By Ross Ruediger
In the comments section for "The Sontaran Stratagem," Joan wondered why at the close of the episode "...no one thought to break the window of the car while Gramps was asphyxiating." And so "The Poison Sky" begins with Donna's mother, Sylvia, doing just that. It's a huge anticlimax for the cliffhanger, but I would argue that the whole point of a cliffhanger is in the hang, not in the resolution in the next episode. Cliffhanger resolutions almost by their very nature are destined to suck, because if our heroes succumbed to the disastrous situations they're left in, there would be no more show. We always want the resolve to be as thrilling as the minutes that preceded it in the narrative, but there's a big difference in the first couple minutes of an episode, and the final moments of another. And there's no point in delivering the best you've got at the start, right?
"ATMOS is running wild! It's all over the planet," someone working for UNIT proclaims. The world governments have declared a state of emergency and everyone is warned to stay away from their cars. The cloned Martha (Freema Agyemen) hacks into the NATO defense system and transmits codes and information to the Sontarans lurking above the planet, who begin preparing an attack squad. Luke Rattigan (Ryan Sampson) is over the moon. The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) head back to the ATMOS factory where he finally gives her a key to the TARDIS and tells her to go there and stay put. The Doctor insists that Colonel Mace (Rupert Holliday Evans) not engage the Sontarans as there's nothing they like more than a war. He then grabs the cloned Martha (who from here on out shall be referred to as Martha 2.0) and heads for the TARDIS, only to find it gone as the Sontarans have teleported it onto their ship with Donna still inside. The Doctor begins noticing quirks in Martha 2.0, such as the lack of concern she has for her family's fate. Rattigan returns to the Academy in an attempt to round up his own troops (his students), only to discover that they find him to be a stark raving loon.
The Doctor contacts the Sontarans and insults Staal (Christopher Ryan), branding him a coward for using poison gas as a weapon. He seems to want to get Staal to reveals his plan, but instead uses the open channel as a means of speaking to Donna in a coded Doctor sorta way. Colonel Mace decides to go ahead with his plan to use nuclear weapons against the aliens, but to no avail. The codes Martha 2.0 has been transmitting keep the launch from happening, but since the weapons would have had no effect on the ship anyway, why, the Doctor ponders, would the Sontarans bother stopping the attack in the first place? Meanwhile, Commander Skorr (Dan Starkey) leads a Sontaran attack on the UNIT troops housed at the ATMOS factory. Their weapons are useless against the alien invaders (due to their bullets being copper lined) and they find themselves knee-deep in their own blood. Skorr laughs, "This isn't war! This is sport!!"
Meanwhile, Rattigan returns to the Sontaran ship to report his failure to secure the services of his students. Staal mocks him and says it's a pity they lost their target practice. He further degrades the boy by telling him his promises were hollow and that Luke was only needed for installing the ATMOS system. Just when the boy seems broken, he teleports himself back down to Earth and lies weeping in the capsule, with the Sontarans locking the teleport pods behind him. The Doctor contacts Donna on the phone in the TARDIS. Donna takes out a Sontaran with a blow to the probic vent, and the Doctor leads her via the cell phone to the place where the teleport pods can be reopened, all while UNIT lodges a counterattack involving the Valiant carrier (from last season's finale) and bullets without copper lining. In the midst of all this, the Doctor also manages to expose Martha 2.0 and rescue the real Martha; it's quite amusing when he tells the clone the big tipoff was that she smelled. In a fairly moving scene (well, by dying clone scene standards, anyway), Martha 2.0 reveals what the Sontarans have been up to all along: They've been trying to create a clone planet, and the gas is actually the base for what will eventually be amniotic fluid. After teleporting Donna and the TARDIS back down to the surface, all three time travelers teleport to the Rattigan Academy, where the Doctor believes he'll find the tech to fight the Sontarans. He is right—he is able to construct an atmospheric converter and proceeds to literally light the sky of the entire planet on fire(!), erasing any and all trace of the Sontaran gas.
Knowing the Sontarans will not accept defeat, the Doctor decides to teleport to their ship with the converter (now recalibrated for Sontaran air) and give them a choice: Leave or die—but he knows that he may have to sacrifice himself. Staal is not only delighted by the Doctor's threat, but he is more than prepared to die. He orders the Doctor to do it, but before any decision can me made, Luke does "something clever" and teleports himself back onto the ship and the Doctor off simultaneously—then he presses the button, and kaboom. In the final moments, Martha is in the TARDIS and she's extended the offer to continue traveling with the Doctor and Donna. She declines, but before she can exit, something happens and the TARDIS takes off by itself, with his old hand bubbling away at the base of the console.
This is easily the best of the early season, two-part action spectacles Doctor Who has yet offered up, but it also suffers from the comparison and the very awareness that it's "the early season two-parter." There's much strength in the overall plot, which hangs together very well despite its breakneck pace—which often times in Doctor Who makes a good coverup for weak storytelling. But even moreso it succeeds due to dozens of little character moments that serve the major plot points. The return of UNIT in full force is well executed (there was even a nice little mention of the Brigadier for long-term fans) and the Sontarans were more clearly drawn than perhaps they've ever been. The Doctor makes much hay throughout the story about his distaste for weapons and war, and while it's the right attitude for the situation, could it also be a precursor to events further down the line? Speaking of foreshadowing, why exactly did the Sontarans need Earth as a breeding planet? Has something happened to their own breeding planet? Did it disappear as other planets have so far in the series? And last but not least, Rose appeared for just a split second on the TARDIS monitor, appearing to scream, "Doctor!"
On a different note, I was recently contacted by Professor Christopher Hansen of Baylor University. (He's been known to occasionally post in the comments sections of the Who recaps here at the House.) Hansen is in charge of the Doctor Who area of the 2008 Film & History Conference, which will be held in Chicago from Oct. 30th—Nov. 2nd. He's actively seeking contributors for that specific area of the conference, and as he mentioned to me, "The House has a pretty literate audience..."
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Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based writer. In addition to contributing to The House Next Door, he also publishes The Rued Morgue and writes for Bullz-Eye.
NEXT WEEK: Meet the Doctor's daughter in... "The Doctor's Daughter."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: Brief mention was made of the Sontaran's arch-enemies, the Rutans, in "The Poison Sky." Find out what a Rutan is in "The Horror of Fang Rock," starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson.