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Doctor Who: Flux – Chapter Two: War of the Sontarans (Review)

“I have Queen and Country on my side. That is all that I need.”

“She here with you right now, the Queen?”

War of the Sontarans is a basically functional episode of Doctor Who, even if it feels like a rough draft of a more interesting premise that moves quickly enough to dance over the more obvious cracks.

In some ways, War of the Sontarans feels very much like a proof of concept for Doctor Who: Flux, a demonstration of how exactly Chibnall is going to turn that frantic season-opener into a sustainable six-episode miniseries. War of the Sontarans settles down, severely trimming down the number of plot threads in play at the end of The Halloween Apocalypse. Diane and Claire are nowhere to be found. The Weeping Angels are entirely absent. Joseph Williamson only makes a minor appearance, serving primarily to remind audience members that he still exists.

“Queuing for petrol,
Queuing for petrol.
Queuing for petrol.
And I’m on a horse.”

So War of the Sontarans feels very much like a conventional episode of Doctor Who, albeit with considerably more plot crammed into comparatively less space, and with a secondary subplot that more directly ties into the larger arc. It’s not the most elegant way of structuring an event story like this, but it is a more workable model for six weeks of Doctor Who. This is an episode of television that will be easy enough for casual audience members to follow, even if they haven’t seen The Halloween Apocalypse. Indeed, it’s possible to argue that this is easier to follow than The Halloween Apocalypse.

For all the plot and narrative hijinks at work in War of the Sontarans, the episode is remarkably straightforward. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. War of the Sontarans touches on a variety of interesting ideas, but never lingering on any of them or pushing them too far into their more compelling implications.

Sontaring into battle.

The most obvious thing to talk about with War of the Sontarans is the return of the Sontarans. It is right there in the title. This is both interesting and slightly frustrating. After all, the Sontarans have never really been that big a deal in terms of Doctor Who continuity. It is revealing that the Sontarans were the aliens that got the big toyetic return treatment from Russell T. Davies in his final season as showrunner, after the return of the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master. More pointedly, the Sontarans were the only one of those big nostalgic returning aliens not to appear in the big season finale event story.

It’s interesting that Chibnall’s first instinct with Flux was to essentially do a big event story built around the return of the Sontarans. Like a lot of Chibnall’s Doctor Who nostalgia, War of the Sontarans is very eager for the Sontarans to be taken “seriously” as part of the show’s iconography. The make-up redesign is more detailed than smoother design introduced in The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky, showing more bumps and more veins, in what feels like the nineties comics trend of crosshatching for detail. The Sontaran armour goes from goofy styrofoam blue to cool metalic grey.

To be clear, War of the Sontarans does retain a lot of the humour around the characters. The episode does treat its antagonists as a source of jokes and derision. However, it is also very insistent that the Sontarans are to be treated as a credible threat. They conquer the planet entirely off-screen. They launch a beachhead into human history. They massacre the British. Even the attention that the episode pays to the way that they lick their lips is designed to make them seem more disturbing to audiences. This is a genuine attempt to build up the Sontarans as a credible threat.

One of the more surreal criticisms of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who will always be that Chibnall is not enough of a fan. It occasionally seems like War of the Sontarans was simply named that way to give the Sontarans their own riff on the classic Genesis of the Daleks and Attack of the Cybermen titles, elevating them to “classic monster” status. It’s very similar to Chibnall’s first Dalek story being titled Resolution, as an in-joke on the classic “[R-word] of the Daleks” titles, like Resurrection of the Daleks, Revelation of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks. Chibnall would make the reference explicit with Revolution of the Daleks.

Renaissance of the Sontarans?

War of the Sontarans includes a surprising amount of continuity with the classic series stories built around the Sontarans. The Doctor identifies herself as “Former President of Gallifrey”, an obvious and direct allusion to The Invasion of Time. Skaak explicitly frames this invasion in reference to “the Great Commander Linx” from The Time Warrior, arguing that the current Sontaran invasion of Earth is an extension of the claim that Lynx struck all those decades ago. “We now assert that claim!”

The Invasion of Time feels very much like an important touchstone here. It feels like a story that is emerging as an unlikely cornerstone of the Chibnall era, a twin to Earthshock. After all, The Invasion of Time was arguably the only classic Doctor Who story that treated the Sontarans as an event unto themselves. The Invasion of Time builds up to the reveal of the Sontarans, with the Doctor dealing with the Vardans for most of the early stretch of the story before revealing the Sontaran involvement. It is similar to how the Cybermen use robots in the first episode of Earthshock to preserve the cliffhanger reveal of a “classic” villain.

The Invasion of Time expects the audience to gasp at the return of the Sontarans as they invade Gallifrey. It treats the Sontarans as if they have the mythic weight of the Daleks or the Cybermen. It really doesn’t work as a story, and at least part of that is because the Sontarans really can’t support the weight that the story places on them. The Sontarans arguably work best as dressing on a richer meal. It is notable that their only subsequent major appearance in classic Doctor Who is as the villains in The Two Doctors, which is built around the return of the Second Doctor and treats the Sontarans as window dressing.

