Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Serial 77: The Sontaran Experiment

Doctor: Tom Baker (4th Doctor)
Companion: Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan

Written by: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Directed by: Rodney Bennett

Background & Significance: Oh hey look! I'm back for another epic Baker/Martin romp! Isn't that bloody exciting? We had a really great time last time with their "Invisible Enemy", so let's try and hit the gold again here.

Actually, irony of ironies? For not being a fan of most of their other work, I really liked this one.

See, the Sontaran Experiment is unique for two reasons. 1) It's the only two-part Doctor Who story between 1964 and 1982 (we're currently in 1975) and 2) It's shot entirely on location. So that's fun, and really it just exposes how overly long every other classic Who story we talk about can be. It's fun, it's fast, it's early Tom Baker (*love* his first season) and things are happening in a very adventure setting.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the fact that it's a revival of the Sontarans and we see them much as they were portrayed in "The Time Warrior", and it's a nice little in-between betwixt "The Ark in Space" (talking about that next year) and "Genesis of the Daleks", which is the next little story.

Strangely enough, by following directly off the events of the previous story (as all of The Fourth Doctor's adventures in this, his first season, linked one right into the other) this story functions as an almost supplementary parts five and six to the first four parts of "The Ark in Space", so if you've never seen that (which I hadn't before seeing this for the first time), this is actually a little confusing in the outset because it really hits the ground running and with little explanation as to what's going on.

Granted, this is a bit of a dated complaint. The people who were watching Doctor Who at the time totally remembered what was going on with The Doctor and co as they had just seen it the week before. In that, I'm sad that I wasn't able to watch this one right after "Ark in Space" and before "Genesis of the Daleks", but them's the breaks. I know I plan to watch this entire season in order when I go back through and pick and choose, cuz it'll play out most wonderfully, I think.

Oh, and apparently Tom Baker jacked up his collar bone while making this story. Lucky for him and everyone else, he was bundled in a coat and a jacket and a scarf and was able to hide it. But sometimes he looks bulky. And it's amusing.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

We open on Earth, in all its vast plains glory. And in the middle of these plains there is an assortment of metallic orbs and within these orbs appears The Doctor, fresh off his adventure on the Ark in Space.

The Doctor looks around, disoriented, when Harry Sullivan appears, and then disappears, and re-appears elsewhere, disappears again, and then re-appears a few feet away from where he started. He notes that the pattern came slightly scrambled, which is what they’re here to fix.

Harry looks around for Sarah Jane, but sees no sign of her. The Doctor sets about attempting to fix these transmit orbs or whatever they are, and Harry sets off to find Sarah Jane, which he does, some ways away, where she’s flailing or something.

He helps her up, they banter. It’s cute. Some people don’t like Harry, but I find him terribly entertaining.

They head back and find The Doctor at the transmat orbs, setting about fixing them. He tells them it’s going to be a while, so they can go do whatever till whenever. The countryside is gorgeous and unspoilt for thousands of years. Go enjoy the weather.

Sarah Jane takes offense but heads off with Harry to go enjoy the day. The Doctor points towards Trafalgar Square. It’s a whole lovely thing.

So Sarah and Harry start walking around the countryside, enjoying the day. Sarah’s kinda mad that they don’t get to hang with The Doctor but Harry doesn’t really mind. He’s all about enjoying and doesn’t really believe Sarah when she yelps at something moving on a ridge above them. Harry assures her there’s nothing there. Earth’s been empty for centuries.

Meanwhile, someone near the transmats points a rifle at The Doctor, ready to take him out. The guy (his name’s Zake) keeps his sights trained on The Doctor while his companion Erak heads out to go get the others.

Elsewhere, Sarah Jane and Harry are walking around some more. And then Harry, in his enthusiasm, falls down a slope and lands in a small gully.

Erak meets up with Krans, who is tending a fire (perhaps cooking something?), and warns him that there’s someone in the transmat circle. Krans starts freaking out and picks up his rifle. They’re gonna go check this guy out.

Harry gets up from his place in the gully with, luckily, nothing broken. Sarah and Harry realize it’s a trap and she goes off to fetch The Doctor while Harry resigns himself to stay there.

Meanwhile, Zake gets chased off his sniper position by a really silly looking robot. He gets chased to the edge of a cliff and jumps off (grizzly). Also, this is what the robot looks like when it’s chasing him.

