Quite often in Doctor Who’s history, episodes were used as a launchpad for a new audience; a refresher to what has gone before and an introduction to what is new: typically a new companion – a good example being The Time Meddler. These stories are a fantastic launchpad for fans new to the series – rather than going all the way back to An Unearthly Child (sensational though episode one is) there are several other brilliant entry points. The Time Warrior, the debut story in Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Doctor, very much fits into that mould.
I was horrified to see that it’s been more than two months since my last review in the episode countdown! And so I resume with a story that is definitely going to raise eyebrows. For a variety of reasons this story is not well perceived in Doctor Who fandom. Several factors are given, whether it’s the low-grade special effects, the buffoonery of the Timelords, the evident sense that the budget had run out, or indeed the sneaking suspicion that there wasn’t quite enough material to stretch across six episodes.
I think that the criticism is a tad unfair, and really enjoyed discovering the serial on VHS. In truth, this adventure is best understood as a two part story, in which the Doctor faces off against one alien threat in the first four episodes, and a second alien threat in the final two. Tom Baker is simply sensational throughout, as he gives the appearance of co-operating with a race known as the Vardans to effect an invasion of his home planet, Gallifrey. He begins by seizing the role of Lord President of the High Council of Timelords – having conveniently put himself up for election last time he was on Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin.
It is not until after part 3, by which time the Vardans have invaded Gallifrey, that we discover that the Doctor is secretly trying to identify their home planet and put it into a time loop. As the Vardans are capable of travelling on any wavelength, including thought, they are able to read people’s minds, and appear next to people instantly – hence the Doctor is required to resort to subterfuge to achieve his aims. Thwarting the Vardans is only the beginning however – to win their trust, he is forced to lower the shields of Gallifrey, which allows a Sontaran battle fleet to enter the Capitol. The Doctor then spends the last two episodes ensuring that the Sontarans do not get their hands on the Timelords’ ultimate weapon – the Demat gun.
It has to be said – I think The Invasion of Time is a thoroughly enjoyable and non-demanding adventure. Yes, one must look past the occasionally laughable special effects (especially the cellophane Vardans), and it does stretch a little at six episodes – but it never feels pedestrian, and even the minor roles of Andred, captain of the Chancellery Guards, and Rodan the technician add distinct flavour to the story. We also get to see more of Gallifrey than at any point until then in the show’s history – including the wilderness outside the Capitol. And the episode four cliffhanger, the dramatic revelation of the Sontarans after you believe the Doctor has won the day, has to go down as one of the greatest and best executed cliffhangers in Doctor Who history.
The story also marks the farewell for Leela, and the original K9 prop. While I enjoyed Leela as a companion, she never really had the opportunity to develop as a character as the producers had originally intended. When the Doctor says fondly “I’ll miss you too, savage,” it rather captures the contrast between Leela, still instinctive and violent by the end of her travels, and Jamie MacCrimmon, who had changed substantively by the time of The War Games. I’m sorry to say I don’t feel sad when Leela stays behind on Gallifrey; although that could be because the lovely Mary Tamm is only five minutes away in the next episode …
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 …
A while back I commented on a series of villains that I felt had been woefully underused – one of which were the Rutans. Their eternal adversaries, the Sontarans, are a foe that oddly enough have suffered in reputation from reappearing in stories subsequent to their debut. There is no doubt, Kevin Lindsay is excellent as Linx in The Time Warrior, and equally sinister in The Sontaran Experiment (although I confess I personally didn’t enjoy the story that much) – but the drama of a lone Sontaran didn’t really carry over that well into The Invasion of Time or The Two Doctors – in the latter it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they were mainly included to deal with any military might required.
Which is a huge pity, because their potential was very well explored in Series 4 of the new series, even if the execution was awfully hammed up, and then subsequently ruined by Strax joining the Paternoster comedy trio. There is something quite intriguing about a race who are bred for the glorification and execution of war, absolutely cunning military strategists and yet possessed of a childish delight in watching any kind of warfare. “Nasty, brutish and short” is the rather excellent description Pertwee’s Doctor bestows upon this race. Which is why it is galling when they are reduced to the playthings of another power, or treated as light comic relief – they deserve a proper war-zone style narrative to get their teeth into. Which is strange, because their two most successful stories centre on lone operatives …
I’d dearly love to see a new series story that features a full scale battle between Sontarans and Rutans, not least to see how the Doctor would react (as in The Doctor’s Daughter) when it is not evident that there is a ‘good’ side or a ‘bad’ side. But then these militaristic clones need to be let off the leash to threaten and menace as they deserve to. An equally intriguing story would be a Sontaran general isolated from his troops and raising a human army to fight – for the character story of what so motivates Sontarans to their glorification of war. In any event – they are worthy recurring foes, but of course not in the same league as the top three …
This was a story that severely disappointed me when I got my hands on the DVD. As a youngster I had rather enjoyed the other multi-doctor stories (The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors) – I think mainly for the sheer novelty of having more than one doctor in the story. This story is rather different to the other multi-doctor stories in that the others were written to celebrate the 10th and 20th anniversaries of the show respectively. The Two Doctors was sparked by producer John Nathan Turner’s desire to write a multi-doctor story that was not a celebration story, but genuinely an attempt to ask what happens when two doctors get involved in the adventure. The window of opportunity arose after Patrick Troughton enjoyed his return for The Five Doctors and mentioned he would love another opportunity to return.