Sunday, 20 July 2014

Attack Of The Killer Potatoes

Doctor Who
The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky
Series Four, Episodes Four and Five

It's two-parter time again, and not the mid-series actually-good-one, or the bombastic-finale-one.  This is the early slot, previously filled by Aliens Of London, Rise Of The Cybermen and (oh dear) Daleks In Manhattan.  Zere is, 'ow you say, a pattern emerging?  But just because the previous double-headers went from wobbly to bad to excruciating, doesn't mean The Sontaran Stratagem will follow suit.  It has the same writer as Daleks In Manhattan, but still, anything could happen, right?

Stand down red alert: it's not bad.  It's not a particularly brilliant slice of Doctor Who and I'm not sure it breaks the apparent Curse Of The Dodgy Two-Parter, but it's no Daleks In Manhattan either.

Above: how every shot is lit.
Of course, you've heard almost all of it before.  There's aliens invading Earth, satirical undertones, plot points relayed to us via TV news, the companion seeing her family again, an old companion seeing the Doctor again, Classic monsters returning and UNIT soldiers everywhere.  Obviously some shades of the Pertwee era in all that, and certainly a few references, but then it's a pretty traditional Russell T Davies story (that happens to be written by somebody else) as well.  It has a sense of fun that comes with the territory, especially after two very serious (or trying-to-be-serious) episodes.  Even the lighting seems zanier than usual; there's a bizarre preoccupation with pink.  Some of the sets look like 1960s Batman.

Sadly, "fun" often equates with "dumb" in Doctor Who, and there's plenty of that here as well.  There's gigantic dumb stuff like the ending, when a poison cloud covering the entire planet is set alight, thus magically clearing it away... but not burning anything or leaving any smoke behind or sucking out all the oxygen despite the giant tidal wave of fire.  There's the usual plotty flim-flam over the sonic screwdriver, and increasingly, deadlocks.  Why would you deadlock a car, or a SatNav (?!), or a teleporter if you weren't even expecting the Doctor to show up?  What are deadlocks for, besides counteracting the Doctor's magic wand?  (And why hasn't he come up with a deadlock setting by now, since it can do everything else?)  Using flim-flam to combat other flim-flam is a lot of tedious effort for nothing.  As a bonus, we have a scene with someone trapped inside a deadlocked car, where the sonic screwdriver would actually have worked (shattering the window), but for once, the Doctor doesn't think to use it!

There's plenty of dumbness in the writing, and how characters act.  Take the (obviously doomed) investigative journalist, who not only tells a shady bad guy that his products are dangerous (bye bye!) but helpfully phrases it as "I'm telling you!"  (Thanks for clearing that up.)  There's an overly cocky UNIT soldier who pokes his nose into things believing it will earn him a promotion (how does that work?), and tells somebody "We can do this the easy way... or the hard way."  (And there I was hoping for "We can do this the easy way, or we can just forget about it and I'm sorry to have bothered you.")  And of course there's the intermediate bad guy, working for the aliens, who genuinely believes they're going to repay him for selling out the human race.  Genius alert!  (And yikes, that accent.  American, via the West Country?)

But it would be unfair to file this one next to hopeless, billy-no-brain episodes like Planet Of The Ood and Last Of The Time Lords, just because there are lots of stupid bits.  There's plenty of good stuff too, including good writing.

Take the scene where Donna decides to pop home.  The Doctor rolls out an enormous speech about how great she is and how he'll miss her, and in a hilarious pin-pricking of a modern Who trope, it's all for nothing.  Gotcha!  There's a similar moment where he gives her a TARDIS key, which all seems terribly momentous and important until she says "Maybe we'll get sentimental after the world's finished choking to death."  Ouch!  The Doctor is (occasionally) on good form, particularly his snarky one-upmanship with nauseating boy genius Luke Rattigan, but I especially love the bit where he meets Staal The Undefeated.  "That's not a very good nickname.  What if you do get defeated?  Staal The Not Quite So Undefeated Any More But Never Mind?"  Zing!

Also noteworthy, a clever scene with the Doctor running away from a car that'll surely explode, but instead it just lets off a wimpy little spark.  And there's a rewarding, funny moment where Donna's mum and granddad both recognise the Doctor one after another, tying together previous episodes in a hilarious car-crash of continuity.  There's a whole bunch of witty moments dotted about.

"Oh, it's you!  I loved you in the Dalek Invasion Of Earth movie!"
And of course, there's the Sontarans.  One of the few recurring Doctor Who nuisances left after Daleks, Cybermen and the Master, they're a clone race, they're obsessed with war and they have no fear of death.  Generally around five feet tall and resembling mouldy potatoes, their only weakness (besides monumental stubbornness and an inability to dunk) is a "probic vent" at the back of the neck, which remains whimsically unguarded.  Add that lot up and they're unlikely to send anyone scurrying behind the sofa.

Nonetheless, these episodes do a good job with them.  Since it wouldn't do to redesign them, and they unavoidably look silly as heck, they throw in a few pre-emptive digs at how short and silly they look.  Go ahead and laugh: their outlook is their best feature, a death-or-glory glee that makes them (in some ways) more of a handful than Daleks and Cybermen.  At least you can count on those guys having a "stay alive" preference, whereas however silly you think they are, you can't threaten a Sontaran and win.  All of which works, crazily enough.  They even address the duh-obvious "Why don't they cover up the probic vent" conundrum.  It's so they always have to face their enemies.  (I'd rather they dropped it altogether, but I quite like this explanation.  It speaks to their arrogance.)  Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey are the only Sontarans "characters", and they're both fantastic – although curiously for a couple of clones, they don't look alike.

You could say a villain is only as good as their Evil Plan, so here's what they're working with: not unlike those Daleks in Manhattan (uh oh...), the Sontarans are more interested in raising their numbers than picking a fight.  Keeping out of sight and using specially-treated car exhausts (ATMOS), they're flooding the Earth with a gas to make it ideal for breeding clones.  This is a fun, if heavy handed play on our obsession with pollution and carbon footprints, and it makes a lot more sense than Daleks turning into humans.  (Sorry, I'll stop comparing them.  Stopping... now!)  I'm not sure why they picked Earth for the job, but I suppose having millions of car exhausts is better than not.  It's a bit disappointing to have the whole world in peril, again, but what can you do?

As you can probably tell, the car stuff is a mixed bag.  It raises a clever point about zero-carbon, which is really cool.  The Doctor, as in David Tennant's generally quite thick Doctor (see sonic screwdriver/windows), says: "ATMOS means more people driving.  More cars, more petrol, end result the oil's gonna run out faster than ever.  The ATMOS system could make things worse."  My God!  It thinks!  And of course the zero-carbon is really a cover for the smelly clouds of doom, which is mega topical etc., but there's no particular reason to pump the stuff on the inside as well, is there?  It's a handy way to kill people – although why bother, pretty soon they're going to suffocate the whole world – but doesn't it draw unwanted attention to the whole gas thing?  (Clearly it does, since that's why the Doctor is here.)  They also throw in an Evil SatNav, again for assassination purposes, but that idea gets quietly dropped before Episode Two.  And quite right: when you can fill a car with poison gas on command, why bother driving them into rivers?  It sounds like something left over from a previous draft.

Meanwhile, the Best Hypnotised Acting Award goes to...
Also a mixed bag, the companion stuff.  Donna's obviously awesome (taking out a Sontaran, sassing the Doctor), but as for the family?  Bernard Cribbins is lovely, and he provides a hopeful counterpoint to all the "How could you leave home?" prattle from Donna's mum, but sheesh, yet again with the prattling.  It was a stretch treating Martha like this back in Series Three, and while Donna might have a somewhat tenuous grasp on her own life, she's still a bona fide grown up.  At what point do companions stop being treated like 19-year-old Rose Tyler?

Sadly, Martha is shovelling it on as well.  She tells Donna what happened to her family and ominously warns that It Could Happen To You, but that's somewhat of an exaggeration, isn't it?  The Master's dead and Donna doesn't fancy the Doctor, so she hasn't got any of that to worry about.  Besides, at what point are Doctor Who companions going to stop having an inexorable date with doom?  But perhaps I'm just miffed at the way Martha puts her ideas across: "He's like fire.  Stand too close and people get burnt."  Wince!  Straight onto the dodgy writing pile with that one.  (Also, plenty of people have stood next to him unsinged, FYI.)

It's nice having Martha back, but she does spend most of it replaced by a clone.  Hey, at least the Doctor noticed.  (David Tennant does a great job of making it clear, but not too clear that he's spotted it.)  It's a pretty good story for the Doctor despite some notable lapses, like a plan that involves getting himself killed – lucky for him, somebody else takes the plunge.  (Oh, so that's what Rattigan is for!)  Plus there's his rigid grumpiness towards anyone with a gun, anyone who salutes and anyone who calls him "Sir".  Moral ambiguity about the armed forces is one thing, and it's a solid position, not to mention a Pertwee reference; outright calling them bad guys just because they're armed is silly.  Those "bad guys" are stopping the Sontarans from killing everybody, and you helped Martha sign up, so shut yer yap.

Add it all up and it falls somewhere between "Well that was a bit rubbish" and "Well that wasn't nearly as rubbish as it could have been".  When it comes to The First Two-Parter Of The Year, that could be written on the tin.  Despite my reservations, I had plenty of fun.

1 comment:

  1. My favourite part of the story (which also features in Turn Left too) is when the UNIT soldiers start shooting the vehicle exhaust pipes with their guns. Shooting exhaust pipes, as if a few bullets are going to stop exhaust fumes and gas?!?!

    (Also, clumsy cliffhanger - they do their best to show the gas all over the world, but fail to recognise there's probably been a mass - worldwide - amount of car-related accidents, crashes and deaths within those few minutes.)