THE SONTARAN STRATAGEM/THE POISON SKY
We had a rollicking good time watching these episodes. As the credits rolled, we all agreed that that was far and away the best Doctor Who we'd seen for quite a number of episodes.
The weird thing is that now we can't quite remember why.
Let's face it, on paper this looks like a mess. A lot of the plot elements have been flogged so hard by Russell T Davies's team that they whimper.
The worst? Global-scale alien invasion, with the fate of humanity in the balance. Yes, again. You can't keep drawing that gun and expecting it to have the same firepower: the more you shoot, the smaller the explosion. And after Daleks, Cybermen, Daleks and Cybermen, and blah de blah, this stuff now has about the same impact as a water pistol.
What else? Evil consumer product. Yes, again. Sure, the classic series started it with the Autons and their plastic, and that was fantastic. There's nothing wrong with it as an idea: it's just when it's used over and over that it loses all its traction.
Then there's the ever-popular Companion Family Visit. Yes, again. Remember the olden days, when companions skipped off to the stars without a backward glance and all was joy, fun and adventure? That's long gone, and Donna joins the ranks of new Who companions who are apparently supposed to feel horrific guilt for as much as stepping out the front door while in possession of a family.
It's been bad enough before, but here it reaches new heights of absurdity. First, Martha tells Donna, all solemn-like, that her family were imprisoned and tortured because she didn't tell them she was travelling with the Doctor (no, they were imprisoned and tortured because the Master's a psychopath). Then Donna, all guilted out, pops home to check the mail and weed the garden and it's full-on flashback city, accompanied by Murray at his slushiest. Yes, flashbacks. Yes, we know she's only been away for a few days. No, we don't have a clue why they think we need reminding of those all-too-recent adventures. If it had got any worse they would have been flashing back to her walking down the road as she was coming in the garden gate.
So, the companion comes back and visits her family only to see on News 24 that the wow consumer product everyone's raving about is actually evil tech from aliens bent on taking over the world. What else is wrong with it?
The bad science, for a start. Usually we're fairly benign and forgiving about a reasonably-sized chunk of bad science: this is Doctor Who, after all, not Name That Heavy Element. Really shockingly egregiously bad science, though, we do have to have a little tut-tut over, because it pulls you out of the story and leaves you scratching your head and wondering if the production team were all smoking behind the bike sheds during double chemistry.
There's a lot of stupid stuff in here, like the clone that dies because the original is revived, but what's really, really bad is all that stuff about the gas. It's hanging round near the ground, right? Not only can we see that, but they pointed out it contained a heavy element. So how does the blazing fire burn up the gas without ever getting anywhere near the ground? Also, there are other gases hanging around as well. Like, oh, we don't know...oxygen? If the fire had by some miracle managed to suck up all the gases closer to the ground, as well as burning off the Evil Gas it would have used most of the oxygen up in the process - and left a nice thick blanket of carbon monoxide behind. Cheers! So much for the beneficial effects of the Atmoses. And how could the gas have possibly covered so much of the Earth, most of which is covered in water not cars, in so short a time? Yes, it looked fabulous. But you have to earn that by being at least halfway convincing.
So why did we like it again?
Two reasons, we think. The first is that it's just so damned nice to see all that Third Doctoresque stuff done in a modern setting and with a budget the classic show could only have dreamed of. All those UNIT people, the vehicles, the cute black outfits with the red berets, the Sontaran golf balls - it's so great to see it. There's tons of fun in here for the classic Who fan - it's dripping with in-jokes, including, need we say, one about UNIT dating. (And we're not talking about that terrible kiss, either.) And the whole thing has a very Third Doctory feel, despite the oh-no-evil-alien-consumer-product modern trappings, that makes it a joy to watch. Even the piles of UNIT corpses is a direct throwback to the Pertwee days.
And the second reason is the characters. They're not all perfect, but the ones that are good are very good indeed.
The best of 'em, of course, is the Doctor. This is one of our favourite performances from David Tennant: he's got an authority here he's sometimes lacked before, while keeping his own brand of joie de vivre. The scene where he first meets Rattigan is a masterpiece: watching him trounce Boy Wonder without breaking a sweat is a forcible reminder of just who the Doctor is.
As for his antipathy towards UNIT, we can't say we're surprised. He had a pretty prickly relationship with them even in the old days. While we're frequently exasperated by the Doctor declaiming about how he hates guns (usually just before he picks one up and blows someone away), we're going to cut this Doctor some slack here. Yes, it's just as hypocritical as usual -killing someone by suffocating them is just as fatal as shooting them. Also, what did he fight with in the Time War? A satsuma? But that's mostly the point: he's been through the Time War and that's left him just a wee bit PTSD-ish, so if that's brought out his gun allergy even more than usual we'll let him off this once.
And yet more crying aside, Donna is terrific as well. We love the anti-School Reunionishness of her low-key and friendly meeting with Martha. And that fake leaving scene is completely hilarious, even if they did undercut it a bit with the for-real goodbye scene later. She's excellent on the Sontaran ship too. How much do we love this companion?