War of the Sontarans feels like an effort to produce a more serious and larger scale version of The Invasion of Time, in much the same way that the key moments in Ascension of the Cybermen felt like an attempt to do Earthshock on the budget of a modern BBC show. In fact, it’s possible to see The Timeless Children as a riff on The Invasion of Time, a story where an iconic Doctor Who adversary finally storms and captures Gallifrey – just swapping out the rather unimpressive Sontarans for the more mythic Cybermen. It’s another illustration of the Chibnall era’s preoccupation with treating Doctor Who as something taken “seriously.”

A commanding opponent.

It is notable, for example, that War of the Sontarans does a surprising amount of worldbuilding around the Sontarans. It dedicates considerable effort to explaining them. The episode’s resolution relies on two bits of new mythology that are essential built out of explaining facets of the Sontarans that never needed explanation before. The Doctor explains that Earth’s atmosphere is hostile to the Sontarans, “That’s why they wear their protective armoured suits!” This assumes the show needs to explain why the Sontarans wear armour and why most extras playing Sontarans keep their helmets on. (It helps keep make-up costs down.)

War of the Sontarans also hinges on providing an explanation for what the “probic vent” actually does, beyond serving as a weak point for the species and serving as a metaphor for their stubborn refusal to retreat from their opponents. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of this, but it is all very matter-of-fact, built on the asssumption that these sorts of characteristics require explanation or justification. To continue the comic book analogy, it recalls the preoccupation of writers and artists like John Byrne with using pseudo-scientific logic to explain things like Superman’s flight.

In keeping with the Chibnall era, it all feels very literal-minded. The treatment of the Sontarans in War of the Sontarans feels much more self-serious and earnest than the portrayal of Commander Strax across the length and breadth of the Moffat era. In episodes like The Name of the Doctor and Deep Breath, Strax provided a biting and probing commentary on a certain type of masculinity, obsessed with combat and violence, while mercilessly ridiculing it. War of the Sontarans can’t help but take that sort of masculinity more seriously, which feels like a step backwards.

To give War of the Sontarans some credit, there are the bones of a bold and provocative idea here. It’s worth noting that War of the Sonatarans was broadcast the week before Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom. Remembrance Day is an increasingly politically charged national day of memorial in Great Britain, marking the passing of those soldiers who offered their lives in service of the United Kingdom. It is marked by the wearing of the poppy, which has become its own culture war signifier.

Remembrance Day of the Sontarans?

In the past, Doctor Who has marked the occasion with provocative story choices. Death in Heaven aired the day before Remembrance Day, and right before The Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance on BBC One. That story focused on a nightmarish image of dead British soldiers resurrected as an army to conquer the cosmos. (In the previous episode, Dark Water, ex-soldier Danny Pink had died shortly after passing Welsh National War Memorial in Cathays Park.) The Zygon Inversion was similarly broadcast on the eve of Remembrance Day, with the Twelfth Doctor’s big anti-war speech.

Given that The Halloween Invasion was very specifically chosen to broadcast on Halloween itself, it seems safe to assume that Chibnall had something similar in mind with War of the Sontarans, knowing that the episode would air one week after Halloween. While the episode doesn’t seem quite as provocative as Death in Heaven or The Zygon Inversion, and while it was broadcast a full week before Remembrance Day rather than on Remembrance Day itself, it still feels like a relatively strong political statement for an era of Doctor Who that has been less radical and vocal in its politics than previous iterations of the show.

In particular, War of the Sontarans is positioned as an anti-war story. It is a story set during the Crimean War, one of the most notoriously brutal (and unnecessary) wars in the history of the British Empire. It’s notable that the episode makes a point to include reference to “the Light Division”, invoking the famous doomed “Charge of the Light Brigade” from the Crimean War. Perhaps understandably, the episode chooses to invent the character of Lieutenant General Logan rather than include the real historical figure of Lieutenant General Bingham.

The Charge of the Light Brigade has been valourised in British popular culture, largely owing to Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. That poem is a nostalgic and romantic ode to service, presenting those soldiers who gave their lives as heroes who died in service of the national ideal – rather than arguing that “the gallant six hundred” were sacrificed by national pride and poor management. This horrific sacrifice – costing over one hundred lives in under seven minutes – has long been romanticised by Britain as part of the mythology that the nation builds around “glorious failure.”

Time to vent.

It is a very loaded theme, particularly at this moment in time. After all, so much of modern British mythology is built around the idea of glorious sacrifice. Acts of horrific self-harm like Brexit are justified by referent to myths of national exceptionalism, with much of the suffering of the lower classes framed in terms of noble fantasies about the Blitz. British nationalism is a hell of a drug, and it is flooding the market. War of the Sontarans presents Doctor Who with a chance to directly engage with this idea head-on.

