Thursday, May 01, 2008

4:4 "The Sontaran Stratagem"

-- Girl reporter thrown out of sinister stately home. Ah. Seems we've come in in the middle of episode 2. Again.

-- Boy genius. Haven't we seen this character before? Wasn't he in "Dalek"? (Twice?)

-- Sat-nav drives girl reporter off the bridge. Ooo! A ubiquitous consumer device has turned evil. Again. Like the evil alien diet pills. And the evil alien living in the TVs. And the evil alien mobile phones. (Twice.) Can't we have an evil alien daffodil once in a while?

-- Car actually going into river: nice little action movie scene.

-- Martha calls the Doctor home. Hey! That would have been cool, if you hadn't told us it was going to happen a year in advance. And then a week in advance.

-- Martha looks into camera. Leaves blow up and she looks round at TARDIS. Donna seen inside TARDIS, so Doctor has his back to her as he goes to Martha. Don't think we've scene that before. Bit obvious, but nice.

-- Martha and Donna get on really well. The Sarah-Jane plot in Season 2 has set up the expectation that former companions, like former girlfriends, will always quarrel.

-- Unified Intelligence Task Force? Unified? Why? Why? Why?

-- Martha says they are looking for illegal aliens. One of those "joke" things.

-- The Doctor worked for UNIT in the 70s, or was it the 80s. Ho-ho, ha-ha, he-he.

-- What is the POINT of showing us the Sontaran out of shot, and then from behind when we have already been shown what he looks like in last weeks trailer and on the cover of the Radio Times?

-- Squaddies marching down corridor in factory that builds evil alien sat nav. Could we get on with it? Could we get to the Sontarans, please?

-- Squaddies faff around with coffin full of luminous green glue. COULD WE GET ON WITH IT PLEASE?

-- Doctor mucking around with soldiers...feels a lot like, well, a UNIT story.

-- Ooo, it's a Sontaran! Were Sontaran's always small? (Stop pretending that we don't know what it's face looks like!)

-- Ooo -- he's taken his helmet off. We see the partial close up of his face. Very nice. Except we saw it in the trailer at the end of the last season and we've ALREADY SCENE THE FULL VIEW IN THE SODDING RADIO SODDING TIMES!

-- "I don't like people with guns", "People with guns are usually the enemy": nice.

-- Donna using her brain to spot the the Clue in the personnel records. Nice. (Using HER brain, as opposed to Rose's brian or a generic companion brain.)

-- Donna tells the Doctor she's going home. Could have been very funny, but so desperately over-done as to be embarrassing.

-- Donna goes home; feels a montage coming on. (NOTE: She's seen a lot of weird stuff, but her mother was in a pub where alien jelly babies were breaking out of people's tummies.)

-- Ah: they are treating Donna's family more as a soap opera than a sit com this week. Bernard Cribbens is a lot better than he was in the first episode. Positively good scene.

-- School for geniuses. (Is that the same building as the school in "Human Nature".) Are there any girl geniuses? (Does RTD like stories about boys boarding schools, for some unaccountable reason?) Why is it "a bit Hitler youth" rather than all geeky and nerdy? Lab where everyone is experimenting is awfully old fashioned? Wouldn't boy genii mainly be working on computers?

-- Toys lying around in Rattigan's room, obviously meant to to evoke Google and other laid back IT companies: doesn't fit in very well with Hitler youth and early morning runs.

-- Big reveal moment, the Sontaran unmasks. BUT WE'VE ALREADY SEEN IT.


-- The Sontaran walks through the teleport and into the space-ship followed by the genius kid. This is the first moment this season -- no, the first moment EVER -- when I (almost unconsciously) think "Hey! I'm watching Doctor Who."

-- Martha imprisoned, tub of green goo, oh god, it's going to be a clone. There's nothing more boring than clones, dopplegange's and evil doubles.

-- Sontaran and kid looking out over earth through window of spaceship. Admittedly, the same scene was done in -- "End of the World", other places as well -- but very nice.

-- Would the Sontarans really know the Doctor as a one of their enemies? "Time Warrior" and "Sontaran Experiment" (and "Two Doctors" come to think of it, must have erased that from my memory) must be pretty minor encounters. I suppose they blame him for their invasion of Gallifrey failing. Odd that a race mad enough to invade Gallifrey wasn't involved with the Time War. Sorry. Having a geek moment.

-- Pull back from window to Sontaran fleet. OK, Babylon 5 was proud that it could do this ten years ago, but it still looks cool. Nice spaceships, too.

-- Doctor convinces the alien sat nav not to drive them into the river by ordering it to drive them into the river. A bit like Spock making alien computers blow up by feeding them simple paradoxes! But, quite fun that it stops on the very edge of the river and then fizzles out.

-- The realistic soap opera - Donna, Gramps and her mother - works very well as a brief interlude to off-set the space opera rather than the main event. The whole scene with them round the car is really very nice indeed.

-- I like the Sontaran's little beard. Only just noticed that.

-- Loads of Sontarans and loads of Sontaran spaces ships. I love it.

