Tony Fyler feels a certain sympathy for the Sontarans.
Disclaimer: If you’re a Whovian who thinks Strax is bringing the Sontaran race into disrepute… this is not the story for you, move right along to something like Starlight Robbery.
The point of course is that Robert Holmes pretty much intended the Sontarans to be a joke. A joke that has its own inherent danger, certainly – the idea of intergalactic Jobsworths with Napoleon Syndrome is both funny and dangerous, and is rife with the potential to make the universe more miserable for anyone who runs into them. But from the moment Lynx crash-lands his sphere on medieval Earth, salutes to no-one, plants his flag and loudly claims the planet, its moons and satellites for the glory of the Sontaran Empire, the Sontarans are funny and, in their blinkered delusions of supremacy, just a little bit stupid. Being invaded by the Sontarans is like having a hundred thousand Dick Cheneys turn up on your doorstep.
Here, it has to be said, the majority of the Sontarans you’ll meet are more than a little bit stupid. These are Sontarans that probably have the rest of their clone batches face-palming in every battle. But once you understand that, they’re really rather fun. In fact, they’re pretty much Dad’s Sontaran Army.
Field Major Thurr, Sergeant Mezz, Corporal Klun, and Troopers Vend, Jorr and Nold are from a range of clone batches, and as such, each of them has a unique voice – Thurr sounds most like Grand Marshall Stike from the Two Doctors, but there are Sontarans here owing vocal performance royalties to Stor from The Invasion of Time, Varl, also from The Two Doctors, and Styre from The Sontaran Experiment. There are also fun references for the more attentive geeks, with both Lynx and Styre getting a name-check, and the Doctor throwing a reference to The Invasion of Time in to boot. They’ve been sent to the world of Samur – the furthest the Sontarans ever made it into Rutan space, with highly secret, extra special, do-not-open-till-you-get-there sealed orders for a highly secret special mission.
But before it becomes apparent that this is just a bunch of Sontarans stomping about being stupid, it’s important to note that the tone of Heroes of Sontar is also funny when it comes to the humanoids – the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough come to Samur ostensibly so Tegan can have a rest cure after the events of The Cradle of the Snake – though arguably the Doctor and Nyssa need one more. At the point in time the Doctor thinks it is, Samur is a restful, lovely planet, full of courtyards literally as far as the eye can see. As it turns out, that was thirty years ago. The Sontarans first arrived on Samur twenty years ago, claimed it, and then fell back. And back. Something about Samur has meant they haven’t been able to advance any further.
So there’s your mystery – why haven’t the Sontarans been able to go any further, and what’s the highly secret special mission that Dad’s Sontaran Army have been sent to Samur to fulfil?
For all the Sontarans on Samur are a useless bunch, their deployment on this mission to the furthest reaches of Sontaran space does deliver a glimpse into what the species is like when it’s not just being used as an invasion force or a pain in the Doctor’s Gallifreyan hide – a race of song-singers, marchers, jingoistic cheerers and blasters of things into plasma.
There are solid comic techniques used here, line-overlaps or replays from different characters undercutting each other’s assumptions, and given a choice between left or right, the characters are simply separated by following their instincts in different directions. But there are solid characterization techniques too – each of the Sontarans is given a backstory – one’s a coward, one’s a veteran, one’s had his tongue torn out but has the biggest working brain of the lot and so on. Turlough and Trooper Vend in particular actually achieve a kind of friendship, which becomes important as events on Samur unravel.
It sounds odd, but in a story where the majority of the Sontarans are fully taxed with the business of not falling over and taking breaths, the main threat is a purple moss that is much creepier than the potato-men from Sontar (and which renders its creepiness effectively – which for a moss is pretty impressive on audio!).
What becomes clear as the story goes on, and each of the Tardis crew get involved in some aspect of the planet’s challenges – Nyssa nearly dying as the evil purple moss of doom refuses to leave her alone, Turlough and Tegan teaming up with the Sontarans to try and find a way to stop her dying, the Doctor beggaring off into space in a gravity bubble to explain another key element of the plot – is that there’s a reason these particularly stupid Sontarans are on this particularly stupid mission, and why these Sontarans are particularly stupid. No, really, there is – you have to stick with Heroes of Sontar in order to find out what the hell is actually going on, but there is what at least passes for a legitimate reason for everything that happens – Alan Barnes crafting a story that leads with laughs, but ends with a degree of, if not tragedy, then at least sympathy for these heroes of Sontar: in some ways, they’re an analogue of the soldiers of World War I – a mixed bag, eager to bring glory to their cause, determined to do the very best they can, but led by officers content to have them slaughtered in pursuit of their own agenda.
The character development in Heroes of Sontar is delicious in terms of both the humanoids (or indeed humanoidlings, as the Sontarans call them), with Turlough being perhaps even more of a louse than he ever managed to be on screen. Turlough’s characterization also brings in elements of his personality and backstory that are, if you like, Easter eggs for the full-on nerds in the audience – he drops in a reference to Rehctaht, who was only ever mentioned in the novel Turlough and the Earthlink Dilemma, and he eventually gives Trooper Vend, the scaredy-cat Sontaran, an order, using his own military rank to point out he’s actually the trooper’s military superior.
Nyssa spends most of the story dying, in a creepy, moss-related way, but it’s at the end of this story that she reveals to Tegan that she has not only a husband back on Terminus, but also two teenaged children.
But it’s Tegan who has the most fun with the pack of stupid Sontarans, coming into her own mostly by dint of attitude, shouting and a sarcastic bent – she labels Thurr both Shorty and Napoleon, and avoids being shot for insulting a Sontaran officer by claiming it’s not a slur but satire.
So is Heroes of Sontar a classic Big Finish story that you should rush out and buy right now?
Oddly enough, in its own way, yes. It’s a real love it or hate it story, and if you don’t like Doctor Who played for shameless laughs, then you’re going to be in the latter category and it’s not for you. But if, now and again, you enjoy a story that shows you more about a classic enemy while ruthlessly sending up their whole reason for being, Heroes of Sontar is tremendously good fun, and all for some coherent reason.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk