The Doctor, Sarah and Harry teleport to Earth to ensure the planet is safe for the survivors on-board Nerva Beacon to return to Earth and re-inhabit their world.
Only to find a Sontaran named Styre has captured a group of humans and conducting experiments on them to discover the human body’s weaknesses, as part of the Sontaran’s goal for domination of the galaxy…
Tom Baker is the Doctor in The Sontaran Experiment.
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The Doctor – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Harry Sullivan – Ian Marter
Vural – Donald Douglas
Krans – Glyn Jones
Erak – Peter Walshe
Styre and The Marshal – Kevin Lindsay
Roth – Peter Rutherford
Zake – Terry Walsh
Prisoner – Brian Ellis
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Writer: Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Director: Rodney Bennett
Original Broadcast: 22 February – 1 March 1975
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The Sontaran Experiment is a serial with an incredibly basic plot and incredibly basic secondary characters that was written and produced in an effort by Philip Hinchcliffe to stretch Doctor Who’s budget. And it does so very well, serving as a “filler” story between The Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks by presenting a straight-forward adventure with a returning villain and good performances from the TARDIS team, especially from Elisabeth Sladen.
Following the conclusion of The Ark in Space, the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry find themselves on an Earth ready to be repopulated by the survivors from Nerva Beacon. However, they soon find that they’re not alone. A small group of humans in military space gear is hunting them while another of their group is desperately trying to hide from his comrades. A pit trap snares Harry while a floating robot captures Sarah Jane. Brought before its master, Sarah Jane realizes in horror that a deadly foe from the past has returned. The Sontarans are preparing to invade Earth…but not before performing a series of deadly experiments to determine just how much of a threat humans are…
For all the comments about Doctor Who being an incredibly low-budgeted production…well, they’re right. The Sontaran Experiment came about because Philip Hinchcliffe was looking so save a little bit of money. The Ark in Space was originally part of a six-episode block of episodes called The Destructors. When Hinchcliffe came on board, he and Robert Holmes decided to instead split the six episodes into a four-part adventure and a two-part story, the first such two-parter since the First Doctor serial The Rescue. To save even more money, Hinchcliffe set the filming for The Ark in Space to be done entirely in studio and the filming for the two-parter to be done entirely on location, specifically the rocky moorlands of Dartmoor. And to top it all off, an old villain would be dusted off to save from having to design and create a new alien race; the Sontarans, making their return to the series a year after their debut in the Third Doctor story The Time Warrior.
Script writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin had only two weeks to submit the first episode of the story, managing to submit the full serial to Holmes in just under a month and a half. The speed at which The Sontaran Experiment was written shows in its final production. The basic premise – one lone Sontaran running a series of experiments on captured humans as a precursor to a full-blown invasion of Earth – is a bit silly, especially when invading a planet where no one has lived for over 5000 years! And that’s even with a subplot cut out by Holmes about one of the astronauts being mind controlled. The choosing of Dartmoor as a filming site also caused some problems, as the cliffs and bluffs of the moors often meant the crew and actors were stuck in place during breaks, sometimes spending all day on the cliffs with their meals being brought up to them! And the episode’s sole cliffhanger was ruined by its very title, much to the writer’s dismay. While the plot itself it weak, the way it develops is well done, to the point of the viewer possibly being a bit disturbed. The name “Styre” was deliberately picked by Baker and Martin to conjure up images of a merciless Gestapo agent, while the experiments themselves could have come directly from the notebooks of infamous Nazi “scientist” Josef Mengele. The moors of Dartmoor also add to the general sense unease surrounding The Sontaran Experiment; gray, rocky, desolate, but full of washes and crevices to catch the unwary. At only two episodes the story moves fast with very little wasted time, focusing more on what horrible thing is happening on screen and giving the viewer nary a chance to catch their breath.
At first, the manic, grinning Doctor from Robot and The Ark in Space might seem a little out of place in a bleak story involving alien experimentation. While trying to fix the transmat circle and later interacting with the astronauts, Tom Baker puts on the easygoing charm and wide eyed alien nature that was rapidly becoming a vital part of the Fourth Doctor’s character. But when the Doctor discovers that Harry has been hurt and Sarah Jane has been kidnapped, the grinning and the kidding around comes to a halt. The Sontaran Experiment is the first time viewers get to see the serious side of the Doctor. His actions in previous serials still had a hint of the Third Doctor’s swashbuckling nature. The second episode of this story shows a Doctor who still has his comedic moments, but the smile and teasing nature of them is replaced by a deadpan delivery, and his smile is less jester like and more of a cat stalking its prey as he attempts to stop Styre. In the grand scheme of things, The Sontaran Experiment helped to define the “serious” side of Tom Baker’s Doctor. As a note, during the second episode, Tom Baker broke his collarbone during the scene where he discovers an unconscious Sarah Jane and is attacked by Styre. The Doctor’s scarf was used to cover up Baker’s neck brace and sling during shooting. This explains why Baker looked a bit off and pale in some scenes and why there are several shots where you can’t see the Doctor’s face as veteran stuntman Terry Walsh stands in for him. This is especially apparent during the final fight scene where the melee between the Doctor and Styre is mixed with quick cuts to Tom Baker holding a stick.
Halfway through his run, I’m not really seeing Harry Sullivan as anything close to an imbecile. Maybe it’s Ian Marter’s chemistry with Baker and Sladen, or maybe it’s just that Sullivan is a character who means well with his actions. Harry takes a bit of a back seat in this story. He has plenty of on screen time, but never really seems to do anything directly related to the central plot by spending his time stuck in a pit trap (which he manages to climb out of), discovering Sarah has been captured by Styre, tries to help one of Styre’s prisoners who is part of a water deprivation experiment, and almost bashing Styre on the head before the Doctor stops him. Still, Harry’s eager to help, follows the Doctor’s orders, and has a great report with Sarah Jane, showing a bit of growth as he does his best to stop calling her “old girl.”
