Doctor Who: The Monsters: Sontarans (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros review the final release in this cash-in Doctor Who series...
With each series of New-Who reintroducing a classic monster or two, it was only a matter of time before everyone's favourite pint-sized Rutan-battling warriors were brought back to delight another generation of Doctor Who fans.
The Time Warrior:
With Jo Grant off to explore the Amazon and scale Cliffs, The Doctor finds himself alone once again, with the investigation into the disappearance of top-level scientists barely enough to keep him occupied. Events see our man from Gallifrey head to the 13th century to find that Linx, a Sontaran stranded on Earth, is kidnapping the best minds in Britain via time-travel and hypnotising them to repair his damaged ship. With the Brigadier annoyed that these abductions are happening right under his nose, even the eccentric genius Professor Rubeish isn’t safe from disappearing into thin air, and the trail leads back into the past. But things are about to get really interesting when a nosey, young journalist stows away aboard the TARDIS…
It was a difficult time for Doctor Who, as the immensely popular Katy Manning had left the show, and her peerless status as “archetypal companion” was going to be a damn-near impossible act to follow. Once you couple this with Terrance Dicks announcing that this was to be his final year as Script-Editor, things really were looking pretty grim, so the casting of a new actress was going to be crucial to the survival of the show. But after a long search, they found her: the woman to fill the void, the next girl to give the Dads a tingle and become a tea-time favourite for kids, that household name, that living legend - April Walker.
Yep, this one of the rare instances where a companion was cast for the role, rubber-stamped, approved, the works, but they had to let her go. In this case, her trip down the P45 route came about due to her compete lack of chemistry with Pertwee during initial rehearsals, and found herself being paid for the entire run of that particular season. After a long gestation period developing a new character named Sarah Jane Smith, Liverpudlian actress Elisabeth Sladen was virtually dropped into place after a successful audition, and this feminist, hash-slinging, sh*t-eating journo was about to make history in Doctor Who, but not before causing the Bouffant’d One some major headaches to start with.
Getting down to the story itself, things get off to a shaky start with a rather poor opening shot of a “falling star“ ripping through the sky, much to the interest of Irongron, a bloodthirsty robber-baron who his taken over a castle in the absence of its rightful occupant, with his sights set on being king. It’s ironic that a crashing axe immediately follows the dodgy optical shot, signifying a similar axe falling on the visual effects budget, but this is one of the few demerits to be found on The Time Warriors’ record. Irongron and Bloodaxe, his faithful lieutenant, discover that the their falling star was a spaceship, with its Sontaran pilot in need of assistance, and they forge an alliance with Linx to provide help in exchange for futuristic weapons which will see Irongron king and history changed forever!
It’s rather ironic that this review is being written 24 hours after finally getting around to seeing The Ipcress File, in spite of seeing the others - yes, including the nineties ones, and both deal with the “brain-drain” threat which preoccupied governments during the sixties and seventies. Here is it Linx projecting himself into the present, snatching boffins and brainwashing them to help repair his ship back in the middle-ages, all to get back to his fleet and get stuck into the Sontaran’s war with the Rutan. These were genuine concerns at the time, be it Communist countries siphoning off the intelligentsia to weaken democracy or the absurd 19/1 tax rate in Britain back then, leading to all the smarter people moving abroad to keep more of the money they earned, so it was another feather in the cap for Doctor Who to incorporate yet more topical issues into the show.
For kids brought up exclusively on Nu-Who, this might well be the perfect story with which to introduce them to the original series, as it gives them the first story with Sarah Jane Smith, useful as an inroad due to kids watching her own show, it marked the debut of the Sontarans, which had a successful re-launch, and the premise is intriguing enough to keep them interested. As a matter of fact, because Russell T Davies killed off the population of Gallifrey for his own purposes, you can educated the little bleeders in just who the Time Lords were, and what their function in the universe was, and all perfectly distilled into just two brilliant lines from Pertwee: “My people are very keen to stamp out unlicensed time-travel. You can look upon them as galactic ticket inspectors if you like”. Speaking of Gallifrey, this was the first time they actually called it by name, making The Time Warrior another important stepping-stone for getting kids onto Classic Who.
