The Mighty Warrior Sheltering Behind His Gun (The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky)

(71 comments)

How are you holding up? Because I'm a potato.
And one more time in case you missed it, the first Tom baker volume of TARDIS Eruditorum is now out. It's nice, rectangular, and easy to wrap.

It’s April 26th, 2008. Madonna and Justin Timberlake are at number one with “4 Minutes,” which exceeds its titular expectations by some margin and stays at number one for both weeks of this story. Mariah Carey, September, Usher, Wiley, and Sam Sparro also chart. In news, a bit of a spat breaks out between Jimmy Carter and the Bush administration over whether anyone ever advised him not to meet with Hamas. Wesley Snipes goes to prison for tax evasion, Grand Theft Auto IV comes out, and Boris Johnson unseats Ken Livingstone to become Mayor of London. 

While on television we have The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. Perhaps the first question to ask is why this is even a thing. Once the series had brought back the big three villains at the sensible rate of one a year, the issue of returning monsters necessarily became a bit silly. On the one hand, a returning monster is always good for a day or two of press coverage, which is why we have new look Silurians, Ice Warriors, and Zygons now. On the other, after the Master we’re essentially out of villains whose return would play a substantively mythic role within Doctor Who. (There is sort of one exception, but we’ll get to him.) Instead the return of monster become what it was under John Nathan-Turner - an exercise that exists entirely for the purposes of promotion. This is not a bad thing - Doctor Who’s job is to bring ratings, and free publicity of the sort a returning monster gets fuels that. But it means that returning monsters stop being understandable in terms of their legacy. Rise of the Cybermen demanded to be read in light of The Tenth Planet just as Dalek actively invoked The Power of the Daleks and Last of the Time Lord reveled in the icongraphy of the Pertwee era.

But if we try to compare the Sontarans of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky with the classic series we find ourselves altogether more frustrated. As Rob Shearman has noted, the Sontarans are not monsters in the generic sense, at least not in The Time Warrior. They’re a single character, Lynx, who’s defined in terms of the Doctor. Even on their return in The Sontaran Experiment, they’re still specifically focused on the individual, with a joke about how they’re a clone species being used to explain why they have the same actor playing a different Sontaran. It’s not until The Invasion of Time that they became monsters in a generic sense, and that was an act of sheer desperation by a production team that was in so far over their heads it wasn’t even funny. And then of course there’s Robert Holmes’s own witheringly pointless revival of them in The Two Doctors, where they finally settled into existing for no reason other than drawing a few headlines.

None of this has anything to do with the new series interpretation of them, in which they’re largely generic monsters defined by their humorously single-minded focus on war. They have names and are clearly portrayed by two distinct actors, so that’s at least something, but they are on the whole monsters defined by an all-encompassing gag. Indeed, there’s a similarity to be drawn to the Slitheen, a set of monsters who are differentiated in name only, and who are largely defined by the gag of their childlike malevolence and flatulence. Which is fine for this slot, which we’ve identified in previous posts as the children-friendly monster-centric two-parter. 

And like the equivalent stories in Seasons One through Three, The Sontaran Experiment/The Poison Sky gets what can charitably be called a rough ride from fans. But as this is the last “pure” example of this (Moffat has similarly functioning stories, but they don’t quite so squarely hit the formula Davies sets up for these), it’s worth talking a bit about this subgenre of Doctor Who. Because it is a terribly unpopular one, at least with fans. Audiences at the time seem largely unphased - indeed, most of the time the monster two-parter picks up an AI point from the episode prior. And the real test - is it popular with children - is largely only going to be tackled with anecdotal evidence. It is on the one hand hard to imagine children playing Sontaran at recess, but that’s only arguably the point. Do children stomp around the schoolyard shouting “Delete”? Do they still even do it with “Exterminate”? Or has the nature of how children engage with media changed to where that sort of schoolyard imitation isn’t even the point anymore? Was it ever? Adult descriptions of childhood play ought be taken with maximal skepticism anyway. 

Another way of looking at these stories is in terms of whether they are most sensibly approached with foresight or hindsight. Some Doctor Who stories, after all, are clearly made with one eye on the DVD set. Virtually anything written by Moffat, for instance, but also Davies’s season finales and plenty of other episodes here and there. These tend to be more mature episodes that explore conceptual issues with a focus on drama. In contrast are episodes like, well, the monster two-parters and most Davies season premieres - ones where the focus is on the exploration of ideas best realized through spectacle, and where the concept is one to anticipate the realization of, as opposed to one to revisit the exploration of. (It is, of course, unfair to lump the Davies season finales entirely in the first category, as the real genius of those is that they’re designed to work both ways at once.)

In other word, the point of a story like The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky is not so much the exploration of its concepts as the sheer number of them. And whatever might be said about the story, it does largely manage this. There’s an awful lot going on - the return of UNIT, a bunch of bits about soldiers and guns, evil GPSes, environmentalism, Donna’s family, the Rattigan academy, and Freema Agyeman getting to enjoy a villainous turn. Plus Sontarans. None of it is explored in any particular depth or detail, but that’s not really what it’s there for. It’s there to be fast-moving and to change focus on a regular basis. This is Doctor Who as a succession of high concept set pieces - a format it’s taken repeatedly in the past.

