Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Poison Sky

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Don’t tell anyone what I did! It wasn’t my fault! The Sontarans lied to me!

I go back and forth a bit with these reviews. Especially, really, the episodes like this – the ones that, as established last week, can be a bit difficult to write about.

I don’t think it is a wildly inaccurate claim to say that billions of words have been written about Doctor Who – right? Between magazines and books and every little blog on the internet, it’s got to be something approaching that number, no? Perhaps in excess; I’m not brilliant with numbers, as we’ve probably learned previously. But, sure, let’s stick with that number, much as we could just as easily have made up a new number entirely, in proper Russell T Davies fashion; I’ve just googled “doctor who the poison sky review” and got 2,350,000 results, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to say that there’s twelve-point-five-slash-apple words on the subject.

Which begs the question, you know, what am I adding with these? Sure, there’s a certain level of personal anecdote from time to time – my resounding memory from this one is the Confidential afterwards, actually, and Danny Hargreaves talking about how there’s a shot where you can see his arms just before ‘Sylvia’ swings the axe into the car – and I think there’s a value to that, the perspective of someone who’s coming to this critically after having grown up loving it unreservedly, but then there’s just as often very little in the way of personal history to these. Or, frankly, criticism. If there’s room for the first piece of writing and the best piece of writing, these reviews have been neither; it’s a slightly rambling, unsure thousand words that I dash together mainly because I’ve been doing it for the past few years anyway and I don’t really want to stop. (Which is an odd one to hold onto, I suppose. I stopped writing about the Capaldi episodes when those became too difficult to keep up with. Though I’d still like to go back to them again.)

I don’t know. Someone said to me the other day, about writing, the question is “why are you writing this? Why are you writing this? Why are you writing this?” – so, more accurately “the questions are”, but whatever. The point sort of stands. I don’t know that I can answer those questions of these pieces. Likely enough I’m overthinking it, because the main thing is that I like watching Doctor Who and I like writing down what I think about it, and these are consciously not articles in the same sense I might write them for Yahoo or wherever.

Still, though. Let’s try for something a little better next week, maybe.

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It strikes me, again, that the most interesting part of this story is Luke Rattigan – probably largely by accident, given the reason why I find him so interesting is because of how he feels so relevant even now. But then, I suppose the sad fact is that he was likely just as relevant back then, because some things don’t really change.

Basically, he’s an incel. Or, not an incel exactly – mind you, that line about the breeding programmes? – but certainly Luke Rattigan is in that mould of insecure young men, swept up by a hyper-masculine ideology and damaged as a result. (That sounds a little overly sympathetic, actually. It’s not meant to.) It’s the most interesting thing that the story does with the Sontarans, I’d argue; there’s lots to be said about how they represent a particular strain of militaristic jingoism and aggression, but you get that from a lot of different Doctor Who monsters. Certainly, the broad strokes of the invasion/ATMOS plot could’ve been played out with other aliens – the Zygons are an obvious candidate, I think, though you could probably modify it such that it works with the Slitheen too. Some rogue Judoon, maybe, or the Sycorax. What makes the Sontarans interesting in this story, at least to my mind, is the fact they’re defined by their influence on Luke – it’s taking all those ideas of conformity, and exaggerated, performative aggression, and essentially positing a microcosm that shows how damaging and toxic that can be.

The end of the episode is interesting in light of that. It’s another violent act, basically in line with the Sontaran ideology – they’re beaten back at the end by a bigger explosion, basically, as opposed to any intellectual efforts. You’d think, perhaps, that given we’re meant to read Luke as being inspired by the Doctor, he’d come up with a response to the Sontarans that falls outside that paradigm. So, how do we read that? Another comment, perhaps, on how destructive that ideology is – because Luke is, essentially, reflecting their own plan back at them. Or, alternatively – given we’ve seen how easily the Doctor fits into UNIT, and the way they were paralleled with the Sontarans – it’s indicative of how the Doctor, and his means, aren’t quite free of certain aspects of that ideology – otherwise, wouldn’t they have found a better way? I don’t know, really, but I think there’s an interesting tension there that’d be worth exploring someday.

There’s still bits that don’t quite work. Quite apart from anything else – and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about a story resolved with a character’s suicide, but – the fact that none of the Doctor, Donna or Martha actually remark on Luke’s sacrifice is a pretty glaring omission – I know it’s difficult to do it without seeming trite, especially since they generally either didn’t know him or like him, but…?

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Nonetheless, though… I mean, the thing about these stories is that there is actually pretty consistently lots of little things that are really genuinely great. If you wanted to, and often for the most part I do, there’s enough little things you can pick out and celebrate and in turn stretch an article to meet whatever wordcount you want.

There’s a moment where Martha’s talking to her clone, and she calls her Martha. It’s a lovely little detail from Martha, respecting her clone as a living being with an identity – when the Doctor doesn’t, notably – and Freema Agyeman plays it wonderfully. But, outside of that? I know the line on these Series 4 episodes is that Martha does much better when she’s freed from being “the one who fancies the Doctor”, but actually, I’m not convinced – after all, it’s not like this episode really gives her anything to do, is it?

Bernard Cribbins is, of course, brilliant. He’s got great scenes with Catherine Tate here, and it goes a long way towards fleshing out Donna’s home life and making her family feel distinct from what we’ve seen before. Jacqueline King, I think, either doesn’t quite get enough weighty material, or plays it with a little too much levity; I don’t think the oft talked about sense of Donna’s difficult home life quite comes across here the way it should.

I know the “are you my mummy?” thing is well loved, but I’m actually not a fan.

