DVD Extras (box sets only) include:
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.
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 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.
This story has become available on DVD.
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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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