Tony Fyler feels Sympathy for the Sontarans.
There’s a danger when you put the villains’ name in the title of your story that you prime the viewer, listener or reader only for their arrival and the action that concerns them, creating a false impatience in your audience for anything that precedes that arrival. Revenge of the Cybermen tends to make viewers impatient to see the silver-suited logic-gods, and so there’s an impatience with all the pratting about with viral infections on board a space station. Earthshock, meanwhile, by virtue of its fairly meaningless title, doesn’t prime you to think “Ooh, Cybermen,” but leaves you with no alternative to get involved in the cave-based shenanigans of its first episode, so that when the reveal comes, you explode with cybernetic joy. Similarly, if The Magician’s Apprentice had been called The Making of Davros, and had been written without its pre-credits sequence, but had focused on the planes stopping and the return of Missy as its first dilemma, you’d have been shouting at the screen, yelling “Where the hell’s Davros!” Give it a vague, fairly meaningless title, and the reveal of the Big Bad can still be massively exciting.
There’s a degree of that phenomenon at work in Terror of the Sontarans. Bang, there they are, bold as brass in the title, so your mind is pre-set with the notion “Bring on the Sontarans!” from the very first moment. It’s a notion that makes the first episode of the story we actually get here slightly frustrating. We’re on semi-familiar ground though – there are a bunch of people here from various species, and what was once a mining colony has been used as a kind of Sontaran experiment-ground, testing their resistance to pain, fear, torture and death. The fact that when the Seventh Doctor and Mel arrive, their first challenges are against these prisoners merely makes the absence of the Sontarans a more potent itch that you feel the need to scratch.
Once the Sontarans do appear properly though, this story has a lot to offer. Perhaps the chief joy of the title is that you have to read it correctly to get the most from it. There’s plenty of terror inherent in the Sontarans as a species - their military tactics and inherent brutality make them a significant threat. But the terror refers just as much to the actual, mind-shredding fear felt by the Sontarans in this story – a thing rarely if ever essayed before in Who history, and the ultimate shame for the potato-headed macho clones of Sontar. They hate fear with a passion bordering on the psychotic, so hearing them reduced to broken-brained burbling by absolute terror is somehow deeply disturbing and humbling. It’s like hearing something they would never reveal to you, and it gives them an absurdly sympathetic edge here.
The Sontarans we hear in this story have a good range and depth, TV’s favourite 21st century Sontaran and co-writer of this episode Dan Starkey voicing three separate Sontarans, but being joined by another three clone-brothers to round out the vocal range and the chain of command. The result is that the Sontarans feel like a fully alive, diverse race (even given their clone existence), and more of a presence than they usually do on screen. In fact, more of a presence than they sometimes do in Big Finish too. They may take a while to get started here, but once they’re up and running, you get some proper Sontaran action for your money with this release.
As for what’s really going on – what in fact causes the terror of the Sontarans – Starkey and co-writer John Dorney keep you guessing most of the way through. It’s a threat you can sort of guess at, but when it finally reveals itself and gains a voice, it’s surprisingly nuanced and well-rounded, leading the Doctor to fewer qualms than usual in dealing with it. So the Sontarans are good once they finally turn up, and the other major player is intriguing and nuanced. The Doctor and Mel? Hmm. Mel feels better here than she did in Mike Tucker’s The Warehouse, with a more can-do attitude, almost reminiscent of her personality in stories like The Wrong Doctors – unafraid to get stuck in, and surprisingly adept at doing so, given that the technology here is presumably significantly beyond her understanding. The Doctor is drawn with an agreeable degree of early Seventh Doctor whimsy – this is pretty much the Doctor of Paradise Towers, the one who raised his hat to a sculpture, rather than the relatively out-of-the-blue Ace-era brooding Dark Doctor. Show this Doctor an Elder God and he’d probably play the spoons at it, do a pratfall and run away, skidding round corners, but to be honest, that’s absolutely no bad thing. With the Sontarans making their presence felt through the application of military brutality, a little lightness in the Doctor is more than welcome.
Perhaps the greatest issue with this story is that the prisoners of the Sontarans are either forgettable, or irritating, or somehow manage to be both at once. Despite being told of their different species several times, to be honest, they sound mostly like rent-a-secondary-character stock, and once the Sontarans turn up, the potato-heads prove their class as a returning villain largely by making the individuality of their prisoners even more irrelevant than it was beforehand. On the other hand it would be stretching credulity to suggest that this in any way ruins the listen – after all, it’s pretty hard to remember the names of the prisoners in the original Sontaran Experiment too, and that doesn’t really impinge on the fun of watching that story either.
If anything, Terror of the Sontarans feels like The Sontaran Experiment, Part II – the setting’s different, there are pleasingly many more Sontarans knocking about the place, there’s a brief Sontaran dance moment (don’t panic, it’s funny because it undercuts their generally brutish behavior here, rather than making too much of a joke of them), and there’s a rather rationale behind the whole premise, but the threads are certainly still there: Sontarans experimenting on other species till there’s at least a revolution against their brutality, and here, rather more than that again.
While there’s that first episode frustration to get over, once it begins its acceleration in earnest, Terror of the Sontarans delivers on its premise, and also delivers one of the better Sontaran audio stories. One to check out, and the best of the three recent Seventh Doctor and Mel stories by some considerable way.
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