Militaristic aliens in flying saucers invading earth using a plan that's five times more complicated that it needs to be; the Doctor and UNIT rubbing each other the wrong way, but eventually pulling together to save the day; a quizzling turncoat who sells out Planet Earth to alien invaders who double-cross him at the last minute; the Doctor using deus ex machina technology to save the Earth with mere seconds to spare... If you'd asked me, in 2004, to imagine what a 21st century regeneration of Doctor Who would look like, this is more or less what I'd have come up with.
The story has had more money thrown at it than it would have done in the Olden Days. The budget runs to hiring halfway decent actors for even minor roles, so Ross-the-squaddie-who's-obviously-going-to-die and radio-operator-lady-who-kisses-the-Colonel-at-the-end come across as characters rather than ballast. And there are lots and lots and lots and lots of extras: the big battle at the end between UNIT and the Sontarans looks like, well, a big battle. Not one of those skirmishes where three Daleks represented an invasion force. And - if you really have so little imagination that this kind of thing bothers you - the "special effects" are "better" than in the old days. But in other respects, this feels a lot like a 2008 take on a 1971 story. If you told me it was based on the long lost Season 9 script, "Terror of the Sontarans", I wouldn't be a bit surprised.
Granted, a real 1970s story wouldn't have contained such big dollops of Archers style touchy feely emoting. But the domestic stuff actually works rather well: because we see her family, Donna remains rooted in her back-story. She's an actual person, albeit one who doesn't act nearly as well as The Mysterious Disembodied Face Who Appears On The TARDIS Monitor To Foreshadow Something Really Big At The End of the Season. (Martha's family never really came properly on-stage which encouraged her to slip into the role of Generic Doctor Who Girl just as much as Peri or Bonni did.) Juxtaposing scenes in the Sontaran space ship with scenes in Donna's Mum's Kitchen makes the space opera stuff seem bigger and more dramatic. I can't think of another example of a TV show which has interleaved Soap Opera and Space Opera in quite this way.
It has faults. I still don't understand what the Doctor was signalling Donna to do with the telephone. David Tennant still garbles important exposition far too quickly - and usually while something is exploding. Unless you are the sort of sad geek who videos the story and re-watches it, you have precious little chance of ever finding out why the Sontaran needed a clone of Martha in the first place.
Like too many Doctor Who stories, old and new, it shows signs of being a not completely viable hybrid. There's a perfectly good story about a group of super-intelligent teenagers who plan to wipe out all life on earth and then decamp to a new planet. And there's a perfectly good story about Sontarans planning to re-model the Earth as a factory for breeding baby Sontarans on. (Very much like the Adipose. And the Pyroviles. Hmm...) But the two halves don't entirely fit together. It isn't clear why the Sontarans need to put gas generating devices into people's cars rather than, say, just dumping them into the atmosphere. It isn't clear why they need something quite so elaborate as Luke Rattigan's genius school to facilitate this. And as ever, the resolution was plucked out of thin, if slightly polluted, air. Of course Rattigan had a Big Red Button which cleanses the earth of all the nasty gas that the evil alien sat navs had pumped into it lying about his lab. Of course you could set fire to the earth's entire atmosphere in a matter of seconds, rather than, say, weeks.
Oh - contrary to what I said in our last thrilling instalment, Luke's academy is co-educational, and the combination of geeky toys and Army Training Corps P.E lessons makes sense once his Evil Masterplan has been revealed. Astonishingly, the real life United Nations seems to have requested that UNIT be renamed the Unified Intelligence Task Force. Figures: the BBC are the only people on earth who pay the slightest attention to the U.N and so far as I know, there wasn't even a special resolution.
But I don't really think any of these details matter. This two part story conveyed the sense that we were watching a Big Space Opera in which the earth was in terrible danger. The fact that the story was taking place on multiple levels -- Luke's academy; the space fleet; UNIT H.Q; Donna's kitchen -- made the whole thing feel much bigger than it actually was. The story believed in itself. The ending surprised me, more or less. The space-ships and the Sontaran army were impressive. The jokes were quite funny. The aliens themselves were well characterized. There was a reference to the Brigadier. This is what we want more of.
That's what's so depressing. Who-fans are clicking their heels with joy; talking about Stratagem/Sky as if it were some kind of triumph -- rather than a bog standard Jon Pertwee earth invasion story with added gloss. I have nothing at all against bog standard Jon Pertwee earth invasion stories. But they shouldn't feel like series highpoints. They should feel like "The sort of story that the Beeb reliably churns out every week." If I feel inclined to greet bread-and-butter as if it was birthday cake you can bet that something has been allowed to go very, very wrong.
APPENDIX: DEPARTMENT OF SPURIOUS SUB-TEXTS
This story is based around a series of structural conflicts. Emotion, represented by families, is regarded as good; the repression of emotion, represented by the military, is regarded as bad. It is also held that intelligence ("cleverness") will lead to the repression of emotion.
Donna finds it reprehensible that the Doctor has turned Martha into a soldier: it is taken for granted that "being a soldier" is a Bad Thing.
Martha appears to concede this point: the Doctor only recognises her as the Old Martha Jones when she says that by working for the military, she might be able to make them "better" – i.e less like the military. The Doctor goes so far as to identify "possessing weapons" with "being the enemy".
Soldiers cannot be bad simply because they kill people. At the end of the story, the Doctor takes on the role of a suicide bomber, purposing to exterminate the entire Sontaran battle fleet. (He would make a good Dalek, as the fellow said.) And they cannot be bad simply because they send people into situations in which they may be killed: the Doctor orders Donna to put her life on the line on the Sontaran spaceship. The difference appears to be that while the Colonel remains detached from the situation, the Doctor emotes about it. He feels guilty about putting Donna at risk; he calls Ross by his name rather than his military call sign; he gives the Sontarans a chance to surrender before wiping them out. Soldiers are bad because they do not express their emotions.
Luke Rattigan is "intelligent". He is also immature (stamping his feet like a toddler when he doesn't get his way), socially inept and physically unattractive. The female girl genius seems more shocked when she hears that Luke wanted to have sex with her than when she found out that he intended to wipe out all life on earth. Luke feels - and the Doctor agrees - that by virtue of his intelligence, he is a natural outsider. He has withdrawn into a commune / school where only other "clever" people are admitted; and hopes to withdraw further onto a completely new planet. Luke's sin, then, is the same as the sin of Colonel Mace: emotional illiteracy. That's why is academy for the super-intelligent is "a bit Hitler Youth" and why he has run into the arms of the super-militaristic Sontarans.
Family is the antithesis of Military. Donna takes time out from saving the earth to visit her family. When Martha indicates that she hasn't bothered to check up on hers, the Doctor knows that she's an evil Sontaran clone. Luke's students walk out on him, not so much because they are shocked by his amorality, as because they want to be with their families during the impending holocaust. Luke's proposed new civilisation won't have any families at all: everything is going to be run according to a breeding programme that he's worked out.
The equation of "intelligence" with "social and sexual inadequacy" and "emotional illiteracy", is very much what lies behind the popular and offensive archetype of the "geek". In order to create his Utopian geek-world of emotion free breeding programmes, Luke has made a pact with the Sontarans. Within the schema of the episode, the Sontarans are the supreme example of the repression of emotion. Having been engaged in a war for 50,000 years, every Sontaran is a soldier, and nothing but a soldier. And, being clones, grown in tanks, they have no familial connections whatsoever. Clearly, this story should have been re-titled "Planet of the Asexuals."
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.
Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.