Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment
(2 episodes, s12e09-e10, 1975)
Before watching this serial, I read up a little on this short story. The TARDIS wiki entry tells the tale: “Script editor Robert Holmes was not a fan of six-part stories, believing that they were padded, so for season twelve, he decided to have one four-part story and one two-part story.”
After some of the reviews on The Timestamps Project, I can attest to that. I respect him for going out on a limb like that.
This one picks up right after The Ark in Space. The Doctor and his companions teleport down to Earth with only a few hiccups, and the Doctor sets to work on fixing the refractor units. The companions venture off to explore as Harry corrects his demeaning banter with Sarah Jane. For now, anyway. Within no time at all, the Doctor is in the crosshairs of a hunter’s rifle, Harry takes a tumble into a disguised trap, and Sarah Jane goes for help.
One of the hunters is chased by a robot, and falls off a cliff. The Doctor goes to help, and the other hunters mistake the Doctor for the perpetrator and stun him into submission as another human in a spacesuit, Roth, watches from the brush. Sarah Jane returns to the refractors and finds only the sonic screwdriver, so she returns to Harry, but he’s no longer there. In the interim, Harry has fled after being attacked. Roth sneaks up behind Sarah Jane and saves her from the robot, and he explains that the trap was set for the robot, who is an agent for an alien in the rocks that is trapping the human explorers and torturing them.
In a twist on that theme, the Doctor is being interrogated by the explorers. It seems that the Nerva Station has become legendary as a lost colony. These explorers are from another colony, GalSec, and being monitored by the alien. There were nine of them on a military expedition, and they were stranded when the alien destroyed their ship. The explorers are serious about the interrogation, but the Doctor is not, and his overall attitude about it is amusing. He’s freed in short order as Roth stages a diversion and Sarah Jane rushes to the Doctor’s rescue. They head back to the hole trap and investigate, and the Doctor jumps into the hole as the robot arrives. The Robot takes Sarah Jane and Roth to the alien, which Harry has just located, and the reveals himself as a Sontaran.
That explains the title.
Sarah Jane is surprised to see the Sontaran since he look just like the one who died in 13th century England. Sure, Sarah Jane, they both look like a potato in armor, but Linx looked more like an undead zombie potato in armor. This Sontaran, Field Major Styre, reveals that he looks the same – no he doesn’t! – but he is not the same because they are a species of clones bred to fight wars. As Sarah Jane ponders this, Roth tries to escape and Styre kills him.
Back at the hole trap, the Doctor climbs out and into the arms of his previous captors, who are subsequently captured by the robot. The Doctor dives back into the hole and finds the tunnel that Harry used. Speaking of, Harry explores the area around the ship, finds a captive, and tends to him. Keeping the story’s title honest, the Sontaran is experimenting on humanity to determine their limits and weaknesses in preparation for an invasion of Earth. After Styre interrogates Sarah Jane, revealing that she should not exist since she was not among the humans on the planet at the time of the catastrophe, he reports his results to his commanders and begins a fear-based experiment on Sarah Jane. Harry locates Sarah Jane, calls her “old girl” again because the old boy never learns, and tries to free her but cannot. After Harry departs, the Doctor arrives, disables the force field, frees Sarah Jane, and confronts the Sontaran. He tries to escape, but the Sontaran shoots him before returning to his ship to deal with the rest of the human explorers.
Harry returns to the unconscious Sarah Jane and Doctor, and in a fit of anger and determination, he nearly strikes the Sontaran before the Doctor stops him. The Doctor was saved by his own contradictory nature – “Never throw anything away,” but remember that “It’s a mistake to clutter your pockets” – and he devises a plan after disabling the robot and listening in on the invasion plans. The Doctor decides to confront Styre in hand-to-hand combat, which will tire the Sontaran and force him to recharge at the ship, which Harry and Sarah Jane will sabotage. The battle is so-so, but the Doctor’s use of the Sontaran’s pride against him is just awesome. As planned, Styre wears himself out, returns to the ship, and melts away as the ship reverses the recharge sequence. The Doctor solves the Sontaran threat with a bluff, and beams himself and the companions away.
To Robert Holmes’s credit, this was a much tighter story than most. On the downside, it was a little too fast-paced for this era and writing staff, and the storytelling shortcuts were obvious. Despite that, I think it was still a good adventure.
Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”
UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks
The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.
10 thoughts on “Timestamp #77: The Sontaran Experiment”
I like this one, but it has its issues. The Sontarans go to Earth to experiment on humans, which would make sense except that no humans have lived on Earth for at least 5000 years. Thankfully, they just happened to find some colonists going back to explore the old mother planet, but it just seems a bit to coincidental for me.
By the way, one of the reasons why the fight is so late is that Tom Baker broke his collar bone after falling off a ledge while filming this story, so his movements were very limited.
I’ll be interested if your assessment of six-parters holds with the next one.
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