When Russell T. Davies (Queer As Folk) first brought the BBC's time-traveling family adventure series Doctor Who back from oblivion, it was just as fresh and exciting as everyone had hoped. New mysteries about the "time war" replaced stale old mythology, and the Doctor was traveling with someone who still had friends and family back on Earth. The scripts had manic energy, topical references, and a willingness to go way, way over the top. It was mostly good stuff. Now, after a few years, the formula is congealing a wee bit, as evidenced by last Saturday's new (sort of) episode.
Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed "The Sontaran Strategem," and it was much better than last year's Daleks-and-pig-people two-parter from the same writer, Helen Raynor. I mean, yay, the Doctor's paramillitary playmates from UNIT are back, Martha is still awesome, the Sontarans are still being nasty, brutish and short, and it's all good fun. And we get Sergey Brin doing a little world-beat dance with the evil Sontarans, in the above clip. Somebody needs to make a "Sontar! Sontar!" music video, including other bits from the original series where Sontarans appear to be dancing. (If you make such a video, I will most definitely post it here.)
It just all felt a bit... routine. The story zipped along, hitting the usual notes: there's a new diet pill, or ghosts are popping up, or there's a new car thingy, and everybody loves it. But it's secretly a naughty conspiracy. The Doctor and companion investigate, and the new companion gets a moment of proving she's really smart. Everybody oohs and ahhs. We reconnect with the companion's family and there are some emotional moments (supplied here by the world's most random montage. What was that about?) The villain does a silly dance. And then the pace slows wayyyyy down for the final cliffhanger, because we have to be sufficiently impressed with how fatal the danger really is.
It doesn't help that this is one of the most continuity-heavy episodes of the new Who so far, referencing not just tons of events in the previous three seasons, but also things like UNIT and the Sontarans from the original show.
I don't mind if the Davies Doctor Who era is going to be characterized by extreme campiness much of the time. It would be foolish, at this point, to expect a Who that takes its villains or storylines seriously, outside of a few notable exceptions. And I'm happy to take the show on its own terms, instead of hoping for it to be something else.
But there's nothing worse than recycled camp. Camp should be fresh, imported directly from the source on the wings of gilded nightingales.
Last year's Master three-parter was intensely campy and completely ridiculous, but it was also fun and engaging, and I got totally sucked into the storyline and wondering how exactly the Doctor was going to win this one. This didn't feel nearly as fun, nor was I nearly as engaged in whatever the plot was supposed to be.
I was underwhelmed by the Sontarans, who seemed a bit wimpy. The Doctor even points out that they're being uncharacteristically weak-kneed. Just like last year's New York Daleks story, where the Daleks skulked in a basement creating pig-people instead of just getting out and exterminating everybody, the super-warrior Sontarans are acting like Slitheen. (But to be fair, this is a two-parter, and there will no doubt be some clever explanation next week.)
Also, minor nitpick. The chief Sontaran makes a wisecrack about how talking is for women — one of the defining characeristics of the Sontarans is that they're cloned, and they have no concept of gender. In their first appearance, the Sontaran warrior Lynx examines Sarah Jane with puzzlement, because he can't understand why her "thorax" is built differently than the men. (And I know Helen Raynor remembers that scene, because she riffed on it in this episode.)
I did really like the interplay between Martha and Donna. It was cute that the Doctor was expecting them to fight, because that's what happened last time with Rose and Sarah Jane — and instead they made friends instantly. The bit where Martha told Donna about what happened to the Joneses was underplayed and super-moving. I would happily have had more of the former-companion-bonding and less of almost everything else in this episode.
I also liked the thing of the Doctor teaching Donna to steer the TARDIS, and Martha calling him back home using the cellphone he left her. And any chance to see Bernard Cribbins as Grandpa Wilf is always a major treat. It was pretty funny that everyone in Donna's family had met the Doctor.
There was also some extreme dodginess, like the Doctor talking the computer into self-destructing. Would Sergey Brin, let alone his alien masters, be dumb enough to program a computer that does the opposite of whatever you tell it? The computer's trying to kill the Doctor, not contradict him. It made no sense at all. And I actually cringed when Donna demanded that the Colonel guy salute her. Also, I hope somebody points out the Doctor's hypocrisy, the next time he depends on those naughty men with guns to save his life.
So to sum up, I'd say there was nothing wrong with "The Sontaran Strategem," except that it felt a bit too deja vu. And the second episode will have to do an absolutely brilliant job of explaining this whole cars-smog-GPS-evil-computers-genius-school-clones-invasion plot, or this episode will retroactively look a lot worse. Based on past experience, the show is probably hoarding all of its really fun, heavy-hitting stuff for the final few episodes. Plus, of course, the probably awesome Steven Moffat two-parter.
I'm trying real hard to be balanced and not excessively harsh here. For another POV, here's former Doctor Who novelist Lawrence Miles:
Well, for now, let's not dwell on the seemingly-endless tedium of "The Sontaran Stratagem". Because as I write this, it's 6:45 on Saturday night: I've been out for a wee twice, I've put the dinner on, I've tried walking up and down and stroking the cat in an attempt to make time go faster, but the damned thing isn't even half-finished yet. The worst part is knowing that it's a two-parter, and that we're going to have to go through all of this again in seven days' time.
(I also like the part where he says he's "no longer blacklisted" from writing for the Doctor Who audio adventures.)