The Sontaran Experiment

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The Sontaran Experiment

Postby John on December 17th, 2009, 4:51 am

Between 1974 and 1989 the average length of a Doctor Who story was four episodes, but this had not always been the case. Stories comprising of six or sometimes seven episodes had been a regular feature of both the Troughton and Pertwee eras, and although the lengthier format often proved challenging for the writers, the budgetary implications were irresistible.
At the beginning of every new season the show would be allocated a set number of episodes with the production team then deciding how many episodes each story would be given. Longer stories meant fewer stories, resulting in each production enjoying a larger percentage of the budget; this cost cutting strategy was widely used by producers Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant and Barry Letts.

The decision to include a two part serial in Tom Bakers first season arose from script editor Robert Holmes own personal dislike of lengthy six part stories, which he felt would inevitably contain a great deal of padding . Holmes decided that the traditional six part adventure would be split into one two part story and a four parter, the latter of which would become The Ark in Space. Ever wary of the shows limited budget, Holmes planned for the two parter to be filmed entirely on location, and that The Ark in Space would be entirely studio bound. Indeed the return of Holmes own creations the Sontaran’s was in itself another cost cutting measure designed solely to capitalise on the existing costume and space craft prop.

The writers chosen to provide scripts for The Sontaran Experiment were Bob Baker and Dave Martin, whose earlier contributions included The Claws of Axos and the shows tenth anniversary adventure The Three Doctors. The totally location nature of the adventure allowed director Rodney Bennett to take advantage of the BBC’s new Outside Broadcast (OB) video tape facilities, instead of the traditional film, this would later prove more convenient when it came to editing. One disadvantage of OB, was that it did not lend itself well to the use of Colour Separation Overlay (CSO), a visual effects process employed extensively throughout the Pertwee era. This would mean that a fully practical prop would have to be constructed for Styre’s robot servant, which had originally been conceived entirely as a CSO effect. Whether or not the CSO option would have been an improvement on the mechanical prop we shall never know, but designer Roger Murray-Leach’s rather disappointing design leaves a lot to be desired, appearing far too fragile and vulnerable to attack be taken seriously, and to be perfectly honest I’m not even certain that it’s inclusion in the story was all that necessary.

It had been Baker and Martin’s intention for filming of The Sontaran Experiment to take place at a location somewhere in the West Country, unfortunately a suitable location could not be found. Ultimately, Holmes decided that filming would take place on Dartmoor in order to take advantage of the bleak landscape and natural rock formations. The totally location nature of this story is undoubtedly one of the strengths of the production. The desolation of an Earth destroyed by solar flares and abandoned for thousands of years is convincingly depicted by the bleak surroundings of the Dartmoor National Park. The beautiful rolling heather coated hills and the rugged rocky outcrops of Hound Tor providing a visually stimulating and unique variety of backdrops for this story. The parks natural gorges were perfect for the sequences of the Doctor and Harry’s spectacular falls into the pit which were expertly and convincingly orchestrated by the shows stuntman Terry Walsh. During filming, Tom Baker slipped on a patch of wet grass, fell and cracked his collar bone. Following a trip to hospital, Baker was able to continue wearing a neck brace, which was cleverly concealed underneath his scarf, though his performance thereafter was heavily restricted, with the climatic fight sequence being performed by Walsh.

In much the same way as 1965’s The Rescue and 1982’s Black Orchid, this experimental two part story is an entertaining piece of science fiction fun, which -- if nothing -- else forms a pleasant interlude between the tense Ark in Space and the epic six part Genesis of the Daleks. Baker and Martin’s straightforward tale of a marooned rescue mission being preyed upon by a ruthless enemy is well structured, with part one establishing the characters predicament, whilst part two reveals the nature of the threat and the stories resolution. The stories title -- which was imposed upon Baker and Martin by Holmes -- spoils their only cliff-hanger and unfortunately lessens the impact of Styre’s entrance. For the most part the resolution to The Sontaran Experiment is handled well, with the Doctor and Styre’s duel culminating in the Sontaran being tricked into destroying himself, unfortunately the manner in which the Doctor dupes the Marshal into calling off a full scale invasion of the solar system is frankly absurd. Is it conceivable that the might of a Sontaran battle fleet would be stopped in its tracks on the words of their own enemy and no evidence?
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Re: The Sontaran Experiment

Postby John on December 17th, 2009, 4:54 am

Despite being transmitted third, The Sontaran Experiment was the second story of season twelve to be recorded, yet the Doctor/companion team of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter were already off to a flying start and had quickly developed a visible on screen rapport. Tom Baker who, despite his relative inexperience in the role looks like he’s been doing it for years, and the combination of the feisty, independent Sarah and the gentlemanly yet slightly bemused Harry compliment each other beautifully, with both characters benefiting from plenty of screen time especially considering the unconventionally short story. Joining the cast in his second outing on Doctor Who was Kevin Lindsay who had previously played the Sontaran Linx in the 1973 Jon Pertwee adventure The Time Warrior. Lindsay reprised his role enthusiastically, clearly enjoying the role and making the character his own despite the difficulty and discomfort of acting in a heavily padded suit and rubber face mask. The actor’s uncomfortable working conditions were further exacerbated by a heart condition, an ailment which tragically, would result in his death just six months later.

