Doctor Who in Review: Season Four, Episode #4 – Sontarans Strike Back!
The hit BBC series Doctor Who is now in its fourth season on the Sci-Fi Channel, and since we’re all big fans here at ComicMix, we’ve decided to kick off an episode-by-episode analysis of the reinvigorated science-fiction classic.
Every week, we’ll have our best Who-philes go through the most recent episode with a fine-tooth comb (or whatever the “sonic screwdriver” equivalent might be) and call out all of the continuity checks, names dropped and storyline hints we can find to keep in mind for future episodes. We’ll post our analysis each Monday, so you have ample time to check out the episode once it airs each Friday at 9 PM EST on Sci-Fi Channel before reading our review.
Missed a week? Check out our “Doctor Who in Review” archive or check out any of the past editions of this column via the links at the end of this article.
Keep in mind, we’re going to assume readers have already watched the episode when we put fingers to keyboard and come up with our roundup of important plot points. In other words, SPOILER ALERT!
Let’s begin now, shall we?
Season Four, Episode #4: “The Sontaran Strategem”
IN BRIEF: Martha Jones, former companion to The Doctor, has been busy since she parted ways with our favorite Timelord at the end of last season. After calling him back to the Earth, she reacquaints him with an even older associate, the government agency known as U.N.I.T., as well as some old enemies, the warrior race of aliens called Sontarans. The Sontarans’ latest plan for conquering Earth involves creating millions of weapons by taking control of the planet’s automobiles and cloning key players in the planet’s defense — including Martha Jones. It’s a “to be continued” arc once again!
WELCOME BACK: The Doctor’s former companion Martha Jones has managed to get her life together quite nicely since they parted last season in “Last of the Time Lords.” For the record, since leaving The Doctor she has:
– Received her Doctorate and officially become “Dr. Martha Jones.”
– Joined U.N.I.T. and climbed the agency’s ranks to the point where she has “Level One” security clearance
– Become engaged to Tom Milligan, a character we first met in “The Year That Never Was,” who was killed while defending Martha from The Master, but later returned to life when time was reversed in the following episode.
– Assist Jack Harkness and the Torchwood crew with an alien investigation in [[[Torchwood]]] episodes titled “A Day in the Death,” “Reset” and “Dead Man Walking.”
Not too shabby!
BACK IN ACTION: This episode also provides our first in-depth look at U.N.I.T., the government taskforce The Doctor worked with during several of his previous incarnations in the original series. Previously, the taskforce appeared in the first season of the new series, in episodes titled “Aliens in London” and “World War III,” as well as later episodes “The Christmas Invasion,” “The Sound of Drums” and “Last of the Time Lords.”
The Third Doctor held a position as “scientific advisor” for U.N.I.T. during his exile on Earth decades ago and maintained his credentials with them even after he began traveling the cosmos again. U.N.I.T. first appeared in The Second Doctor’s adventure “The Invasion,” and was formed by (among others) Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, following an adventure he had with The Second Doctor in “The Web of Fear.” According to Doctor Who mythos, the world believes U.N.I.T. to be an investigative organization that helps gather information for other agencies.
On a side note, the reporter in this episode mentions heading to the Tower of London, referring to it as “U.N.I.T. HQ.” We first saw that U.N.I.T. had a base in the Tower of London during the new series’ first Christmas Special, “The Christmas Invasion.”
*Whew* That was a lot of backstory! Are we all caught up now? Good!
THE CREATURE REPORT: This episode welcomes back yet another classic Doctor Who villain with the Sontarans, who made their debut in 1973 in “The Time Warrior.” (On a side note, this was also the first episode featuring Elisabeth Sladen as The Doctor’s companion, Sarah Jane Smith, and the first episode in which the Doctor names his home planet, Gallifrey.) The Sontarans haven’t changed much in 35 years, though, and continue to have their appearance compared unfavorably to potatoes. It’s worth noting, however, that this is the first time the Sontarans have been depicted as being shorter than normal humans, despite their initial description in “The Time Warrior” as nasty, brutish and short.
“The Time Warrior” also established that the Sontarans had a long-going war with the Rutons and that The Doctor had actually had an encounter with them before their first appearance on TV. Though it had
always been said that Sontarans were a clone race, this is the first time we’ve seen their cloning tanks or been inside one of their motherships. The original design team who created the Sontarans thought it would be funny to create a monster who would remove its helmet only to reveal a head beneath that was similar in appearance.
“The Time Warrior” also established that the probic vent was a major weakness for the Sontaran race.
QUESTIONS ANSWERED: While the Doctor Who creators have never shied away from recycling actors, it’s nice to see some of these returning actors worked into the series’ continuity. In this case, we first saw actor Bernard Cribbins managing a newsstand in the most recent Christmas Special, “Voyage of the Damned.” In the Season Four Premiere, “Partners in Crime,” we saw him again — this time as Donna’s grandfather, Wilfred Mott.
