The Sontaran Experiment

Written by:
Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by: Rodney Bennett
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1975
Video Availability (NTSC version only): Try Amazon

"You unspeakable abomination!"

The first time I ever got to see a bit of this story I was watching it with - horror - some Doctor Who fans. A little bored by the perfunctory runaround on the screen, I whispered to the guy sitting next to me that I thought it was a bit, well… rubbish. "This is The Sontaran Experiment," he said, correcting me, "it's a classic story." Now, the weird thing was, he wasn't telling me this as if it was what he personally thought, but as if it was a fact, etched in stone and brought down from Mount Sinai. The way he said it was not just my opinion didn't matter, but even his own didn't count - this WAS a classic Doctor Who story, and his own assessment of it was irrelevant Thankfully this herd mentality of Who fans is very much on the wane these days, but I can still picture this guy, sitting at home and enjoying Revenge of the Cybermen, but telling himself that he shouldn't because it IS a weak story. Fact.

As I get older I find myself drawing more to the fan consensus and admitting that yes, Hinchcliffe WAS great, and yes, Williams could be very sloppy indeed. But Hinchcliffe still had some lame stories, and this is one of them. Two parters are difficult of course. Billy's weren't so bad, and Davison cracked it with the relaxing fun holiday of Black Orchid. Sadly, his era then botched the job by trying to put too much into it for The King's Demons and The Awakening. And this is where The Sontaran Experiment goes wrong. If the story is too lightweight, then what's the point? Yet if it tries to be too large for the small runtime (and here's it's a planned Sontaran invasion of the entire planet, set thousands of years in the future) and it trivialises the work by association. A balancing act, this is never one SE manages to effectively countenance, and falls somewhat short of its grand ideas.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't bad at all - but it's just no great. The large absence of incidental music is a worthwhile experiment, but there's no atmosphere, similar to the proceeding story - was Rodney Bennett the most clinical director of Who? That robot is pathetic, and considering this is only two episodes long, then there's an enormous amount of padding, and seems to involve little more than people falling over cliffs. One thing I will stand up for this story over is the cliffhanger. You always get some clever trousers who goes "she says "Linx" when she sees the Sontaran, but he's clearly different looking and has a different number of fingers." Like if you saw a potato-headed alien you'd really be checking his fingers or noticing that his head is a little different in shape. It could also be a commentary, of course, in that "they all look the same" to Sarah.
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There's a phrase I'll be using in some of my Tom reviews, and have already used in Planet of Evil and The Hand of Fear, which I wrote out of sequence: Pertwee Hand-Me-Downs. They're the stories that still feel as if they could have been made for Jon Pertwee, with moralising, padding and fights and contrivance in place of resolutions. Completing the analogy here, we even get a stunt double for Tom, as he'd infamously broken his collarbone making this one.

This is a pretty dire episode, with the Sontaran mask poor fitting (if Kevin Lindsay had heart problems for a tighter mask, then why didn't they recast?) and the woodenest group of Earth survivors you've ever seen. When the Doctor has a plan, he says "Now Harry, this is what I want you to do-" just before the picture cuts. Scooby Scooby Who!

The Doctor eventually saves the day by blowing up the robot with his screwdriver, having a scrap with Styre and rigging Styre's ship for destruction. The melting of Styre is quite embarrassing to see as it's all so po-faced, while the silly resolution where Tom tells the Sontaran leader that Earth has lots of defences is just risible.
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An innocuous, bog-standard Who adventure that passes the time and offends no one. Only the bizarre fan desire to chalk it up as another Hinchcliffe classic really detracts.
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