Doctor Who series 4 episode 4 review: The Sontaran Strategem

There was a classic villain of old! UNIT! Martha Jones! And Bernard Cribbins! A better story, and this could have been a cracker...

The opening episode of the new series’ first two-parter proved to be a far more old-style Doctor Who adventure than perhaps we’re used to in the modern era of the show. You can’t help but think that The Sontaran Strategem was, in a few ways, one for the older fans.

Firstly, there’s the small matter of the return of a bona fide Doctor Who classic monster. The Sontarans, the fierce, honourable warriors, were in decent shape here. Those who watched The Young Ones in the early 80s would have had little trouble recognising the dulcet tones of Christopher Ryan behind the make-up (even if they hadn’t picked up their Radio Times in advance), but nonetheless, they felt like proper, classic Who foes (even if you can beat them, it seems, with a handily placed tennis racquet and ball). Their modern brush up seems to have robbed them of a bit of menace, but we’d take them over cute bits of fat dropping off your body, or something like the Slitheen. Can we have a rastan robot next?

Then there was the return of UNIT, now the Unified Intelligence Taskforce, and again, it felt like that was another nod to the long-time fans of the show. It wasn’t too much like the UNIT of old, not least because it seemed to live quite literally in the back of a lorry (Torchwood presumably took the budget off them). And, of course, it sorely missed the presence of the Brigadier. But so be it. Better to have UNIT than not, and we’d be happy to see them explored further as the series go on.

Back to the current era, though, and the other factor of note here was the return to Who of Freema Agyeman as Dr Martha Jones. She popped up on the opening credits crawl, too, which leads us to wonder how long the opening sequence will run for when John Barrowman and Billie Piper pop back later in the series. We, er, bother ourselves about things like that, y’know. Ahem.

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Anyway, Martha’s now on the UNIT staff, and no longer in love with the Doctor, thank heavens. Much was then made of how she was working from the inside, and basically how bleedin’ clever she was. So much so that when two strangers escorted her to a meeting down the end of a long corridor with faltering lights lining it, she never batted an eyelid. Sigh. Has she ever watched any science fiction or horror movie, well, ever…?

It wasn’t the only moment that lacked logic, in an otherwise decent if unspectacular story from Helen Raynor (she who penned the terrible Dalek two-parter Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks, the lowlight of season three). Great though it is to have Bernard Cribbins back in the show (and it really is), and fun though it is to have a bit of dialogue that hints at his legacy in the show, surely it didn’t take Einstein to realise that a brick would break the glass window of a car? Bluntly, if I was stuck in a car with a satnav system pumping gas in my face, and found the door wasn’t working, I’d like to think I’d at least attempt to kick the window out before I smack my hand against it in a dramatic way. It might not win me a BAFTA or anything, but I can live with that.

In all, this was a mixed bag of an episode. The reverence to the Who legacy was much appreciated, and the cloned Martha Jones that popped up is a welcome ingredient for part two of the story (and proved more interesting than the real Martha Jones, as it happens). On the other hand, much of it felt meandering, and the exchanges between Martha, the Doctor and Donna (who was sent home for most of the episode) all felt a bit forced. The satnav control mechanism seems a retread of the Archangel mobile phone network of last year, and there wasn’t much in the way of real momentum or excitement. Hopefully too they’ll do something with the child genius in the following episode, too, because in this one he just seemed to be a plot fix rather than any kind of interesting character.

It does set the scene for next week, though, which looks to be where all the budget has been spent. And if it’s the time where the Sontarans do get to finally kick ass – as it looks like they do – then we’re booking our seat on the sofa now. Just get Bernard to knock that window out, though…?