helps them realize that ATMOS is producing the nutrients that the Sontarans needs to convert earth to a clone breeding planet.  The Doctor uses some of Luke’s equipment to undo the atmospheric changes to the earth, and Luke sacrifices himself to destroy the Sontarans completely.  At the end, the Tardis mysteriously dematerializes against the Doctor’s will, taking him, Donna and Martha on another journey…

Comments: I’ve argued (and still would) that The Eleventh Hour is the ideal starting point for a complete Doctor Who-newcomer to make his start with the revival series.  However, The Sontaran Strategem may be the perfect place for the classic-Doctor Who watcher looking to make the leap to the new series (if there is anyone fitting this description who has not done so already).  There are lots of elements that would be familiar to any long term viewer:  UNIT, an earth-based setting, the overall story length and pacing, and of course the Sontarans themselves.  And overall it’s a rollicking fun adventure with a minimum amount of fuss.

ATMOS is a clever enough idea, and the notion of GPS system that can kill you is a typically clever and creepy notion for the modern series – even if the Doctor’s way of defeating it is a bit silly.   Much more interesting are the Sontarans themselves.  It would be true to say that they  are one of the most successful re-imaginings of a old monster into the modern series.  This story maintains the essential qualities of their classic origins – clone soldiers devoted to war – while still giving them an updated feel.  General Staal’s dialog brings this characterization over clearly, with lots of good lines that highlight his military mindset, brought to life effectively by Christopher Ryan.  My favourite is a comment he makes about the human’s attempt at a military attack:

Staal:  I admire them.  The bravery of idiots is bravery nonetheless.

The climax, where the Doctor is threatening to destroy them and Staal responds that he simply doesn’t care, is particularly effective.

Staal:  Your strategem would be wise if Sontarans feared death, but we do not.  At arms!
Doctor:  I’ll do it, Staal.  If it saves the earth, I’ll do it!
Staal:  A warrior doesn’t talk.  He acts!
Doctor:  I am giving you the chance to leave!
Staal:  And miss the glory of this moment?
Doctor:  I’m warning you!
Staal:  And I salute you!  Take aim!
Doctor:  Shoot me, I’m still going to press this!  You’ll die, Staal!
Staal:  Knowing that you die too!  For the glory of Sontar!
Doctor:  I’ll do it!
Staal:  Than do it!

The presence of UNIT is another interesting connection with the classic series, and a welcome and logical touch to the episode.  Colonel Mace is a serviceable character who grows more sympathetic as the story carries on, and Private Ross is genuinely likeable.  Of course, having UNIT around leads to lots of scenes of the Doctor belittling military protocol and insisting that it is futile to fight the aliens.  And for a while, he seems to be right, as the UNIT soldiers overall act pretty incompetent and are slaughtered mercilessly by their enemies.

But fortunately the story takes UNIT further than that, and in The Poison Sky, we see that UNIT (and military humans in general) aren’t all complete ninnies.  It’s gratifying to see even the Doctor get swept up in things when the Valiant turns up and blows away the poison gas, and it’s even more enjoyable to watch UNIT retake the factory and Colonel Mace himself take down the icky Sontaran Commander Skorr.

One major 10th Doctor cliche that is on offer here is the endless self-righteous indignation the Doctor shows regarding soldiers in general and guns in particular.  It’s always struck me as strange and even hypocritical how in one moment the Doctor can go on and on about how terrible it is for people to use guns, and the next have him develop a weapon designed to kill his enemies.  In this story, the weapon even looks like a big space mortar gun!  Still, nobody calls him on this apparent double-standard.  So speaking as a primitive human who doesn’t like war but thinks it’d be quite a good thing to have weapons to fight back against aliens who want to turn the air into space-amniotic fluid, I quite enjoyed the scene where UNIT gets to show it hadn’t just been sitting around for the last 20 years twiddling their thumbs.

On the other hand, the Doctor’s conviction that he cannot destroy the Sontarans without giving them a chance to leave is an effective (though not completely consistent) way to play out the pseudo-pacifistic side of the character.

