Doctor Doctor Who Guide

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.

Filters: Television Series 12 Fourth Doctor