Review By Lee Mansfield, 4 out of 5

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

Series Four of Doctor Who continues to conjure memories of the Classic Series as this thrilling first double episode adventure rattles the nations TV screens with the thunder of battlez/p>

For those old enough to remember spangles, chopper bikes and bright orange space hoppers there is no doubt whatsoever that Helen Raynor? ?he Sontaran Stratagem?and ?he Poison Sky?place us once again in the reassuring presence of the same man – the very same Time Lord who was once Jon Pertwee – frilly shirts, glittering bouffant hair, fiery quick temper and all, who out of necessity made a Faustian pact to work for the Brigadier and his loveable Dad? Army-like alien military entourage known as UNIT (?up of tea Jo??.

I grew up with Jon Pertwee as my first Doctor so I have ridiculously fond memories of being scared witless by relentless alien hordes attempting to invade Surrey by any means possible be it plastic dummies, lethal artificial daffodils, giant maggots, nuclear power stations, homicidal Morris Dancers or err?he chanting of a Buddhist mantra that summoned Giant Spiders in a dank dark cellar!

This time ?in 2008 ?the space hopper headed Sontarans (except they are brownTot orange) who originally menaced UNIT and the third Doctor in 1973 are cunningly exploiting mankind? concern over exhaust emissions by threading their sinister ATMOS devices into nearly all the world? cars. Aside from neutralising the carbon as promised the devices also come with a killer Sat-Nav that delights in calmly assuring you ?his is your final destination!?as it deadlocks the doors and accelerates you into the river. Robert Holmes would surely have approved of such a macabre method of dispatch.

UNIT are already on the case when the adventure begins ?raiding the ATMOS factory to look for clues ?led by the authoritative and confident Doctor Martha Jones now a high ranking UNIT operative who ?rather worryingly – seems perfectly at home here. Even the Doctor looks quite perturbed when he arrives and Donna apprehensively asks is this what he does; turns his companions into soldiers? A little later in the factory Martha tells the Doctor that she is ?orking from the inside (of UNIT) trying to make things better ?like you would? It is Martha that takes the initiative to call the Doctor and ask for his help (shades of the Brigadier in Terror Of The Zygons) and refreshingly there is no ?itching?or rivalry between Martha and Donna when they meet like there was when Rose met Sarah Jane. Martha comes across as a very authentic character – self assured and mature, happy to have moved on and built a life with her soon to be husband Tom Milligan.

These episodes highlight the Doctor? rather complex attitudes towards all things military. On the one hand the Doctor tells Rose that UNIT are ?ood people?in Aliens Of London and he admires them enough recommend that they employ Martha ?yet he sneers at their salutes to him and makes his irritation clear to Colonel Mace that he is uncomfortable around people with guns. This theme carries on in the following story ?he Doctor? Daughter?where his progeny is actually the super soldier of the future and she sees herself reflected in him despite his refusal to acknowledge any such similarities. The programme is always at its best when dealing with these moral ambiguities ?never dodging the complexities involved like so many other genre shows do.

The Sontarans have never been so perfectly realised since their initial debut ?he Time Warrior? Christopher Ryan is pitch perfect as the war mongering General Staal. It is a mesmerising performance, certainly one of the best ?ctor in prosthetics?characterisations the series has ever seen. The dialogue sparkles with both humour and genuine malevolence. The actual masks and make-up are stunning ?as was the horrific ?lone?in its green vat of bubbling liquid in the first episode. The idea of keeping the Sontarans very short like evil trolls from a dark fairy tale, as was originally envisaged, works brilliantly. And what a joy it was for a fanboy such as myself to finally see Sontaran spaceships ?classic circular pods ?shooting through space so perfectly rendered by the magicians at The Mill. It wasn? just the bad guys that had all the CGI flash either ?The UNIT carrier Valiant (first seen in last years finale ?he Sound Of Drums?and ?ast Of The Time Lords? appears out of the poison sky in a genuine punch the air moment!

The guest cast were generally all great ?perhaps the two UNIT soldiers who first discover the Sontaran clone could have been slightly more convincing at times ?would trained UNIT troops really react the way they did to an alien threat? Colonel Mace played by Rupert Holliday Evans became a likeable Brigadier-lite foil for the Doctor (Let? hope the Brig gets out of darkest Peru soon!) Ryan Sampson as Luke Rattigan gave a stellar performance as the deranged boy genius ?a loathsome character most of the way through that unexpectedly elicits some genuine sympathy from the audience at the end. Bernard Cribbins and Jacqueline King return as Donna? granddad and mum. Cribbins performance with Catherine Tate is heart wrenching. Scenes with the two of them together are some of the most genuinely moving the new series has yet broadcast. I hope we get to see more of Donna? family as the season progresses and I pray nothing bad happens to them despite Martha? chilling warnings that people get burnt around the Doctor. Special plaudits once again have to go to David Tennant who has become the definitive Doctor for a whole generation, and Catherine Tate as Donna Noble who has certainly won over her critics by now. These two are possibly the strongest leads the show has ever had.

The cliff hanger ending to the first episode was great (although rather too long) and a genuine sense of apocalyptic menace was built up as the Sontarans unleashed their wicked plan to poison the Earth via ATMOS and alter the atmosphere for their own needs. Shots of soldiers walking through dense smog with gas masks were very nightmarish and chilling.

Helen Raynor? script has a comic strip feel ?in a good way ?very much like an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Full of incident, peril and drama but all tied together with a knowing cheeky wink, sharp wit and the lightest of touches. To sum up then, these two episodes are infectious fun, full of zesty larger than life characters, great drama, the highest production values and?ell?NIT soldiers shooting Sontaran troops in a factory ?how much cooler can you get?


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