Other David Tennant-era (or should that be Russell T. Davies-era?) tropes / cliches are present in this story as well.  Twice the Doctor seems to hypnotize his enemies just be constantly talking, while they stare at him while pointing guns at him until he either cleverly or obviously takes them down – once in his first meeting with Staal at Luke’s Academy, and then again with clone Martha in the bowels of the factory.  We’re also meant to feel pathos and pity for one of our enemies in a bit of a protracted scene that’s trying to deconstruct and reconstruct standard Doctor Who conceits – again with Martha’s clone.  And we get a lot of business with our main companion’s family.

I understand the reason for all those scenes with Donna and her Mom and Grandfather, but I find them amongst the more tedious parts of the story.  Russell T. Davies said something about how having a new companion each year allowed them to restate the series’ concepts in absolute terms each year, but as much as I like Wilf, I do feel when I’m watching him and Donna interact like we’ve been around this block a few times before.

Luke Rattigan, on the other hand, is an extremely annoying character who I actually enjoyed watching.  He fulfills the fairly standard Doctor Who guest character spot of that human who stupidly helps the aliens invade earth (or wherever) and gets betrayed and killed for his efforts, but even so he’s well acted an amusingly written.  It’s great watching someone even more pretentious and full of themselves than the Doctor get taken down a few notches, both by the Doctor and by his own “people”.  One of the Doctor’s best lines, in fact, is directed toward Luke

The Doctor:  Nobody’s said no to you in a very long time, have they?

Of course, it’s the Doctor as much as anyone who needs someone to say no to him, and Donna continues to fulfill that role very well.  Aside from the tiresome melodrama of her family, she’s once again used very well here. Her role is not necessarily to tell the Doctor off, but to be the one person in the story who is not so impressed with him that they can’t see him for who he is.  Usually, these moments are played for humour, but the impact is to keep our hero grounded.

For example, when the Doctor misunderstands her desire to go see her family as a desire to leave him permanently, she says

Donna:  You know what you are?  Great big outer space dunce.

And later, when the Doctor gives her a key to the Tardis and tries to make a bit of an occasion of it:

Doctor:  Go on, that’s yours.  Quite a big moment, really.
Donna:  Yeah, maybe we get sentimental after the world’s finished choking to death.

It’s also nice to see Martha again.  Martha has always been a likeable but tricky-to-keep-interesting character, but this story does a fairly decent job.  However, the scene where she tells the Doctor that she is somehow improving UNIT because she doesn’t carry a gun around is ridiculous and sort of embarrassing.

Things to watch out for (Warning: includes vague hints of things to come):
Rose Tyler makes a very brief appearance in The Poison Sky, in her attempts to break through the walls of the parallel universes, or whatever, which will be somewhat explained later in the season.  Thus this episode marks the first one in which all three of the Doctor’s main companions up to this point in the revival series appear in the same episode.

This episodes marks the new name for UNIT – Unified Intelligence Taskforce (as opposed to the previous United Nations Intelligence Taskforce – apparently as a result of the United Nations actually asking the Doctor Who series to change it!  The Doctor makes a brief reference to the confused dating for the UNIT stories that aired in the Third Doctor’s era – were they in the 1970’s or 1980’s?

After meeting Martha and seeing her take part in a UNIT operation, Donna asks the Doctor if he turned her into a soldier.  This is a concept that will come out again at the end of the season, in Journey’s End.

Martha will be seen again briefly in the 10th Doctor’s regeneration story, married, but not to Tom Milligan, and having in the meantime become some sort of machine gun-firing mercenary duking it out with a Sontaran!

Last Word: Up until this point, the first two-parter of each season has been more of a straight-forward invasion episode, often featuring a classic enemy (as opposed to the second two-parter which is more of a high concept story, or the third which attempts to be a rip-roaring climax).  The Sontaran Strategem / The Poison Sky is the best such story, very enjoyable and enjoyably to the point.

Previous Episode: Partners in Crime • Next Episode: The Doctor’s Daughter
(I know these are not consecutive – more will be filled in as I have the opportunity.)

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