Review: The Sontaran Stratagem

Quick Summary: While giving Donna a TARDIS-driving lesson, the Doctor receives a mobile phone call from Dr. Martha Jones, still working with UNIT. A series of unexplained simultaneous deaths has led UNIT to storm the main factory for the ATMOS devices that are now installed on half the cars on Earth in order to eliminate carbon emissions. While the Doctor investigates the boy genius creator of the ATMOS system, Donna takes Martha’s advice to visit her family.

Story: This season of Doctor Who is turning into a real historical love fest. Each of the past few episodes have had some nods to the past, and the Sontaran Stratagem is just about the most obvious of the lot. Let’s count the ways:

Sontarans – Last seen in the original series story The Two Doctors, the Sontarans hold the interesting distinction of having more than the usual level of awareness of the Time Lords, having actually invaded Gallifrey in The Invasion of Time. They retain their weak point with the “probic vent” on the back of their necks.

UNIT – The Unified (Unit Nations) Intelligence Taskforce was featured in the new series most visibly in The Christmas Invasion, but was a staple of the original series from the Troughton era onwards, last seen in the McCoy story Battlefield. The Doctor did indeed join up with unit during the entirety of the Pertwee era – as the Doctor mentions, in the seventies.

Martha Jones – We saw Martha this season in Torchwood as a member of UNIT, and she appears to have taken a shine to her role with the organization. It’s a little curious, actually – UNIT is a worldwide organization with what appears to be a similar mission to that of Torchwood, which we know is a UK organization founded by Queen Victoria.

More Geekdom – The Medusa Cascade – whatever that may be – is referenced again, and the Sontaran General mentions the Time War and the Doctor’s involvement in its final battle.

So back to the story, which is actually pretty interesting. Like a good portion of the other new series stories, the Stratagem appears to include an evil, mysterious corporation using the world’s technology against it. The Master did it with the Archangel network, and now the Sontarans are doing the same with ATMOS. The difference this time around is that the end game for the Stratagem isn’t entirely obvious – why are the Sontarans doing what they’re doing? If they are trying to destroy the Earth, surely they could just use the ships of their glorious 10th battle fleet to do that.

The involvement of boy genius Rattagan is also interesting – while the character seems to have many of the same conceits of other human collaborators throughout the series, one can’t help but wonder if maybe (hopefully) there’s more going on than just being too smart for his own good. He seems to be something of a Sontaran-wannabe at the end of the episode, even participating in their school cheer – kind of like when the geeks from the chess club try to get involved at a pep rally.

Overall, the Sontaran Stratagem holds up very well. There are a few surprises – the clone body in the tank full of green goo was kind of neat – and the Sontarans themselves have received a nice updated look with the new series. The interplay between the characters was quite good as well.

Characterization: The Doctor was very solidly portrayed in this episode, and there are quite a few great lines that David Tennant gets to work with. The Tenth Doctor seems to have a real love of the pun, expressed through his appreciation of a UNIT solidier’s complaint about the ATMOS system and then his fabulous “intruder window” joke at the expense of the Sontarans. There is also a very good exchange when he thinks that Donna is leaving him for good, when in fact she’s just going to visit her family – the Doctor seems genuinely disappointed until he realizes that he’s being wound up.

Donna largely plays the episode fairly straight, although her insistence on receiving a salute from the UNIT commanding officer was a bit over the top. I do enjoy the relationship that Donna shares with her grandad, and the scene toward the end of the episode where everyone realizes that they’ve already met the Doctor was pretty well-done. It also makes a lot of sense that Donna uses the skills that she already has – having been a professional temp – to point out a significant question about the workers at the ATMOS factory. Although one wonders why an organization like that would bother to keep personnel records at all…labor regulations, I suppose…

Martha’s return to the series is a bit of a mixed bag. Martha seems to have moved past her cringe-inducing infatuation with the Doctor, which is good, but her new engagement seems to be just tossed out to the viewer without much other than simple exposition. With so much going on in the episode the return of Martha just isn’t given very much weight. I seem to recall that in the classic series the Doctor gave Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart some kind of temporal ticker-tape machine to call him if ever they needed to, and it seems to me like Martha’s primary point of involvement in the episode – aside from being an MD – is that she has the Doctor’s home phone number. She did manage to convey some emotion during her discussion with Donna about the importance of letting her family know where she’s gone, so there was that at least.

Supporting characters were done very well. The UNIT CO, Colonel Mace, seems to be a typically confident yet open-minded military type, and is capably played with a somewhat dry sense of humor by Rupert Holliday-Evans. General Staal is played with much vigor by Christopher Ryan, who should be known to many as Mike from the Young Ones. Staal sounds almost like a Military Channel fanboy, expressing his thoughts about the capabilities of enemy soldiers and just general enthusiasm for war and Sontar. Ryan has appeared in the classic series, as Lord Kiv in the Trial of a Time Lord – so he seems to be used to appearing in make-up!

Effects: There were a few effective effects additions to the episode, but no big set pieces as in the past couple of stories. The Sontaran ships and cruiser were pretty well done, including the nice touch of being able to see the pilot inside each of the smaller spherical ships. They kept the Sontaran ship design largely intact from the classic series, which was a nice touch. The makeup and prosthetic works in the episode is also very good, especially the aforementioned clone in goo and the work done on the Sontarans in general. It’s fairly obvious (as with the Judoon in Smith and Jones) that in order to keep prosthetic costs down they are only showing a couple of actual faces, while the rest of the warriors keep their helmets on. In the case of the Sontarans, they at least bother to mention that the removal of the helmets has some kind of significant place in the Sontaran honor system.

Overall: A very solid episode. More fanboy pleasing story elements, but enough action and intrigue to keep things interesting. I’d say this was definitely the strongest story of the new season, inching out Fires of Pompeii as generally being more tightly written.

Next Week: We learn the endgame for the Sontaran Stratagem in The Poison Sky. Battles, bombs and bravado – good stuff!

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