Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Doctor Who Review Three

The Sontaran Experiment is the one which comes in between Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks. It was two episodes long.


The Sontaran Experiment is a Boy Scout Wide Game; or possibly an installment of the Famous Five, only with space suits. When Sarah-Jane encounters Roth for the first time, she absolutely charmingly says that he is wearing "space clothes".

The Doctor's team lands in a rough patch of English countryside; Harry and Sarah go for a walk while the Doctor does science; Harry falls down a hole. Sarah goes to get help from the Doctor, but Harry gets out of the hole by himself. Two spacemen with guns capture the Doctor; a more friendly spaceman without a gun meets up with Sarah-Jane. Sarah-Jane cleverly frees the Doctor; the Doctor falls down a hole. It's a grand old game of space-chase, with space-clothes, space-ray-guns and space-robots

And also, of course a really nasty space-alien. Although the story is only half as long as usual, the cardinal rule that we aren't allowed to see the monster until the end of Episode 1 is adhered to. While the Doctor, Harry and Sarah-Jane run around Dartmoor, sinister hints are dropped about "the thing in the rocks" and "the alien". For the third story running we get scenes filmed from the monster's point of view: we see a nasty claw like hand operating a futuristic control panel, and are left wondering who or what the hand could possibly belong to. The music reminds us to be quite surprised at the end of Episode 1 when the antagonist of The Sontaran Experiment turns out to be... a Sontaran!

It is traditional at this point to say that Sontarans look rather silly. Reviewer's generally say that Field Marshall Styre looks like 

a: A baked potato, 
b: Humpty Dumpty or 
c: A poo. 

In fact he has aged a lot better than many of the monsters in the old series. He blinks. His mouth moves. His face looks human, but huge, distorted, ugly: very much what a being from a high gravity world might be expected to look like. There was a character from the planet Jupiter in the Guardians of the Galaxy (not to be confused with the Guardians of the Galaxy) with a rather similar physique.

The man under the mask was called Kevin Lindsay. He played an amusing cockney milkman in a series of adverts for the Milk Marketing Board on the Other Side. We really did have a chirpy cockney milkman in those days with an electric van who put milk on our step every day. Kevin Lindsay the actor died very soon after making the Sontaran Experiment. It was one of the first deaths I can remember. It did not make me sad but somehow rather embarrassed. It was strange to think that the funny cockney milkman and the Sontaran were not there any more.


The Sontaran Experiment is a cosmic space opera sweeping across three empires and ten thousand years, yet observing the Aristotelian Unities. In this corner—in this galaxy—the militaristic cloned Sontaran Empire, eternally at war with the not-yet-glimpsed Rutans. In this galaxy, an earth rendered uninhabitable by solar flares, and a human diaspora. Season 12 is well-known for its theatrical rhetoric. Vural's expository ditty may not reach the heights of "a capsule which contains such power" but it evokes a cosmic tapestry with some dramatic flair. 

"Listen: if you are one of the Old People we are not taking orders from you lot. While you were dozing away, our people kept going and they made it. We've got bases all across the galaxy now. You've done nothing for ten thousand years while we made an Empire. So we're not taking any of that Mother Earth rubbish." 

"That Mother Earth Rubbish" is not further developed or explained; but we instantly get the idea. There are two classes of humans. The long-sleepers in the Ark will regard themselves as purer and more human than the returning colonials. The colonials are not having it. Nothing comes of the idea; but it hangs there, making time seem awfully long and space awfully big. 

Just at the exact moment when the Ark is ready to defrost the Sontarans have decided to use the Earth as a beach head to invade our "Galaxy" as part of their endless war. But before they start, they need to figure out the human race's weaknesses. So they send out a fake distress signal and start experimenting on the humans who respond to it. Nasty experiments; leaving humans chained up in caves to see how long it takes them to die of thirst; holding them underwater to see how long it takes them to asphyxiate. Nothing is shown graphically, but it's a disturbing, cruel idea to put into kids' heads on a Saturday evening. 

It makes absolutely no sense at all. It never does. One Sontaran? Holding up the invasion of the galaxy until he has finished scientifically torturing half a dozen humans? 

But who cares. A diaspora; a return; earth destroyed but reborn; two alien empires in endless war; colonial resentment towards the Mother world—the stuff of multi-volume Asimov space sagas, squeezed into two twenty five minute tooth paste tubes. And make no mistake: a multi-volume Asimov saga based around this material would be as tedious as—well, as tedious as Isaac Asimov. It is hearing the Big Ideas alluded to, in passing, during a romp through woods and quarries, which is so magical. 

I think that is why we took it for real history. When we heard about the lost colonies and the Sontarans and the Rutans, we didn't think—we never thought—"this is corroborative detail which Bob Baker and Dave Martin are pulling out of their collective hats to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." We honestly believe that it was exposition of a long established back story. We thought that if we were proper Doctor Who fans—the kind who preferred William Hartnell and owned the Dalek Outer Space Book —we would know this stuff already. And I think this is part of the intended effect. This kind of back story means something, in a way that "I was with the Philipino Army during the siege of Reykjavik" doesn't. The Sontaran Experiment and the Ark in Space take place in the same universe, obviously, but so in a way does the Revenge of the Cybermen and the Invasion of the Zygons and that universe is different from Star Trek or Blake's Seven even though you would be insane to try to draw a map of it. 

