Doctor Who
The Sontaran Experiment

Starring: Tom Baker
RRP: 12.99
Certificate: PG
Available 09 October 2006

Transmitting down from Nerva Beacon, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry find themselves on Earth in the far future, long-since abandoned by the human race. But it soon becomes clear that they are not alone: a shipwrecked crew of Galsec colonists are being hunted own, one by one. What is the creature that lives in the rocks, and what is the purpose of the lethal tests it is conducting? Can the Doctor ensure the safety of the Earth for the future generations of mankind...?

Two-part stories were always something of an oddity in the original Doctor Who series. Nowadays, we are of course accustomed to stories running to an equivalent short length in the form of single 45-minute episodes in the new series, but the original show naturally ran at a much more leisurely pace, and four-parters were generally considered to be a standard in which to tell a good, solid story.

A couple of experimental two-parters were produced in the very early years of the show, and John Nathan-Turner later resurrected the format for a while in the 1980's with mixed results - the problem being that stories running to just half the usual length were often seen as very brief and almost inconsequential entries into the Who canon.

The Sontaran Experiment is odder than most, standing alone as the only two-parter to be produced in the glorious golden age of the 1970's, and it seems to act almost as a short 'interlude', sandwiched as it is between two bona fide classics, The Ark In Space and Genesis Of The Daleks.

Back in 1991, it was simply tacked onto the beginning of the Genesis VHS release, so this solitary arrival on DVD may take a few fans by surprise - we're certainly not used to seeing such brief encounters having to stand on their own merits as a complete release. In fact, this is the first of the BBC's new single-disc Standard Editions for the Doctor Who range.

The double-disc releases of recent times, crammed to the hilt with special features, will henceforth be referred to as Special Editions and will share the schedule with more straightforward releases which will contain simply the episodes and an audio commentary. This may initially seem like a diluting of the Who range but it's actually a welcome move which ensures the release of 'slight' stories such as this, where there's an obvious limitation for special features of any kind, and the cheaper price tag will thankfully reflect the new slimmed-down volumes.

Just to confuse matters though, and to keep you on your toes, this package does include an accompanying 40-minute documentary. This is very probably a one-off treat, and we are warned not to expect these luxuries on future Standard Editions, so The Sontaran Experiment works out as pretty exceptional value for money.

The story itself is a bleak glimpse into a desolated and ravaged Earth of the far future. A group of stranded astronauts find themselves at the mercy of Styre the Sontaran and his ridiculous grappling robot drone, which captures human subjects for Styre to conduct his torturous experiments upon, in admirable forward-thinking preparation for a planned invasion fleet. The Fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry stumble into proceedings and try to save the day, as Styre's lengthy experiments are reaching such pivotal conclusions as "the humans' dependency on fluid is a weakness." You can't help thinking that Styre could have saved himself an awful lot of trouble by simply hiring a book from the library or something.

The whole look and feel of The Sontaran Experiment is distinctly strange for Doctor Who, helped in part by it being the only story in the show's history to be filmed completely on OB Video. If I was being kind, I would venture that this contributes to an unusual and uneasy atmosphere, as we observe the time-travellers exploring a silent, almost deathlike planet Earth, through the harsh glare of videotape. If I was being less generous, I might conclude that the story comes perilously close to looking like a fan-made video production, as a bunch of mates run around the moors in home-made space costumes, being chased by a silly robot thing that somebody's dad helped knock up on a Saturday afternoon, but didn't quite get round to finishing.

This feeling is compounded further when it becomes abundantly clear that the Doctor is not Tom Baker at all in some of the scenes, it's just a bloke dressed up in a curly wig and scarf, and shot from behind. This sadly couldn't be helped as Baker broke his collarbone during filming, and was capable of only very limited movement, but it proves to be very unfortunate for the production, especially considering the climax of the story is an ambitious combat scene between the Doctor and Styre.

Tom Baker himself, or what little we see of him, is clearly still finding his feet as the Doctor. Although this was his third story to be transmitted, it was actually only his second to go into production. But it is a pleasure to watch the growing interplay between this classic but short-lived TARDIS line-up of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, the latter of whom should never have been dropped after a mere five stories, as producer Philip Hinchcliffe will now freely admit.

The story has plenty of nice touches. Styre is definitely a superior-looking Sontaran - it's the last time we would see a member of his race look this good in the television series. His spherical spacecraft and retro yellow computer terminal do look very snazzy indeed, although it's a shame about his rubbish robot. The episode one cliff-hanger is nicely done too with a polite nod to continuity, as Styre removes his helmet for the first time, and a horrified Sarah understandably mistakes him for Linx, the original Sontaran from her debut story The Time Warrior. The conclusion is rather lame, but then the whole story is based around such an absurd premise (why would an entire Sontaran invasion fleet need to await the results of some daft experiments on a handful of stranded humans before 'invading' an otherwise completely desolated planet?) that it barely seems to matter. It's an enjoyable mix of the bleak and the ridiculous, and serves its purpose adequately as an off-kilter stopgap before the following Dalek epic.

An excellent commentary is provided by co-writer Bob Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Philip Hinchcliffe (commenting on his first story as producer). Sadly no Tom this time, although I suppose it could be tricky offering fresh insight into the agony of lying on your back with a broken collarbone.

The documentary Built For War charts the televised history of the Sontarans, from 1974's The Time Warrior through to 1985's The Two Doctors, and it's particularly interesting to compare the extreme differences between the working relationships of the 70's and 80's production teams.

Terrance Dicks, Bob Baker and Elisabeth Sladen speak with great fondness of their memories of the 70's shows, and of the late, great Sontaran creator Robert Holmes, who had created a staggering background to his monstrous creations that, frankly, bordered on the worrying (you don't want to know what they can do with the probic vents on the back of their necks...) Conversely, 80's script editor Eric Saward is clearly disappointed with the Sontarans' final appearance in The Two Doctors, and points the finger squarely at his producer John Nathan-Turner, who seemed more concerned over blagging a chance to film overseas rather than trivialities such as script or direction.

It's a superb documentary, and even features clips from the 1985 Jim'll Fix It special In A Fix With Sontarans, spliced with amusing anecdotes from Colin Baker and a still grumpy Eric Saward. Strangely though, no mention at all of Dreamwatch Media's 1994 video spin-off Shakedown - Return Of The Sontarans. I can see why it's possibly a practical decision to stick to official televised material in these DVD commentaries, and why they may wish to avoid branching out into the prolific, confusing and occasionally murky world of video spin-offs, but Shakedown was pretty special. Written by Terrance Dicks and directed by the brilliant Kevin Davies, it was one of the most popular Doctor Who video spin-offs ever produced, and featured an impressive 90's revamping of the Sontarans - a bit of a shame then that it's completely overlooked here.

The Sontaran Experiment is certainly an odd DVD release then, and maybe not one to put right at the very top of your shopping list, but it's still pretty good value for such a deceptively slim package.

Danny Salter

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