The Sontaran Stratagem

Region 1
box set

Region 2
box set
Region 2
4-episode volume
(Doctor Who Story No. 197, starring David Tennant)
  • written by Helen Raynor
  • directed by Douglas MacKinnon
  • produced by Susie Liggat
  • music by Murray Gold
  • 2 episodes @ 44 minutes each:
    1. The Sontaran Stratagem
    2. The Poison Sky
Story: Dr. Martha Jones calls the Doctor and Donna back to England to help U.N.I.T. investigate the main factory producing the wildly popular ATMOS contraption enabling ordinary cars to produce zero emissions, cars which have also caused a number of mysterious deaths. What is the founder of the Rattigan Academy hiding? What secret atmospheric project are Luke Rattigan's students really working on? And what is the real stratagem of the Doctor's old enemies, the Sontarans?

DVD Extras (box sets only) include:

  • Episode One audio commentary by Dan Starkey (Commander Skorr), make-up artist Neill Gorton, and executive producer Julie Gardner.
  • Episode Two audio commentary by David Tennant (The Doctor), executive producer Russell T. Davies, and producer Susie Liggat.
  • Doctor Who Confidential featurette: Send in the Clones (12 min.) with Tennant, Davies, Liggat, Catherine Tate (Donna Noble),
    Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones), Ruari Mears (Clone), and special effects supervisor Danny Hargreaves.
  • Doctor Who Confidential featurette: Sontar-Ha! (12 min.) with Tennant, Davies, Liggat, Starkey, Gorton, Tate,
    Christopher Ryan (General Staal), writer Helen Raynor, stunt co-ordinator Tom Lucy, and choreographer Ailsa Berk.
  • Trailers & Promos

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

After much anticipation, the Sontarans are finally back on screen, in a fairly successful and enjoyable story that also manages to be UNIT's best showing of the decade. But despite many excellent story beats, action sequences, and emotional moments, this story also has a number of absolutely dreadful points as well, dragging down its otherwise healthy rating and making a possible excellent story into a lukewarm one.

The story's opening delivers a number of disappointments right off the bat. Up first is the character of Luke Rattigan, who never seems to work quite right on screen. Too much over-the-top arrogance, not enough charisma, elegance, or subtlety. Paired with a cliché reporter adversary, the story's first on-screen conflict feels like bad 1980's TV drama. This comes complete with "car action". Not anywhere near exciting (or original) enough to justify its cost in the budget; I'd much rather see that money put to the deepening of alien cultures in the show.

The story proceeds to feature an intergalactic cell-phone call (ugh), during which the producers choose to emphasize the fact that Martha is bringing the Doctor "back to Earth", yet another of the early disappointments of the story. Firstly, the Doctor had only just made it away from Earth for the first time in five stories with his previous adventure, so a call back to Earth seems WAY too early and misguided to be interpreted as a good thing. Secondly, the Sontarans have too often been seen in mundane side-track plots on Earth instead of in their own natural spheres of influence out in the galaxy. Joy at getting a Sontaran story became diluted upon seeing that opportunities to witness battles with Rutans and other aliens over interstellar real estate was being substituted with a collaboration with the Rattigan Academy of Earth.... yeah, not so inspiring. The producers really shouldn't boast too loudly about that.

To be fair, we do get some companion & family dynamics we haven't seen before, and about half of those are truly nice scenes. And it is good to see more of Martha simply embracing her role in the show, as it increases the return on our overly-lengthy investment getting her up to speed last season. But we're still stuck anticipating more of the same with Donna all over again, whether the angle turns out to have any fresh new bits or not. The TARDIS's journeys in New Millennium Doctor Who have become too centered around predictable annual companion arcs, and I found myself feeling resigned to being stuck on Earth going through more of the same motions for two more episodes.