The central premise of The Time Warrior is an enticing one, so much so that it has been done more than a few times over the years, becoming the theme of a number of sci-fi novels and the occasional film including the eighties underground classic Eliminators, and was even used as the plot to the opening feature-length episode of Galactica 80! Hell, one of us even wrote a story for an English essay at the age of 12 (called “Warp” - ingenious!) and it featured the same core story, in spite of not coming across it in any other medium. It’s been said that the best stories turn up in various forms because they are enduring tales, and The Time Warrior is this particular tale done particularly well. Staking his claim to the success here is Kevin Lindsay, who is one of the few thespians to make good on their promise to “act through the mask”, where most others just raise their hands up and growl in very theatrical manner, but he establishes the Sontarans with aplomb, making them a credible threat with more than enough flair to make them three-dimensional. It’s a tough act to combine amusement with distain, but Lindsay really nails it, with Linx so damned watchable that you wish he would just nuke both sides of the battle raging around him. It was worth every personal hardship Lindsay suffered during the filming to produce something as great and lasting as we have here.
Sarah Jane Smith nails her colours to the mast right from the outset, although her journalistic skills of infiltration are quickly ripped apart by anyone wielding the might sword of logic, and her feminist leanings are brought to the fore when she bluntly refuses to be char-lady for the team of scientist being held in the secure facility. Having said this, she still does something so monumentally stupid which could have made for a much shorter story if she hadn’t (throwing off Hal’s aim at the end of the first episode, as well as getting captured) which sees her having to struggle out of the “dumb-arse companion” mould for a while. Time saw her being a witty quipster, and this wasn‘t something which developed later on, as she comes out with some really funny stuff in her first outing, one of favourites being when she’s convinced that she is stuck in some sort of re-enactment society as opposed to travelling through time, where when threatened with an axe, she snorts: “Why don’t you take off that ridiculous gear and go home to your butcher’s shop!”
The Sontarans are a race which we first properly experienced in The Two Doctors, bringing them to life after years of seeing them in the pages of Doctor Who Monthly, and they’ve always held a real mystique in their earlier incarnations. Their whole attitude to war and the fallout from it is encapsulated when Pertwee notes that Linx assisting Irongron in his battle over the populous was merely “stirring up” red and black ants just to stop him from getting bored whilst repairing his ship, utterly unconcerned with changing the course of history or the immense loss of life such events will incur. Their love of war becomes almost a philosophy, making them a neatly designed race, with just enough of a back-story to keep them intriguing and preventing them from falling into the category of “generic baddies”. Everybody bangs on about the Draconians as being the most fleshed-out of Doctor Who aliens, but we would happily put these guys right up there with them, maybe giving them a little more credit for keeping some of the mystique rather than detailing the minutia for all to hoover up all at once.
It was always important to keep Pertwee interested, giving him manly things to do so as to assert his machismo As well as dressing up as a robot knight, impersonating a Sontaran (OK, he had a head-start with the lisp…) he was also given various fights, the swashbuckling classic of swinging from an iron chandelier and the old standby of Venusian Aikido. Speaking of which, one of the best laughs to be had comes when Pertwee tells Professor Rubeish that he‘s looking for a young girl [Sarah Jane Smith] who has wandered off, to which to comedy scientist replies: “Young girl? I’d have thought he was a bit old for that sort of thing”. As everyone knows, Katy Manning‘s departure left the testosterone-fuelled Pertwee in need of something to vent his jism-pressure, so that “long-shank rascal with a mighty nose” was on the lookout for another sponge, but he met his match with Sladen, and probably didn’t even try it on. His work here is very good, and using less his stock mannerisms than usual, probably because he was more engaged this time around, with a new actress to contend with, and something other than an alien invasion story yet again.