Yes, it looks simplistic compared to Doctor Who that embraces Aristotelean storytelling and works to unify all its bits into a single coherent thematic statement. But the idea that Doctor Who is supposed to tell self-contained dramas is hardly obvious. It’s a show with deep and clear roots in the serial as a form. And that survives in stories like this, which are structured as an episodic serial with most of the episodes sutured together. For all that The Sontaran Experiment/The Poison Sky does little to actually bring back the classic series concept of the Sontarans, the truth is that this is closer to the storytelling of the classic series than almost any other story in Season Four. And the same can be said of Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel and Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks

There’s a case to be made that the problem is simply that this sort of storytelling has dated badly, and fares particularly badly when shoved into contrast with the tropes of the new series. The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, in this view, would work fine if only they didn’t waste time with Donna’s feelings about her family or with the scene in which Martha confronts her dying clone. But this sort of emotional content belongs to a fundamentally different sort of storytelling than the set piece driven serial. This may be true, but it sounds for all the world like a spurious justification for why Doctor Who shouldn’t have so many feels in it, which is to say, like the domain of stereotypically male fandom complaining about how there are women who have the temerity to like their favorite sci-fi show while still not sleeping with them. As such it should be, if not rejected out of hand, at least treated with considerable suspicion. 

Ultimately, though, what all of this is circling around is the fact that there are clearly two ways of watching Doctor Who, and that the way that anybody who would ever give a damn about this blog does it is very much the weird way. The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky is an example of a style of episode designed to air on a Saturday evening and entertain a transient audience of people who are tuning in. In many ways, then, the most surprising thing is how quickly it’s dated. This episode only aired five years ago, but it already feels like an artifact, and not just because of its fascination with GPSes (which, much like Rise of the Cybermen’s fascination with cell phones, already felt just a bit dated when it aired). It’s no surprise that Moffat has moved away from this type of storytelling, because Moffat’s audience is a fundamentally different sort of audience - one in which a growing share, likely soon to be a majority if it isn’t already, watches the show not on transmission but either time-shifted or on iPlayer. In other words, the audience who watches Doctor Who because it’s what’s on television when they happen to sit down is dwindling while an audience of people who make an active effort to watch that specific show is growing. When you figure that at least some of the people viewing on transmission are appointment viewers who happen to have the time free and a television instead of a laptop you end up with a clear majority of viewers who are not watching casually.

That doesn’t mean they’re fans in the anorak sense of that word, but it does suggest a very different sort of engagement than the sort that justifies The Sontaran Experiment/The Poison Sky. This explanation, notably, avoids any annoying business of guessing what episodes work “for kids” (a topic adults are likely to be serially wrong about anyway. If I were betting money on what episodes this season resulted in children playing based on them, I’d guess Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. They may be the episodes least focused on childhood concerns, but the game of “if you step in a shadow you’re dead” is so straightforwardly playable) and instead focuses on the nature of television.

What, then, do we do with the concepts that are in place? They are a loose hive, to say the least, in many ways epitomized by the arbitrary detail that ATMOS, in addition to reducing emissions, contains a GPS system. Other than the fact that both involve cars, there’s next to nothing that connects these two things. Similarly tenuous is the connection between an alien plot to terraform the Earth and human pollution, much as the story tries to take a moral stand on it, or, for that matter, why rescuing Martha was a meaningful prerequisite to nipping back to the Rattigan Academy to actually defeat the Sontarans. There’s a lack of connection to any of the set pieces.


But, of course, what did plastic daffodils, phone cords, prophetic Magritte paintings, James Bond villains, children’s toys, and a circus have to do with one another? Which is to say, since when has congruence been a pre-requisite for Doctor Who? But there’s a difference here. Terror of the Autons is made up of concepts that are fuzzy around the edges. Whereas in The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky the great strength of the revived Doctor Who becomes something of a weakness. All of its conceptual clarity makes this episode a jumbled hodgepodge instead of an exploration of the spaces between concepts. The whole thing is too immaculately done and precise to function as a marvelously messy serial. If there’s a problem - and I’m still not entirely convinced there is beyond the fact that this is not the most exciting thing to come back to when rewatching the series. Which is a valid objection. But in the end, so is the fact that properly appreciating Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead requires going back to it after watching the bulk of the Matt Smith era. We can at least say that no other show on television in 2008 was going to give us evil GPSes, potato-headed aliens obsessed with war, Bernard Cribbins, a military thriller, and a school full of annoying genius teenagers. It doesn’t beg to be seen again, but in 2008 that’s still not a requirement. 

Comments

Eric Gimlin 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm sure the discussion on the body of the post will commence soon and be, as usual, fascinating.

I just wanted to say that I laughed myself almost literally sick at the picture caption.