I found it encouraging to see Freema Agyeman's name in the main title sequence (perhaps being the real reason why the titles had been delayed until after she was revealed), but I was more surprised to see that the writing of the story had been assigned to Helen Raynor. After last year's disastrously disappointing "Evolution of the Daleks" (story no. 186), I wouldn't have expected her to get what should be an important two-parter for this season. Thankfully, this Sontaran adventure is a vast improvement on her previous effort. And perhaps also due to her previous tendency to paint-by-numbers in constructing her story, we get a full and proper TARDIS materialization to start things off right. Good one.

UNIT is then revealed, and is yet another roster of completely new names and faces. The magic and charm of the UNIT cast in the 70's still doesn't seem to be recognized as the most important ingredient justifying the organization's return to our screens. But on the other hand, at least now Martha is a familiar part of that roster, and Colonel Mace and his sidekicks seem to be successful enough to be worthy of a return. I suppose we now have to hold our breath to see if that will ever happen.

If one can retain an open mind after the opening salvo of disappointments, one notices "The Sontaran Stratagem" getting better and better as it settles in. It soon hits the excellent sci-fi stride of exploring the unknown, using minor UNIT soldiers maybe, but at least ones who have attained some skill from their training. And it should be creepy enough to keep horror-bent fans happy, while working well on other levels if that's not your thing.

The investigation of Rattigan's lab seems a bit short and, at the time, almost superfluous to the discoveries ultimately made. A pity, as lab scenes can often contain the heart of a story's sci-fi premises, and this one throws away some opportunities with idle word-play instead. We also seem to get the exact same gratuitous balls of flame going up in the background of the lab as we did back in "Evolution of the Daleks". Still doesn't quite make sense, although if we really stretch our imagination and speculate, it may be more appropriate to the atmospheric manipulation technologies present here.

The Sontarans are revealed in stages, each stage having its own scene or sequence that works fairly well. The costumes are excellent, although the blue colour seems less interesting than the classic black seen in the classic series. Make-up is very VERY excellent, of course on par with anything modern Star Trek had recently done, and rivaling original Sontaran make-up successes from "The Time Warrior" (story no. 70) and "The Invasion of Time" (story no. 97). Perhaps in making facial expressions come through the mask so easily, one loses some of the sense of alienness. Then again, deeper, more menacing voices might have helped solve that, and Christopher Ryan gives such a good performance as General Staal, you wouldn't want to miss those subtleties. While I've got nothing against Sontarans being shorter than the average human, they MUST remain stocky and heavy-set, which seems to have been a challenge for actors as short as were cast in this story. I think it was also a mistake to let the script's dialogue fixate on their height as much as it did. Ah, well, that's a minor nit.

The Sontarans get some wonderful CG spacecraft in this story as well, showing how the classic smaller individual spheres relate to a mothership. Now that's more like it.

Of course, revisiting Donna's family means we get more of Bernard Cribbins as Donna's grandfather Wilfred Mott, which turns out to be a highlight worth the price of admission. Exquisite performance; just wonderful. And it's clear he's finally being written for properly, instead of just being tacked on in hindsight. He gets to introduce his name properly, and gets formally introduced to the Doctor. Excellent. And at this point, Donna's Mum is great fun extending the introductory gag.

The music for this particular story appears to be running on auto-pilot by now. Quite a number of previously established themes make a return, such as music for Donna, Martha, the Doctor, and UNIT.... typically new renditions that aren't any better or worse than the originals, probably simply reworked to hit better timing with the picture. Action cues feature a lot of nifty toe-tapping riffs that repeat a lot without really going anywhere or saying much, and can last for as many or as few bars as needed before swapping out to the next one whenever a mood switch is needed. Most sad is that the Sontarans receive only musical sound gimmicks like dark electronic tones, weird percussive bubbling, or excessive repeats of emotionally dead orchestral marching bars. At no point is there any of Murray Gold's usually excellent composition effort for them. Time to step aside; Peter Howell still rules where Sontaran music is concerned, having given them an entire musical identity back in the Colin Baker era adventure "The Two Doctors" (story no. 141).

