The Sontaran Experiment

fourth doctor transmat
The Doctor fixes an army of BB-8s.

It’s absolutely typical of Harry.  How anybody in his right mind can fall down a whacking great subsidence like that…

The Fourth Doctor

Synopsis

The Doctor, Sarah and Ian arrive on a desolated Earth and discover some shipwrecked astronauts, who are being experimented on by the Sontarans.  Can the Doctor stop Styre’s experiments?

Review

The Sontaran Experiment could be seen as padding between the weighty Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks, but to do so would be to do it a disservice.  In fact, it demonstrates the economy with which a Doctor Who story can be told, with no need for padding which can be seen in a lot of earlier stories.  It is well directed and the use of film for this entirely on location story shot on Dartmoor, although the Sontaran robot does look particularly wobbly, even for Doctor Who.

I feel a bit like a Morse message: slightly scrambled.

Harry Sullivan

My biggest problem with the story is probably the fact that the Sontarans need to conduct experiments on an uninhabited Earth, and don’t simply invade straight off the bat.  This element of the story really doesn’t work for me, especially if they have a battle fleet ready to invade, I believe that any warrior race championing themselves as the best soldiers in the galaxy would move in straight away and conduct these experiments later.  However, the experiments carried out on Sarah Jane and the GalSec crew are truly horrifying and give the story some of it’s more memorable moments.  The moment where Harry comes across the astronaut left to die of dehydration by Styre is horrifying, and the fear experiment on Sarah is really shocking. On a slight tangent, I like the fact that Sarah recognises that she has met Sontarans before – it’s a nice moment of continuity that Baker and Martin didn’t need to throw in. All in all, despite the leap that the initial premise of the story requires, the story is good and builds up fear in tension in a much shorter running time than other stories in Baker’s predecessors’ eras.  It is perhaps unfortunate that it falls between two stories widely considered to be the best that this era, and in some cases, the show, in general, has to offer.

styre sarah roth

Rodney Bennett’s direction also helps this story and the fact that this story was shot entirely on location in Dartmoor aids this story as it busts through the claustrophobia of entirely studio-based stories.  The story takes full advantage of this location, doubling up as the site of the abandoned London, and certainly helps the story when Harry starts wandering off.  The image of Styre’s head deflating at the end of the story is really startling and is definitely something that will stick with me for a while after watching this story.  The choreography of the fight scene between Styre and the Doctor (whilst obviously not being Tom Baker) is also pretty spectacular.  Bennett’s direction particularly effective in convincing you that this is a futuristic and abandoned Earth and really aids the story.

The cast here is small but pretty fantastic.  Tom Baker is particularly great, especially in the interrogation with the GalSec astronauts and there is a particularly lovely moment where he believes that he has misplaced the sonic screwdriver, only for Sarah to reveal that she picked it up earlier.

What would I do without you?

The Fourth Doctor

The story also separates the TARDIS team up a bit and allows Harry to do something affecting the plot.  It is Harry who discovers the first of Styre’s sadistic experiments on the astronauts and him who attempts to save Sarah from the psychological torture inflicted on her as well.  I have to say I really like Harry, despite his old fashioned nature, and Ian Marter plays the part really well here.  The GalSec astronauts are all well played, especially Vural and Roth, and I find the idea of the South African accents being a demonstration of the evolution of language through time interesting, as championed here by Bob Baker and Dave Martin.

sarah sontaran experiment

Verdict: A good story which demonstrates how easy it is to tell a compelling Doctor Who story over a relatively short duration for the Classic Era.  It does suffer from being in the middle of two absolutely superb stories.  7/10

Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah-Jane Smith), Ian Marter (Harry Sullivan), Donald Douglas (Vural), Glyn Jones (Krans), Peter Walshe (Erak), Kevin Lindsay (Styre and the Marshal), Peter Rutherford (Roth), Terry Walsh (Zake), Brian Ellis (Prisoner)

Writer: Bob Baker and Dave Martin

Director: Rodney Bennett

Parts: 2

Behind the Scenes

  • Whilst this is Tom Baker’s third broadcast story, it was second in the production order.
  • This story is the second to be filmed entirely on location, after Spearhead from Space, and is the first not to feature any studio scenes.  Unlike Spearhead,
  • This is one of ten stories not to feature the TARDIS at all.  Coincidentally, the following story, Genesis of the Daleks also does not feature the TARDIS.
  • During shooting, Tom Baker broke his collarbone.  His scarf was used to cover up the neck brace, and stunt performer Terry Walsh doubled for him in some scenes.
  • Kevin Lindsay returns for the second and final time playing Sontarans.  He played Linx in The Time Warrior but died due to a long-standing heart condition shortly after this.
  • Glyn Jones, who plays Krans, wrote The Space Museum, making him one of five people to write and act in Doctor Who.
  • This is the first two part serial since The Rescue and the last until Black Orchid.

Best Moment

The moment that will stay with me is Styre’s defeat and his head deflating.

Best Quote

Doctor! I thought you were dead.

Not me.  (Holds up a piece of metal) Piece of the synestic locking mechanism from Nerva’s rocket – popped it in my pocket.

Fortuitous.

Foresight.  You never know when these bits and pieces will come in handy.  Never throw anything away Harry.  (Throws it away)  Now, where’s my 500 year diary?  I remember jotting some notes on the Sontarans…It’s a mistake to clutter one’s pockets, Harry.

Harry Sullivan and the Fourth Doctor

Sontaran globe

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