Aired 26 April 2008
The first two-part story of the fourth series of modern Doctor Who finally welcomes back another of the Doctor’s many classic foes, with the war-obsessed Sontaran clone race deservedly making their modern debut. It should be noted that the initial two-parters have been some of the weakest of the first three series, skewing more to the younger demographic and offering little meaningful events beyond sheer spectacle. Fortunately, whereas the likes of ‘Aliens in London’ and ‘Daleks in Manhattan’ failed to truly build upon an intriguing premise, ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ is crafted quite well on all levels and piques interest for its upcoming concluding half.
To be fair, the cliffhanger leading into the poison sky is certainly not one of the strongest in Doctor Who‘s history, and it seems like it was added just to artificially increase the tension at the end of the story, but otherwise ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ works quite well and aptly succeeds with what it sets out to do, learning from mistakes of other early opening episodes. It also certainly continues the trend of the first two-parter of the series being quite blunt about monsters and destruction whereas the second two-parter has tended to skew to more adult themes like morality, abandonment, and even sexuality.
The Sontarans are certainly a worthy foe to reintroduce to the modern audience, though it’s also fair to say that they have nowhere near the cache of the likes of the Daleks, Cybermen, or the Master. Part of what makes ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ so successful is that, even though it characterizes the warrior race very much in line with their classic appearances, they’re not written as a completely dominant and infallible race. They have some technological advances over humans and can dispatch soldiers with ease, to be sure, but they’re still a race that it seems like humans could defeat even if the Doctor did not make an appearance. There isn’t an inordinate amount of time trying to build them up into something they’re not, a refreshing change of pace. Yet, somehow, the balance between threat and joke is attained perfectly, another testament to Doctor Who as a whole and the many different types of creatures its universe holds.
‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ also makes several calls back to the past, some recent and some dating back to the 1970s. UNIT has made several fleeting appearances since the show’s revival in 2005, but the organization is very much front and centre here, and the Doctor’s past involvement with the groups is openly acknowledged. Even though the Brigadier does not make an appearance, Colonel Mace is a competent and enjoyable enough stand-in, and the explicit allusion to the dating controversy of the UNIT stories is cleverly inserted and much appreciated. The episode also features the return of Martha, who it turns out has started working for UNIT after some brief time with Torchwood, again continuing the theme that traveling with the Doctor makes people better. Unfortunately, the revelation that she has become engaged to Tom Milligan has little impact other than trying to perhaps give her a bit of character development after her farewell scene. In fact, while Donna gets to reconnect with her family, Martha’s is strangely absent as she investigates the alien plot at hand. Contrastingly, it’s a great choice and in sticking with Martha’s and Donna’s characters that they should be quite friendly from the start rather than initially combative and protective.
The other plot point that works quite well- and this is one that has been building for a while- is showing that the Doctor is also not infallible. For as many wonderful and heroic actions that he does or instigates, he is also a bit short-sighted and full of internal conflict about what steps he is willing to take at what times. This was perhaps most evident in ‘The Long Game,’ but Martha directly confronts him about the nature of his intermittent interventions by saying that she needs to deal with the consequences of his actions as well as the consequences of what happens when the Doctor is not around to save the day. It’s an interesting light to portray the main lead in, to be sure, but a very successful one and hopefully one that continues.
In the end, ‘The Sontaran Stratagem’ is the best opening instalment of a first two-part story in the modern run of the series. After a concise plot with the reintroduced Sontarans trying to overtake the world by poisoning the sky with ATMOS technology and utilizing clones, some nice character interactions, and some welcome callbacks to previous episodes and eras, ‘The Poison Sky’ is in an enviable position as it tries to wrap up an enjoyable start.