Elisabeth Sladen is excellent from the outset, even though her character is working against The Doctor for nearly half of the story, but it was clear that she really was the right person to take the place of her predecessor, and her true charm would be fully proven later on when she had even greater chemistry with Tom Baker, and can you honestly imagining Baker putting up with the Manning for a few years? It’s a good job that they didn’t really push the feminist angle from Sarah Jane Smith too much, as it would have become rather tiresome in a very short space of time. Thankfully, it’s only addressed directly here and in The Monster of Peladon, with the undercurrents dying off as the stories rolled on, but for this first outing, we get the modern ideals contrasted with the servitude of Medieval times when Sladen finds herself having to work in the Irongron’s kitchen, with the threat of violence hanging her over her head, the threats wielded by another woman, ironically enough. There is another neat feminist twist in that not only does The Doctor gets captured rather than the companion, but also that it is the new assistant who is instrumental in ensnaring him. The times they were a-changing!
It’s a blast to see David Dakin playing someone more animated than usual, with viewers of a certain age more familiar with him from the TV series Boon, where the limit of his annoyance stretched to the words: “Bloody Hell, Ken!“ whenever things would become rather heated. Here his performance is rich and red-blooded, playing a man determined to be king no matter who he has to kill to get there, and probably one of the few Doctor Who villains who clearly had a sex-drive His thirst for power is matched only by his hunger for food and grog, blissfully unaware of just how one-sided his alliance with Linx is, blinded by the overriding promise of the superior weapons the Linx effect will give him. Although his propensity for characterisation by slamming things onto tables gets annoying after a while, Irongron gets a satisfying death scene richly deserved for such a mouthy bastard, but we’re probably not spoiling anything by telling you this, regardless of if you’ve seen it or not.
There are few supporting characters in Doctor Who stories able to polarise viewers as successfully as that of Dr Rubeish, the bumbling, comical, pompous whatever-the-sequence-needs scientist who has a haemorrhoid-like quality of being a right pain in the arse. He is clearly an intelligent guy, but written almost as a cartoon character, a stereotypical scientist with a charming streak of eccentricity, as though they want someone an audience can trust through his bumbling fallibility. Donald Pelmear really milks the doltish qualities of the character, making the thick glasses the focal point of Ruebish, everything following from his constant peering though them, and Pelmear applies the music-hall approach of playing the comedic aspects in a very broad fashion. He’s charming enough, and proves his resourcefulness by fashioning a monocle when his glasses break using 13th century material, but the truth be told, he’s a bit of a dildo.
There are a fair few recognisable faces to be found in this historical tale, including that of ol’ Dot Cotton herself, June Brown, who always looked like she hailed from the 13th century, anyway - rumour is that 1800s were a particularly trying time for her when growing up. The Time Warrior came the year after she appeared in Psychomania, one of our favourites, but it was the year before Star Wars mainstay Jeremy got his Bullochs out as Gil Masters in the Confessions rip-off Can You Keep it Up for a Week?, where he would find other uses for a Probic vent. You get a gold star if you can spot an alarmingly thin Bela Emburg as a serving wench working alongside the enslaved Sladen in the kitchens, long before she was persuaded to don her Blunderwoman costume one more time as she wrestled with the line: “UK Gold - primetime all of the time”.
One of the nice things about the production design is when you first see Linx’s ship, where the cynical mind immediately thinks: OK, it’s a nice forced-perspective miniature, but we know how it’s done, and sure enough, it cuts to a close-up of those watching. But then it cuts back to a close shot of the ship, and out comes the titular Time Warrior, and the cynical mind is deeply impressed to discover that they actually built the thing full-size! Cynicism quickly comes to the fore again when you realise that they were able to construct it because they were able to save money elsewhere in the budget by raiding the BBC costume and props department, but it’s tempered by such lovely use of locations for the exteriors, with Peckforton Castle really delivering the goods as Irongron’s abode. It’s production value they couldn’t afford to build, and gives the show a wonderfully authentic period look.
If we had to point out one of The Time Warrior’s shortcomings, it would have to be that the animosity between the two camps isn’t depicted in detail enough to really set it all off, relying on a couple of small sets, lusty dialogue and the odd bit of chewing of said scenery to give audiences the skinny on the way things are in that time and place. OK, we all know that this was frequently done in historical tales, but this is the one where they could have really had an out-and-out classic on their hands, as opposed to a pretty cool story with a great premise. In particular, there is precious little to have us rooting for Edward of Wessex, with little in the way of spine or even character development, and with Irongron written and played with such vigour, he’s so much more memorable, whilst Edward is so feeble that you expect him to ask The Doctor to choose which cup might be the Holy Grail.
