Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Doctor Who S12 Ep77: The Sontaran Experiment

Sarah, played by Elisabeth Sladen, was just one in my long list of sci-fi female crushes. I'll call her crush #5. Sladen ranks up there with Catherine Schell, Barbara Bain, Angela Cartwright, Marta Kristen, Claudia Black, Lady Penelope & Tin Tin and Erin 'spandex' Gray. I just loved Erin Gray with her spray-painted white spandex! Sladen was certainly cute as a button!

The Doctor Who journey continues with the Tom Baker years. I have to admit I was a bit relieved to find the latest installment to be a simple two-parter. Most of the Doctor Who stories are four part stories with some being as large as six parts. I like them long, but it's a bit daunting when blogging about them. The Sontaran Experiment is the one and only Tom Baker tale that is two parts. It is the shortest story in the Baker cannon. Still, there is a longstanding mythology that surrounds this particular entry regarding the Sontaran race that extends into the David Tennant years. Both Robot and The Ark In Space, as far as I know, deal with threads or concepts that really are not dealt with in detail previously or in future Doctor Who storylines. The Sontarans represent a genuine Doctor Who nemesis and remain one of The Doctor's biggest thorns past, present and future. I actually don't know much about The Sontarans, but I do love the look of the aliens and hope to learn more from this brief two part encounter.
*
Baker always looked like there was a lot going on in that mind of his. He was a fascinating character behind those eyes. Sadly, I'm not sure he would make a leading man today.
We beam down from space station Nerva to a future Earth below with Doctor Who, Season Twelve, Episode 77, The Sontaran Experiment [1975]. I will tell you that this is one of those episodes I remember seeing when I was young. I distinctly recall being slightly freaked by the Sontaran. It was quite frightening back in the day.
*
PART ONE: The Doctor, Harry and Sarah all transport down between a series of circular refractors. It has been thousands of years since the Earth has been populated by humans. There's nothing but gorgeous rolling green English countryside, gorgeous, of course, if you don't mind grey skies and rain, but that's what provides its beauty after all. The location shots were performed in Dartmoor, England. It looks like a nice peaceful place to live. It's all rather quiet and Sarah doesn't like it a bit. Harry insists it will all change when the ark of Nerva is unloaded back upon Earth. Sarah spots something moving. Harry tells her it's her vivid imagination.
Some men have The Doctor in their gun sites. They are in a kind of astronaut suit. As it turns out, it is because they ARE astronauts. Harry falls down a ledge. Sarah concludes it was a deliberate trap. Sarah ventures off to find The Doctor.
*
One of the astronauts runs from a roving robot. We get our second official robot during the Tom Baker Years and it is another impressive creation looking a touch like a mechanical crab. The robot runs the man straight off a precipice and he falls to his death. The Doctor hears the scream and goes to the site of the man's unfortunate demise. The other astronauts arrive and shoot The Doctor with an electronic weapon. He drops unconscious. The men take The Doctor back to their makeshift camp. Sarah cannot find The Doctor and runs back to Harry, but he is gone.

'Have you found the local pub yet mate?'
Back at the camp the men hold a hot stick up to The Doctor's face and demand that he talks. Sarah keeps seeing and hearing things. Harry has made his way out of the rigid, rugged entrapment. Sarah is abducted by another man who has muffled her with his hand. It would appear he may be hiding from the roving robot. It is looking for people. It leaves the area. The man who saved Sarah is named Roth. Roth tells her "the thing in the rocks" is an alien. The alien is responsible for sending the robot out to hunt he and his friends. He's a tad frightened, but he's been tortured and he has escaped the creature's torturous experiments.
*
The leader of the astronaut group, Vural, begins questioning The Doctor. The Doctor tells them about Space Station Nerva and the transmat beam. He's having a hard time convincing them. The men refer to Nerva as the "lost colony" and The Doctor refers to Nerva as a legend in this future time.

video


A close-up of alien hands reveals a creature aware of those he pursues. This is a result of a planted mini-camera on Vural's space suit. The Doctor is smart enough to note the technology as something alien to that found on Earth. How could he possibly notice that device? With a few pushes of some buttons the alien launches the robot once again. Meanwhile, the men discuss the crazy story that is Nerva. They just don't believe The Doctor. The Doctor tells the astronaut group that Nerva has had its people on ice for ten thousand years. Nine men came down to the Earth after picking up a distress signal. We can assume it may have been a trap. It would appear four [of the nine] men are left. They accuse The Doctor of being part of the "old" humans, while the astronaut's people survived and spread across the galaxy. They are from a human colony/ outpost called GalSec. Apparently the folks up in the ark weren't the only survivors of the solar flares that decimated Earth.

