Ah, this is more like it! After last week’s pretty, yet confused tale of Ood kind, the Doctor and Donna return to Earth in a tale steeped in the legacy of Doctor Who. Lots of slick action, classic monsters (not that the general audience will remember the Sontarans), the return of military taskforce UNIT and a welcome appearance from Freema Agyeman as the wonderful Martha Jones.
Helen Raynor, who penned last year’s (unfairly) maligned Dalek two-parter, rises to the challenge here, delivering a script with a deftly simple premise that makes you wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. Of course there’s a nicely sinister sci-fi yarn to be told about the prevalence of sat nav and those not-quite-human-voices that inhabit our cars these days. UNIT thinks there’s something up with ATMOS, a system bolted on to many of the world’s cars that eliminates emissions and comes with built-in sat nav. So what does a top-secret military organisation do when they can’t fathom something out? Simple, get newly-minted UNIT operative Martha Jones to summon their former scientific advisor to have a look-see.
The Sontaran Stratagem is about as deliciously old-fashioned as new Who gets. It makes my fan boy sense tingle and makes me grin like an idiot. The Doctor, working with UNIT again, alongside two great companions, and taking on a faithfully realised monster from the classic series. Hurrah! But, as with much of Doctor Who in the here and now, the links to the decades of the original series’s continuity are done subtly. I get a kick out of them, but if you’re not looking for it, it won’t spoil your enjoyment of the episode.
And there’s a lot to enjoy here. David Tennant in particular shows no signs of fatigue in what must have been an exhausting run on this top-rated show. In fact the presence of old touchstones like UNIT seems to have brought out his mischievous side - there’s nothing like the Doctor dealing with military types to bring out that traditional, essential “Doctorness”. Tennant trips through this with a glint in his eye and a wicked smile on his face, playing the almost naughty child Doctor that we rarely get to see these days.
The last time we saw an old companion, Rose and Sarah Jane had a good old bitch-fest, but not so here with Donna and Martha. Are our companions growing up a bit? It seems that way as the new girl and the old hand bond nicely, swapping notes and giving each other the respect they deserve. It lets the Doctor get on with being the Doctor and it’s a refreshing change from the usual Time Lord love-in we’ve had in the past.
Donna’s effect on the fabric of the show is clear and despite the occasional gurning from Catherine Tate, she continues to be a delight. She’s capable, funny and strong, and has moved worlds away from the caricature we had in The Runaway Bride. Such was it always going to be, but watching Donna cut down UNIT major’s and turning her temping skills into a bonus amongst the military bustle is brilliantly played and scripted. Super Temp indeed! Donna is even starting to remind me of latter day Sarah Jane Smith in her headstrong and individual nature and makes the current TARDIS team refreshingly unfettered.
Freema Agyeman’s turn as Martha is played as effortlessly as always, and it’s nice to see the actress make the opening credits again. However, much like her triple turn in Torchwood, it seems her purpose here is to once again be tied up by the baddies and need rescuing. It’s a traditional role for the companion, and one that Martha seems to serve more than others. That being said, the chance for Agyeman to play evil clone Martha is one that the actress clearly relishes, so at least she’s not absent from the action as she was in her Torchwood episodes.
And what of the Sontarans, hiding away in orbit, waiting to strike through ATMOS? I always liked the Sontarans, being among my first memories of the original series, and their depiction here is thoroughly consistent with their earlier appearances (their latter stories did throw away a lot of their strength, so we won’t mention that). In fact, Christopher Ryan as General Staal has clearly studied the performance of original Sontaran Kevin Lindsay, latching on to the military aesthetic, voice and movements. The look of the stubby potato men has been updated and appears slicker - they look fantastic, with great work on the prosthetics. This is one pleased Sontaran fan, and I almost clapped at the mention of the “probic vent”. You know I’m a daftie and I refuse to apologise for that!
Do I have a gripe? Perhaps a couple of sequences dragged a little too long - I was bored with the two UNIT soldiers being clobbered by Staal early on, and that’s down to direction and editing. I was also wondering why, in the run up to the cliff-hanger, somebody didn’t just find something to smash the car window as Wilf is being gassed, but really, this is minor stuff in a very strong episode.
There’s plenty of time for the heavy emotional stuff to come later in this series of Doctor Who. The Sontaran Stratagem was a good old-fashioned adventure yarn for a Saturday night with the usual wit, fun and scares we’ve come to expect from Doctor Who. Bring on part two!
Next Week: The Poison Sky