Thursday 30 January 2014

Strax, and the fall of Sontar?

The First Sontarans

It's been a while since I did a little rant/opinion piece for the blog that wasn't a review, so I think another one is long overdue. And naturally once again its going to be Doctor Who related, though this time there won't be any Daleks involved (at least, there shouldn't be unless I end up rambling). The subject of this rant is the Sontarans, the militaristic clone race and arguably currently the most popular classic Doctor Who monster now after the Daleks and Cybermen. Well, in terms of onscreen appearances they certainly come third...

Inspired by a recent listen of Big Finish's "Lost Stories" audio The First Sontarans (which I urge everyone to check out, along with Big Finish's entire Who range in general), I've recently been thinking about the Sontarans' place in Doctor Who and whether their recent onscreen appearances have taken away the edge of what should otherwise be a pretty fearsome monster.

Visually, there's not a whole lot that's actually threatening about the Sontarans. They are what people usually point out about them - short, stout near-identical potato men. But their background and origin is what make them so fascinating as a species. Bred entirely for war, the Sontarans have been deadlocked in a war with their archenemy the Rutans for millennia. While the wreak a path of destruction wherever they go, they aren't quite as single-minded as the Daleks (yep - it really is impossible for me to go a post without mentioning them). While the Daleks destroy everything because they believe it is inferior, the Sontarans only ever conquer for "tactical advantage" or various other military reasons. They may be cold blooded killers, but they also have a sense of honour and belief death on the battlefield in the name of their cause is the best death they could ever ask for. Though I think The First Sontarans revealed their origins to be a bit similar to that of the Daleks (although, I suppose all "creations turning on their creator" stories end up going that way), I do find their mindset and dedication to be an interesting source of conflict in the show.

Sontaran appearances in the classic series were interesting as, despite being military race that bred armies of millions, three out of their four appearances actually only featured one or two. Their first appearance in 1973's The Time Warrior featured Linx, while their subsequent appearance in 1975 featured Field Major Styre (alongside a higher-up who appearance on a monitor). It wasn't until The Invasion of Time in 1978 that we saw an army of Sontarans grace television screens. When they made their final appearance in The Two Doctors (1985), the count was a mere two.

But even when there was only one or two of them (especially in Linx and Styre's case), the Sontarans were able to make their presence known and act as a credible threat. Not only were they incredibly strong, but as master tacticians they could at least come across as somewhat of an intellectual challenge to the Doctor. The absence of multiple Sontarans onscreen and their war with the Rutans also left a lot to the imagination - if we could see how strong one was, imagine what millions would be capable of! Another thing I really liked about them was despite their numbers, strength, intelligence and resourcefulness, the Sontarans featured such a simple weakness - the probic vent at the back of the next. Of course, their own arrogance stopped them from ever actually doing anything about it.

The Sontarans as they reappeared in 2008

Fast forward to 2008, and the Sontarans finally make their return to Doctor Who in the fourth season episodes, The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. Their look was largely unchanged, however the black fabric uniforms and silver helmets were replaced with more robust, blue body armour. While I do kind of miss the black uniforms, I immediately thought that the armour was much more fitting of a race that was constantly at war and so never really had any qualms with it. These episodes feature the biggest exposure to numerous Sontarans, as they came into The Invasion of Time quite late and even then Commander Stor got most of the attention. Character-wise they were very faithful to their classic counterparts, military-minded and thirsty for the glory of war. However even then these episodes feature a few signs that the Sontarans were perhaps about to be taken less seriously.

Jokes at the expense of the Sontarans' appearance felt much more prevalent, and although these were often met with scenes of Sontarans kicking ass the point often felt unnecessarily forced. Then there was "Sontar-Ha!", a war chant that the Sontaran troopers began reciting over and over at the end of the first episode. While again I appreciate the thought of adding a little bit of culture to their war-mongering, the end result felt a little bit silly. It was less Sontarans psyching themselves up for war and more like they were gleefully about to partake in a rugby match. I really need to give the episodes a rewatch, but as far as Sontaran stories go I thought they were pretty good other than that.

Strax vs. the Moon

While the race have never really made a proper appearance as antagonists again, their presence has still been felt through cameo appearances and, more importantly, Strax. Since anyone reading this is most likely a Doctor Who fan I don't feel Strax needs any introduction, but while I adore him as a character I can't help feel that his effects on the Sontarans as a whole have been anything but positive. Since his first appearance in A Good Man Goes to War he's been played up for nothing but laughs - whether its his ability to produce breast milk, his incapability of differentiating gender or his general gun-toting nature. Since then its seemed every Sontaran appearance has been primarily for laughs, even if the cinema-etiquette clip that accompanied screenings of The Day of the Doctor was nothing short of brilliance. The sequence that really hammered this home for me was their cameo in The Time of the Doctor, where two Sontarans have a humorous exchange before getting themselves blown up. As "one of the deadliest races" that had assembled on Trenzalore, why was it them that were treated with the least dignity?

If I am to look at this fairly I should acknowledge that not all Sontarans in the classic series were great villains. Stike and Varl in The Two Doctors were awful, and felt more like a bumbling comedy double act than a credible threat. However their incompetence was just something that ended up that way in the narrative, and not something intentionally done for laughs.

Wow...this has ended up being a lot longer than I originally expected it to be. So to conclude, will the Sontarans ever be a credible threat in Doctor Who again? With Strax set to reappear in season eight its hard to say, but if they are ever going to appear as antagonists again that writer really has their work cut out for them. As a fan of the Sontarans of old I'm certainly hopeful, but maybe I might have to stick to the audio adventures from now on to get my ruthless Sontarans fix...

1 comment:

liminalD said...

Couldn't agree more.

I love Strax, Jenny and Vastra, they're probably my favourite innovation Moffat has introduced in his time running the show. Strax, particularaly, has become a real fan-favourite - Dan Starkey does a fantastic job with the character. And that's exactly what's so great about Strax and Vastra - they're actual CHARACTERS. In a show where all too often alien races are treated as monolithic, homogenous groups that threaten humanity, it's so refreshing to have a counterpoint, showing us their lighter side, and the diversity within those groups.

But the Sontarans and Cybermen, particularly, have really suffered from being made the butt of all the jokes and not having strong stories of their own. I really do think the Sontarans have the potential to be great Big Bads... the production team needs to ditch the bloody Daleks for a couple of years and give us an arc where the Sontarans are behind everything, and the same for the Cybermen - take them seriously (Don't get me wrong, I love the Daleks, but they're suffering from overuse). Back in series 6, I was really hoping the Sontarans would turn out to be behind the Flesh-Amy deception, because the white goo looked so much liek the gunk the clone Martha was made of back in series 4. But it wasn't to be.

Let's have Strax encounter his people, and see their reaction to how he has changed as a result of being around Vastra, Jenny, the Doctor and Clara. Now that he's become so adored by viewers, the writers could do something really traumatic with him, like have his people mercilessly hit the factory reset on him, or something, seeing him as aberrant and either disposable or in need of 'fixing'. The moment in 'Name of the Doctor' when he turned on Vastra was really dramatic - they need to do something big like that with him to restore the Sontarans as actual threats. And doing it that way would make it less an issue of 'race' than one of culture, which is far less problematic.

Anyway, that's probably enough from me, but yeah, totally agree :)