The Doctor hears Zake’s scream as he jumps off the cliff and runs over to find Zake fallen and dead some ways away. He examines the body when Erak and Krans show up and accuse him of killing Zake. The Doctor attempts to defend his innocence, but they shoot him down, stunning him and knocking him unconscious.

Sarah Jane returns to the transmat circle, looking for The Doctor but only finds his sonic screwdriver. Which can’t be good. Why would The Doctor leave his sonic screwdriver? She calls out for The Doctor, but there’s still no sign of him.

Harry, still trapped in his hole, hears some rusting up above, but when he calls out, rocks start to fall from above. He takes cover under some brush, freaked out.

Sarah returns to Harry, but sees no sign of him. And she starts to freak out a little bit.

The Doctor is carted away by these strange men in suits and deposited unceremoniously on the ground somewhere. The two notice that The Doctor is starting to wake up, and Karns pulls out a hot stick and holds it to The Doctor, all threatening and stuff.

He demands The Doctor tell him where The Doctor took their crewmates.

Meanwhile, Harry manages to climb himself out of the far side of the gully while Sarah tries to find a branch to help him climb out (or to let her climb down, I’m not sure…). She’s so focused on that, that she doesn’t hear one of these spaceship dudes sneak up behind her and drag her away.

The robot appears, starts taking scans, beeps, looking for something, and then leaves. Roth, the guy who was all draggy starts asking Sarah about herself. He doesn’t really listen too much, though because he’s gotta run around like a crazy person, explaining he’s the one who set the trap to catch the robot and the robot works for a creepy alien (a Sontaran perhaps? But how do I know that? Oh… right…) and the alien makes burns in people and stuff.

Sarah Jane demands Roth take her to the rocks because she needs to find The Doctor and Harry. Roth says he knows where The Doctor is. Sarah Jane grins and gets super excited.

What would follow normally is a delightful interlude starring Tom Baker as exposition guy, in which he and his captors compare notes on the space station Nerva and the solar flares, all stuff we'll touch on in Ark in Space. Why do I seem so meh meh meh about it? Because it would be a delightful interlude IN YOUTUBE, but youtube claimed copyright violation and refused to host. As such you get to miss out on some lovely Tom Baker as I tell you to just go watch the episode and see for yourself.

Oh, and then Roth shows up and leads the three space suit dudes away long enough for Sarah Jane to cut The Doctor free and run away. Again, more exhilarating in youtube, but what can you do?

Roth manages to elude the space suit dudes and the three regroup, wondering where he could have gone. They race back to their campsite, only to find The Doctor totally gone. And then they yell. (But where did The Doctor go? Maybe you shoulda watched the youtube. Oh, right. Well, we'll find out soon enough.)

The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Roth continue running and reach Harry’s gully when The Doctor stumbles across the machine’s leftover residue and recognizes it as outside of this galaxy. Which is most strange. The Doctor realizes that there’s probably a way out and he goes down to investigate but falls into the pit and gets knocked unconscious from the fall.

Sarah and Roth freak out and turn around to find themselves face to face with the robot. Roth starts freaking out.

Elsewheres, Harry climbs up some rocks and stuff (which is bad cuz that’s where Roth said the evil alien is). He continues lurking and comes across a large metallic dome. He sneaks up to investigate and sees Sarah Jane and Roth brought in by the robot. Captured.

A figure emerges from the dome and Sarah Jane starts freaking out as the creature removes its helmet, reveals itself as a Sontaran and starts to move towards them.

Damn. That’s a good reveal. Sorta. Too bad they blew the whole “It’s a Sontaran!” thing with the opening title. But oh well. ONWARD!

Part 2:

The Sontaran starts heading down the hill and examines Sarah Jane, delighted that he’s found “a female of the species”. Sarah Jane continues freaking out, mistaking the Sontaran as Linx. The Sontaran corrects her, identifying himself as Field Major Styre.

Roth starts losing his mind and runs away, but Styre shoots him the hell down, saying he was already tested and thusly unnecessary. He then asks Sarah why she screamed. He starts examining her (creepy) and says that he will make use of her and the rest of her companions.

The Doctor starts to climb out of the hole by using a tree branch and finds himself face to face with the three remaining space suit dudes. They point their guns at him and demand he climb out of the hole, nice and quiet.

Harry climbs down off the rocks and finds himself face to face with yet another spaceship dude, but this fellow has been tied up and looks all super grizzly. Harry tries to help him, giving him a soaked piece of cloth to give him some water. The space suit guy explains that the Sontaran brought him here to die.

As The Doctor continues to climb out of the hole, he warns the space suit dudes to turn around, which they don’t do because they think it’s a trick.

But then it turns out it’s the robot behind them. It wasn’t a trick. And now they are captured. Way to go, kids. Way to go.

The space suit guys having been caught, The Doctor finds Harry’s exit point through the shrubs and heads through it.

The Sontaran begins to question Sarah Jane, asking her where she came from and explaining that he studied the original nine space suit guys. Five are dead, and the four are being studied. Sarah Jane insists she’s from Earth, which the Sontaran deems impossible, and leaves her alone, to die or whatever.

Harry, having found a branch, continues to troll around the rocks looking for Sarah, whom he saw get captured. He avoids Styre and manages to track Sarah down to where she’s chained to the rocks. He tries to get close, but there seems to be an invisible forcefield blocking him from helping her. Harry races off to face the Sontaran to see if he can take it out.

Cuz… that’ll work.

Styre checks in with his commanding officer via a silly yellow station placed in the rocks. He says that Earth has still not been colonized and humans are total pushovers in comparison to themselves. His superior seems pleased and says that the test is over, but Styre says not yet. There were mistakes within the experiment, variables that don’t make sense and errors in the way it’s been going down.

Now, I may not be a science expert, but that seems to indicate a pretty poor job on this guy’s part. Maybe if he’d eliminated all the variables and done it right the first time, he’d be done. But it doesn’t seem like he’s capable of that.

Styre disconnects the communication and then begins a test on Sarah Jane, testing her resistance to fear. And I’m sorry, but this sounds like an extremely douche test. Who does this, I ask you! WHO?

And then we get some really lovely scenes of Sarah Jane dealing with fear, from imagining a snake wrapping around her arm to rocks falling onto her to her hand getting stuck in mire. I'd show you through youtube, but they don't want me to show you (and no I'm not bitter at all).

The Doctor shows up and manages to sonic through Styre's forcefield to tend to Sarah. But she's passed out (from the fear?). Styre shows up and The Doctor charges him, angry at what's happened to Sarah, but Styre drops him like a bitch and The Doctor goes down. The Doctor then tries to run away, but Styre guns him in the back and The Doctor goes down again, this time seemingly dead. It's this whole epic thing.

The space suit dudes are brought back to Styre’s ship via the robot. Styre emerges from his ship and hisses (much in the same way he hissed when Sarah and Rother were brought to him. Silly. But awesome). Vural outs himself as a traitor, saying that Styre promised that if he brought out his friends he would be saved. The other space suit dudes get pissed, realizing that it must have happened when Vural was gone for several hours on the first night, but Styre has no time for their games or whatever. They have work to do and experiments to continue.

Harry comes across the unconscious Sarah Jane and the unconscious Doctor. He gets all angry that they’ve been placed into this state and then goes to check out the trussed up space suit dude. He has to run, though, cuz Styre shows up and reports the space suit guy dead after nine days of fluid deprivation.

And this is something I really like about this. The callousness of the Sontaran’s experiments (title!) are all kinda grizzly. For god’s sakes this guy was trussed up and left to die from thirst and then watched to see how he would act under such circumstances. That’s just grizzly.

With Harry just about to spring an attack on Styre, The Doctor appears and quietly drags him away, explaining that he nicked a piece off Styre’s ship and placed it in his pocket. Luckily, this was enough to protect him from Styre’s attack. Yay that.

He reminds Harry that there must be a military reason behind all this and sets off to find out what’s up, leaving Harry behind to watch after Sarah Jane.

We cut over to Styre doing yet another experiment, this time with the space suit guys. What is this experiment? Testing the limits of the human breast cage and muscular strength. How is he testing it?

Well, if you’ll see in that picture, there’s two space suit guys holding that thing and another tied to the rock. Styre will start to increase the weight of that metal thing they’re holding to test them. By the way, he is increasing the weight by hundred pound increments.

Seriously, his tests are so silly! On the bright side, killing two birds with one stone here.

The Doctor heads back to Styre’s ship and comes across the robot. He talks to the robot all kindly and then sonics it to death (grizzly). He hears the yells of the space suit dudes and goes to check it out.

