I was expecting to find the Helen Raynor double bill of "The Sontaran Stratagem" and "The Poison Sky" to be the low point of Series 4. I found the stories she penned in Series 3, the double of "Daleks in Manhattan" and "Evolution of the Daleks" the low point of that series and perhaps my least favourite episodes overall since the revival in 2005. I was very pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find her stories in this series an awful lot better. A lot better. Still not up to the standards of the first three episodes of this series, all of which rated 4 TARDIS groans or more for me, but still thoroughly enjoyable.
These episodes had a "Classic Who" feel about them, the return of UNIT, the return of the Sontarans, marching down corridors, absurd plots about cloning and the like, combined with a lot of what characterizes typical new Who, modern day technology (this time sat-nav) co-opted for evil by aliens, a school with strange goings-on, clips of BBC News 24, and lots of welcome companion family back-story. I am still loving watching Catherine Tate as Donna; Jacqueline King as her mother is already becoming a rival to Rose's mum Jacky, and Bernard Cribbins is wonderful as Wilf. (And it now seems pretty clear that he is not the same character that he played in 1966. Perhaps it's his cousin, just like Freema Agyeman played her own cousin before becoming Martha). I enjoyed all the classic Who references, especially to the Brigadier in the second of the two episodes (but why is he "stranded in Peru"? He has not retired there -- he is stranded. A tease?). I could have coped with even more; I was longing for them to unveil Bessie, kept in pristine condition all these years. If Columbo can still be driving that clapped out Peugeot, why can't the doctor get Bessie back? And there would be no danger of it having the ATMOS system installed.
I am enjoying the fact that there are also references to older new-Who, that the revival is old enough for it to be self-referencing, as when they are donning gas masks and the doctor says, "Are you my mummy?" To me, that two-parter from the first series in 2005 seems recent, but to kids now 10, they were 7 when they saw that -- it already seems like a long time ago to them.
My favourite review this week is from Behind the Sofa. Paul Kirkley's Sex Lives of the Potato Men gets "The Sontaran Stratagem" exactly right; here's a quotation:
. . . much of what we’ve seen in series four so far wouldn’t have felt that out of place among the Doctor Who of 1970 (or, indeed, 1988). Except with one, crucial difference: It’s really, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny.And since this one was a two-parter, I'll allow myself a reference to my favourite review of "The Poison Sky", by Neil, also on Behind the Sofa, The Fog of War,
The Pertwee era’s idea of comedy was having a local yokel scratching his head and resolving to stay off the booze in a Mummerset accent. Today, we have non-exploding jeeps, comic monologues about petrol station pork pies and Catherine Tate calling the Doctor a prawn. This, I hope you’ll agree, is what we call Progress.
Has Doctor Who ever been this much fun before? Seriously? UNIT getting its arse kicked by Sontarans. The Sontarans getting its arse kicked by UNIT. The Doctor kicking everyone's arse. Does it really get any better than that? This was far more thrilling than watching emotionless Cybermen and Daleks bitch-slapping each other, and the direction and music conspired get my juices flowing even more than Iron Man did (and I loved that too!). Even during a second viewing, when I was more than prepared to critically savage it in the cold light of day, I still found myself being caught up in the drama of it all. So many great moments: Colonel Mace finally growing some balls, the victorious return of the Valiant, Bernard Cribbens sending his granddaughter on an adventure of a lifetime. For once, I could actually buy into the Doctor's ebullient cry of "Bwrilliant!!'Favourite moments? Lots from "The Sontaran Stratagem", but this is one of several laugh out loud moments, the doctor saying goodbye (prematurely) to Donna:
And from "The Poison Sky", well, I missed it first time round (my parents were here and I was up and down with food and wine), but the reappearance of Rose, on the TARDIS console, is naturally the most talked about moment:
I am very much enjoying the way that the return of Rose is beginning to develop. I have to admit that if anything, though, my favourite moment on Saturday was the preview for the next episode, which looks like it could be a cracker.
I rate this two-parter at three and a half TARDIS groans. Not the best by a long way, but more than passable, and surprisingly so.
So my series ratings so far (contrast Loren Rosson's more curmudgeonly ratings):
Partners in Crime: 4 1/2 TARDIS groans
Fires of Pompeii: 4 TARDIS groans
Planet of the Ood: 5 TARDIS groans.
The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky: 3 1/2 TARDIS groans.