Warning: This review post contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen War of the Sontarans, please leave now and return once you’ve watched it.
The Doctor has an unexpected encounter with one of her deadliest enemies when the Sontarans become a new faction in the Crimean War. As the British army goes into pitched battle with the warlike aliens, the Doctor and her companions seek the help of renowned nurse Mary Seacole (Sara Powell), while an ancient temple hides mysterious secrets.
I’m going to say this from the beginning – War of the Sontarans might just be my favourite Sontaran story in the show’s history. Now, that’s not really saying much as there are a couple of duds in there, but I think that this is a really well-executed second part to this serialised series and it is keeping me intrigued in the ongoing storyline as well.
This story has a lot to live up to and keep a lot of things up in the air, and it manages most of them very well. The focus is squarely on the Sontarans, but we do get check-ins on most of the other balls in the air – everything about from the mysterious Claire after her run-in with the Weeping Angel at her doorstep, and the briefest mentions of Diane. Reminders like the brief appearance of Steve Oram’s Joseph Williamson are certainly keeping me intrigued in the ongoing narrative, as this is probably the element we know the least about at the moment. I’m assuming that we are going to get a monster of the week, in this case the Sontarans, with elements of the ongoing story around Swarm and Azure, and we presumably will not see the other foe again, but this is just blind conjecture. After watching this, it feels bizarre that the show seemed so continuity averse in Series 11. Here we get mentions of Lynx and the events of The Time Monster referred to, a mention of the Shadow Proclamation and that the Doctor was the President of Gallifrey! This story felt much better paced and had moments in which it was possible to breathe, whilst keeping the audience engaged – I particularly liked how the story revealed the Sontaran occupation of the present day, hinting at a curfew through Dan’s interactions with his neighbours, before the Sontarans appear. It hints at something strange going on, before revealing the glimpse of the ships in the dockyards, over the top of Anfield, which was so proudly presented in the background of The Halloween Apocalypse. This episode is not afraid to be funny sometimes, like the Doctor and Dan’s conversation on their respective Sontaran ships is great, and the scene in the car with Dan’s parents is particularly funny, aided by good performances from Sue Jenkins and Paul Broughton who make their characters feel lived in and their relationship feel real in quite a short space of time. When compared to last week, this takes advantage of its expanded running time to give us moments to catch its breath and feels a lot more coherent on first viewing. It delivers one hell of a cliffhanger – last week’s was good, but this one is great, and I’m hoping for a lot more in the next few weeks. Jamie Magnus Stone’s directions, yet again, helps this story to feel epic and cinematic in places. The sweeping shot of the battlefield as the British army and the Sontarans engage in combat is wonderful and the shot of a Sontaran on horseback is just delightful. It is perhaps testament to how good the direction is in this story that you forget about one of the most intriguing shots of the episode: the black and white shot of the ruined house floating over a pool of water that is one of the first shots of the story.
I accept your offer of a massacre! Your blood shall soak our uniforms, your bodies shall soften our steps.Skaak
This is probably my favourite Sontaran episode in the whole run of the program. Chibnall seems to have balanced the humour and more sinister side of the “potato heads” as the new companion calls them. They are following up their perceived claim to the Earth that Linx established all the way back in the Third Doctor’s era, and they certainly aren’t messing around, plotting to send time ships all the way back to the beginnings of the Earth to establish it as a Sontaran outpost. We get two distinct classes of Sontarans here – the officers, played by Jonathan Watson, and the soldiers, played by old hand Dan Starkey. Both are capable of delivering both the more humorous and serious sides of the war-loving aliens, perhaps best demonstrated by Skaak, played by Watson, telling the Doctor that they came to the Crimean War for various serious military reasons, but also because he wanted to ride a horse. These Sontarans are the most ruthless that I remember seeing on screen, especially when it comes to Dan skulking around in the Docks, and Commander Riskaw ordering the execution of other humans that have been found spying. It certainly is a more serious depiction of the Sontarans than we previously had under Steven Moffat, and some of the moments of humour come more from the Sontaran’s pride rather than their stupidity, like Skaak refusing to declare a retreat but stating that it will be a “strategic withdrawal”. I did have an issue with all the Sontarans taking their rest break at the same time, therefore allowing the Doctor to enact her plan – surely the Sontarans have worked out a rota system by now! We do learn that the Sontarans knew about the Flux, though, and had enough time to devise a plan to benefit them from it, which is interesting. I wonder if some of the other returning foes might also know more than the Doctor about it too…
They were retreating! It was done!
That was for the men I’ve lost today.
For your guilt, you mean. Sometimes men like you make me wonder why I bother with humanity.The Thirteenth Doctor and Logan
The story keeps the Doctor, Yaz and Dan separate for the majority of its run time, which is something that I don’t feel has happened too much in the Thirteenth Doctor’s era so far – I can only really think of Spyfall, Part Two where this has happened before, but I’m happy to be corrected if I’m wrong. It’s something I wish we have had more often, as it allows us to see the Doctor interacting with other people, making new relationships and allows Whittaker to really shine. It also benefits the companions, and allows us to appreciate them as individuals and how travelling with the Doctor has changed them. I have always liked her Doctor but I truly think that this is one of her best performances in the role to date, especially in her scene with Skaak on the battlefield. The Doctor is partnered up with Mary Seacole and Lieutenant-General Logan, commander of the British forces that we encounter here, with Seacole almost stepping into the still warm shoes of Yaz and Dan and being useful to the Doctor in a different way. She is sidelined for a little bit of the narrative but is a useful ally for the Doctor to have, especially when you consider the alternative, the duplicitous Logan. Both are well played by Sara Powell and Gerald Kyd, and Kyd is wonderfully slimy, devoted to his country but obviously feels threatened by the Doctor trying to take control of the situation. Whilst the Doctor warns him of the danger of fighting Sontarans, he is loathed to listen to her, even after her lesson on the Sontarans towards the end, which was another moment I found funny, with the Doctor failing to provide references her audience would understand. Logan doublecrosses the Doctor, leading to a moment that is possibly the angriest we’ve seen this Doctor, whilst also reminding me of the Tenth Doctor’s outrage in The Christmas Invasion.