Martha, sadly, doesn't have it so good. Freema Agyeman is probably at her least impressive here, although to be fair, that's mostly to do with a script that barely gives her anything to do. Evil Twin's usually a gift of a role, but all this one has to do is press a button on her PDA. Ooh. Poor Freema's had a bad time of it recently: there was no room for her in the Torchwood script arc either. Let's hope she has more room to move soon.
Usually we hate the way they drag the companion's family into everything, but when one of the family's Bernard Cribbins, we can almost forgive them. Can we start a petition to have him taken back on as a companion? After all, he's already got the work experience. Donna's Mum, however, we can live without. Why is it every single companion's mother has to be an appalling harridan? All right, Jackie was OK in the end, but look how she started. Some serious issues there, if you ask us. (Thanks to Lindsey and Rachel of London for pointing this out to us: we really should have noticed before.)
As for Rattigan, when we weren't being amused by his accent slipping we found him pretty dull. He doesn't seem remotely real, mostly because the script can't decide whether he's a towering genius who thinks only he deserves to live or an actual psychopath. Not surprising, since his sole function in the story is to (yet again) enable the Doctor to keep his hands clean. When it comes to wiping people out, nine times out of ten the Doctor might have the two wires in his hand but it always ends up with some other poor boob taking the rap, and these episodes are no exception. How did the Sontarans recruit him to their crèche scheme, anyway? Mailshot? Spam? Personal ad? Congratulations, you may already be a Sontaran midwife!
Because of Rattigan's obvious single purpose, we didn't pay much attention to his silly Academy, but while we're here: bunch of sheep for geniuses, aren't they? Remarkably incurious, too. Not to mention with zero fashion sense.
Ah, yes, the Sontarans, a species who have often been woefully misused in the past. Look, these guys worship war, right? They should be pretty bloody frightening, but the trouble is that nobody can resist the urge to take the piss. Not in the classic series, and not now. (In a mystifyingly stupid display, even the two UNIT soldiers do it.) They look great, and Christopher Ryan as Staal's pretty good - he's nicely bombastic and all - although we have some reservations about his voice. Just personal preference, but we like our Sontarans to be a bit growlier than that. And the Sontar-haka makes us keep looking around for the All Blacks. Overall, they're not too bad, but a blue pencil through some of the short jokes would have made them a bit more appropriately terrifying.
Nothing very novel - the opposite, in fact - but nevertheless, it works.
MORAL: Never underestimate the little guy.
MY BEST FIEND
What is it with Helen Raynor and Americans who throw in their lot with aliens? Payback time for years of English villains on US shows?
BACKS TO THE WALL
Gawd, that probic vent. All we can do is repeat what we said before: "Millions of years of warfare, and nobody's ever thought to build a little cage around it?"
CAN ALSO BE USED TO MAKE TOAST
"He's like fire. Stand too close and people get burned." Oh. Not "hot and orange", then?
The clone in the tub is very creepy, but reminds us rather too much of Cylons regenerating in Battlestar Galactica.
MY REPUTATION PRECEDES ME
Would the Sontarans be that shocked by someone knowing they're Sontarans? There have been plenty of Sontarans in human history, for a start. And even if not, why would the Sontarans care? They look to us like the kind of species who'd be all for spreading their fame far and wide.
IT'S A GAS PART I
That cliffhanger's a shocker, isn't it? Granddad must have the lungs of a Channel swimmer to have survived for that long in the car. And the Doctor is completely useless. What's that about? Were they just trying to whip up excitement for the following week's episode? Could be, but there might also be something more to it. The Doctor flits ineffectually back and forth between the car and the middle of the road: it's like he can't decide whether to try and save Granddad or All Humanity and so ends up doing neither. (It's probably just the cliffhanger thing, though.)
And while we're on about the Doctor's uselessness, how dumb is all the deadlock stuff? Having established an all-singing, all-dancing sonic screwdriver that can do everything but comb your hair, now they find that that's a bit of a drawback and have to introduce yet another cumbersome layer of faux technology to slam it back in its cage when convenient. Hoist by their own petard with a vengeance, and it serves them bloody well right.
ONLY THE GOOD DIE YOUNG
Ah, Ross, Ross, Ross. So gorgeous and adorable he was obviously marked for death from the beginning. Why, Lord, why?
IT'S A GAS PART II
"Are you my mummy?" Let all the air out of The Empty Child, why don't ya?
Putting gas in cars is ludicrously complex, especially for Sontarans. What do they do on other clone planets?
THE GREENHOUSE EFFECT
That atmospheric converter looks suspiciously like the bottom of a patio heater.
People still aren't driving? Yeah, right. If all it took to stop people driving was a cloud of gas of increasing toxicity, there'd be no cars on the road right now.
People must have died trapped in their cars, right? Probably millions of them? What's the betting we never hear anything more about that?