Review: Doctor Who The Early Adventures – The Sontarans

SontaransBlurb: The TARDIS arrives on a moon-sized asteroid orbiting two gas giants. With an amazing view, it’s a chance for the Doctor, Steven and Sara to unwind after their recent adventures.

But they quickly find themselves in the midst of battle – on one side: a familiar group of space-suited soldiers – members of the Space Security Service. On the other: strange, squat aliens in body armor.

Surviving the initial hostilities, the Doctor and his friends discover that the SSS squad is on a terrifying mission. With many lives at stake, they have to venture deep inside the asteroid in search of a hideous weapon. But who can they trust in the battle against these Sontarans?

Review: The Sontarans are famous as one of the Doctor’s most notorious foes, occupying a tier just below the Daleks and Cybermen. Yet, when they debuted in The Time Warrior in 1973 the Doctor already knew all about them, strongly hinting that he’d encountered them before in an untelevised adventure. Later, when The Two Doctors aired, the second Doctor recognized the Sontarans as well. His first meeting with this race was a story just waiting to be told, so it’s not a surprise that Big Finish decided to capitalize on this gap with their Early Adventures range. Veteran writer Simon Guerrier was brought in to write the story set during the time that the first Doctor was traveling with Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom. Ken Bentley, who’d utilized this same team to such good effect in The Anachronauts was brought in to direct and the story was released in December of 2016.

The thing that comes off really well in this story is just how powerful a foe the Sontarans really are. Since their debut, characters talk about the Sontarans as a big threat. People comment on their invincibility, but rarely is it seen in action. Usually, some maguffin is found that exploits a hitherto unknown weakness or that can bypass their invulnerability. That doesn’t happen here. The Sontarans in this story are relentless. They have a weakness in the probic vent and that is it. Maneuvering behind them to exploit that weakness is incredibly difficult. They don’t stop. There’s even one breathtaking scene depicted on the cover of the CD where the Sontarans drop hundreds of feet into lava to stay after their quarry. It makes them a far more terrifying and effective menace then they’re usually depicted on TV.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that these Sontarans are interested in psychology. Taking a note from The Sontaran Experiment these Sontarans are interested in humanity for two reasons. First, they want to learn about human weaknesses to find out what they can exploit. Second, they want to learn what advantages humans possess, so that the Sontarans can make themselves more effective warriors. This makes them a bit scarier than something like The Daleks who already see themselves as the ultimate race and therefore need no improvement. The Sontarans learn from those that they fight, but unlike most races they don’t evolve towards diplomacy. Instead, they use the best parts of other races to be more effective killers. This is made all the more chilling in a scene where a Sontaran commander jokes with Steven and reveals that they’ve learned that humor breaks tension and increases combat effectiveness. The harsh, staccato laughter of the Sontaran just highlights how the best parts of humanity can be subverted connecting the listener and Steven in their shared disgust.

Guerrier intended for this story to be the last story with Sara Kingdom and Steven Taylor before Episode 8 of The Daleks Master Plan, placing it after the other four stories that he’d written in the same gap. While it’s not necessary to hear Guerrier’s four Companion Chronicles with this TARDIS team to understand the events of The Sontarans it does allow him to capitalize on the character growth that he’d developed over the course of those stories. In his previous work, Guerrier has transitioned Sara from the jaded and driven character in the first half of The Daleks Master Plan to a much more relaxed and open person. Funny, enough, this mirrors the very abrupt change in her characterization in the TV series. In that case it was because the twelve part The Daleks Master Plan was written by two writers working fairly independently, but Guerrier uses the opportunity that the gap in the TV story presents to explain why Sara acts differently in the later episodes of the serial. Perhaps foreshadowing Sara’s ultimate fate, Guerrier does have a scene that shows how effortlessly she slips back into her old patterns and lifestyle. Teamed up with SSS operatives and fighting against a common enemy, it’s like Sara is in a dance moving back into the old lifestyle with grace and ease, which makes that scene bittersweet for anyone who knows where her storyline is going.

That isn’t to say that Guerrier neglects the other characters. He’s written a lot for Steven as well, and he uses that to good effect with Steven’s characterization. in Guerrier’s hands, Steven’s long confinement on Mechanus becomes more than a detail for a writer to mention. It effects his character and outlook on life, and there’s an interesting scene in which he and the Sontaran commander discuss how they’d approach confinement. Guerrier also plays with the fact that the first Doctor could be a bit darker than many of his later incarnations. The Doctor here can be scared and out of his element, but he also shows why it’s a mistake to treat him lightly when his cunning, pragmatic brilliance comes to the fore.

