The Sontarans were an immediate hit when they arrived in Doctor Who in The Time Warrior, but probably for reasons other than the subtle satire they embodied – on militarism, machismo and small-minded bureaucracy. Writer Robert Holmes was one of the show’s frequent lightning-bottlers, and in the Sontarans he created an alien menace that was in its fundamentals both extremely funny and extremely threatening, depending on where you stood. If you were far enough away from the Sontarans, as we the viewer were, they could be joyfully silly, the ultimate example of people who take themselves and their tiny area of governance far too seriously. If you were in the room with the Sontarans, the point was, something that silly could still kill you stone dead, ravage your planet and step over your bones. The lightning that Holmes bottled with the Sons of Sontar was that duality – they were essentially funny to contemplate or watch, but deeply dangerous to share a cosmos with.
Since The Time Warrior, the Sontarans have generally fared less well, but the key to making them work has always been making them Sontar-ha-ha, rather than just Sontar-peculiar – allowing us to laugh at what they think is important while still respecting their might, rather than laughing at the way they’ve been delivered to us.
The Stupid Scientist One – Funny Ha-Ha
To give it its due, The Sontaran Experiment gets the scary-funny balance mostly right. In the hands of the Bristol Boys, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a quick two-episode money-saver became a reasonably quick return engagement for the potato-heads. It is, let’s never forget, quite grim in tone – the location looks horrible, the humans are all, for some reason, given Afrikaans accents, which adds to the cute and cuddly factor no end, and the whole thing is basically a free-range torture chamber. It’s Saw With A Sontaran. Add to that Styre’s knife-wielding single combat and his magnificent disregard for the lives of non-Sontarans and you get the ‘dangerous to share a cosmos with’ element in spades. But at the same time, there’s a thoroughly laughable robot, and Styre is actually defeated in the most stupid way imaginable, suggesting that there’s no such thing as Sontarpedia.com, as a simple reference check with Earth’s history would have proven the Doctor’s claims of an advanced caste of humans to be utterly idiotic. It’s by no means perfect, but it gets the Sontarans right and allows Kevin Lindsay to go down in history as the ultimate zero-failure-rate Sontaran.
The Timey-Wimey One – Funny Peculiar
There are a few things wrong with the Sontarans in The Invasion Of Time. Firstly, the costumes and Sontaran heads are shoddier than they were in either of their previous stories, so they look like they’ve been outfitted from charity shops – hardly what you’re going for when you invade the citadel of the Time Lords. Secondly, Derek Deadman was a great character actor, and if you lived in the UK and you saw him sans-Sontaran-head, you’d recognise him instantly as “that guy.” But clearly, he had very little idea of Kevin Lindsay’s work on the original two Sontaran stories, and could only play the role of Stor as a fairly generic, whispery, oddly Cockney Doctor Who villain. The only real notes of humour to make it into the Sontarans’ scenes are unintentional, and so they tend to sit there on screen like a deathly silence. But the biggest issue with them is of course the fact that they have absolutely no place in the story, and simply turn a reasonable four-part story into an exhausting six-parter with lots of very odd corridor and film scenes of alleged Tardis interiors.
The Oven-Ready One – Sontar-Ha-Ha AND Sontar-Peculiar
If the Sontarans have no place in The Invasion of Time, that goes double for The Two Doctors. Robert Holmes famously didn’t particularly want them in the story, but John Nathan-Turner insisted they be added to an already over-rich soup of ingredients. And while on-screen Sontarans had never actually been as short as the Target novelisations had insisted they should be, coming from a lower-gravity world, the strapping forms of Clinton Greyn and Tim Raynham looked particularly imposing. Now, against the grain of mainstream fandom I will contend that the actual dialogue and performances of the Sontarans here get the balance between funny and threatening pretty right, as you’d expect from their creator – Varl’s announcement every time Stike enters a room and Stike’s own fretting over lost time at the front allowing other characters to puncture their pomposity out loud. Certainly they’re more in line with Lindsay’s original. But again, there’s little that’s especially necessary about the Sontarans in The Two Doctors, and oh, the masks. They looked, more even than Deadman’s did in The Invasion of Time, like rubber masks, and at times, you could even see how far down they went. The actors had no fun in the heat of Seville in their oven-ready chicken-style armour and giant Sontaran heads, and sadly, the masks let down what could have been a great Sontaran story – Robert Holmes’ first since The Time Warrior.
The Born-Again Shortass One – Sontar-Ha-Ha
The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky did right by the Sontarans for the first time in three decades – there were loads of them, they were shown as warriors, and as a culture unto themselves. There was still plenty of satire about them (the haka inducing the Tenth Doctor to switch channels on them), but they also got to massacre a lot of humans for sport, at least one of whom we’d grown to like. The balance between their threat and their silliness was redefined for a new generation by this story.
They appeared again in a number of also-ran capacities – a lone sniper in The End of Time, and part of the gang in The Pandorica Opens, but the next real Sontaran story was actually
The Time Warrior Redux One – Sontar-Ha-Ha
The Last Sontaran, in The Sarah-Jane Adventures, essentially sees Kaagh in exactly the same position as Lynx in The Time Warrior, and it’s a mark of how time has moved on that essentially the same storyline of a stranded Sontaran became a spin-off-suitable story in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the balance is delivered well – his injuries and callousness are kept in check by his frustrations at being stuck somewhere so backward as the Earth, and it works as a complete story.
The Homicidal Nurse One – Sontar-Hmm
The Sontaran involvement in A Good Man Goes To War is a dubious marker-point in the species’ history. Strax, who has dishonoured his clone batch, is sentenced to work as a nurse, helping the sick and the weak. Sentenced, it seems, by the Doctor. That scenario is inherently overplayed for laughs, and while Dan Starkey continues the excellent work he began in The Sontaran Stratagem, and delivers something we’ve never seen before – a Sontaran we can root for – there’s still something inherently odd about the concept that makes his involvement feel like a self-conscious attempt to work in some extra helpers for the Doctor which he arguably didn’t need. Strax dies at the end, like a good, redeemed Sontaran, and arguably he should have stayed that way.
The Hopelessly Drivelly Can’t-Write-For-Toffee Crappy Butler Weed Ones* - Sontar-Ha-Ha and Sontar-Peculiar
I love the character of Strax as much as the next Paternoster Gang fan, and I bow to no-one in my admiration for Dan Starkey’s performance either, but what is clear is that his role in the stories in which the Gang feature (The Snowmen, The Crimson Horror, The Name of the Doctor, Deep Breath) is unremittingly that of the comic relief. As the comic relief, it absolutely works, thanks to out and out comedy writing and Starkey’s brilliant performance, but the character is somewhat obvious and one-dimensional, which means the comedy is rather one-note too – once you’ve taken the threat away from the Sontarans and put them on the side of right, rather than simply the side of might, you’ve overbalanced them and all they can be is comic. You can still laugh at them, but it’s less cathartic, like laughing at a tantrumming child, rather than a small-minded adult. Strax never feels like a threat to our friends (lethal as he can be with a ballistic copy of The Times), so his ‘funny Sontaran’ antics rarely add any depth to our appreciation of the warriors from Sontar, no matter how many of his lines are about increasingly convoluted forms of ordinance. He’s brilliantly funny – but that, so far, is all he can be.
Will we see the return of balanced, satirical Sontarans? It’s by no means impossible – we’ve seen them at least three times in the programme’s history. But perhaps we’ll have to wait a while – given their non-Strax two-line cameo of stupidity in The Time of the Doctor, it appears they’ve been reduced to comedy cannon fodder for the time being.
*Simply a quote from Blackadder The Third.
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 day, he 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