Big Finish: Torchwood THE GREAT SONTARAN WAR Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Big Finish: Torchwood THE GREAT SONTARAN WAR Review

Tony enlists to the Sontaran cause.
When Commander Linx crash landed on the Earth in the 13th Century, he set about dominating a local robber band, engaging in temporal tomfoolery to steal a bunch of scientists, and trying to repair his ship so he could get back to the business of slaughtering Rutans.

It’s important to note that there was no Torchwood in the 13th century.

There is now – which is why, when Major Kreg (the peerless Dan Starkey) arrives on the Earth in James Goss’ The Great Sontaran War, bent on assessing the strategic value of the Earth in the ongoing Sontaran/Rutam catfight, and the degree to which its humans might benefit the Sontaran cause, he… gets put on probation under the supervision of Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), and confined to the Mumbles Bay Caravan Park.

Yep, you read that right. A lone Sontaran, in a drizzle-strewn Welsh caravan park. Strap in, Torchwood-groovers, we’re in what could very easily become out and out “Comedy Sontaran” territory.

And neither Dan Starkey, Gareth David-Lloyd, nor James Goss is any stranger to a high comedy quotient in their stories.

The thing to understand about The Great Sontaran War though is that, while it absolutely does have a strong comedic vein as Kreg learns about the people (and pets) he encounters on the park, and David-Lloyd and Starkey play it for both comedy and pathos at the right points, the story also uses Kreg for a higher purpose.

If science fiction can teach us about our own world through the eyes of another, then The Great Sontaran War is a triumph of the genre. Although no-one would say the Sontarans have an exactly admirable culture, by putting a single member of the species in a modern setting, what you get is a deep, hard stare at some of the things we take for granted as ‘normal’ in our world.

Older people faced with the choice between paying an unscrupulous landlord’s rent or feeding themselves and their pets. Immigrants treated as a lower class of being by the rich and the empowered. Humans being squeezed for sweat and money by their fellows, divided by lines of privilege, land ownership, property ownership and – not to put too fine a point on it – race.

All of these are the stuff of our daily newspapers, our nightly news broadcasts, and even in our touchy-feely 2020s, they have far too easily become a part of the furniture of our society. The rich and frequently unscrupulous are in power, the poor, the elderly, the different are treated as entirely different species of creature, to be used and abused because that’s how the mechanics of our society’s power operate. And it’s all there in miniature on the Mumbles Bay Caravan Park.

Joining Gareth David-Lloyd and Dan Starkey down among the caravans, the three social strata we’ve mentioned are given voice by Nigel Harrison as Mr Higgins, the big cheese owner of the park, landlord to Mrs Betty Appleby (Kaye Brown), who is both Kreg’s neighbour, teacher, and occasionally accidental victim of his alien ineptitude with human customs.

Higgins also uses a group of immigrant workers, represented by the mouthpiece of Jamal (Farshid Rokey), to build new parts of the park, but treats them, if not as outright slaves, then at least as indentured servants, separating them off into horrible quarters because, with a white supremacist strut, he believes they’re “different” to “decent people,” and so conditions unfit for animals are all they deserve.

Did we mention there was more to The Great Sontaran War than a comedy Sontaran in a comedy setting?

Because, like all the best science fiction, the story gives us a framework to take a good hard look at ourselves. Kreg is a complete outsider. To him, the differences between Mr Higgins, Mrs Appleby, and Jamal are non-existent – or at best, arbitrary. They’re all just – on a baseline – human scum to him.

But by spending time among them, he does what Sontarans have done ever since they first appeared in Doctor Who. He assesses. He appraises. And he makes judgments based not on the humans’ own senses of superiority, or value, or financial wealth, but on usefulness, effectiveness, wisdom and foolishness.

Higgins’ petty sense of supremacy, being based on the amassing of tokens of exchange, or on his ideas of racial superiority, test Kreg’s patience to breaking point, while in Jamal and his fellow workers, he sees a good resource being squandered by the unsatisfactory nature of its habitation and rest periods.

And in Mrs Betty Appleby, he at first sees an encumbrance – much as Higgins sees her – but eventually, he sees her worth through the concepts of pets, poverty, charity, and, in a very Sontaran sense, alliances.

Again, you can use the Sontarans for all sorts of political stories, and they’re probably not what you’d call the universe’s most natural socialists. But as Kreg discovers, that might only be because they haven’t considered it properly yet. Through Betty, he learns the concept of poverty, and the scenes between Dan Starkey and Kaye Brown where ideas like that – entirely alien to the Sontarans, who are nothing if not unified, and who have very limited natural needs – are surprisingly moving, precisely because you don’t EXPECT Sontarans to care if lesser creatures go to the wall.

But through his interactions with her, Kreg learns to do exactly that – to care. He would undoubtedly argue that, as with Jamal and his colleagues, he cares only about the inefficient use of a resource, but there’s also as much of what passes for tenderness among Sontarans there, too.

He also learns of the entirely human ideas of pride and charity through his interactions with Betty. Observing that she is unable to afford sufficient sustenance, he (suitably cloaked) gets her some shopping (and oh yes – Sontarans at the checkout – it can’t ALL be social lessons, y’know?!). He’s understandably baffled when she initially refuses his ‘charity.’

For all they’re war-addled clones on a quest to conquer the universe, the idea of not making use of available resources when necessary and provided is absurd to Kreg, and he helps us see the absurdity of shame and pride as we see it enacted in our society at food banks.

Yes, absolutely, they shouldn’t need to exist. But since they do, Kreg brings a survivor’s – and a soldier’s – logic to our human, emotional pride that keeps our bellies empty and our effectiveness decreasing day by day.

Before we make this story sound too much like a Sontaran’s Guide To Socialism though, there are some strong sci-fi elements towards the end, as Kreg’s seeming imprisonment on Earth becomes increasingly intolerable to the Earth – this is not by any means a ‘Torchwood Lite’ story, although the deployment of Ianto is somewhat strategic.

He’s used to set up the premise of the story, and to pop in throughout the Sontaran’s stay in the caravan park to check up on – and therefore highlight for us - his progress. Ianto’s also useful towards the end, and is at least partly responsible for the resolution of the story. We’d absolutely love to tell you what that resolution entails, because it’s a single sentence that Ianto speaks, and it encapsulates the gloriously daft idea at the heart of the piece.

But it’s an idea that is especially delicious if you’ve listened to the Paternoster Gang audios, and met the other Victorian Sontaran – the one who isn’t a wonderfully violent butler played by Dan Starkey. Because while much of the story centres on the humanising influence of… well, humans, the resolution of the tale finds Kreg with a new purpose, a new sense of self, and a new acceptance of this part of his destiny and his life.

The Great Sontaran War absolutely is as funny as the idea of a Sontaran on probation in a Swansea caravan park makes it sound – Kreg’s conversations with Ianto are hysterical and poignant by turns, and the Sontaran’s discovery of, and experience with, pets, is enough to make this a must-listen on its own.

But the story also has some powerful social messaging running down its spine, and leaves you realising that the things we take as read, the things that make life grim and make us feel powerless, may not be as unshakeably, unchangeably awful after all.

They take effort to shake, and commitment to change, and it’s never as straightforward as the movies makes it look.

But if Sontarans can change both their own future, and the future of good people around them for the better, The Great Sontaran War challenges us to be at least as courageous as the sons of Sontar.

Also, it’s important to choose your pets with extreme care. Just sayin’.

Torchwood: The Great Sontaran War is available to purchase from the Big Finish website..

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad