Saturday, May 17, 2008

4:5 The Poison Sky

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.


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."


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Mike Taylor said...

Interesting review, as always. But in the appendix, aren't you rather conflating "emotion" with "sex"?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think this two-parter (and "The Doctor's Daughter") is a little more ambivalent towards both soldierhood and cleverness than you suggest. The Doctor's antipathy towards soldiers is highlighted as something recent (most explicitly by that fact that UNIT are puzzled by it and repeatedly stress his previous cooperation with them), and related to his experiences in the time war. It's treated, most particularly in TDD, as something not entirely rational. You're obviously not wrong about the show's antipathy towards soldiers, though this is also somewhat undercut by the deliberately stirring terms in which UNIT's victory over the Sontarans is presented, but the vehemence of the Doctor's reaction to them is, I believe, at least partially intended to be off-putting.

Rattigan is a more troubling character, especially when one considers the prior examples of Adam and Henry Van Statten, but in his case, even more than in both of theirs, it's strongly suggested that the Doctor's resentment is rooted in a recognition of an aspect of himself he doesn't like. "The Sontaran Stratagem" goes to great lengths to point out the similarities between the Doctor and Rattigan, which in itself isn't exactly a defense of intellectualism, but coupled with the fact that Rattigan's students - geniuses all - do have enough common sense to see why global genocide is a bad idea I think that once again the episode's anti-intellectual message is not without contradictory examples.

Of course, it could be that this all has a lot less to do with intelligence and a lot more to do with gender. The Doctor rarely has problems with intelligent women, but put a male genius in front of him and a dick-measuring contest will inevitably ensue. Which may go some way towards explaining why the only man whose intellect he seemed to genuinely admire was the Master...

Andrew Stevens said...

I think there's something to this thesis. The Doctor's Daughter seemed to continue the theme of teaching the Doctor that soldiers aren't always bad, so there's a continuity there which could well be intentional. (Of course, even in the original series, the Doctor's relationship with UNIT was always half cooperation, half antagonism.)

In the old series, there were only three characters in the entire 26 years who could conceivably have been intellectually superior to the Doctor - in chronological order, Zoe ("the Doctor is almost as clever as I am"), the Master ("his degree in Cosmic Science was of a higher class than yours, Doctor"), and Davros. The Rani may have been his equal, but surely not his superior. Of those three, only the female is an ally of the Doctor's rather than an enemy, so there's some support for this thesis even from the original series. In the new series, only the Master has come close. Generally speaking, really intelligent men in Doctor Who tend to be mad scientists and this has always been true. Sometimes women as well, as with the Rani or that woman in Robot, but there have also been brilliant women like Liz Shaw who were not mad as a sack of hammers. Men like that are much rarer - in fact, I can't think of any off the top of my head. Sympathetic male scientists in Doctor Who have always tended to be a bit thick. It might be something written into the form - the show only has room for one brilliant man who's a good guy and that's always going to be the Doctor.

Phil Masters said...

It might be something written into the form...

Uh, yes. There's some danger of over-analysing this stuff. There may be a consistent pattern there, but when you're talking about a mass-market TV series, produced by a large and often-changing team over a period of decades, you can't safely ascribe much that's consistent to conscious planning, or even to subconscious ideology. It's got to be genre convention and sheer habit.

And by the way, Andrew - whence the inverted snobbery and sneering quotation marks for the subject of special effects?

Gavin Burrows said...

Phil Masters said:
"Uh, yes. There's some danger of over-analysing this stuff."

Uh, yes. I can't see it as joined up as Andrew does. It seemed obvious from the outset, even by the standards of these things, that Brainiac Kid wasn't going to get taken onboard by the Sontarans. He's the last kid to ever get picked for games if ever you saw one! The two halves of the story didn't feel very joined up to me. (Though when he's told his students left him because they were more intelligent than he thought, that's not a bad line.)

And the Doctor's always been pretty critical of bureaucracy and autocracy (more than war), the Time War business just sticks a cherry on the top.

Andrew Stevens said...

Sorry, I thought the phrase "written into the form" was shorthand for genre and narrative conventions. (Thus the Doctor nearly always has a less competent female as his Companion, just as Buffy was surrounded by less competent men.) I certainly don't think it implies conscious intention, though perhaps it could imply subconscious ideology.

