On Your Television Screen, You Can Do What Seemed Impossible (The Sontaran Experiment)


And yet despite this scene, it was the Zygons who were
brought back in a softcore video nasty in the 90s. 
It's February 22, 1975. Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel are at number one with "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me," and continue to be through to the next week. The Carpenters, Helen Reddy, and Johnny Wakeland and the Kishasa Band also chart.

In the US, Daylight Savings Time kicks off two months early to deal with the energy crisis that has by now wound its way over there. A fleeing IRA member fatally shoots a chasing London police officer, setting off most of what you'd expect. The IRA member, Liam Quinn, went on to a several-decades long career as a cause celebrate. The Movement 2 June, an anarchist group allied with the Baader-Meinhof Gang, kidnaps a West German politician, managing to secure the release of five of their members from prison doing so. A massive tube crash at Moorgate station kills 43 people. And, on the day the second and final episode of this story airs, Aston Villa defeats Norwich City in the Football League Cup, now known as the Carling Cup.

While on television, it's The Sontaran Experiment - the only two-part Doctor Who story between 1965 and 1982. This alone should raise some red flags from our perspective, in that it clearly does not quite fit with the normal order of things. Doctor Who, in the period we're talking about, does four and six part stories. This is the only Doctor Who story from 1972-1981 not to be either four or six episodes long.

The previous two two-part stories had relatively straightforward reasons behind them. The Edge of Destruction existed to fill out an initial thirteen-episode order on the cheap. The Rescue existed because it was the first time the show had tried introducing a new character. And given that both were written by the incomparable David Whitaker, both fulfilled a clear narrative function, dealing with character points. The Sontaran Experiment, however, does not have nearly so lofty a set of goals. Its reasons for existing are entirely technical. Its storytelling is minimal, and ill-paced.

Part of this is the writers. Giving this story to Baker and Martin made sense for the reasons it was actually done, but there are major problems with the decision. Baker and Martin are best at coming up with weird ideas, and at their weakest in the specific mechanics and craft of scriptwriting. A two episode story is necessarily one that prioritizes having one or two ideas but being carefully crafted. Instead we get one that seems to have been written as a four-parter with the first episode done straightforwardly and the last three parts condensed into the second episode. All of this seems to have been to maintain the traditional first episode cliffhanger of the monster reveal. And while I am not among the critics who laugh at the basic idea of holding back the monster reveal in a story named after the monster, recognizing as I do that this is based not around surprise but around the anticipation of the spectacle, it's also very obviously a dumb and pointless move in a two-parter because of what it does to the pacing. As for ideas, basically all they have is recasting Lynx from The Time Warrior as Styre and having him play Josef Mengele. Miles and Wood make a stab at selling this as really being about debates over winter heating allowances, but it's stretched, and I say that as someone who turned these writers' previous story into a postmodern Blakean odyssey.

But all of this comes perilously close to missing the point, because in a lot of ways this is actually an episode that almost begs to be called not-actually-canon or some similar phrase, simply because it has more in common with the material I look at in You Were Expecting Someone Else entries than it does with actual televised Doctor Who. I mean, sure, it was transmitted on BBC1 over two weeks in between The Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks, but there endeth the similarities. This is a production experiment - a test to see if something works. An it doesn't quite, but the results are, in their own way, interesting.

The first thing to know is that Robert Holmes hates six-parters. There are good reasons for this, as we've complained about padded six-parters far more than we've praised the pacing of them, and Holmes is by miles a good enough writer to notice this. So one of the first things he did upon taking over was try to figure out how to get rid of six parters. And his first attempt at that was to try to pull them apart into a four-parter and a two-parter.

The obvious problem with this is that six-parters were money savers - which is why they decreased in frequency in seasons 2-4 as the show established itself, and then increased as the Troughton era hit budgetary problems. A six-parter basically lets you get two extra episodes out of the same sets and props. Splitting it into two stories means you lose all those savings. Which is why Terrance Dicks, who is also a good enough writer to notice that six-parters suck, never changed it. But Holmes, aided by recent developments in television technology and a clever understanding of how Doctor Who is made, was able to come up with a plausible solution - one that turned out, of course, not to work, since the story was rubbish, but one that is nevertheless historically significant.

