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In the midst of this is revealed the voice of the larger enemy - and it's really not deep enough or gritty enough to compete well with past Sontaran vocalizations or inspire thoughts of evolution on the heavy gravity planet of Sontar Prime. The result is a little too close to regular human.
You'd think you would have seen the pre-title cliffhanger after that car stunt, but the story's hook continues to feature an intergalactic cell-phone call (ugh), during which the producers choose instead to emphasize with the cliffhanger 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. Too bad the ships never really get anything significant to actually do in the story.
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.
The Doctor never does intend for the Sontarans to move the TARDIS up to their spaceship, but once he knows it's there with Donna in it, he DOES intend for them to move it out of their busy control room and into an empty hall. Not sure why the Sontarans should assume that his remote control will be any less effective in retrieving it while it's out in the hall, but whatever.
Personally, I think I'd probably prefer to have seen the Doctor successfully using his TARDIS to go up to the Sontaran ship himself as he originally intended and have some decent scenes and interaction and perform his usual interference there. That said, having Donna do some stuff on her own has good merit as well. I'm 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 in the TARDIS 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, including decent en-masse UNIT vs. Sontaran battles, and a control-room based stand-off, but the logic connecting these ideas is questionable. We can understand why UNIT wants to fire missiles at the Sontaran ship, and why the Sontarans should want to stop them, but why does the Doctor also want the missiles stopped so badly? "Starting an interstellar war" as he states is a moot point by that time. Open war is upon the Earth from Sontar already, and the choices for avoiding it are past. The Doctor is also a bit defeatist when sizing up the Earth forces, but thankfully Mace nails him with the correct comment that it is a "lack of faith" on his part.
And exactly how is this contingent of Sontarans protecting their operative by attacking UNIT? 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 when getting responses to pulling a gun on people. No one takes him seriously, proving that there is no quick substitute for charisma and building solid relationships. 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.
The Doctor is very active towards the end, solving mysteries and problems and tying up the loose ends of the plot. Well done. His very last heroic task is not so brilliant, however. Trying to get the Sontarans to back down or he'll blow himself up with them??? DUMB! With a capital D! They're past backing down, which is obvious even before they so eloquently state it to him. The Doctor just backs himself into a corner with this idiotic plan, unwilling to carry out his threat. Gotta give them a choice? They made their choice when they hatched their plan for the Earth and carried it out. He should've rigged a delay on the thing and sent it up alone. Or, if you really want to negotiate, you need to offer the Sontarans something they can appreciate better than running home with no honour left at all. Not sure why Staal spends quite as much time talking with him as he does either - if they are so keen to die, you'd think they'd shoot him and take their chances with his ability to trigger the device. At any rate, the Doctor's success seems to be entirely out of his own wimpy hands at that point, requiring a sacrificial side character to do his thing instead. We've seen this dynamic too often on Doctor Who before to make it anything special, and it's just as disappointing now as it ever was before. Was it really worth adding Luke's death to his conscience? I'd have preferred the Doctor to have retained the pro-active hand during this sequence.
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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