Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment (Story 77)
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The Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah Jane, and Harry return from the space station Nerva to Earth 10,000 years in the future. The desolate landscape that once was the site of Piccadilly Circus has become the testing ground for the human race.
One of the more suspenseful stories of the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975's The Sontaran Experiment pits the Time Lord and his companions against a ruthless alien carrying out experiments on the survivors of a decimated Earth. The first Doctor Who serial to be shot entirely on location (in Dartmoor) and solely with video cameras, The Sontaran Experiment picks up where the previous serial, The Ark in Space, left off, with Baker's Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter, who also wrote the serial's novelization) visiting a future Earth abandoned by its inhabitants save for a small band of space colonists who are being hunted by an unseen force and its robot servant. The alien a Sontaran warrior (the race was previously encountered in the Jon Pertwee serial The Time Warrior) is capturing the colonists and subjecting them to horrifying medical and psychological experiments, and the Doctor and friends soon find themselves among its new test subjects. A short (only two episodes) but gripping and effective story, The Sontaran Experiment has received its share of positive and negative reviews from the fan community, but remains an entertaining entry from the Baker years. The single-disc DVD of The Sontaran Experiment offers surprisingly fewer extras than other recent Doctor Who releases; commentary is provided by Sladen, producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and co-writer Bob Baker, while a featurette, "Built for War," traces the history of the Sontarans via interviews with Sladen, Baker, sixth Doctor Colin Baker, writer Terrance Dicks, and others. A brief photo gallery and the by-now standard production notes subtitle option round out the extras. -- Paul Gaita
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Top customer reviews
All these together (along with the video-action-doc filming style and the outdoor setting with ambitious scifi set-prop work which WERE deliberate) make this story as it turned out quite unique. Plusses - Elisabeth Sladen threw even more of her usual energy and authenticity into this episode, and the oversize props (almost mini-sets) the production could afford because it was using no interiors really get a chance to shine. The spherical scout ship, Styre's space-phone, the torture devices ... all better than average for DW in this era. The traveling robot was a potential gem, but the forcibly shortened story cost it a lot of screen time.
Baker also pressed his way through several episodes a few years later with a very badly dog-bitten face (during Mary Tamm's tenure as Romana).
According to the commentary of THE ARK IN SPACE (the preceding story), the original writing actually had both ARK and SONTARAN together as a six episode whole, but as six episode shooting was particularly harsh on actors and production, it was decided to try a two adventure with a four episode-two episode format. So those who own ARK and are interested in complete continuity will likely want to follow up with this one. The acting is phenomenal, including a bad fall where Tom Baker physically breaks his collar bone yet finishes the scene, clutching his arm (one will notice in the remainder of the show has artful shots covering the extreme BBC rarity of a happen stance double taking Baker's place in the action scenes). The short story and disappointing props (even to the production team) in THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT, however, can be passed over by those only interested in true "classics", such as the succeeding, must-buy epic GENESIS OF THE DALEKS (Story 78).
The answer in my case is in the affirmative, I'm afraid. I was enthralled by the brisk, tightly-scripted adventure with all of its tension. I was laughing uncontrollably at the Doctor's classic quirkiness masterfully rendered by Tom Baker--"Never throw anything away, Harry" he tells one of his traveling companions as he tosses an object aside. I was impressed with the acting by the cast, who are able to convey a range of extreme emotions without going over the top. I was appalled by the military experiments being performed by the eponymous Sontaran, Field-Major Styre--these are truly chilling, all the more so for being convincingly authentic, as anyone familiar with Nazi war crimes or the terrible stuff the Japanese Imperial Army's Unit 731 did in Northeast China can attest. Styre himself makes for a great villain, his dismissive arrogance almost as enjoyable as the Doctor's quirkiness; by the end of basically a half hour, you love to hate him so much that watching him get his just desserts is thoroughly satisfying. In short, the show's whole crew really had me going the whole time. It was only after the story was over that cool reflection set in and it struck me: why are the Sontarans trying to "invade" an abandoned planet?! The whole premise of the plot is bogus, but I was taken in by the hocus-pocus, so hats off to the folks responsible for this little gem.