But to understand how that worked, we need to take another digression into how Doctor Who was made. We talked back with Robot about how Barry Letts changed the way Doctor Who was made from the original model of rehearsing and shooting an episode in one week to a model of rehearsing and shooting two episodes in two weeks. This had major benefits for the program - sets had to be struck half as often, and suffered less damage, and there's just considerably more leeway because of the degree to which things have to be planned further in advance. But this only governed the studio days. A separate block was always used for location filming.

Ah, yes, location filming. I didn't make a lot of that as it slowly crept into Doctor Who. As you might imagine, in the original week-an-episode plan, location filming, which required a separate shoot, was a pain in the ass. Generally it involved taking the cast from rehearsals for the previous story to do the location shoot for the next story. By the Pertwee era this had smoothed out, but location shoots still, for obvious reasons, are a different chunk of filming from studio shoots.

Holmes's brilliant idea, then, was to take a six-parter and split its location and studio elements into a studio-bound four-parter and an all-location two-parter, so that the location shoot ended up being the shoot for one entire story, thus avoiding making new sets. A little more cleverness like recycling some equipment from The Time Warrior and bringing back the Sontarans and you have a story.

This also explains why Baker and Martin got the job. Because a fiddly, requirement-heavy script like this is one you give to one of your old-hand writers. Just like Barry Letts, when he got a bright idea on how to only pay actors for two weeks while getting four episodes of material out of them, hired Robert Holmes to do it because Holmes was one of the show's most experienced writers, Holmes, when he had this idea, needed an old pro. Unfortunately, there were basically two such writers over the Pertwee era. One of them, Malcolm Hulke, had by this point decided to leave the program in favor of novelizations. The other, Robert Holmes, is busy being script editor now, and anyway just wrote the last story. Holmes does have access to one more obvious seasoned veteran - Terrance Dicks, but he already gave him Robot.

I say all of this to point out that the bench for writers is really quite thin right now. The other writers from the Pertwee era to have experience from past eras are... idiosyncratic to say the least. Brian Hayles, who Holmes never commissions, has generally required extensive rewrites. Louis Marks is quite good, but only did one Pertwee story. Terry Nation... is Terry Nation. And what that basically means is that Baker and Martin, previously our zany experimental ideas men, here become trusted lieutenants. Although from a viewing perspective they're utterly different, from an internal perspective, they're the new Malcolm Hulke - the writers you can trust to deliver what you ask for. And so they get the brief.

But all of this would still be impossible if it weren't for a big change in technology that has been steadily happening: video cameras have gotten small enough to use on location. The Sontaran Experiment is not actually the first story to take advantage of this - that was Robot. But it's the first one to take advantage of the obvious consequence of this: you can shoot a story entirely on location now without having to pay outrageous amounts for the film stock. And this subverts one of the basic codes implicit in color television production up to this point: the film/video divide.

Previously, location work was shot on film, studio work on video. And this has very different visual feels - ones that are intuitively familiar even to viewers who haven't had the difference pointed out to them. The easiest places to see the difference are in any scene in the Pertwee era where characters move from outdoors to indoors and back again. The bits in The Time Monster and The Sea Devils in which people look out windows are particularly clear. Interior spaces, being studio sets, are shot on video, but as soon as a character walks to the window and looks out and the camera moves to being outside looking into the window, it switches to film. Visually speaking, the basic difference is texture. Video looks much smoother and high resolution, whereas film looks grainier, and has fewer frames per second.

Ironically, despite this difference, film is the texture that feels more expensive to viewers, since it's the dominant medium for, well, films. So the film/video divide signifies a couple of things. Film cameras, being lighter, were traditionally used for location work, so film suggests "real place" in a way video doesn't. And film feels ritzier and more upscale - which it is. So the decision to shoot a given scene on film or video isn't just a technical decision - it says a lot about the content of the story. This gives rise to the trick of using film in the studio - something done for Curse of Peladon to make the arrival sequence outside the citadel feel like it's happening in a real place instead of in a studio.

The basic reason for this is simple - video cameras were too heavy and unwieldy to take on location. But come 1975, that changed and you could shoot locations in video. Which has its own set of advantages, namely that you can make a real place feel like a BBC studio. (Miles and Wood point out a particularly inept failure to take advantage of this in an instance where the production team found a location that looked like a Doctor Who corridor that was a mile long, then failed to shoot it on video, thus making it obvious that it was a location instead of a jaw-droppingly good studio set.) But more to the point, it marked a fundamental shift in the grammar of television, because suddenly the film/video distinction stopped being as much of a clear signifier as it used to be because the film/video location/studio divide was broken down.

