If you’re a Doctor Who fan who’s not keen on the Sontarans being used for comedic purposes, you’re going to want to pick up The Eternal Battle. This one’s serious Sons of Sontar all the way through, and it has them doing the thing they’re always shouting about – waging endless war.
‘I’m going over the top!’
‘No change there…’
But here’s a question: can you have too much of a good thing? Even if you’re a cloned species whose whole reason for being is to fight and die in glorious war, can you get battle-weary and exhausted with the constant slaughter?
That’s part of the key premise of Cavan Scott and Mark Wright’s new Fourth Doctor story. The Sontarans we meet here have been fighting an enemy now for so long that even their commanding officer, Field Major Lenk (played by the now-incomparable Dan Starkey in full-on Kevin Lindsay mode, rather than his TV-traditional Strax tones) is tired of the fight. Perhaps more significantly than even that paradigm-shift for the Sontarans is the reason behind it – everything you know about a Sontaran’s reason for being is about to be put to the test and inverted, including the source of their greatest glory.
Imagine that – Sontarans exhausted of war, robbed of the potential for glory, yet still forced onward, fighting a never-ending battle. That’s the scenario into which the Fourth Doctor, the Second Romana and the Second K9 drop, unannounced, when the Doctor fancies a quiet holiday in the Lake District, looking at a museum of Pencils Throughout The Ages – we kid you not, though Scott and Wright push the humour through in Tom Baker’s Doctor’s delight in the seemingly mundane and arcane: we can imagine him giving Romana a grand lecture on the power of a humble pencil, how one can create myriad worlds of wonder and imagination with it, though fortunately any such speech is curtailed here before it becomes tiresome. Nevertheless, the Sontarans appear to be dug in around the Lake District, in the absolutely sheeting rain, using trench warfare in a battle against the ultimate foe, which perhaps is not the kind of thing you expect to see on an otherwise pencil-rich tour of the Lakes.
The Fourth Doctor in this story appears to be pushed into overtly comical areas, partly we suspect to test Romana’s patience – Lalla Ward gives us a really rather exasperated Romana here, as she has done on a few occasions since she rejoined Tom Baker for these hour-long Fourth Doctor adventures – but also to compensate for the unfunny Sontarans, and bring some lightness to what would otherwise be an unremittingly grim premise.
As to what that premise actually is, beyond unhappy Sontarans in an eternal battle – to tell you too much would be to spoiler you (even though the spoilerific capsule plot review screams to be written), especially given the reveal at the end of Episode 1 as to exactly who and what these Sontarans are fighting, but it’s necessarily less than subtle that the dome-headed warriors are reduced to fighting battles in tanks, and ducking down into trenches to wage their war in the relentless rain – the stereotypical image of, for instance, the way in which World War 1 was fought between different nationalities of human. It feels as though Scott and Wright are teaching us something about the nature of incessant war, that even the Sontarans, who usually embrace battle, strategy, and even crazed, suicidal dashes for glory, are reduced, worn down, all thoughts of glory in them extinguished by this particular form of warfare, this incremental theft of everything that makes the individual, the nation, the species what it is as they slide through pernicious mudbath days and frozen nights, inching towards victory or – as Lenk is commander enough to know here – towards inevitable numerical defeat and destruction.
The premise behind the premise though? If anything, that’s at least as interesting as the idea of Sontarans caught in an eternal, inglorious, unending battle for survival – and yes, for a whole host of reasons, these are Sontarans who want to live! In fact, Scott and Wright’s underlying theme actually underscores both these ideas, that eternal battles, eternal warfare, robs conflict of any such notions of glory, or valour, or even ‘success’ beyond the premises of the war itself, and that any idea of warfare as an expressed ‘lust for glory’ are hollow and false to any creature that values its own, singular life. That makes The Eternal Battle a thoroughly bizarre but utterly fascinating take on the Sontaran psyche – in their very essence, they were invented to be clones, bred by the million and sublimating individual grandeur and glory to the idea of ‘the greater good’ of their jingoistic empire. Take that away from the Sontarans, make them feel the need to individually survive, and you bring them closer to our own general experience of warfare. You come perilously close to ‘unSontaraning’ them, and you give them something to learn, not for the glory of Sontar, but in the humbling, defeatable, isolated, individual long dark night of the Sontaran soul.
Why – within the structure of the story – anyone would do such a thing is rather fascinating, though the shift from the extended battle sequences which make up the majority of the story to the ‘solution’ section does come as quite a stark contrast, like for instance the gear shift in The Power of Three when we move from the box-invaded Earth to the ship in orbit. But again, Scott and Wright know their Who upside-down and back to front, and in a sense, the premise behind the premise of this story is fundamental to the Sontarans’ original purpose: if they are the ultimate warriors, after all, they teach us something about warfare and the mentality required to promulgate it. There’s almost a sense at the end of this story that the style shifts from late Tom Baker era to late Jon Pertwee, the Doctor engaging in philosophical arguments with an enemy whose technology has gone more than a little wrong with appalling consequences, and the shift between those realities of the endless war and the broken-down technology feels odd, but the ending actually makes us feel sorry for the Sontarans, trapped as they are in their endless cycles of violence, bigotry and conquest, because whatever the Sontarans we meet in this story learn, whatever Lenk and his subordinate, Stom take from the experience of The Endless Battle, we know it’ll be just a blip in Sontaran development, the lesson ultimately lost on the species as a whole.
The trick, hopefully, is not to let the lessons of The Eternal Battle be lost on OUR species as a whole.
The Eternal Battle, like the Sontarans themselves, is compact and powerful, giving us a new way to understand their species, and our own. Pick it up and get in the trenches with the Sons of Sontar today.
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