-- Sontar-ha, Sontar-ha. You see that almost imperceptible dot on the horizon? That's Russell T Davies' sense of good taste, tht is.

-- Apart from the fact that Gramps was stupid enough to jump in the car, that's really a very good cliffhanger.


Sam Dodsworth said...


As someone who semi-recently watched "The Ark In Space" on DVD, I find this comment ironic.

Unknown said...

Hi, Andrew, thanks for this. I admit that I am starting to look forward to your reviews almost as much as the actual episodes :-) Not too much to disagree with here, except that it seems a bit harsh to complain about the SLOW pace of this episode!

Mike Taylor said...

Oops, the "fiona" who posted the previous comment is me: she used Google Mail last, and left it logged in.

Anyway: forgot to say that I feel your pain regarding the constant give-aways in the Radio Times, tabloids and indeed trailers. But even more, I feel the pain of the poor writers and directors who have to find a way to work in that environment. Really, what are they supposed to do? I don't think it would be right to put together the episode with the assumption that everyone's seen these things: they have to assume that no-one has and make the reveals accordingly. This problem is hardly unique to Doctor Who, though it does seem to suffer from it more than most.

Unknown said...

I'm noticing this season more than ever before that whoever has been directing has absolutely no ability to direct crowds or extras - and I suspect it looks so crap that they're cutting out lots of shots which just didn't work.

The Ood episode was a particular example - there's a huge battle going on between the Ood and the humans, but all we get are these really tight shots, and the extras you see in the background aren't doing anything obviously interesting. In many cases, just standing about, particularly noticeable in the reaction shots to the Ood becming whole again.

This episode wasn't much better, and other than the one shot at the end (ruined by cutting closer) I'm getting more annoyed at everything in the show other than David Tennant - it used to be just the writing, but unavoidably even the direction is sticking in my head as badly done.

Pandora Caitiff said...

Insightful and interesting review of Who, as ever.

Watching the dramatic cliffhanger I couldn't help thinking "If only there was a large vulnerable part of a car made from some fragile material like glass that could be broken by... oh I don't know... half a brick?"

And I see the Sontaran's have magic wands too. Sorry, I mean stick-like plot-devices.

Tilt Araiza said...

Apparently, when they had those viral sites for DW in 2005, someone, somewhere at the United Nations noticed a website claiming to represent a non-existent branch of the UN and got in a snit about it; hence "unified".

SK said...

Because apparently the BBC is the only organisation in the world that feels it actually has to kowtow to the UN. Wimps.

nickpheas said...

Radio Times? Does anyone actually buy it?

I will be interested to see a review in the same style for season 12.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Nick, dear-heart, I have not the slightest idea what point you are making.

Season 12 is, er, (counts on his fingers) Tom Baker's first -- Robot, Bubble Wrap, Davros, Sontaran filler, Cybermen, yes?

The above review was a more-or-less sincere attempt to write down my first impressions of last weeks show. (In truth, second impression: I rewatched the prog on Sunday night with a dictaphone in my hand, said more or less what came into my head and typed up more or less what I wrote.) Intended to counter the criticism that I had over analyzed the first three stories.

By definition, I can't tell you my first impressions of 30 year old stories which I've seen at least three times, and in some cases, seven or eight times. But when I write about Old Who, when I can remember a first impression, as "I saw Genesis of the Daleks part 3 at Richard Grimwood's birthday party", I often refer to them. And open myself to the charge of being twee.

There seems to be a theory going around that any criticism of New-Who can automatically be refuted by

a: Pointing out that at least one Old Who had a similar fault or

b: Pointing out that at least one contemporary fan disliked an Old Who story which is now regarded as a classic.

Hence "So and so says 'Partners in Crime' was not very good; but then, at the time, people said 'Horns of the Nimon' was not very good, so he should just shut up."


"So and so says that 'Partners in Crime' was slow / silly / rushed / badly acted / over acted. But you could just as well say that 'Terror of the Terror' was slow/silly/rushed/badly acted. So he should just shut up."

Which is, of course, just fine as an argument for NOT writing reviews, and indeed, for watching "Doctor Who" (and "Heroes", and "Indiana Jones and the Revived Franchise" and "Iron Man, Iron Man, Does Whatever An Iron Can" with ones brain in neutral and not thinking about them at all. Which is fine if you're happy for this blog to be purely about the Archbishop of Canterbury and C.S Lewis.

Or perhaps you were seriously inviting me to do some episode by episode writing about Old Who? If so, I'd be more likely to tackle Season 1 than Season 12: I might even do that one of these days. Or were you just pointing out that there is some well known example of a twist for Season 12 being blown in Radio Times in 1976?

One doesn't have to buy R.T, but one can't avoid the fact that a whole display of Sontarans are staring out at you from Mr. Patel's corner shop when you go to buy the Guardian and the Eye.

Phil Masters said...

It's true enough that all the efforts to handle Who as "event television" do indeed tend to trash many attempts at surprise effects in the actual programme... On which I find there are two possible comments:

1. Event television isn't really about surprises or the unexpected. At most, it's about a facsimile of surprise - a series of showpieces which enable the viewers to cheer and whoop without being disturbed by anything so unpleasant as a shock.

