One of the first things I did after ranking the classic episodes of Doctor Who was to sweep through for the obvious shocks – stories that other fans would feel were definitely over-rated or definitely under-rated. Alongside The Aztecs at 107 and An Unearthly Child at 98 (neither of which, it must be said, earned a massive uproar …) it was the low placement of this serial that I felt sure would enrage fans. The Sontaran Experiment is widely viewed as a classic, and yet it doesn’t make my top 50 – how is such sacrilege possible? (Discerning readers may also wonder why it is ranked lower than the likes of Terror of the Vervoids, but we shall skip past such supposing!)
It is worth repeating what I have said in several previous reviews – at this stage of the countdown there are very few serials that I actually dislike. The problem instead is that I enjoy other serials more than I enjoy the ones lower down! The Sontaran Experiment very much fits into this category – suffering only from not being high on the list of stories I would automatically turn to.
It also suffers in part from high anticipation. As fans of a certain age will recall, it was originally released as a VHS double set with the excellent Genesis of the Daleks. I loved (and still love!) the latter serial, and bitterly resented that my dad would not buy the video! As the mystique of the first serial grew, not least with rumours that it was a classic, I was keen to see this second Sontaran story – a desire heightened after enjoying the equally excellent The Time Warrior.
As it was – I wasn’t wowed. I should however be very positive – it is one of the few 2 part stories were one senses the story matches the length – it would make an excellent 45 minute story in the current era of the show. It was pulled together somewhat last minute to fill a production gap, but doesn’t look unpolished – quite the reverse indeed, as the rough outdoor production creates a sense of the rough state of the abandoned earth the serial is set on. And the overall concept of a lone Sontaran experimenting upon humanity to learn of their weaknesses is very clever, with Commander Styre excellently released by Kevin Lindsay.
So the downside? Well, it isn’t that exciting … it’s clever, and doesn’t exactly drag, and explores interesting concepts … but it is a bit pedestrian. It is redeemed of course by the excellence of the cast – I think the Baker/Sladen/Marter era was perhaps the best of the show, it only being a pity it did not continue into the Holmes/Hinchliffe gothic horror era – and in this serial they are very much continuing in the fine form of the preceding Ark in Space. But even their performances don’t incline me to dust off the DVD of The Sontaran Experiment that often …