Sontar-aha, says Tony.
Ever been to an arms fair?
Imagine it like a Comic-Con only with less cosplay and more venal, chilling megalomania.
On one level, there’s no more natural environment in the universe in which to set a Sontaran story, but on the other, there’s something deeply incongruous about having Sontarans buy their weapons from a third party. Fortunately, that’s a thought that’s already occurred to writer Matt Fitton, and he addresses it directly in the course of the story, in a way that gives a fun peek behind the PR of the glorious Sontaran Empire.
The amount of pleasure you’ll get from Starlight Robbery rather depends on what you’re looking for going in. If you’re looking for Sontarans, Sontarans and more Sontarans, you’re surprisingly in luck, given how little of the actual plot is Sontaran-based. Dan Starkey, the modern Kevin Lindsay and 21st century Sontaran supreme, gives us a handful of very different Sontaran ranks and voices, from Marshall Stenn, through Major Vlar all the way down to Sergeant Gredd in this story, which also lets us in on Sontaran honour-codes, Sontaran space manoeuvres, and Sontaran death-oaths. Of the recent Big Finish Sontaran stories (The First Sontarans, The King of Sontar, Heroes of Sontar, Terror of the Sontarans etc), you could make a strong case for Starlight Robbery getting the balance the most right between the comedy potential of the Potato-Heads of Sontar and the serious military threat they embody. So while most of the other stories have something to recommend them (First Sontarans – intriguing pass at an origin story, King of Sontar – what would happen if they stopped being stupid at all, Heroes of Sontar – out and out comedy Sontarans, Terror of the Sontarans – Sontarans reduced to gibbering terror), if it’s straight down the line Sontarans with the balance between militaristic buffoonery and terrifying threat maintained you’re looking for, then Fitton’s script should be your go-to Sontaranfest.
That said, as mentioned, Starlight Robbery is only partly about the Sontarans. The middle script of a three-episode story arc revolving around something called a persuasion machine, it’s heavy with backstory that you have to take account of, and it makes a lot more actual sense if you’ve listened to preceding story, Persuasion by Jonathan Barnes.
First of all, the Doctor is travelling with a version of Dr Elizabeth Klein, who has a timeline more complex than is necessary and who possibly used to be a Nazi, but is now UNIT’s chief scientific advisor. Also along for the ride is her probationary assistant, the technically brilliant but practically untested Will Arrowsmith, who in this story seems to be included for the comedy value of an unpracticed geek meeting attractive girls for the first real time in his life, and the things bad girls can get such geeks to do for them.
What’s more, the notional chief villain of the piece is not the Sontarans but Garundel, a Urodelian (toad-boy, essentially) we’ve encountered before in Black and White, when he unwittingly became the inspiration for the monster Grendel in Beowulf. It’s Garundel’s weapons auction that the Sontarans have come to attend, along with the Doctor’s crew and a host of other warlike murdering reprobates. But being Garundel – who really, played with a camp American twang by Stuart (President Nixon in the TV show) Nixon, and looking, as mentioned, like nothing more than a toad, has the vibe of belonging in a Sixth Doctor comic strip, along with Frobisher and his crew – there’s more to it than the simple selling of advanced kill-sticks. There’s a rather appealing comic logic in the central conceit of the plot, but when it’s revealed, there’s a sense in which Starlight Robbery loses its reason for existing, and turns into that country lane your GPS leads you down – very nice and pretty and all that, but nevertheless a diversion from getting on with your life.
So there’s a bargain to be struck with Starlight Robbery. Go into it on the understanding that it’s not, ultimately, going to lead you anywhere you especially want to be, and just revel in the Sontarantastic pleasure of it all.
Again, there’s a very strong argument to be made that Dan Starkey is the 21st century’s Kevin Lindsay, as he’s done more with the Sontarans than any other actor since Lindsay, and certainly, he’s done more with them that works than anyone bar their on-screen originator. Whatever your feelings about Strax the Sontaran butler, listen to Starkey’s work in audio (he takes leading Sontaran duties on all but Heroes of Sontar), and you begin to understand how nuanced a species they can actually be, growing beyond Robert Holmes’ original intention for them as a straightforward satire on militarism, bureaucracy and machismo. Here, both Fitton and Starkey show they understand that the Sontarans are inherently funny, certainly, but also that they have some reasons to take themselves as seriously as they always do – listen to Marshall Stenn wax practically poetical about the infinite armies of Sontar, daily hatched by their billions on the clone worlds, and you get a sense of the Sontarans as a whole species of British First World War generals, fired with homicidal pride – but pride that they believe is justified nonetheless. Hear him describe Major Vlar as a fine officer, having attained his ninth year of age, and you get the idea of the self-revolving, grandiose sense of superiority that has motivated all the on-screen Sontarans we’ve ever seen, set out far more clearly and eloquently than it ever had been on TV, at least until The Sontaran Stratagem.
So Starlight Robbery is worth a listen simply for the depth it gives to the Sontarans. And yes, there’s plenty of humour at their expense too – the Marshall having something of a hissy fit at one point because his swagger stick has been taken away from him; the idea that even without any of the weapons they habitually use, a Sontaran’s body is the perfect weapon, and more besides.
The persuasion machine was always a bit of a blatant MacGuffin, and it never seems more MacGuffiny than it does in this middle episode. Garundel is a fun creation, but Milligan’s voice for him and the ultra-arch dialogue the character gets to use is funny only so far before it begins to make the listener think “Oh, get on with it, toad-boy!” McCoy’s Doctor is relatively tangential to most of the story, though he does get his moments in episode four to do a couple of Clever Things. For the most part, the Tardis crew of Klein and Arrowsmith get to carry the investigative action, and Tracy Childs and Christian Edwards respectively make rather a fun fist of it, their dynamic of boss and underling giving them an additional edge that allows them to be entertaining in the Doctor’s absence. Most particularly, listen out for Jo Woodcock as Miss Ziv, Garundel’s blue-skinned, antenna-owning Gadalaxian partner in crime, who, despite her undoubted involvement in nefarious shenanigans comes across as rather sweet in her many scenes with Edwards’ Arrowsmith, and who gives the actual plot some much-needed emotional body.
Starlight Robbery is a fun diversion in story terms, but it deserves its place in any Who fan’s collection for the superb work that Matt Fitton and Dan Starkey put in to making the universe of the Sontarans come properly alive in a way it’s rarely done on screen.
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