Doctor Who Project: The Sontaran Experiment

According to my data, you should not exist.

The pug-headed Sontarans aren’t the only ones tinkering in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Sontaran Experiment” (Story Production Code 4B). This brisk story marks the first time since the sophomore season that Doctor Who has aired a two-episode tale, and surprisingly, the abbreviated format works to some effect. It’s also the very first story to be shot entirely on location, with no studio scenes of any sort. And, alas, it’s the fifty-second story (give or take) to relegate the female companion to being captured and/or screaming a lot. The more things change…

The Sontaran's Experiments!

Baker and Martin skip over quite a bit of exposition, getting our time travellers directly into the action. No sooner have they arrived on a theoretically abandoned Earth, via transmat from Space Station Nerva—continuing where “The Ark in Space” left off—than they all split up. The Doctor sends Sarah and Harry away to let him concentrate on fixing the transmat beacons for Nerva, then Harry falls into a pit, then Sarah tries to find the Doctor for help, but he has been captured, then Harry finds a way out of the pit, then Sarah is herself captured at the pit trying to rescue Harry on her own. (Whew.) And that’s just the first twenty-five minutes. In the Troughton era, that would have taken three episodes.

Granted, there’s not much story on offer. As is tradition, “The Sontaran Experiment” still keeps the titular menace off-screen until the very end of the first episode, and the total elapsed time between the real menace of the Sontaran threat being revealed and the Doctor foiling it measures no more than seven minutes. Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor works well within these narrative constraints. His manic mien matches the madcap pace, and as a result, his incessant japes in the face of danger and his emotional non-sequiturs feel more natural, at least to the extent that is possible. As opposed to Tom Baker’s first two stories, where everyone and everything around him seemed to be moving in slow motion, here the entire mise en scène works in concert with his frenetic strengths.

Don't mind me down here!

Along the way, we learn that the far-flung human colonies mentioned in the prior story have survived, and indeed thrived, in the centuries since solar flares devastated Earth, spreading out to create an empire. That empire faces invasion from the Sontaran Empire, who, to the Doctor’s estimation, deem human space as a strategic resource in their eternal war against the Rutan. Baker and Martin’s create the illusion of depth with a subtly sketched skien of details, many of which rely on explicit knowledge of the prior story. Indeed, even the revelation of the Sontaran, Field Major Styre, at the end of the first episode hinges, for its emotional impact, on knowledge of the initial Sontaran story, “The Time Warrior,” as Sarah utters the name of the Sontaran she and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor encountered, Linx.

Not Linx. Styre.

As Field Major Styre, of the Sontaran G3 Military Assessment Survey somewhat indignantly points out to Sarah’s insistence that he’s identical to the Sontaran she and the Doctor dispatched the thirteenth century, “Identical, yes. The same? No.” The Sontaran cloning process apparently does not duplicate mental “programs,” their insistence on honor and methodological behavior being learned rather than bred.

Doctor Who‘s villains have always been more interesting when they possess individuality and nuance; even the Daleks got a boost when Nation started imbuing some of them with pathos. With the Ice Warriors and, now, the Sontarans, we have two recurring villain species who are militaristic, individuated, and yet still with enough shared characteristics that they can always be defeated. In the case currently on offer, the Doctor realizes, as his prior regeneration did as well, that messing with the Sontaran’s personal spheroid space ship will carry the day. Entrusting Harry with his Sonic Screwdriver, the Doctor sends him off to remove a key component of the vessel.

In he goes!

All the Doctor has to do is lure Styre into his ship by exhausting him. Baker and Martin take the opportunity to add to Sontaran lore by giving them the ability to recover from exhaustion through direct energy transfer, thus requiring a return to the booby-trapped sphere. And to tire out the Field Major, the Doctor challenges him to personal combat, a ruse sure to work because, as the Doctor wanly notes, “Sontarans never turn down a chance to kill someone.”

Quarry Fencing

This iteration of the Doctor shows considerably less facility with fencing than the Third Doctor, being chased all over by Styre and only surviving the single combat by turning it into a group affair. Styre had lured members of “GalSec”—presumably Galactic Security, the human empire’s military force—to Earth through a faked distress call so that he could assess their martial aptitude for the forthcoming invasion through a series of experiments. One of them sacrifices himself to save the Doctor, intervening just as Styre prepares to deliver a killing blow. The respite enables the Doctor to fully exhaust Styre, who plugs himself into the energy conduit in his ship and promptly…melts. The part Harry removed reversed the energy flow, so that the ship “fed” on the Sontaran rather than the reverse.

I'm melting! Melting!

All that’s left is for the Doctor to contact Sontaran High Command, pointing out that the experiments, deemed essential to the invasion, failed and that, to whit, he has a copy of their invasion plans. (He doesn’t.) With much bluster, the Sontaran Field Marshal threatens to devastate the human empire in the future, but the immediate threat diminishes for the time being. On a happier note, the Doctor also manages to link up the GalSec survivors with their long-lost ancestors up in Space Station Nerva, bringing the arc from “The Ark in Space” to a close. In a longer story, this would have played out much more fully, possibly as a six or eight part combined story; here, all of the denouement is left for off-screen.

Oddly, one doesn’t feel cheated of a resolution. By paring down the cast to the regulars, a single Sontaran, and a handful of effectively non-descript humans, and keeping the setting to a heath, a pit, and a craggy clearing—not unlike the similarly streamlined setting of “The Ark in Space,” which was actually filmed after this story—expectations likewise remain focused on the immediate situation. The before and after don’t really matter, at least not in the grand scheme. Baker and Martin keenly keep the story grounded in the Doctor’s personal lore, referencing Linx and the 500 Year Diary, while letting the machinations of empires and field marshals remain amorphous.

For all the strengths of the UNIT setting, the plots and environs were almost too familiar. A dinosaur in the Underground is certainly more frightening than a dinosaur in an “alien” quarry, because it feels more real, but you also wonder about clean-up of London after the dinosaurs return to the past, about how the Brigadier will square everything with the bureaucrats this time. No, the Fourth Doctor is above all that, not beholden to anyone or anything, and while he’ll certainly return to Earth, even contemporary Earth, the focus, at least for now, remains refreshingly on the action and adventure. Pertwee’s introspectively expressive turn as the Doctor was, frankly, exhausting at times, and though it stands as a high point of the series in many ways, not least its mature approach to the Doctor’s moral responsibilities, Tom Baker and the new production team plan on taking us in a different direction entirely.

The Fourth Doctor, Harry, and Sarah

Ian Marter and Elisabeth Sladen receive a fair bit of screen time for such a short story, though as noted previously, Baker and Martin don’t exactly cover Sarah in glory. She screams and is captured and put through a bit of mental torture, sadly par for the course for Sladen at this point and a waste of her talents. Harry even insists on calling her, “old thing,” despite her protestations, while dismissing her accurate realization that they’re being watched. As for Harry, he doesn’t actually do much either beyond running around looking for something to hit with a stick, and while he’s useful as an extra pair of hands for the Doctor, he’s certainly not filling a role that needs filling, a waste of Marter’s talents as well.

The two-episode story might not become the go-to format, but here, it works as a palate cleanser, spinning a quick yarn that is at once neatly self-contained yet still linked to the Doctor’s larger lore. There’s no overarching moral component, no grand gestures or big plot set-ups; the story hits its marks and gets off the stage, tale told. If anything, it presages, for better and worse, the kind of stories that will be told in a similar fifty minute time-frame when the series reboots some thirty years hence.

(Previous Story: The Ark in Space)

(Next Story: Genesis of the Daleks)

Post 80 of the Doctor Who Project

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