Doctor Who complete reviews: The Sontaran Experiment
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
Tom Baker faces up to some high-tech torture in the name of military science...
At the time of writing this, it’s high summer - or at least it would be if we weren’t back to rain and gale force winds. Yeah, only in England…
So spare a thought for the poor old Doctor Who team who returned after a break to start filming on the latest madcap adventure called The Sontaran Experiment in the September of 1974. Apparently, the crew froze their proverbials off in chilly, wet conditions - which is funny, since my folks always tell me that September 1974 wasn’t too bad for weather - in fact, on the day that I was born, it was something of an Indian Summer. But then judging how the UK’s just gone from boiling hot sunshine to breezy, wet gusts in 24 hours says it all.
The Sontaran Experiment is notable for being the first Doctor Who story to be outside for the whole story. Sure, Spearhead From Space was on film, and virtually all on location, but in Sontaran, there’s no interiors. Just the lush green hills and wet rocks of the future Earth. Apparently the weather’s still crap then, too.
It’s also notable for being a two-parter. We haven’t had a two-parter since the Hartnell days, and even then, it wasn’t commonplace. The last few seasons have mostly been six parters, so to condense a story down into just 45 minutes (yeah, ignore the opening and closing titles and the reprise) is no mean feat. It’s certainly standard practice today, when most Doctor Who stories are served up in bite-size 45-minute chunks. It’s the scattergun, quickfire way of storytelling which can be both a blessing and a curse at the same time. On the one hand there’s no padding, but on the other, the characters aren’t fleshed out enough.
"Baker, Sladen and Marter are really gelling well together, and make a wonderfully witty team"
The Sontaran Experiment though is actually very good indeed, and makes the most of its two-part format. The story’s premise is very simple - a lone Sontaran officer assesses the strengths of a gaggle of Galsec spacemen and uses the findings for an invasion. That’s fine - a two-parter can’t fit in too much, since there’s just not enough room. It’s like fitting the entire contents of your wardrobe inside a rucksack.
What it does do though is to establish the new regimes further - both in front of and behind the cameras. Baker, Sladen and Marter are really gelling well together, and make a wonderfully witty team. The Doctor’s on good form, cheerfully facing Galsec questions with a pithy comment and a broad grin. And the next thing you know, he’s facing off against Styre the Sontaran, whether he’s angrily chiding him for the attack on Sarah or engaging in mortal combat. Tom’s alternating well between the two extremes - improvising about all types of clocks with breezy nonchalance or showing convincing rage (“You unspeakable abomination!” he hisses at Styre). Too bad that his accident is a bit obvious in places - good thing he brought that thick jacket, since it covers up the neck brace well. Unfortunately, the fight scene Doctor is obviously a stuntman - not even close-ups of Tom’s face can disguise the illusion.
Sarah and Harry don’t get so much to do apart from hallucinate about plastic snakes and fall down holes, but Sladen and Marter still give engaging performances. There’s a very relaxed feel about this team - they genuinely seem to enjoy working together, and even if Sarah and Harry aren’t the most dimensional of characters, the enthusiasm of the regulars wins me over.
"That fiendishly clever team of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes are busy cementing their plan of scaring kids into pant-wetting submission"
Behind the scenes, that fiendishly clever team of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes are busy cementing their plan of scaring kids into pant-wetting submission. Like The Ark In Space, there’s a greater emphasis on horrific concepts and ideas that, although sometimes don’t translate well to screen, do work on the basis of their daring. Take the difference between Linx and Styre. Linx, for all his bravado and battle skills, really had only one aim - which was to leave in his spaceship and get back to his war with the Rutans. Styre, on the other hand, is more interested in devising the most sadistic forms of torture to see how much the average human can take. For that reason alone, Styre is one nastier piece of work, and indeed, there’s something about him that’s more disturbing - could be the mask, could be Kevin Lindsay’s fine performance.
So although the experiment into Sarah’s resistance to fear is a bit ropey (the toy snake and squelching gunge aren’t exactly poo your pants scary) and although the gravity bar looks like it’s been pinched from the local toyshop, the ideas are what make this adventure so chilling. We see Roth’s burns. We see a prisoner deprived of food and water. We hear about the opposite when Styre tells his Marshal about someone that’s just been immersed in H20 until death. Styre presumably also devised the bizarre Japanese gameshow called Endurance, in which contestants went through the grisliest forms of torture possible in order to win a prize - a week’s spell in hospital probably.
Styre’s tests are perfectly in keeping with the new tougher approach that Hinchcliffe and Holmes took. The story’s a mini-masterpiece of atmosphere, and boasts some moody direction from Rodney Bennett. He uses the best angles for the outside locations with lots of high shots of the rocks and skewed angles for Sarah’s nightmare. It’s a contrast to his work on The Ark In Space which was entirely studio-bound, but Bennett’s just as adept in the great outdoors.
"Kevin Lindsay imbues Styre with a genuine malevolence"
The only two drawbacks are the silly robot (self-explanatory) and some mixed performances from the cast. The great, unwashed Galsec team are all South African accents and bad BO. You can almost see the flies buzzing around their sweaty carcasses. Writer Glyn Jones is fine as Krans, as is Peter Rutherford as the deranged Roth. Peter Walshe and Donald Douglas aren’t quite as good though. Douglas normally tends to play upper crust roles such as Mark D’Arcy’s dad in the Bridget Jones films, but for some reason his South African accent is a bit ropey. Vural (or Vooroo as everyone seems to call him) is another of those that can’t get enough of rolling his “RRRRR”s. “You’re a frrrrrrrrrrrreeeeek!” or “You’d better start telling the trrrrrrrrrooof or you’ll find things getting a little rrrrrrrrrrufff!” are just two examples of how Vooroo sounds a bit like an angry dog rather than a grown man. And it’s also blatantly obvious that Vooroo’s the bad guy - hmmm, the hidden camera kind of gives it away a bit too quickly.
Luckily Kevin Lindsay’s supreme performance as Styre tips the scales. Lindsay imbues Styre with a genuine malevolence, and makes him a far creepier proposition than Linx. It’s hard to believe that this man was playing a genteel old monk only months before. Lindsay also makes The Marshal subtly different too - the Marshal’s more of an angry father trying to keep his over-enthusiastic kid in check.
The ending’s a bit odd though. After Styre’s deflated into a smoking pile (excellent effects here, BTW), the Marshal just seems to hold The Doctor at his word when he says that the invasion can’t proceed without Styre’s report. Is that it? For such a warlike race, the Marshal is strangely lacking in gumption, and gives in just that little bit too easily. It just smacks of a hasty solution that’s trying to tie everything up in a neat little package.
Despite these minor irritations, The Sontaran Experiment is another triumph in the 12th season. There may not be any big moral message or undercurrent, but it’s well shot, well acted by the regulars and Lindsay, and for nearly 36 years, stands up very well indeed today. The experiments of going outdoors or filming two-parters wouldn’t be returned to for some time, but they’re still welcome novelties and show that after 11 years, Doctor Who was still willing to push the envelope and explore brand new avenues.
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.