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Marionette 3 years, 10 months ago

The problem for me has always been attempting to reconcile the gung ho, jump in, guns blazing attitude of every Sontaran ever with the whole "conquering Earth by stealth" plot. See also Daleks running a TV station.

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Alex Antonijevic 3 years, 10 months ago

I suppose there's a reason we don't really get the Sontarans as adversaries again in the main show (apart from one line in the Pandorica Opens), and instead we get Strax, who takes all the characteristics of the Sontarans and makes it into a comic relief good guy.

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David Anderson 3 years, 10 months ago

It would be somewhat easier to like the bit where the clone dies if we'd been asked to see the clone as anything other than an evil duplicate before this point. As it is, it feels like a cynical attempt to shoehorn in an emotional bit.

The attempt at environmentalism seems to me particularly ill-judged. (I am really going to get annoyed about this when we get to the bees.) There's some sort of half-hearted idea at the end that technological fixes are bad and the only real solution is to stop driving cars. But the world is not currently rushing to embrace even technological fixes at the moment. As with Partners in Crime, we've got a product with a ludicrous take-up rate from consumers.
Given that the world isn't even at the technological fix stage, what we're really getting in this story is the idea that attempted technological fixes are conspiracies by scientists for ulterior motives. It doesn't help that clone races are a hackneyed sf trope for communism. That's basic climate change denial, or as near as makes no odds.

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Spacewarp 3 years, 10 months ago

If one could plot a graph of the "iconicity/popularity" of the Sontarans from 1974 to the present day, I think you'd end up with something akin to a catenary, with Lynx and Styre at one end, Strax at the other, and the classic series Sontaran outings making up the middle "Sag" (and I'm including "Fix" in there).

"Strategem/Sky" may be fairly unremarkable on its own, but is definitely where the graph begins it's upswing, SJA's "The Last Sontaran" continues the climb until Dan Starkey's portrayals of Strax and the nameless Sontaran in "End of Time". It is tempting to attribute Strax's success partly to the fact that Sontarans do work much better when there's only one of them

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Alexander J Bateman 3 years, 10 months ago

Sontarans have a bit of a weird status in the pantheon of Doctor Who, while not as recognizable as the Daleks, Cybermen or the Master, they did have a lot of episodes and were featured in the (perhaps best forgotten) Shakedown and (very much best forgotten) A Fix with Sontarans.

It would be interesting if there was a way to measure just how much they were absorbed in the consciousness of the UK public. It may be higher than people think.

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elvwood 3 years, 10 months ago

Urgh. The Boris Johnson bit made me shudder, particularly in light of his recent comments. This week has not been exactly full of good news, politically, and that just reminded me of one revealng moment. As for the story... well, I enjoyed it as a fun bit of light entertainment.

Is the conflation of The Sontaran Strategem and The Sontaran Experiment deliberate? It seems a little too random for that.

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elvwood 3 years, 10 months ago

I agree with your graph, both personally and in terms of general perception. (Gosh how conventional I am.) One recent multiple-Sontaran story I thoroughly enjoyed (along with my kids) was Heroes of Sontar, which once again went for comedy.

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David Anderson 3 years, 10 months ago

The BBC's recent poll for best Doctor Who monster left the Sontarans off the voting list, while including the Judoon, the Ood and the Silence. It's apparent that this was largely because there isn't a one part new series episode to showcase them. But the Silence got Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon rather than Wedding of River Song.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 10 months ago

Christopher Ryan was *perfect.* He played the Col. Blimp role but just on the right side of sending it up, and his husky voice was very fitting to the character. Likewise the make-up was spot-on, and really a testament to John Friedlander more than anything else. I'm only sorry that when given the chance and the means to finally show two identical Sontarans stood next to each other (which the script clearly indicates) they inexplicably do not. .

"A good bit of fun" is exactly where this episode is pitched and for the most part it delivers. Not sure there's a whole lot to say otherwise, except that the cliffhanger is ridiculously over-extended (just bung a rock through the glass!) and the Doctor's self-righteous attitude about guns and soldiers is seriously distasteful. Not only is it hypocritical given his history, but one wonders about all the kids watching who have parents in Iraq / Afghanistan at the time. I don't think they'd really come away with some newly nuanced view of the pernicious self-justifications of empire, do you? No, they'd just remember David Tennant sneering at their dad.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 10 months ago

Weirdly, the worst element of this story, for me, is the colour. The bright blue Sontarans, the horrible purple Sontaran spaceship, mish mashed together.

It's dated, yes, but every story dates. RTD once addressed this and, when asked, he said he didn't care a jot about things dating. His stories are explicitly set in 2005-2009 anyway, so why try and avoid them 'dating'? Everything will date - even Moffat's stuff.

But yeah, the colour really puts me off. And, a sidenote, I always thought the Sontarans would've worked best in the Judoon costumes. Keep the humour and silliness, but get rid of the plasticy blue costume and put them back in black. (Much as I hate Strax, at least they've avoided the bright blue as much as possible.)