But all of this is a start down a much longer road that leads to the dominant television production strategy outside of the United States in 2011 - what's called filmification. Basically, this means you shoot something on nice, cheap video, then apply some digital filters that make it look more like it was shot on film. Which means, in other words, that there's now something approaching a universal style for television.

But this progression also gets at the fundamental difference between film and video in the first place - the issue of detail. But even this is a complex issue. In and of itself, for most of the time Doctor Who was made during, film does look better than video in an absolute sense - that is, the level of detail offered by 35mm film exceeds that offered by a video camera. But film, in terms of television, is never seen in and of itself - it's always converted, often several times, to create a broadcast signal. Whereas video gets far fewer conversions in its road to broadcast, and so ends up looking better on broadcast. But, equally crucially, better is not alway an advantage - the softer colors of film look better to a lot of viewers.

But by 2011, all of this is basically moot, since film is increasingly giving way to digital video wholesale. This is basically because of the shift towards high definition television - a shift that, even though it didn't directly affect Doctor Who until 2009, is still crucial to its return because it hastened the development of a single visual aesthetic for film and television.

In 1975, of course, with The Sontaran Experiement, all of this is in the future - even Doctor Who's conversion under John Nathan-Turner to an all-video production is still a decade off. But the lightening of video cameras that resulted in them becoming suitable for location filming was still a crucial development in the road towards the overall conversion to video with film-like effects as the standard approach for more and more of the world. And this story is Doctor Who checking out the technology and seeing what it meant for how they could make the show (as opposed to using it for one obvious stunt, which is why it appeared in Robot - so Barry Letts could have one last throw at disastrous CSO by using outside video cameras to do the CSO of the giant robot). And though they don't try this precise trick again for a while, this is Doctor Who trying out a host of production techniques that will be used not only over the remaining 14 years of the classic series but over the history of the series in general. It's an artifact from a technological transition.

So yes, as a story, it's filler - a new producer trying things out, and marking time between The Ark in Space and Friday's entry, and giving Baker an opportunity to ease into the part (since it was filmed before The Ark in Space. Mind you, Baker failed spectacularly to take the opportunity to ease in, breaking his collar bone in an ill-judged stunt and having to be replaced, not entirely convincingly, by Terry Walsh for large swaths). An unimportant story, in other words, but in no way a pair of unimportant episodes.


elvwood 9 years, 3 months ago

Well, now you've now made a connection in my mind between Pip 'n' Jane Baker and Malcolm Hulke, which isn't something I ever expected. But no mention of John Lucarotti?

Nowadays I think of this story mostly as the last time Sontarans looked good in the classic series. It acts as a kind of entremet between the two heftier dishes either side, improving the balance of the season as a whole despite being very slight. For me it therefore works better in context than it does on its own (or as part of a Sontaran marathon by purchasers of the Bred for War boxset, which was how I first saw it as an adult).

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Seeing_I 9 years, 3 months ago

This was the first Doctor Who I ever saw. It was 1984 or 85, I was flipping at random through channels (trying to avoid homework) and found some British girl being captured by a robot, which was then shadowed by some crazy looking guy in a giant scarf, and when the alien revealed itself there was a crash into the coolest music I'd ever heard.

Two nights later, Davros & the Daleks trundled across the screen before my wondering eyes, and I was lost forever. :D

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The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca 9 years, 3 months ago


There's a Monty Python sketch that uses Interior Video and Exterior film as the whole of the joke. Pity the quality of the Youtube video isn't better, alas.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 9 years, 3 months ago

as far as two parters go, this is far better than Black Orchid, and, I always thought, a great "little" adventure. it allowed us to take a breath between the involving space opera of Ark and the serious drama of Genesis. while the pacing isn't perfect, i really wish that they'd done more of this to open things up in the schedules over the next two years.

not that we aren't heading into, in my opinion, the high water mark of Who over the next two seasons.

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JJ 9 years, 3 months ago

I think Black Orchid gives the same sort of breath in the season as Sontarran Experiment -- a relaxed break after the intellectual Kinda and straightforward Visitation and a good rest before the violence and intensity of Earthshock.