One other neat element is how the story treats destiny. This story takes place sometime before Sara’s own time, so she knows some of what’s going to happen. There are things that she doesn’t know, but she makes assumptions to fill in the gaps with what she assumes is the most likely scenario. Yet, Papas sees the unknown as hope. The unknown means that her limits aren’t circumscribed by a future destiny. It’s a nice point of view in a dark story to give the ending a feeling that things could get better.

If there’s one negative side to the story it’s that the continuity is a little weak. The amount of ignorance on all sides seems to be overplayed. While it is nice to see that Steven and especially Sara have more knowledge about something than the Doctor for once, it seems unreasonable that by the year 4000 Sara, a security agent, doesn’t know what a race that’s been a threat to humanity since before space travel looks like with their helmets off, especially when they take their helmets off all the time. It also seems strange that the Sontarans are unfamiliar with the concept that members of the military can go to being civilians. It’s not a unique trait in the Doctor Who universe and the Sontarans have been around for at least several thousand years at this point. It also seems a bit much for the Doctor to constantly point out his ignorance about the Sontarans. While it does hammer home that Sara knows more about them than he does it seems odd that the blustery first Doctor would own up to his ignorance so strongly and so often. While none of these are huge issues, it does mar the story a little bit for longtime aficionados of Doctor Who who are very familiar with the mythology.

As usual, Peter Purves gives a fantastic performance. His voice hasn’t aged much since the 60’s, so his Steven still sounds very natural, which helps transport the listener’s imagination back to those early stories. His Doctor seems to be straining a bit, but he still effectively captures the whimsical side of Hartnell in his performance, which makes it fun to listen to. It is a shame that he could do the angry side of Hartnell as some scenes in this story would have been a bit stronger for it. After a few weak performances, Jean Marsh comes out swinging. While her voice has obviously aged, her Sara is much more nuanced here than she’s sounded in her last couple of Big Finish releases. Either this story was recorded earlier than some others that have already been released or Marsh is seeing more recovery after her stroke. Either way, it was certainly welcome to get a much stronger performance out of her this time around. While Ken Bentley’s Early Adventures are usually boring compared to Lisa Bowerman’s, he seems to know how to get the most out of Purves and Marsh as evidenced by this and The Anachronauts. Hopefully, if these two record any further stories Bentley will come back to direct those as well.

It’s almost a cliche at this point that the sounds in a Big Finish story will be good. Of course they are, it’s their media. The Sontarans is no different. There’s a rich soundscape to create the alien world, the fights with the Sontarans, and the mysterious city. What really shines in this one, though, is the music. There’s an eerie quality to the music that’s very reminiscent of the experimental music found in many sixty’s sci-fi series and movies. That’s interlaced really effectively with this relentless beat reminiscent of the unstoppable, militaristic Sontarans. The two pieces mix together throughout the story in different amounts to denote what part of the plot is ascendant. It works really well and it’s really neat to listen to. Thankfully, there’s a music suite on the end of the first disc, so that it’s all available to listen to without all the sounds and dialog getting in the way of that brilliant music.

Recommendation: The strongest Early Adventure yet, The Sontarans not only fills a gap in Doctor Who lore, it’s also a fantastic story in its own right, using the Sontarans far more effectively than just about any other story in the 40 years that they’ve been around. Longstanding fans may have to squint their eyes at the continuity, but that’s more than made up for by the excellent plotting, the great characterization, stellar acting, and fantastic music. I definitely recommend listening to this.

9/10

2016

Audio Drama

Big Finish Productions

Directed by Ken Bentley

Produced by David Richardson

Written by Simon Guerrier

Runtime Approx 120 min.

About Nathan

I was born in 1980 and have lived from one end of the country to the other. Currently I reside in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin with my wife and 2 daughters. I can't remember a point in time when I wasn't watching Star Trek or the Star Wars trilogy but my life was changed forever when I was introduced to Doctor Who in 1985 and that remains my primary fandom. In 1993, the Fox X-Men cartoon introduced me to Marvel comics and having three of my letters printed in various Marvel mags left me a permanent Marvel Zombie as well as QNS (Quite 'Nuff Sayer) as well as a TTB (Titanic True Believer). In later years I also became a big fan of Babylon 5 as well as Japanese animation. These days with my scarce free time I try to maintain my hobbies of swimming, reading any sci-fi or fantasy novels I can get, retro gaming, or researching the history and inspiration for any of my fandoms. I can be found semi-regularly on the podcasts "Shauncastic" and "The Revcast" and have made an occasional contribution to Earth Station Who and the Earth Station one podcast.