Another of the very few weak elements comes in the form of Linx’s Iron Man, not in premise, but in execution of the concept. From the very moment it lumbers on, you know that the costume is designed for something to happen to the head later on, and it seems to channel Roger Corman’s ideals about the way “monsters” should generate screen-presence, which leads to the rather silly way the arm comically waves the sword around as it walks. The whole effect bears a striking resemblance to similar beings from Bedknobs and Broomsticks, released only a couple of years before. Before we get rather churlish about these things, lets make like a towel and press-on to take a look at the A/V aspects of this DVD release.
The Sontaran Strategem and The Poison Sky:
Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) is now a member of UNIT and has called upon the help of The Doctor (David Tennant) to investigate exactly what is going on with the company ATMOS, who have developed a Sat-Nav system that supposedly reduces carbon emissions to zero. Along with former companion Martha and current companion, Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), The Doctor soon discovers that the technology is not only alien, but that his old aversaries, The Sontarans are behind it and they look upon the Earth with envious eyes and unobstructed probic vents...
Writer Helen Raynor had experience more than her fair share of negativity with her previous Doctor Who story, Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, which resulted in her being so upset with the sheer degree of fan vitriol that it allegedly made her cry. If this is the case, then she certainly used the experience to galvanise her efforts and the result is a story that is considerably better than her Dalek opus, but also manages to give a greater degree of depth to one particular former companion.
Martha Jones was a great character; she was an intelligent woman who was on the cusp of becoming a qualified doctor just before she was whisked away by a Doctor who was on the rebound from the departure of Rose Tyler. Having a companion who made goo-goo eyes at The Doctor and suffering from a nasty case of unrequited love made for an interesting contrast to what had gone on with the previous character, but it seemed to at best weaken or at worst completely undermine Martha Jones, as it seemed to reinforce the outdated notion that a woman can give up work if she manages to bag a good husband.
Freema Ageyman is a good actress – her wide-eyed enthusiasm for interplanetary and temporal travel is most certainly infectious and her delivery comes across as far more natural than Billie Piper's (who didn't so much have to mind her Ps and Qs, more her Ts and Hs). Her departure from Doctor Who at the end of series three was most unfortunate, as there was so much more that could have been done with the character. Fortunately, Freema agreed to return for five episodes during series four, starting off with the two-part Sontaran story, which shows that Martha Jones has not been sitting around idly, waiting for The Doctor to return, completing her studies and becoming part of the UNIT team as a medical officer. This maturation of the character is most impressive and adds a considerable amount of depth to her, with Freema Agyeman making the most of it.
Catherine Tate isn't bad as Donna; when the character first turned up in the Christmas special, The Runaway Bride, we absolutely LOATHED her with a passion. When we heard that she was coming back to the series full-time, we were dumbfounded; fortunately, Russell T Davies took the decision to dial-down the hysteria and thinly-veiled aggression that were the main traits of Donna during her first appearance. The result is a character far more likeable and someone you could actually give a toss about, rather than wanting to see her forcibly ejected from the TARDIS in the middle of the time vortex.
There had to come a time in New-Who where one of the antagonists turns out to be a young, tech-savvy little bastard and this happens to occur in this particular story. Luke Rattigan (Ryan Sampson) has developed the revolutionary satellite navigation system for the ATMOS corporation and is in league with the Sontarans. Like any other would-be megalomaniac, Rattigan eventually realises that his aims are much less destructive and genocidal than those of his allies and eventually sides with the good guys to try and undo what he has (semi) unwittingly caused.
The redesign of the Sontarans is pretty good; with the royal fucking-up of the Cybermen in series two (and The Master in series three, if you want to continue down this line), fans were understandably nervous about what Russell T Davies would do with them. Fortunately, very little was different about the Sontarans, apart from the rather silly blue outfits; they were arguably more faithful to the original design that their last appearance in the original series, Colin Baker's The Two Doctors, which saw the Sontarans inexplicably increased height so they looked like members of the Harlem Globetrotters. The only real bugbear we have with the Sontarans seen in New-Who is that ridiculous “Sontar Ha!” chant that they have seen fit to give them; much like the whole “delete, delete!” rubbish they gave the Cybermen, it was screamingly obvious that RTD gave them this chant so kids would have a catchphrase to endlessly spout in playgrounds across the country. The obvious inspiration for this annoying chant was taken from the All-Blacks rugby team. Haka? Fuckoff.