See, over there? That's the universe, that is. 


Tom Baker is still establishing himself as the serious one. And the sad one: the sad serious one who grins a lot. He spends much of the episode sciencing; but when the moment comes, our jaw drops slightly and he announces that he is going to challenge the Sontaran to single combat. Our benevolent wandering alien versus the ugly space Nazi on a post-holocaust earth (that looks oddly like Dorset) with the fate of the galaxy resting on the outcome. This is a new thing in Doctor Who. 

Sarah-Jane is crucial. We cannot imagine the Very Early Fourth Doctor without Sarah any more than we can imagine the Second Doctor without Jamie. She grounds him; humanizes him; without her he would be a scary out of control alien ego, as indeed he subsequently became. Of course, the Fourth Doctor is Harry and Sarah-Jane's space Dad, and they are to him as small children. 

"What you are trying to say is that you're busy and you'd like us to push off" says Sarah

"I'd phrase it more elegantly myself, of course" says the Doctor, and off they push.

But The Fourth Doctor is also a nasty, cheeky, brilliant child (which is why he is still so adored by nasty, cheeky, brilliant children of all ages). Look at the infuriating grin when Krans orders him to talk "Certainly, what would you like me to talk about?" or the studied sneer when he is recaptured "Can't say I'm delighted. No use pretending." Do you want to applaud him, or give him a good slap? It falls on Sarah-Jane to manage this man-baby. At 26, she seems to be intuitively maternal (look how sensitively she deals with torture victim Roth). When Harry is patronising and sexist, she allows herself to be annoyed; but with the Doctor she is gentle and indulgent while steering him in the right direction, narrowly avoiding a sulk when he thinks he has lost his favourite toy. 

"Doctor, I've found your sonic screwdriver..." 


The Sontaran Experiment is Doctor Who at its purist, at its silliest, the quintessence of Saturday Evening Teatime. Doctor Who was a children's programme. Doctor Who was a game we played in the playground, space men and Daleks, cops and robbers, colonists and Sontarans.  It felt like Doctor Who had always been like this; and there was no reason for it ever to be anything else. But in truth, we were looking at a version of the show which would be consigned to history by the end of next season.


Mike Taylor said...

"It did not make me sad but somehow rather embarrassed. It was strange to think that the funny cockney milkman and the Sontaran were not there any more."

This is gold. That's exactly what it feels like when you're a kid and someone you sort of know about dies. I've never seen it captured to perfectly.

Mike Taylor said...

"It is hearing the Big Ideas alluded to, in passing, during a romp through woods and quarries, which is so magical."

Very true. Which is why it was a mistake to show us the Clone Wars, and the Senate, and arguably the Emperor.

Yet, oddly, seeing EƤrendil and Beren-and-Luthien in The Silmarillion works, both in showing us something beautiful in itself and in enriching subsequent re-readings of LotR. Why should that be?

Nick M said...

Is it because Tolkien actually thought and planned out his epic? He already knew the backstory to LOTR before he wrote it?

(Queue Andrew explaining how wrong I am about this?)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Tolkien didn't think in terms of the "backstory" to Lord of the Rings: if anything the Lord of the Rings was a sequel to the Silmarillion. So Beren and Luthien was a tale he had written, as a stand-alone thing, long before he even vaguely thought of the Lord of the Rings. It is a set of actual stories which stand in a particular relationship to each other.

Of course, some people might say "I like the fact that Gondolin, as mentioned in the Hobbit, is somewhere ancient and mysterious that we don't know about; I don't want to read Tolkien's historical accounts of the place." Christopher Tolkien talks about this at some length in the introduction to the Silmarillion.

It seems to me that we could distinguish between

a: Stories which reference stories which actually exist -- e.g when 1960s comic books talk about Captain America and the Human Torch in World War II this isn't just being made up for effect -- it's referencing actual 1930s episodes that you could go back and read if you wanted to.

b: Stories which reference other stories which don't exist, but which the the writer has worked out in some detail to make them convincing. The Minutemen don't exist outside of the pages of Watchmen; there are no Minutemen stories to go away and read; but Alan Moore has worked out their history in quite a lot of detail -- he probably knows more than he put into the comic.

c: Stories which appear to reference other stories, but are really just doing so for effect -- the writer doesn't have any picture in his head about what the words stand for. For example, Stan Lee had no idea who the various gods and demons that Doctor Stranger invokes actually were -- he was just using sounds and rhymes to create an illusion of authenticity.

I suppose it is also how pseudo science often works. One writer mentions that the spaceship is powered by a Zarquonfnurrdle Drive and neither knows nor cares what one of them actually is. Another writer has made some fairly detailed notes about how Zarquonfnurrdle Drives work in order to keep himself consistent and maintain the illusion. But a third writer started out with some interesting ideas about a Zarqyonfnurrdle drive, thought them through in considerable detail, and then developed a series of stories around that premise.

All are equally good ways of creating stories. I suspect that J.K Rowling knows more facts about Hogwarts than Ursula Le Guin knew about Roke; but that doesn't been that the former is more convincing than the latter.