No longer the world's smallest camera.
Roth and Sarah are on the move. Roth agrees to help Sarah as a decoy and allows Sarah to spring The Doctor and save him from his imprisonment amongst the astronaut group. The Boy Wonder suspects Roth does not want his crew to be captured, which is why he stays on the run and away from his mates or perhaps he's just a little crazy. Good job Boy Wonder! Roth meets up with Sarah and The Doctor. Elsewhere, the astronaut group has retrieved their weapons and are on the hunt. We hunting wabbit, I mean Doctor. They really aren't helping matters.
*
The Doctor looks at the ground markings of the prowling robot and cannot comprehend why there is material found not of this galaxy. Roth shouts "alien" because this Sontaran creature is from another galaxy. The Doctor pokes down the embankment where Harry fell and slips away. The sound of the robot approaches and finds Roth quivering in fear next to an equally concerned Sarah.
*
Harry is busy making his way up a rock face to find the alien ship or base wedged comfortably within the rocks. The craft is a round, orb-like vessel. After being knocked unconscious The Doctor snaps out of it. Sarah and Roth are gone. They have been wired up by the pet robot and taken back to The Sontaran as prisoners. A portal to the orb-like ship opens and a helmeted creature emerges. The alien removes its helmet to reveal its fairly unappealing, block-like head. The sound of the Doctor Who end theme greets us for the end of Part One of two parts. It's interesting to note that Part One of The Sontaran Experiment is complete set-up and there is little in the way of a Sontaran to note here except for the ending and a set of hands.
*
PART TWO: The 2009 Doctor Who Magazine The Mighty 200 poll of best Doctor Who episodes ranks The Sontaran Experiment at #103. Robot was ranked at #106. The Ark In Space was ranked at #28. Click here for a rundown of The Mighty 200 episodes! There is evidence why this two-parter might be in the middling area of a 200 list. I cannot really speak all that highly of Part One, but perhaps Part Two will give us reason to appreciate the first part a bit more.
*
Sarah shudders in fear as the Sontaran reveals itself. He is a bit of a superfreak to be sure. Please cue the Rick James music! "The female of the species" are his very first words to Sarah. I'm instantly reminded of that song of the same name by Space. "The female of the species is more deadly than the male" as it goes. It's a nifty little ditty. The Sontaran pushes one of his gadget buttons and the robot releases its shackling cables freeing both Sarah and Roth. Sarah is fairly stunned to behold a Sontaran. She tells the creature of her astonishment since the race was suppose to have been blown to smithereens in the 13th Century. Doing a bit of research [I'm clever that way], Sarah refers to Linx, a Sontaran killed in The Time Warrior during the Third Doctor's reign, John Pertwee. The Time Warrior is notable as Elisabeth Sladen's first appearance in Doctor Who, Season Eleven [1973]. She is repulsed by the creature. Can you blame her? The Sontaran identifies himself as Field Major Styre. He expects to be addressed with the proper respect, rank and title. He's a fairly pompous, arrogant alien. He assures Sarah he may appear identical to the creature she knew from the past, but that he is not the same. The implication is clearly that The Sontarans are a military race of clone warriors predating Star Wars' clone troopers, but clearly no resemblance or relation.

