The Sontaran Experiment

'The Sontaran Experiment is an experiment for the show as well as for Field-Major Styre,' reckoned Nick Pegg in DWB No. 93, dated September 1991. 'The first two-parter for over ten years and the first story shot entirely on OB videotape, it comes across in dramatic terms as a series of heavily stylised statements about where the show is headed under the new line-up. Conventions and expectations which had formed the bedrock of the Pertwee years are yanked from beneath the viewer's feet; the emphasis on such standard lines as "characterisation" and "morality" gives way to what looks like an experiment in pure atmosphere. Untrammelled by the need for complex exposition (because the actual plot is so delightfully nonexistent and silly), the story concentrates on generating a series of effects.'

The idea that a Sontaran battle fleet would hold back from invading a totally uninhabited Earth while a lone Field-Major conducts a lengthy assessment of the ability of humans to withstand an attack is indeed a rather silly one. The revelation that groups of human colonists have 'built an empire' since leaving their planet of origin also sits rather uneasily with the scenario presented in The Ark in Space, in which it was suggested that the sleepers aboard Nerva were the only ones to have survived the solar flares that had supposedly devastated the Earth. These awkwardnesses are neatly glossed over, however, and writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin present a highly entertaining story with just the right amount of plot to fill its unusual two episode length.

It is in terms of atmosphere and imagery that The Sontaran Experiment really triumphs. The tension builds nicely during the first episode with the GalSec crew's hints of an alien menace lurking in the rocks and the ominous sound and eventually sight of an imposing robot patrolling the area, all leading up to the cliffhanger introduction of Styre - initially mistaken by Sarah for The Time Warrior's Linx (although the Sontaran actually looks slightly different on this occasion, with a redesigned mask and five fingers instead of only three). Then in the second episode the story takes on a really horrific quality as the sadistic nature of Styre's tests on his human victims becomes fully apparent. The scene in which Harry finds one of the astronauts left chained up to die of thirst is truly shocking, and the subjection of Sarah to a series of terrifying hallucinations is also, as Pegg put it, 'genuinely sinister' - although perhaps the most gruesome test of all, involving an assessement of human resistance to 'immersion in fluid', is thankfully only heard about rather than seen. The climactic fight scene between the Doctor and Styre is also well done, and the simple but quite effective shot of the Sontaran 'deflating' as the energy drains out of him is another enduring image.

Rodney Bennett makes an excellent debut as a Doctor Who director (The Ark in Space, although the first of his stories to be screened, was actually the second to be made) and the astutely chosen and well used Dartmoor location adds much to the story's atmosphere and effectiveness. It is indeed refreshing to have, for once, a story recorded entirely in the open air.

The Sontaran Experiment is a pleasing interlude between the two more substantial stories either side of it, and is memorable in its own right as an exciting and well-crafted adventure.