Christopher Ryan is great as General Staal; Ryan will always be remembered for his role as Mike in The Young Ones (where he was a last-minute replacement for Peter Richardson in that show), but Ryan's career in television comedy never seemed to blossom like it did for the other Young Ones – if you ever caught his disastrous eighties satire, A Small Problem, then you'll know why. Ryan's stature was almost certainly one of the main factors for his casting here, but to say that this was the main reason would be doing Ryan a serious disservice, as he portrays Staal with a sneering sense of superiority that spills over into menace.
The Time Warrior: Given that all four episodes exist in PAL entirety, this was always going to be a good looking DVD release, especially after the Doctor Who Restoration Team got their mitts on it. Apart from having to do extensive repair work to the tape containing the first episode, the only thing needed was the removal of tape-dropouts and the spiffing up of footage shot on film. The result is a really rather nice looking Pertwee story, and one which look as great as this are to be cherished when remembering just how many of them have had to be sourced from NTSC conversions. Colours are nice, the image is stable, with no ghosting or smearing. The very fact that you can watch it without noticing anything about the image at all is testament to just how good the thing looks.
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky: Presented in 1.78:1, they looks pretty good, despite being squeezed onto one disc with The Time Warrior. The colours are bold but they do not bloom, vivid but not oversaturated and there is a reasonable amount of image detail, given the fact that these were show in standard definition.
The Time Warrior: All good news on this front, too. As a matter of fact, intrepid musician/sound engineer Mark Ayres took the liberty of giving one of his favourite stories a final audio-sweetening it didn’t get first time around, taking out hisses and hums from the soundtrack, re-cuing some of the bungled foley sounds, not to mention adding additional background noise to cover some the film inserts sonic shortcomings. It adds up to a lovely presentation, and - as above - shines through not being noticed.
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky: The audio is served up in a rather engaging Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which presents all manner of explosions, spot-effects and music across the soundstage and has a pleasant degree of fidelity to it.
You get a choice of bugger all or sweet F.A, not even the chance to view The Time Warrior with the new CGI effects that were created for the original DVD release. Still, this is a budget release with two stories on it, so the emphasis here is on the shows themselves.
It goes without saying that there has always been sharp dividing line between the main types of Doctor Who stories: that of the historical adventure, the modern invasion and the futuristic kind. It is a rear beast which manages to combine the three of them into one cohesive whole, but The Time Warrior manages to do it in a thoroughly entertaining fashion. The performances are hearty, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves (even Nick Courtney, in spite of being stiffed with a very brief appearance as The Brig) and the it gave Doctor Who its long-lasting staple of Sarah Jane Smith. When we get to a series called The Rose Tyler Adventures, then we’ll be up for debate about the nature of enduring companions. Everything about it works, and for a couple of the more dubious elements - ropey robots, crap opening effect - you can easily read them as charm. It’s corking stuff, and proof that that stories set in the past don’t have to be all Greensleeves. One of Pertwee’s very best.
The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky make for a very entertaining two-parter; the brickbats that were aimed at writer Helen Raynor for her debut story seemed to spur her on and she wrote something that was not only an enjoyable romp, but also took one character and made her deeper and more mature than what had previously been seen in Doctor Who.
Like Jon Pertwee's story, David Tennants' Sontaran opus was filmed during his final series and just like Pertwee, Tennant was not slumming it, as he is able to put in a performance that is the lynchpin for the whole story. This two-parter is pacey, epic in scale and has a fair amount of humour interwoven along the way. Plus it has Freema Ageyman in it.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 30th September 2013
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Sod all
Easter Egg: No
Director: Alan Bromly, Douglas Mackinnon
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Elisabeth Sladen, David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Christopher Ryan
Length: 180 minutes
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