Tony Fyler melts you with acid.
It’s time to go on the record. Dan Starkey is the best thing to happen to Sontarans since Kevin Lindsay passed away.
Yes, yes, I know there are lots of you out there in your little Tardis tents who think Strax makes a mockery of the whole Sontaran race, and has reduced them to the status of comedy alien, yadda yadda yadda.
Item #1: The Sontarans were always a comedy alien. A strong, dangerous comedy alien, to be absolutely sure, but a comedy alien nonetheless. When Kevin Lindsay’s Commander Lynx struts out of his glitterball testicle of machismo and claims the Earth and all its moons and satellites for the Sontaran Empire, if you don’t understand that they’re supposed to be funny, you should probably be obliterated with scissor-grenades, because you’re really not getting what life’s about.
That said, the Sontarans, as well as being a very funny satire on machismo, militarism and overcompensation, have always been dangerous – they’re strong, they’re ruthless, and they’re insanely good at the one thing their race has been cloned to do – wage war. That makes them a credible threat – they’re like a whole race of traffic wardens, commissionaires and men’s rights activists, only with heavy weaponry. That’s the point – they’re funny because they’re absurd in the things they think are important, but you don’t want to get on the wrong side of them.
If you look at the history of the Sontarans on TV, it can be summed up as Kevin Lindsay rocking the comedy-threat balancing act twice, and then the whole damn thing going to pot. With the greatest will in the world, Derek Deadman and his presumably fellow cockney Sontarans in The Invasion of Time look and sound as though they’ve got no idea of Lindsay’s performance, or essentially what the Sontarans are, beyond the fact that they look like evil homunculi and they go around punching things. And Stike and Varl in The Two Doctors, bless ’em, try hard, but are undermined by some truly cheap-looking face-masks and a script by their creator that had an unending list of add-ons worked into what it had to deliver, meaning they don’t particularly need to be Sontarans – there’s nothing essentially Sontaran about the story, and there’s a kind of shouty arrogance that does aim at the Sontaran heart, but fails to deliver the balance of what they are.
Enter Dan Starkey, the 21st century’s Sontaran du maison. When they came back in The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, Christopher Ryan looked like a thoroughly convincing Sontaran general – a mostly unsmiling veteran of many campaigns, but who took active pleasure in war and Sontaran culture. Beside him, Starkey’s Commander Skorr seemed very much like the young pup of the clone batch; with a gap-toothed smile and his occasional habit of breaking out into laughter and exultation – ‘This isn’t war – this is sport!’ – he looked like the Sontaran version of Alfred E Neuman from Mad magazine.
But of course, Skorr was only the first of Starkey’s on-screen Sontarans. Since then he’s stolen the screen as Strax – possibly the most interesting Sontaran in history, inasmuch as he’s conflicted between his heritage and his self-interest - and whenever there have been other Sontarans needed (with the exception of Christopher Ryan’s return in The Pandorica Opens), he’s been the go-to potato-head in the cosmos.
His rendering of Strax has always absolutely delivered the comedy that it has been written for (I defy you not to laugh, over two years on, when he hits Clara in the head with The Times), but if you look at early Strax, in A Good Man Goes To War and Demons Run Two Days Later, there’s evidently more to him than simple comedy relief. While never underplaying the comedy of the Sontarans, Starkey honours Lindsay’s original by making them real characters, with a real set of drives. Strax has become a unique semi-companion, for reasons that are both good and bad: he’s absolutely shown us more about Sontaran nature, culture and fundamental personality-type than any previous actor in their history, including Lindsay, but on the other hand, having a Sontaran fight on the side of right, rather than just the side of military might and machismo has frequently left the character nowhere dramatic to go. There’s a sense in which Strax’s on-screen adventures are half sitcom, half Sontaran soap opera.
This sense of Sontaran sitcom-soap opera has been exacerbated by the liberal use of Strax in a range of in-character but irregularly canon shorts and extras, as detailed here by Dr Moo. While some of these add to the ongoing story of the Paternoster Gang, some of the funnier shorts, like Strax’s cinema intros to the Fiftieth Anniversary Special and (a personal favourite) Songtaran Carols have in all likelihood been taken by those who display a Sontaran propensity for taking life seriously as proof of their contention about Strax devaluing the Sontarans as a species. But just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, so a handful of out and out comedy shorts do not devalue an entire species – especially when we remember the Sontarans were intended to be satirical in the first place.
What’s at least as much as the character of Strax in terms of advancing Starkey’s claim to be the modern Kevin Lindsay is that Starkey has been equally active in Big Finish audio, giving us a whole range of ranks and kinds of Sontaran in all but one of the company’s recent Sontaran stories. (For those who accuse Strax of turning the Sontarans into comedy villains, it should be noted that the only Big Finish Sontaran story not to feature Starkey is the one that treats the species as out and out comedy fare, Heroes of Sontar). Starkey has given us Majors, Commanders, Corporals, even Marshalls, and he’s done something interesting with all of them, layering depth into Sontaran command structures and personality types with the help of some excellent writers (Note to Chris Chibnall – want to bring the Sontarans back out of the comedy cold? Hire some Big Finish writers!). He has succeeded, by the simple economics of audio budgets (that allow for more Sontaran stories than TV does), the quality of writing given to him, and his own stellar work and understanding of the Sontarans as a species, in delivering the idea that Lindsay first expressed in The Sontaran Experiment, the idea that Sontarans were ‘Identical, yes. The same, no.’ If nothing else, his work with Big Finish, playing Sontarans that could easily fit in the Classic series as well as some who could fit into New Who in a more serious context, certainly, than those in on-screen stories like The Time of The Doctor, underpin his credentials as the best Sontaran since Lindsay, and arguably (Classic fans, prepare to burst a blood vessel or two) even the best of them all. Certainly, Dan Starkey has become the most prolific Sontaran-actor in history, both on-screen and in audio, the character of Strax being so dependable and Starkey’s performance so professionally on-the-nail that he became the pioneer when it came time for Big Finish to start using characters from New Who in its audios. Jago & Litefoot and Strax allowed Starkey to bridge the two worlds of Classic and New Who, and also the worlds of TV and audio Who, with an enthusiasm and realism that made the transition seem effortless.
You can like Strax or hate him, that’s entirely up to you. But in being a reliable Sontaran at the drop of a hat, in carving a unique niche both among the Doctor’s companions and among on-screen Sontarans as Strax, and in the diversity and range he brings to any audio Sontaran story in which he stars (and therefore in the imaginative range he allows writers to do interesting things with the Sontarans), Dan Starkey has helped bring much more depth to the Sontarans than arguably any of his predecessors. Certainly at this point, his prolificity and his professionalism have made the Sontarans far more a part of the Doctor Who universe than they ever were in Classic Who. So as we celebrate all things Sontaran here at WarpedFactor, raise a warrior’s beverage to Dan Starkey – the greatest Sontaran since Kevin Lindsay, and possibly, just possibly, the greatest Sontaran of them all.
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