The same concern I had with Sarah Jane Smith in The Ark in Space continues with The Sontaran Experiment, as Sarah Jane spends a good chunk of the episode either tied up or unconscious. But there’s one thing that Elisabeth Sladen did very well and that was act like she’s scared to death. No companion pulls off “I’m brave but holy crap I’m about to freak the [BLEEP]out” like Sarah Jane could. The scene where Sarah Jane realizes Strye is a Sontaran is one of the acting highlights of Doctor Who’s entire run, from the small “yikes” when she sees him step out of the Sontaran sphere to the end of the scene, where she’s trembling with fear as Styre outlines the experiments he plans to run on her. Sladen’s performance in this scene is so outstanding that after the director yelled “cut” he ran UP the steep hillside to shake her hand, congratulating her all the while. Beyond that, Sarah Jane’s purpose in this episode is to be the damsel in distress, but any concerns over that fate are mitigated by just how powerful her moments of fear are when confronting Styre.
Kevin Lindsay “returns” to the role of the Sontarans, playing Styre, an identical clone (even though the costume and makeup look different) of Linx from The Time Warrior. Lindsay helped to establish the classic-era Sontaran – ruthless, straight-forward, by the book, and always following orders and protocol, a FAR cry from the comedic stylings of Strax in modern-day Who. Styre goes one step further in being incredibly cold blooded, with no sympathy or concern towards any of his experimental subject or towards a frightened Sarah Jane. It’s all about his orders and following them to the letter, which leads to his demise as he insists on finishing his experiments towards the Marshal of the invasion fleet, who is also played by Linsday in a way that channels less “ruthless warlord” and more “Dad waiting for his kid to finish what he’s doing.” Sadly, the heavy Sontaran costume exacerbated Linday’s heart condition, who would die a few months later at the age of fifty-one. The astronautical experimental subjects are nothing to write home about. There’s little change to develop four characters in a two-part serial, so we get a lot of skulking about, threatening with guns, shooting with guns, and being part of a ghastly experiment involving gravity and resistance to pressure of the human rib cage before one of them, and a traitor who helped the Sontaran in return for being promised his freedom (again, as part of an experiment) sacrifices his life to help the Doctor defeat Styre. The neat thing about the astronauts is their accent – Martin and Baker specifically wrote the astronauts to have South African accents, as the writers were interested in “language drift” and how a space colony’s accent might develop over the years.
Cygnia – As a kid, I admit, a lot of the ramifications of this episode went over my head. I wasn’t aware of “The Time Warrior” back then, so I didn’t realize that Sarah Jane knew about Sontarans (or Daleks, but I’m getting ahead of myself and Cobi) beforehand. Which goes to show you just how pivotal she is to the “Doctor Who” mythos.
What didn’t go over my head? The torture and the utter cruelty of it. Given the horror of experimentation on “lesser races” throughout Earth’s own history, I could believe why the Sontarans would be willing to do it. But the mood whiplash of watching this episode now and comparing it to the bumbling idiocy of Strax in current stories struck a chord with me. Sarah Jane would not be amused to see the Doctor palling around with a potato butler given the agony she went through. Just more reasons to nutpunch Moffat.
The other thing that will always stay with me is the climax, with Styre’s head deflating faster than a football at Foxboro. Clearly, this will resort in a ten game penalty from Roger Goodell, whereas all the torture, eh, just make it two games.
Set between two classic serials and running at only 50 minutes, The Sontaran Experiment feels like a bit of a throwaway serial, something only a fan of Tom Baker’s era would enjoy as a quaint little piece. However, a nasty villain causes Baker to bring out the Doctor’s angry determination and Sladen puts on one hell of an acting performance making The Sontaran Experiment a serial that shouldn’t be overlooked.
– A nice scene where a piece of the Nerva shuttle saves the Doctor’s life, leading him to tell Harry never to throw anything away and then failing to find his 500 year old diary in his pockets, leading him to tell Harry to never keeps his pockets cluttered.
DOCTOR: Well, no. I’m a sort of travelling time expert. As you can see, Earth’s been habitable for several thousand years, but they didn’t wake up. Why? Clock stopped. Overslept. So here I am. VURAL: Clock expert? DOCTOR: Horologist, actually. And chronometrist. I just love clocks. Atomic clocks, wall quartz clocks, grandfather clocks…cuckoo clocks?
– I have to mention the Sontaran’s robot, which looked like it was made from a child’s Erector set and then had a car’s radio antennae added to it as mandibles. Filming outside meant the effects crew couldn’t use chroma key to make it hover, so it rolls around and looks a bit silly. The cables it shot out to ensure the astronauts and Sarah Jane looked impressive though.
– Cygnia mentioned it as well – Sontarans apparently deflate when overloaded with enegy…
– The Doctor manages to drive away the Sontaran invasion by bluffing the Marshal. A sign of the Doctor’s guile, or the writers penning their way out of a corner?
Cobi’s Synopsis – The Sontaran Experiment is a short but solid serial, much like its namesake villain, a cold blooded military scientist who brings out the Fourth Doctor’s angry determination.
Next up – The Doctor must fulfill a daunting mission – to change the course of evolution itself… Tom Baker is the Doctor in…Genesis of the Daleks.