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 10 months ago

Also, FWIW, I much prefer Ryan to Starkey.

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jane 3 years, 10 months ago

I wonder about this playing the "military monster" for laughs. I mean, this falls squarely into the camp aesthetic, yes? The Sontarans are over-the-top, ridiculous -- and they are mirror images of the new UNIT. Is this an attempt to deconstruct the military ethos? To strip their social power by laughing at them?

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David Ainsworth 3 years, 10 months ago

The problem here is that the Sontarans are being presented comedically, but the episodes have huge tonal problems. "Sontar-ha!" is pretty explicit in making the Sontarans ridiculous. But scenes like the Martha-clone scene undercut the comedy where they should be heightening it, and the direction from scene to scene demonstrates no confidence in camp. (The cliffhanger, for example, is shot straight where it should be hilarious. We should be laughing at the characters, not yelling at them.) For every tennis ball scene, you have a "turn and face me" scene played in the wrong kind of straight tone.

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HarlequiNQB 3 years, 10 months ago

Agreed, 10 points for Griffendor for the perfectly utilized Portal reference.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

I like these episodes. I've never really seen the dislike for this. It's a bunch of action set pieces and really, the clone is the only bit that really falls flat for me. The episode does something interesting with it's returning companion and any excuse for more Wilf is a welcome one in my book. In terms of Freema Agyeman does anyone else long for the world where we got a Rani story with her? I adore her as a villain here. She's obviously enjoying it and that makes a world of difference.

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Alexander J Bateman 3 years, 10 months ago

True, although if a remember rightly it was a very odd list anyway. Didn't it have the Clockwork Droids on it?

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

Isn't part of the point of the Sontarans that they're a bit shit? They aren't a threat like mind-controlled Ood or Daleks or Cybermen. They're a joke. A punchline. "Look at how naff the army aliens are! This week we can sit back and just enjoy the Doctor giving them a drubbing!" We know that they can't actually do anything that bad so we can just enjoy them.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 10 months ago

That's Gryffindor. (And I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry.)

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 10 months ago

(I am really going to get annoyed about this when we get to the bees.)

Speaking of which... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1GadTfGFvU

(Sorry; I couldn't help it.)

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 10 months ago

Wait... people remember the Judoon? :-/

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 10 months ago

So... what do people think of Douglas Mackinnon's direction here, considering he came back this last series to do two widely-praised episodes ("The Power of Three" and "Cold War")?

If I'm recalling correctly, he's the only director from the RTD years to return to the series proper (Euros Lyn apparently directed pick-ups for "The Beast Below", as well as the "Meanwhile in the TARDIS" scenes for the DVD set). Any ideas as to why that might be so?

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James V 3 years, 10 months ago

Of course you do still get the standard contingent of anoraks shrieking "Moffat (incidentally, I love how the same corner of fandom has essentially given Stephen Moffat a one-word stage name. Just "Moffat," like a short, Scottish Madonna) ruined the Sontarans! They used to be threatening enemies!"

Since when?

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 10 months ago

IIRC, it was this script on the table when Russell fell ill, so he couldn't do much rewriting. Personally, I'm not sure why they even let Rayner return to writing duties following her Dalek two-parter. Sure, she's full of ideas, but none of them really quite gel. The episodes don't know what they want to achieve.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

Love me a Judoon.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

Well, she wrote two of the best Torchwoods. And it's not really her ideas in either case - Daleks in Manhattan was a laundry list courtesy of Davies, and one imagines the major beats of this were pre-ordained as well. The Writer's Tale suggests Davies did his usual rewrite on this, and the commentary track has Gardner referring to Davies's writing, so I'd guess the final product is fairly heavily him here.

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Bennett 3 years, 10 months ago

Sorry to say it, but you aren't recalling correctly. Richard Clark also returned (directing Gridlock, The Lazarus Experiment, The Doctor's Wife and Night Terrors).

As for why some directors return and some don't, I feel it has more to do with the practicalities (cost, scheduling availiability and whether they want to move on to other things) than on a direct comparison of their performance. Though I wouldn't hold out for a return from Keith Boak.

Broadly speaking though, the Moffat era seems to put more effort into trying out new directors - going as far as giving a big opening episode like Let's Kill Hitler to self-described novice Richard Senior. And by and large this has been for the show's benefit. If you hand every finale to the likes of Graeme Harper, you miss out on what directors like Haynes and Metzstein can deliver.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 10 months ago

Oh, my mistake. Thanks for the correction. :-)

And quite right... although I am somewhat disappointed that Adam Smith and Toby Haynes haven't been asked back since, respectively, 2010 and 2011; they were very clearly the two best directors of the early Smith era.

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

I've never understood why the Sontarans are supposed to be more of a joke than Daleks who (for more than 20 years) were unable to climb stairs and Cybermen who were allergic to gold. It's still extremely difficult for me to take the Daleks seriously on any level. My girlfriend likes them better than the show itself because they're so hilarious and adorable.

