Thursday, September 3, 2015

"The Sontaran Experiment"

Aired Feb 22 - Mar 1, 1975

2 Episodes

Story 77

Written by: Bob Baker & Dave Martin

Directed by: Rodney Bennett


After beaming down from Nerva to repair the transmat relays, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry find the Earth is not as deserted as everyone thought. A crew of shipwrecked humans from a distant colony are trying desperately to survive. Lured to Earth by a fake distress call, the astronauts have been captured and tortured by an alien warrior for reasons unknown. 

Sarah is soon captured and is shocked to discover the alien in question is Sontaran Field Major Styre, who is using cruel and brutal methods of torture in an effort to ascertain the physical and emotional limitations of humans as prelude to an invasion.

The Doctor comes up with a plan. He will distract Styre be challenging him to unarmed combat while Harry will sneak in Styre's ship and sabotage its energy supply. While the Doctor is greatly outmatched by the powerful Sontaran, the unfamiliar gravity of Earth causes Styre to weaken quickly. When Styre returns to his ship to revitalize himself, Harry's sabotaged energy supply destroys the Sontataran.

The Doctor then contacts the Sontaran fleet, informing them of Styre's defeat. Without the Major's report, the fleet has no idea of the level of resistance to expect, and therefore chooses to call off the invasion.


After the success of the monsters' debut in The Time Warrior, it made perfect sense that the Sontarans would return. Also, Sontaran creator Robert Holmes was now the script editor, and he knew which side his bread was buttered on! But, as script editor, he was discouraged by the BBC from directly contributing to the series on which he edited (unless absolutely necessary) and so the task of bringing the Sontarans back fell to Bob Baker and Dave Martin.

The serial would, interestingly, be a two-parter. This was greatly unusual for the period, as for most of the 1970s, the series would alternate between four and six-parters. But outgoing producer Barry Letts, when setting up the season, wanted to try a new format, and was able to accomplish this by taking a budgeted six-part story and splitting it into a four part, studio-bound story (The Ark in Space) and using the location filming allotted for a six-part adventure  to create an entirely location-based two-part story. The only reason this was feasible was that the location footage would be shot using outdoor broadcast video, which was only recently becoming viable. 

I'm not sure the experiment entirely works. Or rather, it's hard to tell because I was distracted by how little sense the script makes. The Sontarans want to invade Earth, which at this point has been devoid of humanity for ten thousand years. So, why not just move on in? It's at the easiest point to invade you'd ever have! Are we expected to believe that the Sontarans don't know it's deserted? If that's true, then why do they lure space-faring humans who don't even live on Earth to the planet? Why even do this on Earth? Why not capture them, take them to the fleet, and experiment on them there? And why does the lack of a report from one officer stop an invasion in the end? It's really weird, and makes no sense. And also, why do the humans believe the Nerva Beacon is a myth, or lost? It's in orbit right around the planet! They can colonize other planets but not locate a giant space station in orbit? 

The location work is well-directed, and the barren and windswept  landscape certainly does its job of communicating the desolation of the setting. It does feel like there's no civilization around, that's for sure. The scenes of torture and brutality are kind of repugnant, and they caused a visiting Australian TV exec to notify decency watchdog Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association, putting Doctor Who on her radar in a big way over the next few years. 

But in the end, The Sontaran Experiment is not good enough to warrant praise, but too slight to deserve derision. Its brevity allows you get through it quickly and if I'd never call it great Doctor Who, it is watchable. 

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