The Sontaran Experiment
Tony Fyler tackles the ‘difficult second Sontaran.’
The ‘difficult second album’ is a well-known and understood concept – talents that seem to burn bright and brilliant on their first outing are given the chance to wow with a second shot, but the pressure separates those that can deliver from those with nothing more to give.
The same is occasionally true of Doctor Who villains. The Daleks blew the doors off the imaginations of a nation’s children when they first trundled into view, but could they do it again? Yes, as it happened, they really could – The Dalek Invasion of Earth is still held by some fans as being the best Dalek story to date. Similarly, the Cybermen were a big hit in The Tenth Planet, but The Moonbase could have been the end of them. Notsomuch in reality, thanks largely to a creepy metallic make-over and, less courageously than Terry Nation’s Dalek Invasion, a relative re-run of their debut story. The Ice Warriors were a striking success the first time out, and while in their second story, they didn’t crash and burn, they weren’t as much of a runaway success – leading to their return only twice more in the Classic series.
The Sontaran Experiment was the ‘difficult second album’ for the potato-faced clones from Sontar.
The Time Warrior established them as a satire on militarism, and delivered a visual impact that gave them solid appeal, both in the body and head, and in their spherical spaceships. A few throwaway lines in Holmes’ script gave them a chunky background – they were at interminable war with some lot called the Rutans… apparently. In short, they were more fully realised than many one-shot aliens – but could they pull off a successful second story?
In retrospect, fan opinion is divided as to whether The Sontaran Experiment succeeded. In a season of four and six-parters, it feels intrinsically rushed and squeezed into its two-episode format, and the fact that Field Major Styre, the Sontaran doing the experimenting, doesn’t appear till the dying seconds of Episode 1 doesn’t help convince the viewer of the story’s merits.
The pacing’s odd, too – it feels like it’s both on fast forward and stuffed with filler at the same time. The GalSec astronauts, who for no reason that’s explained in-story have South African accents, are a universally forgettable bunch of stock humans, and Harry Sullivan, action man, bless him, is never more redundant than here, as Tom ‘mad as a box of frogs’ Baker goes hung-ho into the action – at least until he cracks his collarbone, and is stunt-doubled for the big duel at the end.
And then there’s that robot. Dear oh dear, there’s that robot.
The whole first episode seems to consist of people falling down holes in the ground, the GalSec boys arguing with the Doctor and that robot swanning about the place capturing people. It’s telling though that the Bristol Boys, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, couldn’t do better than Robert Holmes’ original as an Episode 1 cliff-hanger, and so chose to pretty much re-run the ending of The Time Warrior’s opening episode, with Styre coming out of his ship and taking off his helmet.
All of which leaves Kevin Lindsay – the original and (at least until the age of New Who) the best Sontaran – very little time to really prove the Sontarans’ worth as an enemy going forward – one episode, essentially, to establish their potential, roll up much of a story that should have been more evenly distributed, deliver a big threat, and be ultimately defeated.
He struggles bravely to do all that, and Lindsay’s performance is one of the stand-out high-points of the story, as he juggles the central dichotomy of Sontaran performance – to make them, as he says, ‘identical, yes; the same, no.’ In Styre, he delivers a Sontaran far removed from Commander Lynx’s determination to get back to his battlefield. Styre feels more brusque, more unnecessarily brutal, and yet more pampered in his own way, his mission being of vital importance to the war effort. The story of course is essentially ‘the Sontarans as Dr Mengele’ – the ultimate species of militaristic grunts, doing scientific things (for which read unspeakable, horrific torture) for very logical, strategic reasons. And, for the Sontarans, that would be a great story – now, maybe. And delivered in a four-part format, with Sontarans up front, rather than having their impact diluted for half the story’s running time by being replaced by a robot.
Back in 1975, the full, dark, ‘look, this is the Sontarans in a whole new light’ kind of story The Sontaran Experiment could have been had neither the time nor the space to be told. In Season 12, there was space for a two-parter between the body-horror insect-consumption gruesomeness of The Ark In Space and the uber-grim six-part Nazifest that was Genesis of the Daleks. The story The Sontaran Experiment could – and arguably should – have been wouldn’t fit in the space, and while arguably more should have been made of Lindsay as Styre in Episode 1, had the story gone into brutal, militaristic Nazi science shades, it would have taken the shine off Genesis of the Daleks, where all of those things were allowed to stride fully to the fore, and where they succeeded brilliantly.
What The Sontaran Experiment had to do, more even than it had to give the Sontarans another shot at prime Doctor Who villainy, was act as a tonal screen-wipe between the two slabs of dark body-horror, a kind of palate-cleanser between two meatier courses. And in that, it succeeds brilliantly – being filmed entirely on location, it’s the perfect antidote to Ark and Genesis, both of which are largely studio-bound, and it gives a kind of stylistic and scenic cut-away from the claustrophobic, futuristic Nerva environment and a breath of air before heading into the bunker-world of Skaro.
There are things to love about The Sontaran Experiment beyond its function though. There’s Kevin Lindsay, adding layers of character to the Sontarans as a species, and selling them to us as more than just one individual, but a whole species geared to a single ultimate purpose – the endless, ongoing promulgation of war through all means, brutal and scientific. There’s Tom Baker continuing the strong work of his first season in developing a Doctor that was quite unlike his predecessor in terms of his actions, his way of doing things, and the bear-like joy and enthusiasm he took in the universe. There’s Elizabeth Sladen doing her best to sell the peril despite, as it turns out, being more than a little fed up and freezing and sitting about on Dartmoor with a wet bottom. And there’s the central idea – while no-one could legitimately claim that Baker and Martin’s script bristles with the kind of strong dialogue moments of either the previous story or the one that would follow it, the central notion of a Sontaran torturing people for purely scientific reasons is a good one. As we’ve said, in another season that wasn’t already crammed to the gills with body-horror, scientific horror and Nazi ideology (scientific fascism of course having featured in Robot too), it’s an idea that could have been far better realised as a four-part story, with a full budget, more Sontarans from the outset, a stronger in-story rationalisation for the research being done and more for Harry to do.
In a season of stories that to this day are judged as highlights of the Classic era though, what The Sontaran Experiment manages to do is two-fold – despite its limitations, it doesn’t fail utterly, which much of the evidence would suggest it should do. And it gives the viewer that refresher, an atmospheric lightness, despite the dark themes of the research itself. Yes, it’s a story that deals ridiculously quickly with the single Sontaran in situ, and bizarrely easily with the impending invasion threat – really, the warmongers would cancel a good invasion simply because a torturer’s report isn’t available? – but ultimately, the legacy of The Sontaran Experiment is that it holds its own and fulfils its function in the season, elevating its alien threat from a one-shot wonder to a potential returning villain that could breathe the same air time as the Daleks and the Cybermen. If The Time Warrior is a better Sontaran story, The Sontaran Experiment is what ensured them an enduring place in the mythos as a species that fans would clamour to see again and again over the rest of the show’s run.