Andrew Stevens said...

To clarify further, if you are a writer writing for Doctor Who and you create a sympathetic brilliant man to help the Doctor, what exactly are you going to do with that character? Answer: nothing. With the Doctor on the show, your character is entirely redundant. So the male Companions in Doctor Who have always been men of action - Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie, the Brigadier, and Harry (intended) or they're entirely useless like Turlough (who begins as an enemy of the Doctor and then becomes useless).

Even for a single story, it's hard to figure out what you do with a brilliant male character, unless he's been kidnapped and is being manipulated to help the enemies for virtually the entire story, which has been done on occasion (The Invasion).

Andrew Stevens said...

Silly me. I completely forgot the one exception to this entire rule - Adric. The only time they tried to pair up the Doctor with a very smart male character. Universally acknowledged as an enormous failure.

Phil Masters said...

David Tennant still garbles important exposition far too quickly - and usually while something is exploding.

Mm. Yes. That character tic started out as an amusing little joke, but could get wearing over time. On which subject, I hope that people have seen Neil Gaiman's preemptive post on David Tennant's Hamlet. (Scroll down or search for "Hamlet").

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:
"Silly me. I completely forgot the one exception to this entire rule - Adric."

You mean Adric had characteristics other than being annoying?

Andrew Stevens said...

Yes, he had bad hair, wore rubber pajamas, and his entire characterization consisted of a cheap tinfoil star he apparently won for "Mathematical Excellence." Those and annoying sum him up though. I believe he was so annoying because they broke the form. Since he was supposed to be brilliant, they had to make him immature or they risked his upstaging the Doctor. Consequently, they made him a twit.

Phil Masters said...

Insert long dissertation on why a male genius would tend to upstage the Doctor, while a female genius somehow doesn't. Hey ho.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The problem with Adric, surely, was that JNT hired an inexperienced actor who was also a Who-fan to play the role, and that he couldn't carry it off. I also note that he worked much better alongside Doctor Tom than he did alongside Doctor Peter: the contrast between "mature, experienced hero and young naive sidekick" being obviously better than "young, naive hero and young, naive sidekick." I do think that there's a fan-orthodoxy which says that Adric was Very Irritating which doesn't really reflect his actual role in the series. (It strikes me that the other characters in sci-fi who fans tend to over-react to are also young males: Wesley Crusher, the Anakins, others too numerous to mention. Give me five minutes and I'll work out a psycho-sexual theory to explain this.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Phil: It has to be said that neither Liz nor Romana #1 were great dramatic successes: not because they "upstaged" the Doctor but because they didn't serve in their basic role as "person who the Doctor explains things to for the viewers benefit." When the Brig fired Liz and replaced her with Jo, he said that what the Doctor really wanted was someone to hold his test tubes and tell him how brilliant he was: that was surely the script writer speaking.

Andrew Stevens said...

A female genius isn't a problem, due to audience identification. This is why the Doctor always has a female Companion, but is frequently missing a male Companion. In general, it is better if the female Companions aren't geniuses either for the reasons Mr. Rilstone mentioned, but it's not fatal if one is. Thus, Zoe and Romana both worked fine and could act as audience identifiers for the female geniuses in the audience. Of course, both of them lacked the Doctor's experience, so the Doctor still has something to do. But a male genius as a Companion has no role at all. It's not so much that he shows up the Doctor, which isn't a serious problem, it's that he's completely redundant.

You can get away with multiple geniuses on other shows because each genius tends to have his own specialty. But the Doctor has no specialty; he's an expert on everything.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Rilstone said:

I also note that he worked much better alongside Doctor Tom than he did alongside Doctor Peter: the contrast between "mature, experienced hero and young naive sidekick" being obviously better than "young, naive hero and young, naive sidekick."

From my hazy memory (haven't seen any of them since they were first broadcast),all the characters became irritating around that time - not least the character of the Doctor himself. But ironically the quality of thescripts improved from the later Tom Baker years.

PSEveryone seen this yet?

Mike Taylor said...

Steven Moffat! Steven "The Empty Child" Moffat! This is *fantastic*!

Check out the BBC's own story at

I'm so excited I just can't hide it! Steven "The Girl in the Fireplace" Moffat! I'm about to lose control. And I think I like it.