(To be more precise, "family event television" perhaps works this way. Torchwood - whatever its other issues - does actually manage to keep a few twists under wraps until the broadcast date. But that's being pitched at a slightly older, more thriller-oriented market, who really don't mind being surprised so much.)

2. The Beeb/RTD and his mob maybe really aren't that good at this event TV stuff. American products in the same market niche (Heroes, Lost) get almost as much prior promotion, but still manage some genuine twists and turns.

(Of course, (a) those may be aimed more at that older/thriller-ish market, and (b) they're less dependent on the resurrection of thirty-year-old monster designs for their effect.)

Sam Dodsworth said...

There seems to be a theory going around that any criticism of New-Who can automatically be refuted by...

My intention wasn't so much to refute you as to cap your "it's not what it used to be" with the necessary "mind you, it never was".

Andrew Rilstone said...

But I'm not saying "It's not as a good as it used to be." I don't know how I can say this more clearly than I have. My quarrel with New Who is not that it isn't Old Who, it's that a lot of the time, it isn't very good at being New Who. Whether 'Partners in Crime' compares well or badly with 'Ark in Space' is not the point. The point is that it compares terribly, terribly badly with 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer'.

Andrew Rilstone said...

If you call a story "Tomb of the Cybermen", then there is not much point in trying to generate tension and mystery about whose tomb it could possibly be. Much better to stick the Cybermark on the tomb and have people say "We've come to find the legendary tomb of the cybermen" in the first five minutes. If you call a story "Earthshock" and want us to spend the whole of episode 1 wondering who is behind all the unpleasantness in the caves, then when the Radio Times ask if they can put the cybermen on the cover, best tell them they can't because it would ruin the whole point of the episode. If the Doc and Sarah are going to wonder around a deserted London wondering what could possibly have scared all the people away, then best label the story "The Invasion" and only use the full title (..."of the dinosaurs") after the first saurian has come into view at the end of part 1. It's not rocket science.

Sontaran Stratagem used a classic old school structure for "revealing" the baddie:

1: We hear the voice of an alien talking to Human Baddie.

2: We see Human Baddie from alien's point of view.

3: We see alien's three fingered hand

4: We see alien, but with it's face covered by a helmet

5: Alien removes helmet,Human Goodies look shocked, but we only see extreme close up of alien's eyes.

6: Finally, when Doctor himself sees alien, we see full view of alien's face...

And this is just a very, very odd thing to do when the title tells us who the alien is, and every bit of publicity the BBC has used tells us what it looks like. I wonder (seriously) if it's another weirdo post modern gag: treating something which has been revealed in advance as if it's all very serious.

That said, the two actual plot twists -- the fairly predictable "who saves the Doctor at the end" one, and the rather more surprising Thing Which Happens in the Last Two Minutes were kept sufficiently quiet to take me slightly by surprise. And the story wasn't spoiled by the spoilers. (In season 1, the trailer for "Bad Wolf" rendered the entire episode completely pointless.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Or perhaps you were seriously inviting me to do some episode by episode writing about Old Who? If so, I'd be more likely to tackle Season 1 than Season 12: I might even do that one of these days.

This would be terrific and I'll heartily endorse this suggestion. I'd even go for Season 12, despite its being the worst of the Hinchcliffe seasons by a wide margin. (I personally do not join Mr. Rilstone in his criticism of The Sontaran Stratagem for its slower pace. Still, comparing it to Ark in Space is a low blow. The slow pace of Ark in Space Episode 1 is part of what makes it so atmospheric. Pity the next three episodes weren't nearly as good and the slow pace just bogged it down.)

By the by, my favorite Hartnell season (who is my favorite Doctor) isn't Season 1; it's actually Season 3. Wonderfully inventive and experimental other than Galaxy 4, which just sucked. Even its experimental failures like The Celestial Toymaker were interesting. (And The Gunfighters is a comedy masterpiece. Don't let anyone tell you differently.)

I think most old fans probably wanted a reboot of the Tom Baker years. I would have given much for a reboot of the original series - an older Doctor, two young Companions (one male, one female, so the non-fans can have their sexual tension). If you wanted to be really brave, you could even make them a young married couple and do something quite unlike anything else on television - actually show a happy marriage. (Honestly, they do exist, difficult as that might be to believe.) The Doctor would eventually, of course, have to become the hero of his own show again, but this transition could be done slowly as the audience becomes accustomed to the character.

But then I can drive myself crazy wishing for the show I would have wanted written (but lack the talent to write myself). Davies has given us Father's Day, The Empty Child, School Reunion, The Impossible Planet, Human Nature, and Blink. He seems to be good for two brilliant stories a season, a handful of watchable ones, and two or three really abysmally bad stories. We could all wish for more consistency, like Buffy generally had (at least for the first five seasons), but I'm certainly willing to take what I can get.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I did not intend to complain that "The Sontaran Stratagem", as an episode, was slow paced.

I made a note that there were two scenes (the squaddies in the corridor, the squaddies talking to the luminous green goo) that didn't seem to be going anywhere.