Many viewers (including the crew here at ComicMix) wondered whether the series’ creators would connect these two roles, ignore them or write them off with a convenient line of dialogue. After all, they effectively ret-conned Freema Agyeman’s role as Torchwood employee Adeola Oshodi in the Season Two episode “Army of Ghosts” by having Martha Jones (the character she played throughout all of Season Three) mention later on that she had a cousin who worked for The Torchwood Institute.
This time around, however, Cribbins’ appearance in “Voyage of the Damned” was inserted into continuity as his character recognizes The Doctor when they meet at Donna’s home, and references their previous encounter at the newsstand. Along the same lines, Donna’s mother, Sylvia Noble, recognizes The Doctor from their first encounter during the episode titled “The Runaway Bride,” in which we first met Donna Noble. She effectively ret-cons Cribbins’ absence from “Runaway Bride” by mentioning that Wilfred was sick with the “Spanish Flu” during Donna’s disastrous wedding.
I love it when a story comes together nicely. Don’t you?
A TIME OF WAR: Exactly what happened during “The Last Great Time War” remains shrouded in mystery, but we received another clue in this episode. According to the Sontarans, their race was aware of the war (unlike many others), but was not allowed to participate. Although the Sontarans were never able to build time-ships, they were often trying to get their hands on time-travel technology, such as when they invaded Gallifrey in an episode from the original series titled “The Invasion of Time” and when they attempted to create their own TARDIS in “The Two Doctors.” Also, in their very first appearance, a Sontaran warrior built a crude machine that allowed him to summon people from centuries in the future. With this kind of experience, it’s not surprising that they would at least be aware of the Time War.
Other species we know of that were aware of the war and managed to survive include The Nestene Consciousness from the episode “Rose,” the gaseous creatures called The Gelth from “The Unquiet Dead” (who told The Ninth Doctor that they lost their bodies in the war) and the tree-like Forest of Cheem from “The End of the World.”
We also know that The Master fled the war and hid at the end of time as a human (“Utopia”), so there was at least one other Timelord who managed to escape the war.
Oh, and don’t forget the Daleks imprisoned in the Genesis Ark (“Doomsday”), the Dalek Emperor (“Bad Wolf”) and the lone Dalek who ended up in a future-Earth museum in the episode “Dalek.” Apparently, Daleks have a lot in common with cockroaches.
In Doctor Who Annual 2005, series producer Russell T. Davies also said that the great Animus (a villain from the original series) died during the Time War and that the Eternals (who were featured in The Fifth
Doctor adventure “Enlightenment” and were more powerful than the Time Lords) fled our universe after seeing the violence and destruction wrought by the war.
On a final note, it might be worth noting that the Sontarans mention that it was our very own Doctor who led the final battle in “The Last Great Time War.” This is something the Doctor has alluded to himself twice before. In “Dalek,” The Ninth Doctor said he was responsible for the destruction of the Dalek race and the Time Lords alike, saying he “had no choice.” And in the episode titled “Doomsday,” he said that he had survived the war “by fighting on the front lines.”
HAVE MASSIVE FLYING AIRCRAFT CARRIER, WILL TRAVEL: When Martha is showing The Doctor around U.N.I.T., she mentions that the agency is also in control of The Valiant – the flying aircraft carrier The Master used as his base of operations during last season’s three-part finale. You remember that one, right? It was the ship with the conference room where The Doctor lived in a straw-filled tent and (after another transformation) a birdcage, and where Jack Harkness was tortured unmercifully.
Ah, the old days. There are some good memories in that place.
IT’S ALL IN THE NAME: The Doctor’s favorite government task force appears to have been re-branded since he last encountered them, as Martha refers to U.N.I.T. as the “Unified Intelligence Taskforce.” During the original series, the agency’s acronym stood for “United Nations Intelligence Taskforce.” According to various Doctor Who fan sites, this change was made due to a request by the real-world United Nations when the series returned to regular production.
However, before this new name was decided on, it was agreed by the United Nations that the show could call the team “the U.N. Intelligence Taskforce” as long as none of the characters explained what the first two letters stood for.
FINDING TIME: There’s nothing like acknowledging a raging continuity controversy to show your Who fan cred, and the creators of the series did just that when The Doctor told Donna that he worked with U.N.I.T. “back in the ’70s … or was it the ’80s?” As detailed in the Doctor Who Wiki, longtime fans of Doctor Who have debated when exactly The Doctor’s cooperation with U.N.I.T. occurred in the overall series timeline, and this simple line of dialogue just adds fuel to the fire. When U.N.I.T. first appeared, it was implied that the adventure took place in Earth’s near future. Yet later U.N.I.T. stories seemed firmly established in the same time period as the airing date, which led to the confusion.
That sound you heard while watching the episode? That was the sound of millions of diehard Who fans gritting their teeth simultaneously.
