Tuesday, 27 March 2018

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

Chapter The 81st, details the Sat Navs of the Potato Men.

Martha uses the Time-Space Telegraph app on her phone to call the Doctor and Donna back to Earth, where they all help UNIT investigate a hot-house private academy of clever kids using environmental car accessories to take over the world. The tech genius in charge of this is Mark Zuckerberg, sorry Luke Rattigan, and he's secretly in league with the Sontarans. Devices in millions of cars around the globe are activated and start spewing out poison gas, which will eventually kill all humans and turn the Earth into a clone hatchery. The Sontarans have promised Luke a passage to another planet so that he and his followers can start up a new society (he's gone from Zuckerberg to Elon Musk now). His followers are not so keen on this, particularly the breeding programme he's planned, so leave him alone. Despite lots of gun battles and use of clone infiltrators, the Sontarans are defeated: the Doctor burns off the poison gas using a gizmo, and the tech whizzkid redeems himself by doing selfless acts to make up for his years of evil; so, a bit like Bill Gates, is what I'm thinking - the three ages of tech whizzkid.

Watched from the DVD, separating the episodes by a couple of days. The first one was watched only by myself, the Better Half and middle child (boy of 8), the three biggest fans in the house, I'd say. But the second and final instalment attracted the remaining members of the family (elder boy, 11, and girl, 5). There were long periods of complete silence, edge of the seat concentration; this is always a sign that something's going down well. And after the story ended, something unprecedented happened - they watched the next episode too, a few days later. Every time they watch one they really enjoy, there are choruses of "Next ep, next ep" at the end, but after that they don't usually bug me for days and days until I get it down off the shelf. This time, they did, and very much enjoyed The Doctor's Daughter too. Tennant is a crowd-pleaser. I was under the weather when they watched that following story, and had a nap instead, so won't be blogging it next (it would have felt like too much of a rule break from the random order concept anyway).

First-time round:
The 2008 run was the first full Doctor Who series we saw from our new family home, which we'd moved into just before the previous Christmas, and where we still live. The family at the time was only three in number, with our first child less than two years old. This Tennant / Tate series was broadcast in an earlier slot than it had been previously, and we'd taken advantage of this to watch the first couple of episodes live, with the little 'un sat on a lap. The Adipose one - one of the earliest shows to come up randomly for the blog - went okay, but then The Fires of Pompeii's lava monsters scared the poor mite, so we abandoned live watching and started timeshifting for viewing later in the evening without him, and that was the settled pattern by the time we got to the Sontaran two-parter.

Errata: re-reading that early Partners in Crime blog post, I realise I misrepresented its first-time round watch there, forgetting all about trying to watch episodes live, but we did do it. I had previously written about this very same scaring of my first-born on my old blog, so you'd think I'd have remembered.
When I watched this in situ, as part of the fourth series of the twenty-first century return of Doctor Who, I was underwhelmed; the year as a whole was top-drawer, but this two-parter felt at best ho-hum, maybe even a little duff. Fast forward to now, and watching it - trying to be as objective as I can - it feels like something from a golden age. We were really spoilt back then. In fact, such do I feel the need to mentally interrogate myself on this era, being a big fan of the first few years of the new series and Russell T Davies' other work, I'm not just trying to be objective, I'm actively trying to hate it. And I can't. Tennant is charismatic and in full control, totally in his rock star pomp.

The story itself, which again seemed like one of the most unremarkable at the time, is a rollicking tale. The Sontarans are handled expertly - great masks, great costumes, great performances. Both the two main Sontaran performers, Christopher Ryan and Dan Starkey, returned to the show, the latter becoming a very successful recurring character, Strax; this says something about how successful they both were in their first outing. The script serves the aliens well, playing up their 'Colonel Blimp' conception, but adding in nice little details like their "Sontar-Ha" haka. Teaming them up with another villain of diminutive stature in Ryan Sampson's Rattigan was a clever stroke too; Sampson relishes his role, and the emotion of his arc is nicely delivered as is the (broad) comedy stuff too. Also returning is UNIT, which has its biggest extravaganza of the new series to date. The Doctor reacting badly to guns and salutes is possibly not needed (it's never been something he's worried about before), but the script calls out the Doctor's hypocrisy on this. The abrupt death of Ross, and Tennant's righteous anger in reaction to it, is very good too.

