|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.