QUESTIONS UNANSWERED: As in previous episodes, The Doctor once again mentions the mysterious “Medusa Cascade,” telling Donna that he was looking forward to showing her “the 15th Broken Moon of the Medusa Cascade.” This “Cascade” has already been name-checked in “Last of the Timelords,” an episode from last season’s three-part finale, as well as in the second episode of the current season, “The Fires of Pompeii.” I think it’s safe to say that the “Medusa Cascade” is likely to play a major role in the series this season. But what role will it play?
HUMOR IN UNIFORM: Near the end of the episode, when the Sontarans activate their automobile weapons and gas starts pouring into the U.N.I.T. base, did anyone else notice the U.N.I.T. soldiers firing their rifles at the vehicles’ exhaust pipes? Now, I’m no mechanic, but it seems a bit dangerous to be firing bullets at the area of a jeep where (I’m pretty certain) the gas tank is located. Maybe I’m just nit-picking here, but if that’s the sort of highly trained soldiers U.N.I.T. is hiring, I think it might be time for Earth’s residents to start learning Sontaran customs.
FIRST THOUGHTS ON NEXT WEEK’S EPISODE “The Poison Sky”: It’s a State of Emergency as the Sontarans invade Earth! Of course, none of this would be an issue if more people rode bicycles… or something.
Thanks to ComicMix contributor Alan Kistler for help with this week’s analysis. Credit also goes out to the good people at The Doctor Who Wiki for information related to several of this week’s story notes.
Some photos courtesy of SciFi.com. For more on Doctor Who and other great programs, check out Scifi.com and the BBC.
Want to know what you’ve been missing? Check out all of the past “Doctor Who in Review” features via the following links:
Season Four, Episode #1 – “Partners in Crime“
Season Four, Episode #2 – “The Fires of Pompeii”
Over at the Fact File on the official BBC site http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/s4/episodes/S4_04they discuss the UNIT name change and the time inconsistencies. One final interesting bit there is that the Atmos system was used earlier this season. A taxi in Partners in Crime episode had it.The commentary for the episode was the first one I was able to hear and they discussed the UNIT name business there. There was a good discussion of Freema going down into the gloop. I made some other notes and if I remember I'll write in later in the week with those.The next episode won't be until May 30th due to the Memorial Day weekend.
They were forced to bring back Bernard Cribbins because the man who played Donna's father took ill and was unable to return to play the role. They didn't feel right re-casting the role, and someone had the idea of bringing back Bernard as Donna's Grandfather. In the commentary tracks for the episodes, there has been a suggestion by the Who staff that the meeting between The Doctor and Wilf is more than coincedence. It may just be RTD stirring the pot, but it's certainly caused some talk on the boards.And as for recycling actors, Eye Myles first appeared in the episode "The Unquiet Dead" as a chambermaid who could communicate with The Gelth, and re-appeared a couple hundred years later in Torchwood playing a character with the same name, Gwen Cooper. Still no explanation for that one, but it's certainly a potential story.While we've seen the Sontarans several times now, we've only met their eternal foes the Rutans once, in the Baker stort "The Horror of Fang Rock".I think they did a wonderful job of creating a new cast of UNITeers. I wouldn't mind seeing them make another appearance in a later episode, or perhaps on Torchwood, since alledgedly Martha will be going back to join the show. They've really got across the point in the new series that UNIT is quite a capable organization, and not quite the helpless nancies they were made out to be in the old series. As for the characters themselves, I quite liked Colonel Mace – kind of anti-Brigadier in that he's honored to work with The Doctor, and the Brig was always infuriated by it. While they mentioned The Brig, I was surprised that Sgt. Benton wasn't mentioned; surely he'd risen up the ranks by now, no? John Levene is living in America now, and acting under the name John Anthony Blake. I for one would love to hear Benton is in charge of UNIT's USA operations.It was defintely implied that the UNIT adventures took place in the near future, which would have put it in the 80's. There was one prescient episode where The Brigadier was speaking with the PM of Britain. Years before Thatcher, he picks up the phone and says, "Yes Ma'am."A very subtle bit of design – the arch and circle motif of the Sontaran ship and their little fighters, as an extension of their own squat roundness.Guest star of the week – General Staal of the Tenth Sontaran Battle Fleet was played by Christopher Ryan, known to fans of 80's Britcoms as Mike Thecoolperson from The Young Ones, and later as Edina's first husband from Absolutely Fabulous. And here's something I'm amazed no one's mentioned re: Martha's actual position at UNIT. It seems obvious to me that she's Scientific Advisor, or more likely "Acting" Scientific Advisor, since I'm sure The Doctor still holds his old position in at least an emeritus status.
I liked this episode a lot. David Tennant, Catherine Tate and Freema Agyeman are all 3 terrific actors. When it was first announced that Catherine Tate would star as the Doctor's main campanion, I was a little hesitant and I didn't like the idea too much. However, she has proved me wrong by playing the character of Donna Noble beautifully. Well done to all three, and of course to the hardworking Doctor Who crew in Cardiff. Thank you, BBC!