Did we like it?
Another fantastic episode that took the one-dimensional carapace of the Sontarons and made them into a fantastic adversary for the Doctor. And the two-part format for this story enabled the mood and pace to shift about smoothly without the frenetic frenzy of the first three episodes, and the chief beneficiary of this was Catherine Tate’s Donna who has really come into her own.
What was good about it?
• The Sontarons are perhaps the best so far of the revived foes from the old series, and certainly the most improved – much better than the rather dull Cybermen. After Doomsday exposed the Daleks and Cybermen as essentially the same megalomaniacal cybernetic organism, the fear was that the Sontarons would be condemned to a similar fate.
• In the old series they were handicapped by the dreary dogma of conquest above all else, and could be rather sour and dour in the vein their cybernetic counterparts. However, now the Sontarons have a culture all of their own; sure it’s still rooted in conquest and battle but their leader General Staal (a great turn from Christopher Ryan) exhibited traits that gave his race a kind of alien humanity.
• Each Sontaron, even though they are a race of clones, has an individual appellation related to their battlefield prowess – Staal for example is Staal the Undefeated (which enabled the Doctor to make a merry quip), while his major-domo Skorr is Skorr the Bloodbringer. And it’s with little details like this that you can imagine them as a horde of Vikings pillaging the cosmos, while their proud edicts they strictly adhere to in combat resemble Klingons with their belief that there is honour in dying in battle and their victory dance at the conclusion to the episode was like the Haka being performed by Umpa Lumpas but atmospheric nonetheless..
• There was even a little humour from the race of stuffy Little Hitlers. When Staal confronted two UNIT troops who had wandered into the Sontarons’ base, they joked about his stout frame. He retorted: “Is that a reference to my height. Words are the weapons of womenfolk!” before disabling and brainwashing them. (Although, given that Sontarons are identical presumably male clones, we wonder where he gleaned his knowledge and prejudices about women.)
• While the single episode format has felt far more comfortable in this series and the last, the two-episode format liberates the script from being screwtop tight. Here we saw Martha and Donna joke about how skinny the Doctor was; the Doctor’s discomfort over UNIT’s trigger-happy troops was brought up on three or four occasions providing depth to his ethos rather than making it seem a surly caprice; while the two UNIT troops venturing into the Sontaron base ratcheted up the tension.
• Yet the scene that benefited best from this extra space was when Donna returned home to see her granddad Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) and her mum. Even with the intrusive, extraneous flashbacks to previous episodes that took place all of three weeks ago, the sight of Donna striding nervously up the road to greet Wilf didn’t seem as cloying as when Rose and Martha made similar journeys and packed much more of an emotional punch.
• David Tennant, too, thrived as along with the chance to explore his distaste for guns, there was a moment in his encounter with spoilt child genius Luke Rattigan (the always impressive Ryan Sampson) that you could see in the Doctor’s eyes that he was gazing back in time to his own past and his own teenage arrogance. And it’s another one of those little, subtle moments that will exponentially add so much more when Rattigan is in mortal danger next episode and the Doctor tries to save him, and will be devastated/euphoric depending on the outcome.
• Freema Agyeman made a confident return as Martha Jones. It’s perhaps a wise move to effectively consign the real Martha to impotent imprisonment for the majority of this story and replace her with an evil clone as, such is the fickle nature of our affections towards the Doctor’s companions, we now prefer Donna just as we preferred Martha over Rose after The Shakespeare Code.
• UNIT now looks like a crack military unit rather than its 70s incarnation that resembled a Dads Army, out-of-puff ragbag battalion of the Territorial Army on some weekend jaunt. And the Doctor made a reference to this.
What was bad about it?
• This about the sixth invasion of present day Earth by aliens/extra-dimensional beings (Cybermen) in the past three years. We get the impression that rather than a spontaneous act of invasion, there’s an appointment book run by the Shadow Proclamation that aspiring alien conquistadors have to use to fix a time and date for their attack. In the future, would it be possible to invade some other time or planet?
• The Sontaron plot to release poison gas from 400 million cars fitted with their ATMOS device does appear to be a little lame at first glance as people have to be in their cars at the time of release to suffer. On closer inspection, the Doctor does muse that their must be a further purpose of the gas beyond simply choking the driver, so we’ll wait to see what that is.