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

I thought it was deliberate as well. I was a little disappointed that this wasn't some clever relation of Stratagem to Experiment. :)

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

Also, in the classic series we have a single Sontaran torturing every human he gets his hands on, a group of Sontarans invading Gallifrey (well before the Daleks manage it, and they've got time travel technology!), and another squadron taking out a space research station with such violence that it reduces Jamie McCrimmon, who's seen it all, to a semiferal wreck. Linx is the most affable one of the bunch and he has his own virtue: that of being an actual character, as Rob and Phil have pointed out.

By contrast the Daleks and the Cybermen are an undifferentiated personality-free mass of "army aliens" until "Daleks in Manhattan" (or "Evil of the Daleks," if you like) and "Earthshock," respectively. Holmes may have thought of the Sontarans as a joke, and clearly RTD and Moffat felt the same way, but of the big returning monsters they always seemed the most credible to me. As funny as Strax generally is, he's pretty much the nail in the coffin for these guys and that's a real shame in my book.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 10 months ago

I think if you want "threatening Sontarans", black is best, but "funny Sontarans" seems to be a more successful tack, and there, the bright blue (and clashing colors) are better. The main flaw of this two-parter is half-assing both. (Actually, the main flaw is having an antagonist who perfectly trips the Wesley/Adric annoyance factors, but that's another thing altogether.)

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

Maybe that was part of the idea with the new multicolored Daleks: they're funnier than they are threatening. :) Even in "Day of the Doctor" they're comedy monsters; my girlfriend laughed out loud at the one trying to puzzle out what "NO MORE" meant.

As for the antagonist, yeah, I spent the whole time wrestling with the fact that he was somehow both intensely annoying and strangely adorable, to me anyway. Exactly like Adric, in fact.

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David Thiel 3 years, 10 months ago

The Judoon are my absolutely favorite nuWho monster. Not only do they fill the previously unclaimed niche of galactic law enforcement, they're opponents that aren't necessarily villains. They're brutish and dogged, which makes them an obstacle to be overcome, but they could just as easily serve as allies.

I never thought that the classic Sontarans were a joke. And as much as I enjoy Strax, I don't get why the race as a whole is now camp. As encylops says, the Daleks were the goofy ones until they were rehabilitated. And the Cybermen...well, they were the ones you brought in when the Daleks were unavailable.

Me, I'm still holding out (slim) hope that one of these days we'll see a Sontaran and a Rutan in the same story.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

Encyclops: The Dalek design draws on the imagery of Tanks in a very meaningful way. For people in 1963 that was still something in the back of their minds. The Daleks had destroyed an entire planet in the fires of Nuclear war. "The Daleks" hits fear of the last war, with fear of the next one, AND manage to be something that you really hadn't seen before. They were the first enemies to return (getting there first does mean something in this case). When they come back, they are meaningfully invading the present of the viewer. All of this combines to give them a narrative weight.

Lynx was a formidable foe, but he lacked the imagery to draw on. Also without his helmet he looks like a baked potato. There is no societal fear of Potatoes. When they show up again they too are invading Earth, but it's an Earth with no connection to the viewer, no resonance. And they do invade Gallifrey... and are fairly shit at it. The impression they could have made is gone right there. They show up again and all they are is generic fodder. They're "great" warriors but are fighting the Rutaan for 50,000 years? That doesn't make them scary, it makes them a joke about the pointlessness of war. They have an obvious weak spot, they make no progress and frankly there's not a lot more to them as a race.

You do hit on something important however: The Daleks are an army. Faceless and uncaring. A force of nature, a point of fixity. Sontarans were at their scariest with a single individual. An individual is scary, but rare is the one that is as compelling as the Doctor.

Also: BAKED POTATO. The Wirrin is made of bubble wrap and it's scarier.

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deriksmith 3 years, 10 months ago

I think attempts to read a "point" or "message" into Sontoran episodes are missing the point. There's a reason Sontorans have become nuWho's go-to monster for throwaway gags; They're plausibly threatening, look intimidating, have needlessly complex schemes (so they can be doing ANYTHING,) have been invading the Earth for centuries but also work in space, have a huge infrastructure behind them but can also be operating solo, are easy to stage onscreen and in large numbers and are generally impersonal threats.
In short: They're EASY TO USE. Daleks episodes are notoriously 'hard to get right', Cybermen are impersonal and one-note even moreso than Daleks, the Weeping Angels impose structural issues on the plot and the Master has to be epic. The Sontorans exert no 'gravity' on the plot (as Phil says) and make a good go-to monster that is simultaneously legitimately threatening but and easily defeated. You can slot them into almost any plot, any byzantine scheme and any emotional context and they 'work' without imposing any particular burden on the rest of the plot/emotions/characterization of the episode-- and they bring almost no BAGGAGE that has to be worked around. Daleks and the Master have ENORMOUS baggage that makes them difficult to work with.
And you can't complain that their plot to create giant steerable icebergs in 1912 so they can freeze over major port cities is "too silly" because the Sontarans are already silly -- but unlike the Slitheen they're also 'weighty' enough to carry that plot off and you can have armies of blue-clad warriors marching down the docks of Olde Londontown while snow falls and shooting people... because they're the frickin' Sontarans. They're silly and come up with overly complex schemes. They're a mix of competent and incompetent that means plots involving with them can be fun, exciting, a bit scary... or just a fluffy romp.

tldr; Sontorans lend themselves to a variety of uses with virtually no 'strings attached' for writers to deal with.

If you think Dr. Who should be serious, grim or high art you'll hate 'em, but they're the single most versatile monster in the Doctor Who universe, which is a boon to writers.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

we’re essentially out of villains whose return would play a substantively mythic role within Doctor Who. (There is sort of one exception, but we’ll get to him.)

I assume you're thinking of the Valeyard? (Though I think any of the Time Lord villains would a bit so.)

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jane 3 years, 10 months ago

"But scenes like the Martha-clone scene undercut the comedy... the cliffhanger, for example, is shot straight where it should be hilarious. We should be laughing at the characters, not yelling at them."

Just because a camp aesthetic informs the send-up of militarism (hence the Sontarans being colorful) doesn't mean it has to inform the entire episode. Indeed, the fact that it doesn't -- that certain elements *are* played straight -- creates a juxtaposition whereby the episode declares what it values and what it's sending up.

The cliffhanger, for example, isn't an invitation to laugh at our heroes, because they aren't being lampooned. Likewise, the Martha clone is played seriously to highlight just how seriously Martha has started taking the whole UNIT thing. It isn't funny that she's joined UNIT, it's tragic.

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deriksmith 3 years, 10 months ago

@David
The Sontarans and the Rutans both show up in Shakedown and Mindgame Trilogy. Also The Gunpowder Plot if you're inclined to think that counts.

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deriksmith 3 years, 10 months ago

I assumed he meant the Voord. (But that's probably just me, I love the Voord.)

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elvwood 3 years, 10 months ago

I assume this is referring to Davros.

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Alexander J Bateman 3 years, 10 months ago

'They were the first enemies to return (getting there first does mean something in this case). '

No one remembers the poor Autons.... ;o)

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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jane 3 years, 10 months ago

Toby Haynes went on to produce the Season Two finale of Sherlock, an episode of Wallander, and is currently directing the 7-part adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Obviously Moffat thought well enough of him to have him come back for Sherlock; the man isn't lacking for work.

Adam Smith, on the other hand, has only done a documentary and some commercial shorts since taking on the first production block for Moffat's Who back in 2010. Don't know why we haven't seen him in the chair again. It looks like he's joined RSA Films; maybe he's not back because he's no longer working for the BBC.

In both cases, it may not be so much that they haven't been asked back, but that they haven't been available, or moved on to other projects.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

Matt Smith's Costume, TARDIS, and Daleks are all call backs to the Peter Cushing Movie. Hodge Podge Console, Bright Colored Deluxe Daleks, and Tweed combined with physical awkwardness.

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jane 3 years, 10 months ago

Omega.

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

Yeah, if "we'll get to him" it probably has to be Davros, though my first thought was Rassilon.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

The Daleks returned in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" which debuted 6 years before the Autons even showed up.

Unless you're referring to the New Series?

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

Theonlyspiral: I know the Daleks are supposed to evoke all that, but for me they really don't. So I have to wonder: would these associations only have been fresh enough in 1963? Or is there something lost in translation from a tank's silhouette to that of a pepperpot with an eggbeater and plunger? They just don't work for me. If I try really hard, or Rob Shearman's writing them, they just about make it, but otherwise they're about as terrifying as Oscar the Grouch.

By the same token, though: surely the Sontaran design WITH helmet is as evocative of an armored footsoldier as the Dalek design is of a tank? They can both kill you. The Daleks invade future Earth as well, the Daleks have two shit plans for every one Sontaran shit plan, and as for long unsuccessful wars I give you both Thals and Movellans. For obvious weak spots I give you eyestalks / overactive suicidal tendencies and for progress: "I...am a yuman...Daaalek."

Daleks suck. And that's the scariest thing they ever do and it took them till 2005 to do it.

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Bennett 3 years, 10 months ago

If we're talking 'mythic' as in important-enough-to-make-an-impression-on-the-general-public rather than important-because-fandom-says-it-is then it has to be Davros. He's the only remaining adversary I've seen referenced in the broader cultural sphere.

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deriksmith 3 years, 10 months ago

This story as my single favorite Donna moment -- her noticing the lack of sick days because she used to be a temp.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 10 months ago

That's a good point. (Nitpick: these episodes do, in fact, have points and messages, and the use of an easy-to-use monster doesn't negate that.)

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Chris 3 years, 10 months ago

Unrelated to this post, but to the blog: here's a coupon code for 50% off Zazzle products such as shirts and mugs (you know, the kinds of things you can buy via the Eruditorum Merchandise link up top): HOLIDAYSMADE

Code is valid through Friday, the 6th.

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AJ 3 years, 10 months ago

Speaking of GPS, this morning's news http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/nsa-tracking-cellphone-locations-worldwide-snowden-documents-show/2013/12/04/5492873a-5cf2-11e3-bc56-c6ca94801fac_story.html (not that anyone with a GPS phone should have ever assumed the NSA above such behavior)

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 10 months ago

Um... a couple of corrections:

"Toby Haynes went on to produce the Season Two finale of Sherlock"

He didn't produce it; he directed it.

"Adam Smith, on the other hand, has only done a documentary and some commercial shorts since taking on the first production block"

Actually, he did both the first and third production blocks; the first block consisting of the Angels two-parter, and the third block, comprising of "The Eleventh Hour".

Other than that, though, fair points. :-)

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David Thiel 3 years, 10 months ago

I meant that I wanted to see the Sontarans and the Rutans together in a televised story.

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deriksmith 3 years, 10 months ago

That is part of the magic of the Sontarans, because they lack what Phil calls "narrative gravity" they don't necessarily impose a message on the episode, freeing it to explore completely unrelated themes.
In this case their military fixation was used to kinda-sorta mirror the questions about whether or not the Doctor made Martha into a soldier -- prefiguring the confrontation with Davros at the end of the season that places the indictment more clearly. But while the Sontarans dovetailed into that theme they weren't necessary for it; you could have told the same story with the Silurians, the Gubbage Cones or the Voord. (Or, demonstrably, Davros.)

Unrelated: I don't think this episode had an environmental message. I think is exploited anxieties people had about air pollution and emissions control standards on cars and appropriated that imagery without having any message at all. The environmental elements in the story fall firmly over "yes, those are things that happened" without having any larger 'meaning' to them.

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Bennett 3 years, 10 months ago

deriksmith - "I don't think this episode had an environmental message."

It does have that moment where Sylvia says "The streets are half-empty. People still aren't driving. There's kids on bikes all over the place, it's wonderful.". But that moment is so unsubtle it's more like a public service announcement than an environmental message.

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Alexander J Bateman 3 years, 10 months ago

@Theonlyspiral Sorry, Yes - I assumed you were as well.

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Alexander J Bateman 3 years, 10 months ago

Well aside from Davros there is also the big returning monster of the Specials... The Time Lords

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David Anderson 3 years, 10 months ago

Just because something doesn't have a deliberate message doesn't mean that it doesn't add up to a message. It's the kind of thing that one calls unfortunate implications. Or fortunate implications. If Phil gives Davies credit for being lucky with some of the symbolism in Partners in Crime or Children of Men, then he needs to take responsibility when he's unlucky too.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

Alexander: I meant a return to the series in general. I apologize for my lack of clarity.

Encyclops: The fact that they appeared and drew on all of that in 1963 meant they were burned into the show in a way that no other monster really can be. It might not work for you in the same way...but I'm not sure there will ever be another monster with that much power in Doctor Who. In 1974 was there a fear of helmeted men? The big fear of the future was still nuclear war, and the extra decade of distance to WWII makes a BIG difference. While they might have some bum notes, their second appearance brought them into the present day of the viewer. The Sontaarans were never going to get the same shot at being legends.

And really, noone has ever gone out of the way to give them a "Genesis", "Remembrance" or "Jubilee". The closest they've ever come is "Invasion of Time" which was a bungled rush and kind of a mess.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

I forgot about that until I read your comment! That moment is BRILLIANT!

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

It's got to be Davros. While Rassilon and Omega are big deals to Doctor Who and Doctor Who fans, I would hardly call them mythic. Davros has more stories than the other two combined in Classic Who.

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm not disputing the Daleks' iconic status in the narrative of Doctor Who, or that the Sontarans have a real shot at replicating it. I'm just trying to explain why the Daleks don't do much for me apart from being icons, and that their iconicity actually in some ways works against them as far as how I react to them.

I would also suggest that the 1963 associations you're describing do not necessarily have anything to do with how new fans reacted to them in 2005, and that the Daleks' cultural status as part of an old show called Doctor Who that was being revived was stronger than anything to do with tanks or radioactive mutations. This is why an episode like "Dalek" was absolutely essential to (some would say re-)establishing these creatures as menacing and deadly. A stocky humanoid in an armored helmet pointing a weapon at you has been comprehensible as long as we've had civilization. A blob in a trashcan waving household implements needs a little more explanation in 2005.

I don't know that Sontarans deserve a "Genesis," "Remembrance," or "Jubilee," or would really benefit from one (though you reminded me about Andrew Smith's Sontaran origin Big Finish). I do think that "Remembrance" is overrated, "Genesis" is more about Davros than Daleks, and "Jubilee" is a rehab episode like "Dalek" (not coincidentally, of course) that is partially about the fact that Daleks seem far more adorable than they should.