Setting aside a few minor glitches, The Sontaran Experiment is a thoroughly enjoyable short story which capitalises on the totally location format of the production. Baker and Martin’s concise script is well paced and exhilarating, whilst director Rodney Bennett uses the versatile scenery of Dartmoor to great effect creating a series of intense and enduring images.

Rating: 4 Tom's out of 5
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Re: The Sontaran Experiment

Postby merlinsseer on December 29th, 2009, 2:38 am

The scenery in this is lovely to look at for about five minutes, after that you find yourself looking for something a little more apocalyptic in nature, some sort of ruins that would help in the idea that this was formerly the large and thriving city of London. The " whacking great subsidence" being suggested as a sewer line is the best we get. Harry gets high points for sticking the landing and the Doctor does the best shout on the way down when they both demonstrate their individual styles for tumbling into it.
I don't see Styre's robot as being useless since the Sontaran is clearly not a very agile creature and the Doctor does mention that he isn't used to earths gravity, so he needs something to help capture his victims.I really can't see the cumbersome Styre sneaking up on or chasing anyone for too long. The biggest problem I have with the robot is that it isn't very "Sontaran " in style. Everything else Styre uses is chunky or heavy in flavor and the robot looks too sleek and shiny to be of Sontaran design. It looks more in line with the weapons that the stranded crewmen use so I'm guessing that it was conceived by the same design artist .
Tom Baker's neck brace wasn't all that well hidden as there is a very noticeable hump on that shoulder and the scene of him digging for the Doctor's 500 year diary show's him keeping that arm as still as possible. I remember the first time i saw this story and it LOOKED like the scarf was being used as a sling . I'm still curious as to what scene was being done when he fell and broke his collar bone (and no i don't know why i want to know-I just do )
In one of the conversations between Styre and his commander it is mentioned that the invasion cannot go forward until Styre send his reports and since Styre was doing his best impersonation of a deflated balloon in the end ...maybe Sontarans are just sticklers for all the facts before they can make a move?
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Re: The Sontaran Experiment

Postby pattie anne on January 2nd, 2010, 10:20 pm

Without Styre's completed report, especially with all the reports leading up to it seeming so positive that they could just walk right in and take over the planet; and then sudden, complete silence from him; I am sure the Marshall would send out at least ONE additional scout ship to investigate. And having done that, the scout would have found Styre dead, his ship destroyed by some very advanced weaponry, and too many unanswered questions to invade at the moment. It is also possible that the Marshall had several planets under scrutiny, (like a car thief going to the next vehicle when the one he was interested in was, locked) so he would just be diverted to one of other 'moore' promising worlds; eventually coming back to earth, at a later TIME, when he had the additional data he felt he needed.
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Re: The Sontaran Experiment

Postby John on February 1st, 2010, 9:42 pm

Sontarans just don't seem like the type of guys that would be disuaded by the mysterious death of one of their number. After all, we're talking about a race of fearless warriors who pulled off the most audacious invasion of all - The Invasion of Time!

Sontarans breed in their millions and live only for war and conquest, they wouldn't have just turned tail and run away, they would more likely have carpet bombed the surface and set up shop anyway.

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Re: The Sontaran Experiment

Postby Malcolm Orr on February 3rd, 2010, 8:42 pm

This would work well with some CGI apocalyptic scenery as mentioned above, even just some establishing shots. Still it's a great story when you want something short and sweet, but still with some involvement.
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Re: The Sontaran Experiment

Postby Sarah on February 25th, 2010, 6:45 pm

OOOh I cracked my collar bone once (someone through a plate at me like a fisbee... long story) so I know how painfull it is. Couldn't even tell !!!

The robot actually really scared me... it was the sound effects mostly, still gives me goosebumps.
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Re: The Sontaran Experiment

Postby tch on March 18th, 2010, 5:12 am

Good episode, though I got to agree that robot was just not scary.
Hard to go wrong with Sontarions.
The part about there being no ruins didn't bother me, ad I just assumed Earth had been pretty much wiped clean by the solar flares and then stuff had re-grown.

Thought it'd be cool if they did other stories with other Doctors landing in different places on earth during this time period and each one crossed paths with a Sontarion scout testing weapons or taking prisoners.
So, we find out there had been a bunch of scouts on Earth and each one had been stopped by a Doctor.

The Target novelization did a nice job of padding out the story.
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