Doctor Who: War of the Sontarans

Well, that was, if nothing else, a lot more straightforward of an episode than last week, and if it didn’t provide a whole lot of answers, neither was it as fractured as the initial outing. A solid enough piece of modern DOCTOR WHO, if not one that I’m in any particular rush to watch again.

The best move here, honestly, was splitting up the cast. Left on her own, the Doctor almost had no choice but to take charge and take action, something that’s been sorely lacking during Jodie Whittaker’s tenure. Victory over the Sontarans in the Crimean War period was achieved a bit to easily and facilely–I need to buy into the idea that the Sontarans are all either dumb enough or unthreatened enough to all do their atmospheric refresh at the same time, rather than staggering those assignments so as to keep a guard force on stand-by. But at the very least, it was the Doctor’s direct actions which saved the day in that time period, so I’m chalking it up as a genuine win.

That said, there’s an awful lot of “stuff happens because it happens” in this episode, which amounts to some dodgy plotting–everything from Dan and Yaz suddenly being pulled away to other time zones once we’ve resolved last episode’s cliffhanger in perhaps the most pedantic way possible to the sudden appearance of Karvanista as a cavalry for Dan despite not having been set up in the episode even slightly beforehand (apart from the Previously In segment.) Mind you, I liked Karvanista as a counterpoint to Dan in this episode, so he wasn’t entirely unwelcome once he’d arrived. Chibnall even uses that explanation to cover why Swarm and Azure suddenly turn up at the Temple of Atropos and already know Yaz. The real reason–because it makes the plot easier and swifted to get through–is ill-served by this manner of hand-waving.

The returning monsters the Sontarans probably made out the best in this episode, at least right up to the final five minutes. While they’re still a bit comedic as they’ve been ever since they were brought back by Russell T Davies in the new series of DOCTOR WHO, here they largely posed a credible threat, albeit a fundamentally stupid one. You’d think they’d fix that vulnerability in their Probic Vent after their plans have been set awry by a good clonking to it so many times in the past. Still, they were treated here with some dignity for the most part, which was a welcome development to me. The Sontarans were the big, secret foe in the first DOCTOR WHO serial I saw, The Invasion of Time, and I have a real soft spot for them. They make for a good contrast to the singular Daleks and the robotic Cybermen.

On the other hand, the human characters this time out were cartoons rather than fully fleshed out people, and not a one of them made a choice at any point that was even slightly surprising. The Chibnall era has had a strong fascination with involving actual historic figures in the drama, so by that token Mary Seacole’s involvement fits the pattern. Unfortunately, she’s not drawn as anything very interesting. The actress is perfectly fine in the role, and the character does all of the things that you’d expect of her. But nothing sticks. Even worse in this regard is General Logan, who is about as two-dimensional as is possible. I would have liked to have seen some turn with his character–a redemptive moment, a change of heart, even just a good battle strategy. Instead, we got a caricature of a pompous military man, and nothing he says or does stands out in any way.

Yaz fares a bit better in this episode, though it doesn’t really give her much to do. But putting her on her own allows the character to display her own courage and ingenuity a bit, and to be the protagonist of her own story (well, at least until Vinter shows up. Once the two of them are together, try as she might, she can’t seem to hold onto the lead position.) Lots of time was spent on Dan, which is no surprise–John Bishop is very watchable and he is a shiny new toy. Again here, I found it facile that he was returned to his own street, and was rescued by his own parents (who were broad and buffoonish as well–makes me long for the days when Russell would toss off characters like these with uniqueness and charm and a certain amount of flare.)

Oh, and the sound mix is still off, which, coupled with the thick accents of a number of the players, again made certain portions of the episode difficult to decipher. (Who would have thought that many of the clearest English speakers would be the Sontarans? ) This might be forgivable if I felt like teh music score was contributing to the experience, but it’s really not. For all that it’s loud, it’s also a bit too understated, like the composer is afraid of making a strong statement and so hangs back and tries not to be noticed too much–which would be easier to accomplish if teh mix weren’t undercutting that approach.

All of the hints that the Flux and the Temple are leading us to revelations about the Doctor being the Timeless Child (a race of people on a planet called “Time”? That’s almost too on-the-nose if that’s where we’re going.) And the pieces that are still in play–including both the ones that were referenced in this episode (Swarm, the scenery-chewer and his acting partner Azure among them)–don’t make me terribly excited for what may come next. In addition, we’ve also got the bits that were dropped for this episode–the mysterious Claire, for one. That’;s probably for teh best, the opening episode was a bit of an overstuffed sausage, but I would feel better if I had more confidence in this production team’s ability to bring all of these plot threads to a satisfying conclusion.

So I enjoyed watching it. And yet, there’s a niggling itch in the back of my brain that this all feels like the ghosts of earlier, better stories and episodes. It’s got a bit of the flavor of 1970s Marvel,. where creators were attempting to carry things forward in the style of Lee and Kirby and wound up turning out great mountains of stories that were remixes of earlier, better ones. This isn’t me simply pining for the imminent return of Russell, I don’t think. Rather, I want the show to find its feet again, to make me care about its characters and its conflicts beyond the moment, to give me stories that I want to revisit again, performances that are riveting and unexpected. All of the stuff that made teh show a worldwide phenomenon. I feel like what I’m watching is the methadone version of the series, and I’m ready to be back on the drug full time again.

6 thoughts on “Doctor Who: War of the Sontarans

  1. You’re absolutely right that a lot of it feels like karaoke. And, yeah, the way Yaz and Dan were moved around was a perfect illustration of Chibnall’s most annoying trait: things happen because the plot needs them to happen, not because they follow logically from the previous scene. I will give credit this time, however, to the fact that while this is part of a bigger story, Dan having a new objective and then achieving it was nice–in my perfect world, every chapter of a bigger story arc has some sort of conflict/resolution within itself so that it feels like the episode mattered and that things are happening.

    As far as the sound mix goes, ever since Capaldi stepped into the shoes, I’ve had to watch with subtitles on or between the worsening tinnitus and, I suppose, advancing years, I just miss too much.

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    1. THANK YOU! I never thought of subtitles and wasted time playing with sets of speakers I have, the volume, and rewatching scenes repeatedly.

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  2. A better watch than Ep.1, but still Chibnall places Woke liberal virtue-signalling ahead of his basic task: telling an entertaining story.
    There was absolutely no need to pick the Crimean War as the locus in quo for the “historical” Sontaran invasion; British military history has more than sufficient locations to choose from. However, this option allowed Chibnall to slyly denigrate the legend of Florence Nightingale, burnish his liberal credentials by introducing Mary Seacole to an international audience and crudely remind / inform those who weren’t already aware of the waste of life involved in The Charge of The Light Brigade.
    I would hazard that his references to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s epic poem were lost on many of the audience, so why bother?
    I did, though, find myself chuckling – with one actual belly laugh – over the Dan portions of the plot. I know that his parent’s arrival was well beyond the bounds of credibility, but they were sorely needed comic relief after the po-faced Crimean scenes. Their references to Birkenhead were priceless (at least to someone who’s been there), but they may have been a little too outre for people outside North-West England.
    Finally, one hundred percent agreement on the sound quality.

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    1. You know, David, most of us can revere multiple people. Googling Seacole after watching this ep, I came away with respect for a historical figure I’d never been taught about while retaining the high regard I was taught for Florence Nightingale.

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  3. Chibnall doesn’t show much sign he gets The Doctor as a character. I don’t need the Doctor to be Seven’s chess master but they should be at least on Five’s level. Thirteen is more ineffective than Six but with better acting and production values. I kinda yelled at the screen when she sent Dan to his death. She gave him a goal and absolutely no tools or even a whiff of a plan. If Karvanista hadn’t shown up Dan would have either died on the spot or later when he wandered around with absolutely no ability to stop more than one Sontaran at a time with his mum’s wok.

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