But really, my only point is that the idea that Sontarans are a joke doesn't make sense to me. The only explanation I've ever really seen is that "they're professional soldiers," which doesn't seem like a joke to me, and "they have potato heads," which doesn't make them much sillier-looking than "pink sucker faces" or "salt shakers" to me.

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David Thiel 3 years, 10 months ago

As far as I recall, the only intentional joke when it came to the classic Sontarans was that their heads were shaped like their helmets. (Arguably also the bit where they pretend that the probic vent is a strength, not a weakness.)

Again, I loves me some Strax. I'd be happy if he became a full-time companion. But I'm not sure where this idea of Sontarans being silly and shrimpy comes from.

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deriksmith 3 years, 10 months ago

@bennett
Yes but what message? "Get rid of cars?" I'd maybe give you "we don't appreciate the environment until we've almost lost it," but I don't think that's a 'message' so much as an observation. In Pertwee's era they would say "The fog is gone and everything's back to normal, though some chaps are a bit shaky about trusting their cars again." Modern who grounds that in more realistic observations; the golden calm that settles in after a storm but before people go back about their lives. It's just a grounding detail offered in passing, not a 'point.'

@david
Yes yes, unintentional moral dissonance happens... but I just don't see it in these episodes. I agree that it's possible to see meaning in these episodes but to steal some of Phillip's theosophical metaphors, I think it's more like a 'black mirror;' a scrying tool that is really just a pallet onto which the practitioner paints himself. It's easy for the mind to connect the potpourri elements of The Sontaran Stratagem and find patterns -- but like seeing faces in clouds or fire I think that's more down to the human tendency to perceive patterns in noise.

You can build a case that by reappropriating imagery and anxiety relating to environmental concerns there is meaning embedded in those images to be contended with -- the whole postmodern "take elements from their original contexts and trust them to still function in another context" glam rock thing (can you tell I'm reading the archives?) but this isn't like The Celestial Toymaker or The Talons of Went-Chiang where large chunks of Yellow Peril elements were ported over verbatim and still operative -- the environmental imagery here have basically been reduced to scree and had bits picked out -- and not even consistent bits that for a picture when put together.
Images of smog-choked cities are anti-auto, but the idea that emissions filters are a creeping evil certain'y isn't pro-environmental. And then you throw in "anxiety about car GPS systems" with a vague whiff of OnStarr and... it's just care imagery! It doesn't amount to anything. The parts are there, but they're not connected in a way that makes anything, plus there are mixed in other parts that have associative but not meaning-making connections. It's a cut circuit along which nothing flows.
I *guess* you could make the argument that there's a message that "car emissions are rendering Earth unfit for human habitation," (since that is the literal plot of the episode) ...but it requires you to ignore several other car-anxiety elements that DON'T support that message, some of which are actively working against it.
There' "intended meaning," there's "unintended meaning that is nonetheless there," and then there's "this is a trigger image people are used to having a meaning or moral attached to it." I think the 'environmental message' in The Sontaran Strategem falls into that third category; strictly in the eye of the beholder, a black mirror onto which we paint ourselves.
(I could be wrong, I haven't rewatched the episodes recently. I really should!)

tldr; YMMV

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deriksmith 3 years, 10 months ago

UPDATE: I rewatched it.
...fine, there's an environmental message. It's thin and it was only hit as a drive-by because the plot happened to be crossing the same narrative territory, but it's there.
I retract my objection, grumpily.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

Yes, I even admitted that the Daleks basically came along at the right time and hit the right combination of imagery to explode. They might seem silly now, but that's with 50 years of other stuff going into them. That's why they're mythic despite being a bit silly.

The Sontaarans? Never had any reason to be more than a bit shit. And frankly, any monster that looks explicitly like the side dish to my dinner had better have something going on. But they don't. They are generic and over the top to the point of silliness as most "all warrior" cultures tend to be. They have a built in crippling weakness, and frankly lack a truly classic story to give them some heft. You may think that Remembrance, Genesis and Jubilee/Dalek aren't classics but outside of Tumblr you're not going to find a ton of agreement.

They aren't in a deeper hole than the Daleks, but they lack a pile of redeeming factors to help them out of it. When all you have is a pile of SF Tropes, you're a joke.

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

See, I've never seen the Sontarans as being over the top, and that's one of the things I liked about them. In the classic series, with the exception of Derek Deadman's dreadful performance, I always thought they were rather nicely subdued. You don't really get the over-the-top "it will be my honor to kill you" nonsense until the new series. Maybe I'm misremembering.

And to be clear, I'm not saying "Remembrance," "Genesis," "Jubilee", and "Dalek" aren't classics. I like all of them quite a bit. But I AM saying that two of them can't seem to tell a compelling Dalek story without Davros, which seems to me a huge admission of their limitations, and that both "Jubilee" and "Dalek" depend for their effect in part on the impression that the Daleks are themselves a bit shit.

I don't think we'll convince each other in this argument, but at least I hope it's clearer what my side of it is. :)

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

I think that I can agree to disagree. I'm fine with reasonable people explaining themselves fully. Thanks for a good discussion!

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