Having largely redeemed itself after its opening disappointments, this fairly good first episode sinks to another low point as the cliffhanger comes along. The story point to the cliffhanger is good, but quality is dragged down firstly by the idea of the Sontarans new "football" style chant, which is just an awful, cringe-worthy idea to begin with, and secondly by the director's choice to make this particular cliffhanger build-up so long. In the end it lacks pace and punch, not so much increasing tension as just mucking around with what it's got until it dissipates, and then waiting around some more before cutting to the credits. Ay caramba! This does need to be tightened up, and it's not at all hard to figure out what parts should hit the cutting room floor first. Off with their "Sontar-Ha's"!

As is, we're left with a disappointing after-taste in our mouths for a week while we wait for the second half. Not smart.

Music by Murray Gold
"Doctor Who" (Season 30 Title version), and
"UNIT Rocks" are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Original Music from "Series 4" (2008)

More info & buying options

"The Doctor Forever", and
alternate versions of "Martha's Theme"
and "Donna's Theme" are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who:
Original Music from "Series 3" (2007)

More info & buying options

"UNIT" & "The Doctor's Theme" are available on:
Audio CD - Doctor Who by Murray Gold
Silva Screen SILCD1224

More info & buying options

The second episode has some decent plot strategies, but insists on being slightly disappointing by mentioning better ones that don't get put into action. David Tennant and Catherine Tate ramble a little too fast through the scene in which their characters split up, obscuring their motives and making you wonder how much of the ensuing plot the Doctor planned in advance. Not as much as a later remark might have you think if you don't dig deep enough for meaning.

I'm especially not too keen on the cell-phone conversations though - it takes away from this show's uniqueness and makes it look like everything else on TV. A particular waste of time is having Donna sit phoning her family, especially after having just left their house - I had little patience with that on first viewing, and it doesn't create much anticipation for quality scenes to come.

A lot of good, fairly solid story beats are achieved during ensuing escalations, but the logic connecting these ideas is questionable. Of course, we'll leave the full discussion of the plot to the original in-depth analysis version of this review, with all of the potential spoilers. But in the end, perhaps it's best not to pull too hard at the threads holding this story's plot together....

The Luke Rattigan character finally seems to be worthy of being on-screen during the later developments, his character being used for a bit of social commentary. Some good scenes, but was it was worth sitting through the drab build-up last episode?

One of the better aspects of this story is in its many and varied discussions of environmental topics, from car emissions to oil shortages, to clean air, to government control of the issues. Although never cleanly aligning this to the central conflict to create a stronger sense of who to root for and why, it does bring a lot of important issues to the surface and remind viewers that we need to remain vigilant in seeking better methods of taking care of ourselves and designing our lifestyles. Nice one.

Well, "The Sontaran Stratagem" turns out to be a likeable story in the end, and it grows on me especially after knowing what is in store for the rest of the season. I'd say it's better than "Aliens of London" (story no. 164) and "Evolution of the Daleks" which both occupied this slot in previous years, without really being able to rival the epic classic "Rise of the Cybermen" (story no. 176). It might have beaten "Planet of the Ood" (story no. 196) more easily as best story of the season proper so far if only it hadn't committed quite so many bad moves; as it stands the two stories are on fairly equal footing, while "The Fires of Pompeii" (story no. 195) gets better at challenging the pair of them as it ages. And I think "The Time Warrior" still stands as the best Sontaran story in Doctor Who. But Season 30 is still only just getting warmed up. Wait until you see what's next....

This story has become available on DVD.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

DVD NTSC Region 1
14-episode boxed set
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
14-episode boxed set
for the U.K.
DVD PAL Region 2
4-episode volume
U.K. format only

Note: The full season sets contain commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and other extras. The smaller volumes only feature the plain episodes.

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Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "The Doctor's Daughter"

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