But both Sontarran Experiment and Black Orchid have the same basic flaws. To be honest, I don't think they're much different in quality. Sontarran Experiment is really only better because Sarah and Harry are such wonderful companions, and Davison's crew is... less successful on the whole.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 9 years, 3 months ago

Black Orchid? You're sure you don't mean the Blackhawk Kid?

(Apologies to Neil Gaiman.)

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William Whyte 9 years, 3 months ago

There are a couple of interesting things about The Sontaran Experiment.

First, it is clearly the first Doctor Who story to follow the model of the slasher movie: a single, sadistic, superhuman baddie, punishing for no obvious reason a gang of people who've strayed onto his territory. Although it wasn't the first slasher movie of all (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slasher_film obviously) it comes very early in slasher history, predating Black Christmas and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both of which it's very similar to.

Second, (quoting myself from diggerdydum on Livejournal) I also love the fact that Styre's experiments are stupid. Would the Sontarans in war really adopt the tactics of depriving their enemies of water for a month rather than say shooting them? Clearly, what's going on is that Styre is a psycho, is known by the Sontarans to be a psycho, and so has been sent to a planet of *no strategic value* to twiddle his thumbs while something important goes on somewhere else. (He wasn't just killed because he was well-connected -- all clones, of course, have family in high places). The reason why the Doctor is able to get the invasion called off so quickly is because it was never planned in the first place. YOU SEE IT ALL MAKES SENSE.

Although Wood and Miles say the Sontaran Experiment is the story that took the Sontarans from villains to monsters, I think Styre is a unique creation, taking the slight lasciviousness of Linx and elevating him fully into a creepy sex gnome. It's the pinnacle of the Sontarans as slightly interesting, compellingly gross aliens, in a way that was thrown away by their subsequent classic series appearances and abandoned in their new series transformation from Rumpelstiltskin to rugger bugger. (Having said that, Strax in A Good Man Goes to War is a step back in the right direction of finding things you can do with the Sontarans that you can't do with the Cybermen or Daleks -- an unhealthy fascination with the mechanics of being organic is key to making them interesting).

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Jesse 9 years, 3 months ago

it comes very early in slasher history, predating Black Christmas and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Black Christmas and Texas Chainsaw Massacre both came out in 1974. The Sontaran Experiment came out in 1975.

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William Whyte 9 years, 3 months ago

But was written before the authors could have seen either of them.

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headfirstonly 9 years, 3 months ago

I've been reading your essays for a while now, and really enjoying them - keep at it!

The Sontaran Experiment was one of my favourite stories from the Baker era, but if memory serves correctly the reason that it ended up as a distinctly non-typical two-parter was because Tom Baker tripped over his scarf during location filming and broke his collarbone...

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Henry R. Kujawa 8 years, 9 months ago

William Whyte:
"Clearly, what's going on is that Styre is a psycho, is known by the Sontarans to be a psycho, and so has been sent to a planet of *no strategic value* to twiddle his thumbs while something important goes on somewhere else. (He wasn't just killed because he was well-connected -- all clones, of course, have family in high places). The reason why the Doctor is able to get the invasion called off so quickly is because it was never planned in the first place. YOU SEE IT ALL MAKES SENSE."

I love it!!

Philip Sandifer:
"since it was filmed before The Ark in Space"

Really? Hmm. It's funny... Philly's Channel 12 ran "ROBOT", then "THE SONTORAN EXPERIMENT", then "REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN"... could it be they somehow got ahold of the productions chedule instead of the broadcast schedule? This WAS the 2nd Tom Baker story I ever saw. (But no, that woudln't explain "TALONS" airing before "HAND OF FEAR".)

So... ALL that technical obsession, and virtually no mention of the story. I'll pick up the slack. Sarah's spends less time non-stop complaining this time. Harry is CLEARLY an asset-- and despite what The Doctor says, it wasn't his fault he fell down that pit. (Note The Doctor falls and he KNEW it was there!) Terry Walsh keeps turning up on-camera, have you noticed?

And when The Doctor challenges Styre to single combat, it's Baker's first REALLY GREAT moment on the series!!! "Do you think these miserable specimens could have conquered half a galaxy?" NICE GUY!!!

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Adalbert 6 years, 1 month ago

Miles and Wood make a stab at selling this as really being about debates over winter heating allowances, but it's stretched, and I say that as ... holmesinfraredheater.blogspot.com

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