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06 March 2014 @ 08:36 pm
The Randomizer: The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky  
Alongside its vague obsession with Tom Baker, the randomiser also appears to have a certain fondness for what can best be described as NuWho's "Big Dumb Two Parters". The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky despite, one feels, a certain determination to adhere to the formula is, actually, not as big and dumb as many of these.

As with many of these big dumb two-parters, the story features a recurring monster in a fairly simplistic tale of alien invasion with a lot of spectacle and running about. However, a number of its ideas are actually quite neat. The GPS with a mind of its own, for instance, is such an obvious idea one sort of wonders why Who hadn't played with it sooner and linking the idea to more amorphous anxieties about cars such as pollution and clean energy gave the threat in part one a good solid core of ideas to work with.

Freema Agyeman's delivery of lines, during her run, often made me cringe, especially when she was asked to do something more dramatic than naturalistic. Freed of the need to mope around after the Doctor, or act as a his conscience, she is very good both as professional practical Dr. Jones and as the Sontaran clone. Her first line though, where she's required to summon the Doctor to Earth and provide the tag leading into the title sequence… horrible… but in fairness probably not something a real person would ever say and therefore not something that plays to Agyeman's strengths. Martha, as a character, works well with UNIT and the story has a nice little dialogue going on about the ways of being a soldier, as exemplified by Martha, the somewhat rigid Colonel Mace, Ross Jenkins and the Sontarans.

Catherine Tate, on the other hand, is excellent throughout. On first watching I felt this season worked a little too hard to stress how Donna's secretarial skills could be of value - here in spotting that there was something strange about the factory work force. I was even more convinced this was unnecessary on a second viewing. She has many great moments from forcing UNIT to salute her, fooling the Doctor into thinking she's leaving, and sneaking around the Sontaran ship sabotaging their teleportation system, none of which seem particularly forced or out of character.

Ryan Sampson's Rattigan is one of the oddest characters in the story and I can't quite work out whether he's a liability or an asset. One the one hand, he's more nuanced than an out-and-out villain and we get to see his desperate desire to be accepted into group, his child-like inability to cope with set-backs and challenges, and his fundamental weakness of character. On the other hand he's still little more than a stereotype of the brainy kid who gets picked on given an opportunity to exact revenge. I suspect a lot of what makes the character work is down more to the actor than the words on the page. It's not comfortable viewing and occasionally crosses the line into an unbelievable caricature.

Christian Cooke as Ross Jenkins felt a little wasted, to be honest. The character is there to act as a foil for the Doctor in the first episode (while Martha is busy being cloned and Donna is visiting her family) which is a potentially thankless task (who wants to be third-wheel companion?) but he does a reasonably creditable job of it, and then he serves primarily as an illustration of the futility of the UNIT strategy in the second. It's not even clear the Doctor knows (or cares) that he's died been knocked unconscious and is about to leave UNIT to join up with the ARC. He seems very easily forgotten for someone who is almost a pro to-companion.

This is the start of the Sontaran's journey into being comedy monsters and from there to Strax, the constant butt of the eleventh Doctor's jokes. It is, broadly speaking, a shame. They are a potentially interesting monster, especially in the context of their war with the equally antagonistic Rutans but despite the way they wipe the floor with UNIT, it is difficult to take them seriously here, and it has been increasingly hard to take them seriously since. Together with Rattigan, their dupe, the direction emphasises their ridiculousness, rather than their formidability and the tone struggles to remain consistent while walking a line between action/adventure and broad comedy.

There is, I think, a lot to like about this two parter. It makes good use of both Martha and Donna, does something interesting and fun with UNIT, and has a nice central idea for a threat in in the first episode. However, when all is said and done, it is a big dumb two-parter. It's a lot of fun in places, but its pretty stupid in others, sometimes too comic for my tastes, and it is ultimately rather forgettable.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/111665.html.
bigtitch: primeval_rossbigtitch on March 7th, 2014 07:31 am (UTC)
I can't remember if this is the first time we meet UNIT properly in the new series? If it is I liked the way they were critical of this quasi-military organisation - which they should be. And of course we were so happy to rescue Ross and find him something better to do with his time!
louisedennis: Doctor Wholouisedennis on March 7th, 2014 11:42 am (UTC)
I think you are right that its the first time we get to see UNIT properly in action. They'd been in the background before, but the focus was primarily on Torchwood. I think one of the things the story does very well is show the Doctor's uneasy relationship with the military.