Anyway. That’s quite a bitty, strung out close to the review, isn’t it? And not a lot of the content is even about the episode! Ah well. I enjoyed it, generally speaking; for the most part, I suspect, I enjoyed it out of nostalgia moreso than anything else. If this were an episode, line for line and shot for shot, in Jodie Whittaker’s upcoming season, I’d be disappointed; much as there are interesting ideas you can pick out in this episode, I’d much rather they got more focus and exploration than this episode gave them.

6/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Sontaran Stratagem

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You’re carrying a gun. I don’t like people with guns.

It is always a little difficult to write about these episodes. In part, the problem is derived from being the first part of a two-part story; there’s a certain degree of incompletion there, since it’s not the full story, which in turn makes it harder to write about the episode as a discrete piece.

Also, though, it’s the matter of the format and structure. The first two-parter of each of the Russell T Davies series, and the second two-parter from Moffat’s first series – written, perhaps notably, by Chris Chibnall, which is probably basis enough to speculate we might see them return in some form or another – tended to be what you can charitably call “broader episodes”. Less about big ideas than big set pieces, they’re rendered in sweeping brush strokes and aimed, generally speaking, at the younger audience members. It’s very much not a bad thing, or so I’d maintain; the monster two-parter has always got a bit of a lambasting. Not just from fans, who are going to be myopic and overly critical about most things; a quick google search for a review from 2008 described this episode, and previous years’ equivalents, as a “breakneck nosedive into abject embarrassment”. So, while I’ll generally always defend them for what they are, what they are is relatively simplistic television that can be difficult to write much about.

Still, though, that’s what you might call the received wisdom (and, actually, glancing through that review it strikes me as a fairly trashy piece, so we might not want to call it wisdom). It’s certainly something Russell T Davies always disagreed with – granted, he would, but when he contested the description that these were “just for kids” he might well have had a point. Looking back, you can see some clear satirical elements to Aliens of London/World War Three, I actually think that Daleks in Manhattan throws out some interesting ideas, and hopefully I’ll figure out something for Rise of the Cybermen before I publish this.

So, with this admittedly slightly tenuous premise now established in more words than are strictly needed, let’s consider: what’s going on in The Sontaran Stratagem, other than the bright colours and the returning monsters that look a little like potatoes?

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What stood out to me as being – at the very least – interesting was the… I don’t want to call it a central conflict, because that suggests it has a bit more prominence than it actually did, so let’s say the tension between the Doctor and UNIT.

It makes a degree of sense, for the series in its post Time War state, that the Tenth Doctor is going to bristle when confronted with soldiers. In a wider sense, too, there’s an obvious tension lurking there – really, one that’s lurking in any UNIT story – because the Doctor so often finds himself working against armies in some respect or another. There’s a lot of ideas of authority and aggression tied up in there, which are often the traits you see the Doctor rebelling against; hence, then, the juxtaposition of UNIT with the Sontarans, who are the most exaggerated version of jingoism and brutality that you can get. Look at the two UNIT soldiers who come across Skor; look at the way the taller one, Private Harris, mocks and taunts Skor. It’s a vision of a very particular idea of the army – bullish and brash and filled with bravado, and ultimately also quite toxic. There’s something interesting about that, I think, given how you’d normally expect the alien fodder supporting cast to be written in such a way that they’re immediately sympathetic – it feels like an almost conscious attempt to get us to dislike him, and dislike the way he throws his weight around.

But look also at Martha and Luke Rattigan. Martha is now pretty much explicitly a soldier, and for all she talks about reforming the system from within, there’s a certain ugliness attached to it. (How else are you meant to read the line about “searching for illegal aliens”, before she starts questioning an Eastern European worker?) Similarly, there’s that great moment where Luke starts to join in with the Sontaran chant, imitating them and aspiring to be like them; it’s there that, suddenly, it makes sense why you emphasise the Sontarans as a clone race – because they’re all about conformity. That’s the big issue with the army, and in a sense you can see this almost as foreshadowing the problems we later see the Twelfth Doctor have with soldiers too.

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Having said that, though, that opens up another angle of consideration. One of the big points of conflict between the Twelfth Doctor and Danny Pink was that, for all the Doctor’s disdain of soldiers, he treats them like he’s an officer. And you can see that here, because as soon as the Tenth Doctor is on site, he’s giving orders too – he fits right into the command structure, much as he insists he doesn’t. They draw attention to it, albeit as a joke, but it’s interesting to see how a lot of the ideas that are on display here crop up again during the show. I doubt that Steven Moffat was referring back to The Sontaran Stratagem consciously during the planning of Series 8, but it’s neat to see how the same character traits are preserved across the length of the series. Or, maybe not preserved exactly, but recur.

What’s also still interestingly relevant is Luke Rattigan (with two Ts), who feels very much the picture of some of the worst of society today – the entitled teenager, driven to violence because he feels isolated and lashes out. Even where the episode has dated, being built around satnav as it is, it’s still deeply topical in some ways. In a way, it’s kinda making me regret the way I approach these reviews; they’re all quite stream of consciousness, probably more accurately described as just a collation of thoughts than a proper review, written immediately following a single watch. I think if I were to approach this more studiously, there’s actually a lot to say about The Sontaran Stratagem – certainly, far more than I expected going in.

But, equally, yes. It’s weak in a lot of ways. For one thing, the incidental music really stood out quite poorly here; it’s often way too oversignified, hindering the episode rather than augmenting it. One particular moment that stands out is when the Doctor remarks that no one has told Luke Rattigan no in a very long time – David Tennant plays that line brilliantly, but the music blunts it entirely.

In the end, though, I liked it a lot – a lot more than I thought I would – and I’m looking forward to next week quite a bit.

7/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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