2nd Opinion, Take 1 “War of the Sontarans” – A Step Up
Gustaff Behr’s take on the second episode of Series 13.
We’re back with episode two, and boy is this a step-up. Not just from last week, but in general. In fact, this might be one of my favorite Thirteenth Doctor episodes (beaten narrowly by “The Haunting of Villa Diodati”). After over a decade of being nothing more than comic relief, the Sontarans return, and I hope this episode shows future writers just how great these villains are… when written well!
Interesting enough, I found most elements I generally have a problem with in Chibnall scripts to be surprisingly toned down in this episode. For one, there is no countdown timer. The cast is also large, but at the same time feels compact. The pacing isn’t as messy as last week’s. Yaz and Dan are quickly separated from the Doctor. With the latter given his own team, Dan is allowed to show us what he can do after being regulated to Damsel in Distress last week. I did find the inclusion of his parents a little too convenient though. That or Liverpool isn’t nearly as big as I think it is. Yaz is barely in this episode, thankfully. Unfortunately, instead of showing the audience how capable she can be on her own, she is quickly given the Damsel in Distress role instead.
I found General Logan to be rather one note, though I can appreciate a male from the Crimean War dismissing a female dressed as a kindergarten teacher on the topic of military strategy and combat. Logan genuinely comes across as overworked, tired and stressed out, but is clumsily painted by the script as the bad guy. The Doctor’s disgust at him for killing the Sontarans is a nice call-back and maintains 13’s abhorrence towards murder. Too bad there wasn’t a living, sentient TARDIS to destroy, or an airtight room to suffocate in, or a Nazi concentration camp, or even a stasis chamber for her to throw the Sontarans into instead.
Seriously, though, the above is what makes the Sontarans tricky villains to write for. Unlike the Daleks, whom nobody objects to killing, or the Cybermen who no longer have a personality or soul, the Sontarans have intellect and individuality. As a clone race, they just have the same intellect and individuality. The General’s strategy, regardless of what you make of his motives, does align with every past encounter with the Sontarans the Doctor has had. Lynx, Styre, Stike, Varl, Skaak and Stor were all killed either by a fellow enemy, a companion/ally of the Doctor, or the Doctor himself. Narratively speaking, it is extremely difficult to defeat the Sontarans without killing them. Staal in “The Poison Sky” even went that extra mile to taunt the Doctor for his reluctance to go through with his threat of killing the fleet.
Still though, I genuinely loved what Chris Chibnall did with the Sontarans here. He kept the campier aspects of their mythos (Sontar-ha!) but also showcased how strategic and formidable they can be. They use the Flux to hijack history at a key moment in the Doctor’s conflict with discount-Alioth from Loki. I laughed when the Doctor combined her reputation with the Sontarans with her regeneration powers to outsmart Svild. That felt like a very Doctor-y stratagem.
There was also significantly less underlined exposition tossed our way this week, but I am going to assume that it’s because the Script Editor finally got a raise. Not that there weren’t a few some slip-ups:
Yaz, standing on a battlefield—
“Looks like we’re in the middle of a battlefield.”
Brilliant observation, Yaz! What gave it away? The uniforms, or the corpses?
From the guy who likes giving tours on history and culture—
“And those Sontarans…they’re not part of history?”
I don’t know, Dan. What did you learn in history class?
From a veteran companion of the Doctor, who has had numerous off-screen adventures—
“Is history being rewritten?”
Exposition disguised as an unanswered question is still exposition disguised as an unanswered question.
To all the blind viewers at home who cannot see what is happening—
“You’re falling through space and time.”
We see in the next scene that the Doctor is correct, so why even tell the audience?
And because Yaz doesn’t have someone to exposit to just yet—
“I need a universal GPS. Then I’d know where I was whenever this happens. Cos it does keep happening.”
Not only do watchers at home know what a GPS is Yaz, but we also see how often this happens to you.
What else is there to talk about? Ooh right, the visuals!
They looked stunning. As did the costumes. The music feels the same as always, with nothing standing out, but Swarm and Azure intrigue me. They come across as hyper competent. Their teleport spam did a terrific job of showcasing just how much they are holding back. It’s too early to judge Planet Time, though the look and feel of the area put me in the mind of an Indiana Jones movie.
The highlight moments are probably when the Doctor rushes back to the TARDIS and does a complete 360 only to find that there is no door. It’s a haunting thought to think you are so locked out of your home that even snapping your fingers don’t help.
Oh and Skaak’s reason for invading Earth: Equestrianism!