The evil Sat Navs hook is very tenuously linked to the main plot, and hasn't aged terribly well, but despite that, this story is closest to the urban thriller genre that Doctor Who has got; it's closer probably than The Bells of Saint John, which was marketed as the first ever Who urban thriller, but is pretty much exactly the same template as the Sontaran story - killer wi-fi upgrading the Sat Nav idea. The one major weakness is the inclusion of Martha. Freema Agyeman 's performance is a little bit wobbly compared to her full year - maybe she, as a less experienced actor, needed a bit more attentive direction than she got as a returning guest character. Catherine Tate on the other hand is faultless, and has great chemistry with Tennant. Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King are perhaps the best semi-regular family cast in Doctor Who history (Camille Coduri and Noel Clarke were excellent too, but it's Bernard flippin' Cribbins - you can't do better). More of stuff like this, please, Chris Chibnall - it's been reported that "family" is going to be the next series' watchword, which already sounds okay by me.

Another story that ends on a cliffhanger linking in to the next broadcast tale, and both stories involve sequences where the air inside a sealed vehicle is clouded with a gas that's poisonous to humans. They are also both stories that include Christopher Ryan in the cast, if one were to count Trial of a Time Lord as one big story. As I made a big deal of saying I don't consider it such in my last post, it's a bit of a cheat to use Chris Ryan as a connection here. But I have anyway.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who Knows Too. Continuing my loose theme of unanswered questions from the making of Doctor Who over the years, here's another biggie: why have so few women written for the series? Despite having a female producer right at the beginning and employing some key female directors early on,
no woman was employed to write a single episode of Doctor Who until it had been going for twenty years. (Yes, yes, I know one writer insisted on a co-credit for his wife alongside him on a 1960s story, but there's no evidence that she contributed whatsoever to the actual script, and the commission was purely his.) If, since that first story in 1983 (Barbara Clegg's very wonderful Enlightenment), it had been wall-to-wall female writers, it might not have been so bad, but it really really hasn't been. In the final few years of the original series post 1983, Jane Baker - half of a married couple writing team - co-contributed three stories plus a single episode, alongside her husband Pip. There was one more story solely written by a woman in the original run, and that was the very last one of the twentieth century, Rona Munro's Survival. Three women in all.

[Note: I'm not counting Paula Moore, credited author of Attack of the Cybermen, as this person doesn't exist. The person who reportedly receives the cheques for Attack, who has a similar name, very probably didn't contribute to the scripts at all. Who did write it, and - more importantly - why, are two more of those unanswered and probably unanswerable questions that remain contentious talking points within Doctor Who scholarship.]

This was in the dark ages of sexism in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, though. In our more advanced times, things will have improved greatly, won't they? No. Only another three women have been employed so far to write Doctor Who in the twenty-first century, plus there was another story from Rona Munro. Six individual writers in total out of nearly a hundred.  By story, or by number of minutes produced, it's an even worse percentage. The entire Doctor Who writing output of one half of the world's population totals less than, say, a writer like Don Houghton who penned a couple of stories in the 70s. Helen Raynor, author of the Sontaran story under review here, does best with two stories each comprising two 45 minute episodes; so, the most an individual woman has been able to write for TV Doctor Who ever is 180 minutes in total. I've had baths longer than that.

It's shameful, and I can only really moan about this. I can't muse on any possible solutions, as I can't see any reason why it should be; Doctor Who is not a show with a particularly male outlook, I'd have said, and there are plenty of experienced writers who would jump at the chance. I only hope that Jodie Whittaker taking over as lead actor encourages the addressing of this lack of gender diversity behind the scenes; and, maybe having a showrunner who isn't a man would be good to try when the day comes that Mister Chibnall is ready to move on.

In Summary:
Good solid meat and potatoes fare, heavy on the potatoes.

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