Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment Review

Following the events of The Ark in Space, The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry teleport down from Space Station Nerva to a far future seemingly deserted Planet Earth (well, Dartmoor). But they are not alone: a crew of Galsec colonists are stranded on the planet, and something is tracking them down…

Different shows have different running times which suit them best. In my recent review of Prime Suspect, I said that the two-part, four-hour (including commercials) format worked best: when the producers experimented with two-hour stories, they were less effective. As for Doctor Who (and I’m referring to Classic or Old Who here, not the new incarnation), it soon settled to a default length of four episodes of around twenty-five minutes each, with some six-parters for variety. That’s not to say that the producers didn’t try other lengths out: in the 1960s, you’ll find a single-parter, two two-parters, a three-parter, not to mention five-parters and seven-parters (three of them in Jon Pertwee’s first season, after which they were abandoned), not to mention single stories running to eight, ten or twelve episodes. Yet there seems something right about four parts for a Classic Who adventure: when done well it allows for sufficient build-up of atmosphere and plot complexity to satisfy and not to outstay its welcome. Over six parts, padding can become noticeable, or the story may split into smaller units. This is true even of some of the best: for example, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is effectively a four and a two. A two-parter, on the other hand, feels slight. It says something about changes in television production styles and audience expectations as to pacing that the direct equivalent (a single forty-five minute episode) has become the default length for New Who, with the occasional two-episode story thrown in.

The Sontaran Experiment came about because a six-part story fell through. Incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe made the decision to split the available resources into a four-part story shot entirely in the studio (The Ark in Space) followed by a two-part story shot entirely on location, namely the present one. Although not “unprecedented” as co-writer Bob Baker claims on the DVD, it was the shortest serial for almost ten years. The two previous examples had been effectively fillers: The Edge of Destruction (included on The Beginning DVD box set) was devised to use up the original thirteen-episode allocation with just the existing cast, while The Rescue (not yet on DVD) was a vehicle to introduce a new companion, Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki, while giving the Doctor a not-very-difficult mystery to solve. And that’s what The Sontaran Experiment comes across as: it’s an enjoyable interlude between two heavyweights, the aforementioned Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks, but little more than that. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin wrote to a tight brief given to them by script editor Robert Holmes: as well as the all-location stipulation they had to reintroduce the Sontarans, an alien race created by Holmes for the Pertwee story The Time Warrior, which had also been Sarah Jane’s introduction.

Elisabeth Sladen's (adlibbed) shout of “Linx!” is part of the cliffhanger to episode one. But this is not The Time Warrior’s Linx we're dealing with, despite being played again by Kevin Lindsay. This time he plays Styre, whose mission is to subject the human body to tests to ascertain its limits. As the Galsec colonists are all male, Sarah Jane’s female form makes for interesting variety… These scenes, mostly in the second episode, are disturbing and do push at the limits of family viewing. One viewer did not like what she saw, and reported the show to Mary Whitehouse and The National Viewers and Listeners’ Association. From that point on, they had the programme in their sights and, two years later won a victory which changed the nature of the programme entirely.

All that was in the future. The Sontaran Experiment marked the producing debut of Philip Hinchcliffe (The Ark in Space was made later but broadcast earlier), and stands at the beginning of one of Doctor Who’s great eras. Tom Baker was rapidly making the role his own, and the chemistry between him and Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane is already obvious. Ian Marter, as Harry Sullivan, has less to do: he’s in the old-fashioned square-jawed heroic mode, brought into the show to handle the rough stuff in case an older actor had taken over as The Doctor. But as the producers had hired a man of forty (the same age as Christopher Eccleston was when he took on the role, incidentally), they made use of him. Harry was surplus to requirements and was written out after a season. Kevin Lindsay is suitably sinister as both Styre and his commanding Marshal: there’s a poignant edge to the role in that he had a heart condition and died a few months after making this serial. The Galsec colonists include long-time stuntman Terry Walsh who gets to double Tom Baker quite a lot in the second half after Baker had fallen and broken his collarbone. Another colonist is played by Glyn Jones, who is unique in the series history: the only person to be credited both as an actor and as a writer (for the Hartnell-era The Space Museum in the latter capacity).

You couldn’t call The Sontaran Experiment one of the greatest serials, but it’s entertaining and certainly not disgraced by the company it keeps in Tom Baker’s first season.

The Sontaran Experiment has a sticker on its case – “Special Value Edition”. 2 Entertain are to increase the release rate of Classic Who on DVD to ten discs or box sets a year. Four of those are to be editions with basic extras only, at a lower RRP. The Sontaran Experiment is the first of these, but even so it has quite a substantial extra included, as is described below. As usual, the DVD is a dual-layered disc encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only.

Instead of the usual 16mm film used for location shooting, The Sontaran Experiment was shot entirely on videotape, using lightweight cameras designed for outside broadcast. Given the short length, the DVD has a high bitrate throughout, and the picture looks very good indeed, even by The Restoration Team’s usual high standards. It’s not reference quality: this is still sub-Standard Definition 1970s video we’re talking about, so it’s a little soft, but it’s still a vibrant and colourful transfer. As you might expect for a television programme of this vintage, the transfer is in the original 4:3 ratio.

The soundtrack, cleaned up by Mark Ayres, is the original mono and it’s a professional job of work by the BBC’s crew, with dialogue, sound effects and Dudley Simpson’s music score well balanced. Subtitles are provided for the feature and extras, but not unfortunately the commentary.

The basic extras on a lower-price do include the usual production subtitles (provided by Martin Wiggins here), a stills gallery (self-navigating, running 4:42) and a commentary. The latter features Elisabeth Sladen, Philip Hinchcliffe and Bob Baker. With half the usual length to cover, it’s a brisk chat with no dead spots. Again the rapport between all three is self-evident and in the fifty minutes they come up with some useful and interesting information.

Apart from these, the main extra is a featurette, “Built for War” (39:50). This runs through the history of the Sontarans and includes a look at their ancient enemy the Rutan, who makes its only appearance in Horror at Fang Rock. Interviewees include Bob Baker and future Doctor Colin Baker, Terrance Dicks, Elisabeth Sladen, future script editors Anthony Read and Eric Saward, future companion Nicola Bryant and long-serving stuntman Stuart Fell.

If all the surviving Classic Who stories are to find a home on DVD in a reasonable length of time, then Special Value Editions like this one are the way to go, with fewer extras (and in this case a shorter story) offset by a lower RRP. On the other hand you get a substantial extra in the form of a featurette, so this is even more so worth your while.

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