I heard one of the chief potato heads talking about Tempura Command. Tempura Offensive. What’s that all about?
Could it…? Could it have been Temporal Command? Temporal as in time.
Oh. Yeah. That makes more sense.Dan and the Thirteenth Doctor
It benefits Dan as well as it allows him to prove his companion credentials, after we got shown what an all-around good guy he is last time out. Dan is shown to be the perfect companion, not afraid of rushing into danger as shown at the Docks and onboard a Sontaran ship, filming everything on his phone as he goes., allowing him to showcase his initiative. Having not really seen much of John Bishop, I am surprised at how affable he is and he has certainly brought this attribute to the character of Dan. Perhaps he feels like more of a staple because he has already travelled in the TARDIS before he gets the formal offer from the Doctor to come with her, but I still enjoyed this brief and quieter moment before things went crazy again. I still really like the dynamic between Karvanista and Dan, with the Lupari completely unenamoured with the human he has been species-bonded with, and Dan doesn’t seem happy with it either. These two are great in their scenes together, with Dan’s cheerfulness obviously rubbing the more cynical Lupari up the wrong way. It’s a brief appearance from this member of the Division, but with the Doctor promising him that she will be back to get her answers, I’m sure we’ll be seeing him again soon.
Yaz is out of the Sontaran narrative, which works in Dan’s favour – like I said above, he gets a chance to prove his companion credentials to both the Doctor and the audience without having to rely on her experience – but I think it works to hers as well. Yaz is walking around with ‘WWTDD’ (What would the Doctor do?) written on her hand, which she seems to have interpreted as walking around and talking early on after their swift separation, but here she is also given a companion of her own in the shape of Vinder, who certainly seems as though he would like to shoot first and ask questions later. We didn’t learn much about Vinder last week, and that’s still the case here, although Swarm does mention that he is “shamed, disgraced and rejected” and presumably we will learn more about him in later episodes. Gill is good in her scenes here, even if Yaz is a bit out of her depth when confronted with attempting the fix the Mouri interfaces in the Temple of Atropos. Her section of the story is certainly the one driving the series arc, which means that she is the first of the TARDIS team to come face-to-face with Swarm, Azure and the mysterious Passenger who accompanies them – I wasn’t sure if he was an ally or a prisoner. Swarm and Azure come across as chewing the scenery at times here, but in the best possible way, and still maintain a lot of their menace. They certainly seem to be a very good new monsters, helped by their ability to atomise things at at a touch cemented by the threat that Swarm poses to Yaz in the story’s closing moments. It feels like the companions have rarely been in serious peril in this era, so I was really happy to see this return here
I’m really interested by the planet Time and the Mouri, and as Time is described as being evil wonder if this could potentially be the origin point of the mysterious Flux? The problem with having a planet called Time is that it means a lot of things are ambiguous as to whether they mean the concept and flow or the planet. But I’m suitably intrigued and can’t wait to find out more.
Verdict: War of the Sontarans is a great story, giving us a story that could potentially standalone, whilst furthering the ongoing storyline. I feel like we’re going to have start getting more answers soon, but I’m really enjoying this series so far. 9/10
Cast: Jodie Whittaker (The Doctor), Mandip Gill (Yasmin Khan), John Bishop (Dan Lewis), Sam Spruell (Swarm), Jonathan Watson (Skaak/Sontaran Commander Riskaw), Sara Powell (Mary Seacole), Jacob Anderson (Vinder), Sue Jenkins (Eileen), Paul Broughton (Neville), Steve Oram (Joseph Williamson), Gerald Kyd (Gen Logan), Dan Starkey (Svild), Rochenda Sandall (Azure), Craig Els (Karvanista), Jonny Mathers (Passenger) & Nigel Richard Lambert (Priest Triangle).
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Jamie Magnus Stone
Broadcast Date: 7 November 2021
Behind the Scenes
- This is the first story to feature a Sontaran army since The Poison Sky in 2008.
- Dan Starkey is best known for playing the Sontaran Commander Strax starting in A Good Man Goes To War. He has played various Sontarans since their return to the revived series in The Sontaran Stratagem, both on television and for Big Finish, and co-wrote Terror of the Sontarans with John Dorney.
- Sara Powell has appeared in a number of Big Finish audio plays, including The World Traders, Vanguard and The Dalek Occupation of Winter.
- Gerald Kyd also appeared in 1963: The Assassination Games and Aquitaine.
- Nigel Lambert previously appeared as Hardin in The Leisure Hive and has appeared a number of Big Finish audio plays, including The Four Doctors, The Cannibalists and Thin Ice.
There are a lot in this story, but I did really enjoy the confrontation between the Doctor and Skaak, surrounded by mist.
See? They’re doing the basics and you’re already on the back foot. You will lose every man if you face them in the battlefield tomorrow. You need my help.
I have Queen and County on my side. That is all the help I need.
Is she here with you, then, the Queen?
Then her influence may be limited.The Thirteenth Doctor and Lieutenant-General Logan
An honourable mention of this, though:
We’ve got to get rid of them.
That’s what I said.
That’s what I said! You said they’d be off after the weekend!
I never did.Dan, Neville and Eileen.
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