I’ll not write off Barry Letts completely, because he did give us some good episodes, but in choosing the wack-a-thon of Robot to introduce Tom Baker he does create a sense that his production style, five years old now, is well past its prime. As for season twelve in general though, it’s cleanout time! With the chilling The Ark In Space, the surprisingly brutal The Sontaran Experiment and Genesis Of The Daleks back to back (like Genesis or not, it’s the most ambitious story since Inferno) you know there’s a new kid on the block. It’s testament to Philip Hinchcliffe shooting out the traps at ninety miles per hour that a quickie like this – commissioned by Letts, written by the often-mediocre Bob Baker and Dave Martin and featuring a middling monster that probably didn’t deserve a sequel – could turn out such a snappy little number.
To get it over with, yes, this is the only story to feature no interior scenes of any kind and yes, it’s all shot on videotape. This does make for an atmospheric story, as much due to the overcast Dartmoor landscape than anything else, although the videotape might have looked more eerily incongruous for location shots if it hadn’t been used for Robot the previous month. And I reckon it would have looked better on film anyway. Cheer up, Ed!
The opening scene is slightly twee as the TARDIS crew arrive, sans TARDIS, in a variety of amusing places: Sarah even lands on her bottom, haw haw haw! It does belie what’s to come later though, and it does seem rather unsettling on a second viewing. While the first episode isn’t the quickest-paced instalment you’re likely to see there is a lot to enjoy in it, a particular highlight being the excellent stunt fall as Harry tumbles down the pit. However, this does show up the slightly stiff direction from Rodney Bennett, whose slow and clinical pans and sweeps worked wonders in the claustrophobic corridors of The Ark In Space but are less well suited to the rolling expanse of Dartmoor.
This particularly hurts whenever the robot wobbles into view, looking like what an 18th Century servant might draw if you asked them what a clothes-line might look like in the year 2000.
From Sarah’s point of view there’s some very good mystery here, with the Doctor and Harry vanishing in succession; in that sense it’s a real shame that the viewer has to see what happens to them in advance, because it’d be a corker of a scene if we were as much in the dark as her. Instead it has to settle for being merely quite good, as we still get the benefit of the always-engaging Elizabeth Sladen creating a palpable sense of mounting panic. Roth’s panicky warning about “the thing in the rocks” is another attempt at creating atmosphere and mystery, but while worthy in itself it’s similarly abortive because the story pulls a Planet Of The Daleks on the viewer, in that it names the monster in the title and then expects us to be surprised when it turns up at the cliffhanger.
I can see the point of giving the characters accents, but in practice it’s very strange as it relies on the viewer sharing the attitude of the writers (that there should be accents in the first place), as well as being able to overlook the fact that other episodes set in a similar time period never bothered with this sort of thing and that their accents in practice are absolutely ridiculous – and some of the mannerisms aren’t much better, with the Doctor being called a freak (“fleak”) about three times. The immense charisma of Tom Baker helps a great deal though – and this only his second story – and all the characters are given consistently good dialogue by the writers. There’s an interesting theme of neo-Colonialism set up, where the colonists are so proud of what they’ve achieved that instead of working for the glory of the empire they seem to want to jettison their roots and establish their own; it’s a nice idea that deserves more time than it gets. On a slightly more lowbrow note, it’s funny watching Liz Sladen fight against the instinct to swear like a sergeant major when she slips over.
While we already know that the villain is going to turn out to be a Sontaran, and although I’ve criticised Rodney Bennett, the shot of him first emerging from his ship is very well done; rather than cheesily having him stride from his ship in a tight close up, he emerges out of the background without fanfare and is all the more dramatic for it. Styre’s redesign is an unfortunate necessity, as Kevin Lindsay was very ill and couldn’t use the original one from The Time Warrior. I can let go the sacrifice of aesthetics for an undeniable practical reason; the only problem is Sarah’s insistence that he’s “identical,” which is a mile away. They could have recast the part but since the masks were specifically designed they still wouldn’t be identical – but what counts is that the definitive Sontaran actor is still the one inside the costume and delivering the lines. The Sontarans are no longer the semi-ironic race that Robert Holmes invented, as represented by Linx; Styre is a brutal killer, and while there’s very little real violence in this episode parts of it are genuinely horrifying, which is not something that can normally be said about traditionally-lightweight two-parters.
