By Ross Ruediger
"Sontarans are great... I think that's partly because they come from a very specific world. That back story gives them a great context. Robert Holmes didn't just create a race, back in the 1970s: he created a world that they came from. Even if you never saw that planet, you understood why they did what they did."—David Tennant, Doctor Who Magazine #395
I hate to contradict our Time Lord and Savior, but he's ever so slightly off in his close. It's not that we ever understood why the Sontarans did what they did, but rather that Holmes' vision of the race was so clear that we accepted what they did without question—and that was make war (not love). The "why" could make for a good story someday, but at present their reintroduction is plenty.
The Doctor (David Tennant) receives a call from none other than Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), calling him back to Earth. The TARDIS materializes and it's a hilariously awkward reunion, with Donna (Catherine Tate) surprisingly smoothing over any hurt feelings that might remain between the former traveling companions. Donna also notices an engagement ring, and Martha tells of her betrothed—Dr. Thomas Milligan, the pediatrician from last season's finale. As was revealed in the Torchwood episode "Reset," Martha now works for UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce), a military organization dedicated to combating hostile alien life. (They appeared regularly during the Jon Pertwee era, at which time the Doctor was their unpaid scientific advisor.) Martha, along with Col. Mace (Rupert Holliday Evans), detail 52 deaths that all occurred simultaneously across the world—and all connected to ATMOS (Atmospheric Omission System), a navigation system that also reduces carbon dioxide emissions and is installed into every vehicle on the planet. (Shit gets done real fast on Doctor Who's Earth; no doubt the HDTV switchover will go far more smoothly in this fictitious universe.) ATMOS was invented by Luke Rattigan (Ryan Sampson), a child prodigy who runs the Rattigan Academy, a private school for smart kids. But prodigy or not, ATMOS seems perhaps too advanced for Earth technology.
UNIT raids the ATMOS factory and finds little more than zombified workers. Donna, however, clues into the fact that nobody's ever taken sick leave or holiday—these people work nonstop. Something alien is indeed at work. Two UNIT grunts investigate the recesses of the factory, only to discover a hidden room containing a disturbing, gestating creation. A diminutive, armored creature appears, challenges them, and quickly takes them out: their weapons are useless. The "stratagem" of the episode's title may have a bigger meaning, but here it alone helps us understand the Sontaran race. They're all about war, conflict and strategy.
The Doctor takes a visit to the Rattigan Academy, and after ruffling the boy's feathers by correcting his grammar, zones in on something nobody else would recognize, a matter transporter. He uses it to find out what's on the other end—a ship full of Sontarans, and then he immediately zips back to Earth, with General Staal "The Undefeated" (Christopher Ryan) hot on his trail. The Doctor briefly defeats the undefeated with a tennis ball to the probic vent (surely the first time for such a maneuver in a sci-fi program). Meanwhile, Donna catches up with her family, and Martha is kidnapped by two UNIT soldiers now under the control of the Sontarans, only to end up cloned. (Surely I am not the only one who found the dripping wet, naked Freema to be sexy as all hell.)
The Doctor hooks up with Donna once again and takes a closer look at the ATMOS installed in the family car, but a gas is released and Staal, hovering above the planet with the hidden Sontaran fleet, kicks his plans into gear. ATMOS all over the world releases its deadly gases, while the Doctor stands idly by and the episode goes to credits.
"The Sontaran Stratagem" is a killer setup for this type of two-parter, which always grabs a couple pre-midseason slots. It's got great action, character, effects work and design (the shades of purple and green that adorn the episode are beautiful). But what really sells it more than anything else are the Sontarans, who are so wonderfully reintroduced like the Daleks before them with virtually no tweaking or revisionism. Christopher Ryan's (Mike of The Young Ones and Marshall of AbFab) Staal is a perfect and believable alien villain with a devious mission. I would have liked to see a clearer explanation of the fact that the Sontarans are a clone race, even though it's always presented some problems since they clearly don't all look exactly alike. Here, there only real tipoff we get is in their mastery of cloning through Martha.
The reunion of the Doctor and Martha is also a high point, as is her schooling of him about the reasons she works for a military organization like UNIT—her aims are similar to his own agenda during his time with UNIT. The strength of the episode is not in the details, but in the execution of them. It moves fast and entertains from start to finish. As always, a tighter dissection will follow after Part Two.
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: Sci-Fi is taking the Memorial Day weekend off. Tune in on May 30th to see the story's conclusion in "The Poison Sky."
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: There's more Sontaran goodness to be found in "The Two Doctors," starring Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton.