Review of Doctor Who ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ (Series 12)

Neela Debnath

Doctor 4 fina 300x225 Review of Doctor Who ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ (Series 12)In the run up to the 50th anniversary of ‘Doctor Who’ in November 2013, Neela Debnath, with the help of BBC DVD, will be writing a review focusing on one story from each of the previous 31 series of the show. Each review will offer readers a snapshot from every series of ‘Doctor Who’ and celebrate the longest-running science fiction television programme in the world.

A new series and a new Doctor, Tom Baker’s tenure as the Time Lord began after Jon Pertwee’s third incarnation contracted radiation poisoning from a cave on Metebelis 3 in Planet of the Spiders. With the help of fellow Time Lord K’anpo Rimpoche, the Doctor regenerated into his fourth incarnation.

The Sontaran Experiment is the third serial of series 12 and it is comparatively shorter than most stories. Comprising of only two parts, it is essentially as long as one episode of Nu-Who. The serial finds the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) landing on earth by Transmat, only to discover that things are not quite right. They soon uncover a Sontaran plot to invade earth but luckily the Doctor thwarts their attempts.

Along with Sarah Jane Smith there is another companion who has come along for the ride. Harry Sullivan, who first appeared in Robot at the start of series 12, is a surgeon for the Royal Navy and a medical officer for Unit. Given that he has not travelled as much as Sarah Jane, he is not as adept at time travel and the adventure that comes with it.

The main problem with this serial is its brevity, compared to the longer four-part or six-part serials it lacks a lot of depth and detail because there is simply not enough time to expand. Added to this is the fact that the story itself is uninspiring. From this serial it is easier to understand why some fans have criticised the show since its returned in 2005, it is all down to the underdevelopment of the story. A standalone episode is just not as memorable as longer stories which are made up of several parts not just two. However, given the accelerating pace of television today compared to the 1970s, three-quarters of an hour is enough to tell a story on television nowadays.

Going back to The Sontaran Experiment, the story is far too simplistic and the serial feels fleeting in the context of Who in the Seventies. Of course there have been two-parters before but they can never tell the epic stories that the longer serials do. Nevertheless, there are some enjoyable elements, the biggest being Baker’s performance. He is the definitive version of the Time Lord, he commands respect and has an air of gravitas, much like his predecessors. Yet the eccentricities and comedic elements of the Doctor have been accentuated in Baker’s incarnation unlike the previous incarnations. Even though the plot lacks imagination, Baker is mesmerising and his mere presence lifts the whole serial and makes it watchable.

The production values disappoint and result in much unintended comedy, in particular when the Sontarans are speaking to each other they have an unfortunate habit of sticking their tongue out of their mouth which is hilarious. It’s essentially the actor sticking his tongue out of his Sontaran mask and it looks a bit bizarre and off key. It makes them seem less threatening despite being a warrior race intent on invasion and torture. Everything about the Sontarans comes across as comical, even the robot that they have built to capture people for experimentation – it just looks dire as it scoots around and it is a wonder how it manages not to get tangled in the heather and underbrush.

The most exciting moment of the serial is when the Doctor takes on Styre (Kevin Lindsay) in unarmed combat. The scene shows that Baker’s Doctor has the same physicality to the role as Pertwee did, in a fight or flight situation Baker’s Doctor will choose to fight. However, these action scenes received heavy criticism from social activist Mary Whitehouse who lambasted the BBC for the show’s violent content. Whitehouse expressed her anger towards the increasing violence in some of the episodes which she felt made it unsuitable for children.

The torture elements of this serial are unpleasant and could be upsetting to younger viewers but so too could the psychological terror of earlier episodes. Part of the show’s unofficial mission statement is to scare a generation of children into scuttling behind the sofa. But they are scared in a safe environment where the Doctor will save the day and chase away the monsters. Like it or not the debate about whether Doctor Who is too scary is one that will always exist.

Perhaps it is best to view The Sontaran Experiment as a comical interlude on the Doctor’s travels. Most of it is risible and there is very little that leaves a lasting impact. As a contemporary viewer, enjoy it as a bit of the Baker era but remember that the best is yet to come.

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DVD & image credit: BBC

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  • Esterath

    Hmm, I think you’rebeing a bit harsh there. I think it displays the dark side of the Sontarans before they got silly. *cough* The Invasion of Time *cough*

  • spurnlad

    Any Dr Who would be a masterpiece when compared with the time bound on Earth with the loathsome, storyless Brigadier (or whatever his rank was). It was this series that turned me off the Doctor for years.

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