WARNING: Spoilers ahead. I shouldn’t need to say that, but if you don’t want to know any story spoilers, go elsewhere.
Quick Synopsis: The Sontarans are using the cars of planet Earth against it, and they have infiltrated UNIT command with a clone of Martha Jones. The Doctor has to find a way to keep UNIT from going to a nuclear option while solving the problem of the ATMOS gas, while Donna has to find a way to keep her cool in an alien environment.
Story: The interesting thing about the beginning of The Poison Sky is that it doesn’t really “resolve” the cliffhanger. The immediate problem of Donna’s granddad is addressed, but the rest of the world is left to wallow in gas…that we later discover is not yet at lethal concentrations. From there the Doctor has to essentially work the inside of two different systems, using both of his companions to achieve his ends. It’s a little more manipulative then we’ve seen Doctor #10 in a while, but it works – he manages to be forthright with Donna while using the Martha clone to surreptitiously stop a nuclear war.
The Sontaran plot is a little bit more interesting than I originally expected – the true purpose of the ATMOS gas was somewhat original, but one wonders why the Sontarans chose a planet like Earth in the early 21st century to be their target. Surely it would attract less attention to go elsewhere, and would have likely required a lot less up-front trickery. The reasons for the Sontaran choice of our planet to do their dirty deed were never made entirely clear, but if not here then I guess the chances that the Doctor would have stumbled across the plot would have been greatly diminished.
The UNIT response to the Sontaran invasion was actually pretty cool – Colonel Mace gave a more inspiring speech than the President did in Independence Day and the re-appearance of the Valiant from the last couple of episodes of the previous season was pretty cool. UNIT managed to actually kick some alien butt – again – and it was a nice homage to give the UNIT callsigns the same names as the Pertwee era, such as “Trap One” and “Greyhound 40.” It was an even cooler homage to mention the Brigadier by name. One wonders if perhaps Martha has met Sir Allistair during her time in the service?
The final solution to the Sontaran problem(s) were both examples of “god machines” in plain sight. The Doctor openly mentioned the existence of atmospheric equipment when visiting the Rattigan academy in the last episode, and then the use of “something clever” to save the Doctor AND neutralize the Sontarans was fairly obviously broadcasted, but not entirely ineffective.
Characterization: Last week I wondered if there was more to Luke Rattigan than just being another human collaborator, and sadly there isn’t a whole lot there. Luke has big dreams but was easily duped by uncharacteristically duplicitous Sontarans. The idea of starting over the race with his little pool of uber-achievers is a little too unbelievable – this guy is supposed to be a genius, but he’s going to recreate the race with 20 or so people? And he never considered that they might not be keen on the idea? Luke is essentially removed from the chess board of the episode fairly early on, and only comes back in the literal last moments of the episode in an attempt to make him a tragic figure. I suppose it works on some level, but since Luke is such an unbelievable character by this point it’s difficult to dredge up much sympathy for him. In fact, I found myself just trying to guess which deus ex machina was going to save the Doctor this time – Donna with her newfound TARDIS flight training, or Luke after a glib last message from the Doctor?
Martha had a little bit more exposure this time around, both in clone and “original” form. The exchange between the real and clone Marthas was kind of interesting – sort of a self-affirming visit to the mirror, a la Stuart Smalley.
There is a scene toward the end of the episode where both Martha and Donna are reunited with the Doctor. Martha clings to the Doctor in a warm embrace, while Donna smacks him on the arm in frustrated relief. This was actually a pretty nice way to sum up both of their personalities and relationships with the Doctor. Once again, Donna doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time in this episode, but what she does have is used effectively. Her family discussions about whether to continue with the Doctor and her later phone call with Wilfred were both well played, and lacked the histrionics and over the top nature that made Donna grate so many fans in the Runaway Bride. Donna still has spunk – displayed briefly when she manages to overcome a single Sontaran guard – but it’s kept in check as she gets involved in things much larger than she is. As she continues to travel with the Doctor she is rising to the challenge and growing more in each story.
Fanbait: There were a few fan-friendly things about this episode that I thought I’d share. Mind the spoiler warning.
- The Brigadier was referenced by the Doctor and Colonel Mace, but only in a brief exchange. Nicely done.
- The Doctor ends up wearing a gas mask at one point, at which time he looks at Colonel Mace and asks, “are you my mummy?” An AWESOME callback to The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.
- The Rutans and the Sontaran war are given more time in this episode. We’ve only seen the Rutans directly once on screen, in the Tom Baker episode The Horror of Fang Rock.
- And finally…when the Doctor makes his sonic screwdriver-assisted call to the Sontaran ship the TARDIS picks up the transmission, which Donna runs around the console to watch. When the screen becomes visible you can clearly see Rose Tyler on the screen, apparently trying to communicate with the Doctor via the TARDIS – but only for a split second before the Doctor’s message to the Sontarans (and Donna) begins.
Overall: A solid conclusion. Many times it seems like two part stories fall apart toward the end, but The Poison Sky was really pretty strong. I guess I wasn’t too distraught by the weakness of the Rattigan character because I wasn’t really expecting much. I was HOPING for more, but not expecting it. And it’s not like he was just awful…just not a character whose potential was fully realized.
Next Week, HOLY CRAP. The Doctor’s daughter? What?!