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12x3. The Sontaran Experiment
Writers: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Director: Rodney Bennett
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Doctor and his companions teleport to Earth's surface to investigate and discover, much to their surprise, that the planet is inhabited -- not only by a group of humans who have only recently arrived and believe that Space Station Nerva is a myth, but by a ruthless Sontaran named Styre who is performing cruel experiments on the humans to prepare tactics for a war.

Review: For some reason I don't think of two-parters as rare on Doctor Who, and yet "The Sontaran Experiment" is only the third in the series' history and the first since "The Rescue" all the way back in Season 2. While it certainly doesn't derail the good start for the new cast and production team, it lacks the invention and depth of storytelling seen in "Robot" and "The Ark in Space," largely because the script fails to adjust for its abbreviated length.

Storytelling on Doctor Who tends to move at a slightly slower pace than what we're used to from modern television dram, largely, I suspect, for structural reasons. Not only do the writers have more time than they would in the hour-long format, but they also have to produce some sort of cliffhanger or dramatic twist every 22-1/2 minutes. Each serial typically begins with the Doctor and his companions arriving in a completely new situation and often not even being sure where they are -- unlike, for example, most of the Star Trek shows, which usually start with the crew beginning a specific mission. As a result, it's difficult to establish the setting, premise, and guest characters *and* still get to a major turning point by the end of Episode 1, and since the writers typically have another 3-5 episodes to satisfy the demands of the plot, they often spend Episode 1 with the TARDIS crew mostly just investigating and exploring until the main enemy or conflict is revealed at the end. The problem with "The Sontaran Experiment" is that it basically follows that same formula, with the twist at the end of Episode 1 being the revelation of the Sontaran Styre. Because the script has to wrap things up in another 22-1/2 minutes, it doesn't have time to do much with the premise other than go through the standard Doctor Who checklist of chases, captures, escapes, and scary aliens.

The increased emphasis on horror elements that would typify the Holmes/Hinchcliffe era is in evidence again, and I should point out that Styre is a legitimately frightening villain. His actions are a curious mix of sneering sadism and bureaucratic detachment. I get the sense that he obtains some sort of sick thrill out of torturing and killing, and the script is pretty explicit about the psychological and physical pain that his victims endure. And yet, at the same time, I think he'd still do it even if he didn't enjoy it at all, simply because these are the orders he's received to prepare for the war against humans. In a way, the cold indifference with which he records the results of his various cruel experiments actually make him a more unsettling presence; if he'd marched in with a cackling "let me admire my handiwork" attitude, it could have easily degenerated into camp. It's not hard to believe that Vural has betrayed his companions to Styre so as to avoid being tortured and killed himself (or so he thinks), and we also see the difference between the humans and Styre when he experiments on them by placing a huge weight above Vural and forcing the other two to hold it up. Even though their nerves are frayed from fighting to survive, and even though they're furious at Vural for his betrayal, they still try to save his life.

The new Doctor's unique personality continues to make an impression, once again showing his tendency for offbeat humor in the face of danger when the human crew angrily order him to talk and he responds, "Certainly. What would you like me to talk about?" We also see another example of his somewhat unconventional and aloof approach when he distracts Styre by claiming, right in front of the human crew, that they are from the "slave class" and that he comes from the warrior caste. He's doing it to save their lives, of course, but it highlights his alien nature in a way that differs from his predecessor; Pertwee could be brash and sanctimonious, but he usually seemed like a brash and sanctimonious human, whereas Baker really gives the impression of thinking in a fundamentally different way. Sarah doesn't get a whole lot to do in this one, but she's engaging and likeable as always, and we also see that Harry, despite being a bit oafish at times, is a genuinely courageous individual as he shows no hesitation about challenging Styre physically. His bravado might be a bit "old-fashioned," as Sarah would put it, but there's clearly nothing fake about it.

The horror elements and solid character writing elevate "The Sontaran Experiment" to perhaps a notch above average, but that's about all it is. Styre is a disturbing presence, but he doesn't have the depth of, to name an obvious recent example, the Wirrn, who were also unsettling villains but had a more developed and interesting backstory. And perhaps because of the abbreviated length, there are a number of plot twists that feel too easy. The sonic screwdriver is essentially a magic wand in this one, as the Doctor can apparently do whatever he wants with it whenever he wants, and it's not hard to see why a later creative team decided to do away with the thing. The Sontarans' operation also just seems ridiculously flimsy, given that the Doctor can just walk into Styre's ship, access the entire war plan, and then derail the invasion by passing it along to the humans. Haven't the Sontarans ever heard of password protection? And why would Styre need to have the whole thing on his ship computer in the first place? Again, I imagine this was a result of the compressed length and the subsequent need for a quick resolution. None of these flaws are enough to ruin the serial altogether, but they do prevent "The Sontaran Experiment" from being much more than an acceptable but largely inconsequential bit of filler.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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