Released December 2016
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW
The Sontarans are, of course, one of the most well-known enemies in the Doctor Who universe, a clone race focused on the glory and honour of warfare and caught in an ages-old battle with the shape-shifting Rutan host. Even allowing for the Second Doctor’s wiped memories following his interactions with the Sixth Doctor in ‘The Two Doctors,’ the Third Doctor seems keenly aware of the Sontarans when he first comes upon them on television in ‘The Time Warrior,’ intimating that they have crossed paths at an earlier time. With the advent of The Early Adventures, writer Simon Guerrier has crafted a stupendous first encounter between the First Doctor and the early sons of Sontar, one in which the futuristic companions of Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom are one step ahead of the Doctor with their knowledge of the tales of and deeds of their foes.
‘The Sontarans’ manages to achieve an incredible amount in its four episodes as the Doctor comes to understand these new enemies and their unique mindset, strengths, and glaring weakness. What starts off quite simply as a tale of a battle between human Space Security Service soldiers and a group of Sontarans upon a strangely habitable asteroid quickly unfolds into a much more engrossing tale as the presence of a Sontaran-controlled space cannon and an oppressed indigenous race come into focus. The story very much follows the questing format that the Hartnell era occasionally employed as the Doctor and his companions attempt to get back to the TARDIS after it is carried away, but the set pieces, characters, and impressive locales make the shifting scenes cohere seamlessly, amplifying the drama with each successive change.
‘The Sontarans’ feels, in effect, like a love letter to fans of the franchise, especially to that segment that believes that the Sontarans in recent years have become the source of too much comic relief and humour. While the allusions to ‘The Dalek Master Plan’ within which this tale is set are inserted to great effect to remind listeners of the impending fate of Sara in particular, there are several references to other adventures as well that effectively give this story a true sense of placement in a much grander sense. However, as the title suggests, the Sontarans themselves are the focal point, and the troops on display here are easily among the most ruthless ever shown. Unafraid to brutally torture their captives to glean further information to perhaps intensify their own warlike efficiency and showing a willingness to degrade themselves with shockingly effective Rutan technology to advance their own causes, the Sontarans here are a far cry from the troops shown at any other time and highlight why the Doctor has come to regard them as such a meaningful foe in later times. And although the suggestion that the Sontarans might employ humour in the future after studying its effect in increasing battle efficiency in humans seems rather tenuous, it does at least offer a link between these truly frightening warriors and their more comedic followers. The torture scenes, in particular, are quite graphic and suitably disturbing, and Peter Purves does an immense job selling Steven’s anguish while struggling to retain a semblance of nobility and honour himself.
Every performance within ‘The Sontarans’ is wonderful, and Purves again proves masterfully adept at switching between the voices of the Doctor, Steven, and the narrator on the fly. Jean Marsh is understandably used a bit less than Purves as a result, but she recaptures the essence of Sara Kingdom wonderfully and provides an omniscient presence to play against the SSS members and especially Jemma Churchill’s Captain Papas who is essentially a younger version of Sara in all but name. As always, Dan Starkey proves to be the definitive Sontaran, and the grim menace he imbues into this bunch led by Slite is truly a joy to hear. It’s a testament to the cast, writer, and Big Finish itself that such a small number of people can create such a tremendous and well-rounded experience that feels so immense, and the resulting scope of the production is staggering.
The Early Adventures has already had many standout tales in its short run, and ‘The Sontarans’ easily joins those at the top of the list as it blends old and new to great effect. Though it may seem a bit strange to imagine the First Doctor in the more action-packed sequences that pepper the story, his ingenuity and intelligence have also rarely been so overtly prevalent. It’s unfortunate that some of the bigger set pieces are realized through narration even though it makes perfect sense with the way that the story unfolds, but ‘The Sontarans’ proves to be an incredibly effective first encounter between the First Doctor and these popular foes that offers fascinating insight into the true potential of the Sontaran menace.