The bar they’re holding is at five hundred pounds at this point, by the way. Just saying.

Styre receives a call and delays the experiment, unknowingly leaving the dudes a knife with which to cut themselves free. He heads to his communication station and communicates with his superior, who tells Styre to prepare for the invading Sontaran battle fleet who want to conquer Earth.

Little does he know he is overheard by The Doctor, who then returns to Sarah and Harry to formulate a plan and attempt to stop the Sontaran invasion of not just Earth, but the galaxy.

And how does it end, you ask? With The Doctor fighting Styre in single, hand-to-hand combat in an effort to tire him out and make him retreat to his ship, which Harry will sabotage during the fight. Literally. That's the plan. And then we get running around on rocks and Styre swinging a machete at The Doctor but The Doctor winning and that one guy (the traitor or whatever) getting killed by Styre's hand. It's a crazy fun adventure.

Also, I'd youtube it to you in all its youtube awesome glory, but you get to live with my boring description. Don't get mad at me, though. I tried with all my might to get it posted. If it's any consolation, this is how it ends.

Fun fact: it's even more fun with a youtube. but they wouldn't let me post it because they hate fun, so that screenshot and the promise of Sontaran vs. Time Lord single combat will have to be enough (even though it's clearly not).

With the day saved, The Doctor heads to the communication beacon and tells the Sontaran fleet to back off cuz Styre’s report is incomplete. They do, although I can’t help but think it would have been smarter if Styre had sent in segments of his report. Was he planning to do it all in one? Maybe with a nice narrative or something? Weird.

Anyways, day saved. The Doctor makes the final repairs to the transmat circle and activates the circle, preparing to head back to the Nerva beacon. He assures everyone that everything will be alright, and then they disappear.

But then The Doctor reappears. And then disappears again. Off to Nerva beacon to return to the TARDIS.

Final Thoughts: I think the best thing I can say about Sontaran Experiment is that it's short.

More than anything, this is a good thing because it doesn't give Baker/Martin time to have things happen for no reason as they seem to have in their other stories. They have an opportunity to create a few characters, give them a couple things to do, and then get out about halfway through episode two.

It's hard to say too much about it, though. I mean, you can kinda start to see the slow descent of the Sontarans. Styre is evil and vindictive, but a shadow of the insane awesome that was Linx. Granted, they're not the comedy that is "The Invasion of Time" (coming in January), which is nothing but a laugh fest, when they basically become parodies of their former warrior selves.

And yet, they are good in this. The tests are a bit silly and ridiculous and we never really get the feeling of the reasoning behind why the Sontarans are invading this galaxy. But alas. We can't have everything.

More than anything, though, it makes me nostalgic for the stories around this one, the team of The Fourth Doctor and Sarah (and Harry while he's around) is a great one, and one that I positively want more of, or, at least, to experience or re-experience more of. It just feels so classic, like a new direction after years of the same thing.

Which it is, (and at this point I'm just stream of consciousing and I don't care) because the Pertwee years were five years of pretty much the same thing with few exceptions and "The Sontaran Experiment" continues this fresh start thing that Hinchcliffe and Holmes were so keen on doing, much in the same way Nathan-Turner's three years of Peter Davison were a step in that direction. It's nice and you can just feel the energy and excitement at moving Doctor Who in this direction. Recommended, especially if you're watching the series in order. Not necessarily a lost gem, but a terribly good story, and perhaps under appreciated.

Next Time!: 5th Doctor! Silurians! Sea Devils! Sloppy production values! Rushed story! Best last line ever? And Davison not in his awesome awesome costume?! Screw that! "Warriors of the Deep!" Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. The best thing about 'The Sontaran Experiment' is that it is so short! If it was any longer, it would be unwatchable. It is such a weak story.

    The biggest problem I have with 'The Sontaran Experiment' is the pointlessness of Styre's experiments. Why experiment on humans (delaying the invasion fleet) when the earth is uninhabited?

  2. I agree. It is remarkably silly. And if it was two more episodes of random experiments the story would completely fall apart.

  3. Did you know that in most of the Doctor's shots, it was Terry Walsh and not Tom Baker? Terry Walsh had to do it because Tom Baker fell and broke his shoulder, so Tom was only there for his close-ups and Terry Walsh did the rest.