Nasty, brutish, looks like a potato. But enough about Tony.
We all know about the Sontarans – nasty, brutish and short, at permanent war with the Rutans, cloned species, insanely good at fighting, bizarrely never the same twice until New Who, used significantly as comedy relief in the New Who universe.
This is not the New Who universe.
The Early Adventures of course are…pretty much exactly what they claim to be – stories that could fit into the black and white era and evoke that sense of the Hartnell or Troughton series, while giving us stories with a 21st century verve, and making use of ideas which either didn’t or couldn’t have existed back then.
We’re going to go out on a limb here and say you’re going to love The Sontarans.
Every fan knows the Sontarans arrived in our world in The Time Warrior, Kevin Lindsey as Commander Lynx kidnapping scientists and stashing them in the middle ages so as to repair his Christmas bauble of a ship.
But the Sontarans of course are known to the Doctor when he first sees the ‘ghost’ of Lynx, suggesting that he’s either heard of them, or encountered them before.
What Simon Guerrier has delivered in The Sontarans is ostensibly the first time the Doctor encounters the Spudheaded Sons of Sontar. What’s more, as he’s travelling with two companions from ‘our’ future, Steven and Sara, it’s one of those rare occasions in Who where the companions know more about the villains than the Doctor does. For Steven and Sara, the Sontarans’ reputation in battle, and their reputation for brutality, goes before them. The Doctor appears to encounter them cold, and learn as he goes.
The scenario of The Sontarans is, if not simple, then linear, with little to get in the way of its storytelling flow. One strategically placed asteroid, one squad of human soldiers (who also know the Sontarans of old), one squad of Sontarans, one objective for the humans (a giant space cannon with which the Sontarans are causing an embuggerance to a great chunk of the cosmos), one indigenous species, seemingly benign and oppressed, and one particular Sontaran leader with more than a touch of Styre about him, keen to torture humans for their information and their responses, so as to make military progress and improve the next generation of clones. What you’ve got, when you boil it down to its essentials, is a Dead Planet-style quest for the Doctor, his companions and those humans who make it through the first battle sequence, down into the bowels of the planet, to meet up with the indigenous species of the asteroid and from there make their way to blow the space cannon to smithereens, all the while being pursued by an enemy that’s ruthless, dogged and a damned good shot. In essence then, it’s the original Terminator movie, but with asteroids and Sontarans, in a black and white style.
That style’s important – Guerrier faithfully reproduces the tone of one of those Hartnell stories that involve quite a bit of getting from A-B, usually with some abseiling or rock climbing or leaping over gaps that lead down to the planet’s molten core or somesuch. But he manages to do that, and bring the Sontarans in, while conjuring what feels like a really fast couple of hours of storytelling, with treats galore along the way for the continuity fan. There’s talk of the Time Destructor, of the Terranium core, and, unusually for a Companion Chronicle or an Early Adventure, the story ends with a hard, fast reference point to on-screen Who, bringing a sense that the Steven and Sara adventures might almost be coming to their end. It’s true that Jean Marsh is 82 and Peter Purves is 77, but as Who fans we’re accustomed to being spoiled by these phenomenal actors showing us what they can still do (No lying down on the job, folks, William Russell’s 92!). That means the reference point back to The Daleks’ Master Plan comes as a shock. It doesn’t interrupt the flow at all, but the reality of it, and how close Sara is to fulfilling her destiny, still shocks and saddens us when we get to the end of the story.
Long before that though, there’s plenty to love about The Sontarans. The quest, with its authentic feel, shows us at least two entirely new things about the Sontarans as we understand them, and Dan Starkey, the modern-day Kevin Lindsey, tightens his grip on the whole Sontaran race, playing at least a Sontaran fistful of the clone-boys here, as well as one of the human troopers. In particular, he channels his Inner Lindsey in the squad leader, Slite, who tortures Steven when the Tardis crew get inevitably separated (we mentioned it had the tone of those Hartnellian quest stories, right?). There’s perhaps one moment that will grate on the nerves of those who don’t think the Sontarans should be funny, ever, but Guerrier gives us a logical reason why the Sontarans would be open to humour now and again.
Jemma Churchill as Captain Papas, the leader of the human squad, is effective here, a kind of proto-Sara before she joined the Doctor, while Jean Marsh herself is used mostly for important bits of exposition about the future and why they can’t reveal it. Peter Purves though continues his presumably exhausting triple act as Steven, the Doctor and the main narrator of the tale, belying any difficulty with a fluidity of delivery that has seen him really come into his own in recent years at Big Finish.
What The Sontarans gives us then is an amalgum that shouldn’t work, but absolutely does – a black and white feeling quest story, with what sound like Classic Sontarans, but move with the speed and determination of the New Who variety. It gives us a glimpse into the recent past for Steven and Sarah, a concrete link in to the on-screen chronology of early Who, a story that for all it’s identifiable as a quest, makes sense at least most of the time, some brand new things you didn’t know the Sontarans could do, and, on top of all that, the delight of hearing the first time the Doctor ever encountered a species he would come to know well and battle comparatively frequently, whipped along at a quick marching pace, and dogged by the ever-present sensation of loss, of consequences to any failure, and of being pursued by an enemy that won’t slow down.
The third series of Early Adventures is getting better and better as it goes along, and in The Sontarans, it delivers a story that’s both a rollicking big tick on the fans’ bucket list, and an adrenaline-driven adventure in its own right.
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