The big flaw in this episode is that the entire plot makes no sense – if the Earth is uninhabited, surely Styre’s plan is self-defeating as the only resistance the invasion fleet are going to face is what they bring with them. This flaw is well-observed, appearing in virtually every review of The Sontaran Experiment, so I was pondering whether to mention it in all honesty; on the other hand, when it’s so glaring, how could I not? And to delay the entire plan because of four knackered old spacemen, too!
The big fight sequence is undermined by the necessary stunt-double for the injured Tom Baker, which leads to several scenes of the Doctor inexplicably holding his hand to his face and which really shows up the limits in Bennett’s direction again although, like I said, it would have looked better on film. Styre deflating is a rather peculiar effect, although very serviceable in its way – so all that’s left is for the Doctor to tell the invasion fleet to go away. And they do! If only it was always that simple, every story could be a two-parter. That’s it really – The Sontaran Experiment is the narrative equivalent of a jam in the conveyor belt, resulting in a slight delay between the two big stories of the season, Ark and Genesis.
But while it’s small and rather shallow, I quite like it. It’s misconceived, to the extent that its flaws can’t be overlooked, but it’s still well written, well made and an atmospheric and evocative episode. It speaks volumes for Philip Hinchcliffe that this story, low grade by his standards, would stand up as being among many other producers’ best work.
As the first - and last - two-part Doctor Who story for some considerable time, 'The Sontaran Experiment' works well. Despite one or two tenuous plot points, the story generally holds together well, and with its themes of torture and sadism it continues in the adult theme established by 'The Ark in Space'.
Firstly, I'll just address the aforementioned tenuous plot points. The only real one is the ease with which the Sontarans back down when the Doctor tells the General that humanity is ready for their invasion fleet and will destroy it; this is undoubtedly due to time constraints however, and the script does address it by noting that the Sontarans are extremely methodical (and they're undoubtedly fighting the Rutans on another front, so perhaps it does make sense that they dare not risk it). The other weak plot point isn't actually an issue in my opinion, but is mentioned in The Discontinuity Guide, so I thought I'd address it. This point is simply that if Earth is abandoned, then there is no need for Styre to test humans anyway. In fact, I disagree; the script informs us that human colonies control "half the galaxy" and the Sontarans are planning a widespread invasion of the entire galaxy, not just Earth. Since this would obviously bring them into conflict with humanity, it makes sense of Styre's ghastly project and since Earth is abandoned it is makes a sensibly secluded location for his experiments.
These debatable issues aside, 'The Sontaran Experiment' is a well-plotted, well-placed and effective little story. The return of the Sontarans is more than welcome and Styre is an excellent villain, Kevin Lindsay once more donning a Sontaran costume to great effect. Whilst I prefer Linx's more closely fitting mask, Styre's is nonetheless impressive and Lindsay is superb as the Field-Major in every aspect. Although he is another Sontaran, Styre is a very different character from Linx; whereas Linx was ruthless and callous, he was an angel compared with the utterly sadistic Styre, whose pleasure in his work seems to extend beyond mere professionalism (from his point of view, he should probably have killed Sarah immediately, but decides to torture her to death instead). Lindsay very well conveys Styre's casual cruelty and also his brutality; the fight scene between Styre and the Doctor is rather good, despite Terry Walsh standing in for the injured Baker, with Styre lashing out with a machete with vicious rage.
The regulars are up to their usual standards, with highpoints including Harry's utter Fury at Styre's cruelty towards both the dehydrated Galsec colonist and the seemingly dead Sarah; until the Doctor stops him he is determined to go after Styre regardless of the danger. Another great moment is the first meeting between Styre and the Doctor, when Tom Baker delivers the line "you unspeakable abomination" with such conviction that he seems to genuinely loathe his opponent. It is perhaps not the easiest of insults to make sound convincing, but he manages it with ease.
Completing the ensemble, we have the Galsec colonists, and there isn't a bad performance amongst them. The decision to play them with South African accents is a good one, making a nice change from humans of the future speaking with an English accent. Their costumes are impressive as well, since they look convincingly worn and tatty, as they should do after days spent rough in the wilderness. Pete Rutherford is convincingly tormented as Roth, and Glyn Jones' performance is almost good enough to compensate the fact that he penned the dire 'The Space Museum'! Peter Walshe is impressively twitchy as the nervous Erak, and Donald Douglas completes the group as the treacherous Vural, playing the character like a natural.
Basically 'The Sontaran Experiment' is a brief but enjoyable story, and benefits from superb location work and solid direction (even Styre's robot, whilst suspiciously flimsy-looking, works adequately). It maintains the high quality of 'The Ark in Space' and nicely bridges the gap between that story and one of the most celebrated chapters in the series' entire history…