video

*
It is obvious from these first few moments of exposition I should be able to glean a bit about the race that is the Sontarans. It is a race of warriors who relish war. It is a race that places great respect and strength on military might. Styre is a member of the G3 Military Assessment Survey. It does sound impressive. Will this be held in Copenhagen? He is not bothered by her opinion of his appearance. Styre is uninhibited by issues of vanity. Apparently Styre is assessing offensive might on Earth. Sarah's value is 0. I suppose that makes her expendable. Roth gets jumpy and makes a run for it. Well, that wasn't smart. Styre shoots and kills Roth and makes no apologies despite Sarah's horror and objection to the action. "The moron was of no further use to me." Apparently the Sontarans suffer from a percentage of morons on their own planet. Styre does, however, find this particular female most interesting.
*
Elsewhere, The Doctor makes his way out of the hole only to find himself at Vural's gunpoint. The three men holding The Doctor at gunpoint are caught off guard when the robot arrives. They begin to fire, but the robot overtakes them quickly with its cables. Fortunately, The Doctor is still free. There's a funny bit of film rewind motion to capture the effect of ensnaring the men. It's pretty funny, but actually clever enough. Meanwhile, Harry happens upon one of the astronaut men who is now strung up in chains and looking extremely frail. Harry asks the man why the Sontaran put him in chains.
*
The Sontaran tells Sarah that he has captured five of the nine men thus far. Nevertheless, Styre has been studying the "free behavior patterns" of the four remaining men. The guy-in-a-rubber-latex-suit design of the Sontaran is actually very good. The mouth moves quite convincingly and the eyes are close enough to the mask's own sockets to be entirely believable. The Sontaran places a red patch upon Sarah's head. He inquires to know her planet of origin. "Earth." He is incensed and calls her a liar since there has been no life on Earth since the time of the solar flares. There's a good deal of cross reference information with Episode 76, The Ark In Space, here. The Sontaran calls Sarah a "mistake" that should "not exist" according to his data. That Sontaran is a pretty freaky dude. Honestly, he is a superfreak, superfreak. He's superfreaky!
*
Harry happens upon the Sontaran camp and is nearly spotted milling about the rocks. A short time later, Harry calls out for Sarah and finds her strapped to a rock. This Sontaran is a bit of a primitive inquistitor isn't he? Granted I do like the location shooting in this entry. It's nice to see the countryside. I do wish some of the footage was sharp and clear like Blu-Ray. I can wish right? That is certainly not the case with this particular style of BBC filmmaking.
*
Harry tries to free Sarah, but a forcefield blocks his ability to help her. The Doctor appears to be making his way to the site. A short distance away the Sontaran reports into his G3 intelligence unit. A marshal appears on screen and gives Styre some kind of Sontaran military salute that appears almost Nazi-like in nature. You have to love those analog TV communications the aliens are working with in the 1970s. He informs his commander that he has lured a group of humans to Earth for testing. As they were aware the planet has not been repopulated for some time. His experiment has concluded thus far that humans are "puny beings with little resistance to physical stress and are totally dependent on organic chemical intake for their energy supply." Styre feels his experiment is not complete. There have been some irregularities or "inconsistencies" that need to be further analyzed. Styre promises to have his report within the hour for the "assault." Hmmm. What assault? What will they be assaulting since there are no humans on Earth? Perhaps they are preparing for an assault elsewhere.

I must say that Kevin Lindsay does a splendid job of conveying a particularly harsh, but interesting, personality through that rubber suit that is the Sontaran Styre. I also like how the actor occasionally sticks out his tongue for effect. Nice touch and kind of icky. It wasn't until after writing this entry I learned that Lindsay had passed away a short time after making this installment of a heart condition. He also played the Sontaran role of Linx in Doctor Who, The Time Warrior [1973]. The Sontaran Experiment concluded filming in March 1975 and Lindsay passed away the following April. He's discussed quite a bit in the documentary Built For War.
*
Styre puts Sarah to a series of tests to assess her stress level. First, she gets the old rubber snake treatment. Second, she sees giant rocks falling. Finally, she sees molten, rock-colored, sludge-like mud attacking her. Upon closer inspection it must be noted, it is more bubble wrap. Argh! Doctor Who must have had stock in bubble wrap back in the day. You'll recall it was used extensively in The Ark In Space. These examinations generate a series of screams from Sarah. The Doctor arrives in a nick of time and uses his sonic screwdriver to melt the device that has encased Sarah in a forcefield. I'm beginning to sense the one major flaw of the episode. Doctor Who is hardly in this one. For a new doctor to be missing throughout much of the third entry seems a little odd. The Doctor frees Sarah of what I can only term as the fear patch.
*
The Sontaran arrives and The Doctor physically goes after the creature, but is knocked down with a single arm shot. It's rather awkward and strange in effect, but I suspect actor Lindsay had limited range and mobility. The Doctor makes a run for it, while Sarah is unconscious, but is shot down by the Sontaran ray gun. What's great about these guns is they don't actually fire anything. There are no lasers or bullets. They press the button and a little light goes on. You get a strange sound and wah-lah dead man or stunned fellow. It's like your backyard play time as a kid come to life. We pulled off the same kind of acting through imagination in spades.
*
The astronaut men are taken back to the Sontaran test camp. It is here that we learn Vural has made a pact with the devil of a sort. He has bargained for his freedom if the men were given to the Sontaran. The Sontaran finds his disloyalty despicable. It is evident the Sontarans work within a code and honor appears to be among the Sontaran traits. I must admit Styre has picked a rather pathetic lot of humans for testing if he wanted to know more about humans. This is a pretty rare group of special candidates.
*
Harry returns to the man in chains where he finds the Sontaran reporting into his data device on human reaction to fluid deprivation. The man in chains has died. Styre reports that the human requirement for fluids is critical and is a weakness that must be exploited in their attack. Experiment 5 completed. Experiment 4 involves immersion in liquids. The Doctor catches up with Harry. He also gives us a little more into the mind of the Sontaran based on his past experience with the race. The Doctor is curious about Styre's status on Earth. He knows Sontarans never do anything without a military reason. He's putting things together.
*
The Doctor finds Styre working on the three men, Experiment 8, regarding their ability to withstand weight and pressure. Styre's robot sneaks up on The Doctor and he greets it with a hello.

video

*
Styre is surprised the men allowed their traitorous compatriot to survive when he increased a gravity bar's weight that was held over Vural's chest. There may be more to this lot than previously expected. Styre reports back to homebase. The Doctor listens in. He discovers the invasion fleet is being held at bay by one Sontaran's mission, Styre. They are eager to have his report. Styre insists his experiments have been approved by the Grand Strategic Council. Now we learn from The Doctor that Styre and friends are planning to invade Earth and the entire galaxy. I'm glad to hear that, because at first I'm thinking Earth is no contest. There's no one to fight on this particular Earth. I mean what are you invading? There isn't even a single sheep on the rolling green hills to tackle. At least we know the humans spread across the galaxy and the Sontarans will be taking the fight to them. The Doctor mentions something about the Sontarans needing to gain information on human weakness. He also suspects the information will be helpful in a greater battle for the Sontarans against a race called The Glutons. He calls it the "endless war." That's certainly an interesting bit of science fiction mythology thrown in for good measure.

video

The Doctor tells Harry and Sarah that he will take on Styre in combat. The Doctor plans on tiring Styre. He gives Harry the sonic screwdriver and his mission of attack on the Sontaran ship. Here we have The Doctor's ultimatum. I wouldn't exactly call that superfreak a frightening warrior apart from his physical appearance.

video
*
The battle rages while Harry cracks into the Sontaran vessel to remove a device needed to feed the Sontaran. See Styre tire. Hey that's a good rhyme. Styre will need to recharge. Hmmm, I wonder what kind of body Styre has if recharging is necessary. As Styre nearly limps and crawls back to his ship The Doctor and company prepare for the fruits of Harry's work as directed by Doctor Who. Harry has removed the device that extracts pure energy and nourishes our Sontaran potato head friend. The device is called the Terullian Diode Bypass Transformer. Uh whosa whatsa!? It's a very impressive sounding device. Smoke flies out of the ship and Styre melts unable to feed on the pure energy. His entire face and body shrivels while his vessel explodes. WOW! Did the sonic screwdriver do all of that?
*
As it turns out Sontarans require feeding on pure energy. The Doctor tasked Harry with reversing the process to which the energy fed on Styre. No more ire from Styre thanks to the ship on fire. Things got dire death resulting for Field Major Styre. The Doctor wires to Styre's boss. He tells the Sontaran boss to bugger off essentially and that he shouldn't make a move without Styre's report. The good Doctor bluffs and those Sontaran buffoons buy it all hook line and sinker. It's not a very impressive fleet then. I shouldn't think a warrior race would back down that easily. "Brinkmanship I think they called it." Brinkmanship is a strategic term whereby nations push one another in the field of foreign policy or military positioning. The Cuban Missile Crisis between the Soviet Union and the United States is another splendid example.
*
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry bid farewell to the Astronaut lot who will wait on Earth for the Nerva folks to arrive. Our trio of travellers transmat back to Nerva. I'm not sure what it is about Elisabeth Sladen, but she lights up the screen. My Boy Wonder loved this one. He called it "awesome." I cannot offer that much praise. Still, there's some terrific on location atmosphere here. You have to love England. It's a beautiful country in many parts. The Sontaran outfit, costume design and make-up is stunning and still holds up. If anything, some of the writing in this entry is a little weak. Also, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are certainly absent from the screen for a time and whenever the two of them are missing from the focus it's a detriment to the show. Nevertheless, it's short, sweet and does have fairly good pacing considering The Sontaran Experiment was considered a "filler" episode by its director. I'd say it worked out much better than that. If it's any indication of what the creators had in mind moving Doctor Who in a more science fiction heavy direction, with Tom Baker at the helm, The Sontaran Experiment was just that, a decent experiment with the new cast.
*
The Sontaran Experiment: B-
*
Writer: Bob Baker/ Dave Martin
Director: Rodney Bennett
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
*
DVD Extras: Audio Commentary by actress Elisabeth Sladen, co-writer Bob Baker and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. Built For War is a thirty-nine minute documentary on the genesis and development of the Sontaran race across the spectrum of the series. There's all kinds of good bits and information for the Who fan in the docu-film including how Tom Baker broke his collar bone during filming. Interestingly, like any good science fiction writer building mythology into the characters, The Sontarans allegedly procreated by having sex through the back of their potato head necks. Strange stuff eh? I'm not sure I'd want to look at my Sontaran lover's face either if Styre is a barometer of the race.

video

*
They even mention a bit about the whole tongue thing, which I mentioned earlier and it's evidently by design.

video
*
It's interesting that the DVD notes Digitally Remastered Picture and Sound Quality. That's a stretch people. Let's be honest. It's just not that pretty.

No comments: