Doctor Who Project: The Sontaran Experiment

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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.
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Doctor Who Project: The Time Warrior

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I’ve never heard so much gobbledygook in my life, but I suspect you know what you’re talking about.

To usher in Season Eleven of Doctor Who, series regular Robert Holmes introduces another of his larger-than-life characters, in this case Linx, the titular character from “The Time Warrior” (Series Production Code UUU). But the title proves rather incongruous, for though Commander Linx, the squat Sontaran commander, has managed to transport scientists from the twentieth century back to medieval times, he does so for no reason other than to repair his damaged spaceship, so that he can return to the eternal war between the Sontarans and the Rutans.

Meet Commander Linx

However, this time-shifting ability of the Sontarans serves merely as an excuse for the show to play historical dress-up once more, with everyone getting in on the medieval act, from Jon Pertwee clomping around in a suit of armor to new companion Elisabeth Sladen showing off both a Maid Marian outfit and a Robin Hood outfit. Assuming one discounts the jaunt to ancient Atlantis in “The Time Monster” and the limited 1920s ship scenes in “Carnival of Monsters,” “The Time Warrior” marks the first visit to an historical Earth setting since the Second Doctor’s swan song in “The War Games” some four years prior—and even that wasn’t really on Earth.

Guess who!

It’s a comfortable setting for the series, despite the long absence of pseudo-historical stories from the screen, and it shows. The BBC knows how to costume for that time period like no other production team, and they can dress a castle set with far more believable detail than they can, it must be said, outfit a spaceship. Too, there’s more than a bit of the feeling from “The Time Meddler” about this story, with an interloper from beyond the stars interfering with the natural progression of human history through the introduction of modern weaponry. It just feels like home.

But where the Meddling Monk wanted to alter history for his own, somewhat fuzzily rationalized ends, Commander Linx simply wants to get home, so he can get back to all the killing. And if he needs to arm a local bandit from the Middle Ages with long rifles and a killer robot, well, so be it…
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