On paper, War of the Sontarans makes an obvious anti-war statement. The Sontarans are the ultimate soldiers, who glorify war as an end unto itself. At one point, Skaak admits that he chose to fight in Crimea in no small part because he “wanted to ride a horse.” Logan is deliberately and pointedly parallelled with Skaak. He is a drunk who smells of rum, who can’t even seem to pay his own tab. He refuses to listen to reason and buys unquestioningly into the national myth that he will emerge victorious because he has “Queen and Country” beside him.

It is a good exchange, with real teeth to it. The best line in the episode has the Doctor pointing out the Queen is nowhere to be found near the bloodshed, demonstrating the gulf between that nationalist myth and brutal reality of it. Soldiers die for no greater purpose than the folly of empires. This is the same logic that underpinned Empress of Mars, an episode that was more directly framed in response to the resurgent fetishisation of the British Empire around the Brexit vote.

However, War of the Sontarans never quite manages to deliver on this premise. Most obviously, the episode has no real interest in the lives of the soldiers being sacrificed. The only real reference to any individual loss of life comes when the Doctor knocks out the soldier assigned to hold her hostage, confessing that at least unconscious he will survive the slaughter. It’s easy to imagine the version of this episode written under Russell T. Davies, it would feature at least one supporting human character amid the slaughter to underscore the brutality of it all.

Crimea River.

Instead, War of the Sontarans pays more attention to the Sontaran soldiers than it does to the humans. The soldiers under Skaak get more focus and more development than any human being serving under Lieutenant General Logan. No human gets a scene like Svild, for example. More to the point, the only real human characters in War of the Sontarans are “important” ones. The episode introduces the real-life war doctor Mary Seacole, who even makes a direct allusion to Florence Nightingale. Logan is the only member of the chain of command who gets any characterisation.

The ironic result of all this is to render the conflict feeling decidedly unreal. Despite the fact that Seacole actually existed, her presence – and the fact that the Doctor just happens to run into her – makes the whole episode feel more like a history text than an actual drama. Indeed, Dan goes out of his way to helpfully reassure audiences that this part of the story is true to history. “Let me just get this straight: she’s like a real person from history,” he states. “And those Sontaran things, they’re not part of history?” It’s very insistant.

The result is that the cost of all this feels more academic than human. Even in Twice Upon a Time, the anti-war message was filtered through the lens of two soldiers on a battlefield. It was ultimately revealed that the British soldier was Archibald Hamish Lethbridge-Stewart, but it was still a narrative that felt rooted in the real human flesh-and-blood cost of these sorts of conflicts. In contrast, War of the Sontarans feels just a little bit too abstract. It lacks the bite that a story like this really needs.

This is most obvious with the character of Logan. Logan is a coward, who fakes his own death to survive the battle against the Sontarans. He is also presented as a monster. He bombs the Sontarans as they attempt to retreat, in what feels like a direct invocation of the end of The Christmas Invasion, which was itself an allusion to the sinking of the Belgrano. Even the Thirteenth Doctor’s righteous fury at Logan is framed in such a way as to recall the Tenth Doctor’s anger at Harriet Jones.

Logan’s Ruin.

However, the differences are revealing. The Christmas Invasion makes it clear that Harriet Jones is the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So her actions are conducted on behalf of the country, and she represents an institution. In contrast, Logan’s murder of the fleeing Sontarans is presented as a personal act, rather than as a reflection of British moral character. “That was for the men I lost today!” Logan insists. The Doctor makes it even more personal, “For your guilt, you mean.” It’s a war crime, but one appreciably different in character from the Sontarans murdering captives in cold blood as a matter of policy.

The Christmas Invasion also has the Tenth Doctor treat that war crime as something that demands justice. He topples Harriet Jones with a single sentence, whispered to her aide. In contrast, the Thirteenth Doctor is as impotent as she was facing Robertson in Arachnids in the U.K. or Barton in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II. The worst that the Thirteenth Doctor does is admit that “men like” Logan make her wonder why she does what she does, before Seacole speaks up to present herself as a counter-argument. It is essentially an anti-war statement boiled down to the modern misunderstanding of the “bad apple” argument.

There are other interesting aspects of War of the Sontarans. It’s possible to read at least some of the plotting of Flux as Chris Chibnall riffing on some of the narrative acceleration of the Moffat era, storytelling that trusts the audience to keep up with big ideas thrown out with incredible speed. In War of the Sontarans, the connection feels more direct. There is a very strong sense that time itself is broken, and is unravelling. That past, present and future are overlapping and intersecting in ways that are counter to the ordinary flow of time. Moffat built the opening acts of The Wedding of River Song around that idea.

As with a lot of examples of Chibnall playing with ideas from the Moffat era, War of the Sontarans is decidedly more literal-minded and aggressively less playful with that concept. While The Wedding of River Song leaned into the absurdity of all time happening simultaneously by having Charles Dickens promoting his latest work on the BBC as Winston Churchill rode a wooly mammoth into a Roman Senate, War of the Sontarans instead has two parallel plot threads following the Sontarans in modern-day Liverpool and in the Crimean War, while having the Swarm deliver exposition about how “time is beginning to run wild.”

Standing his ground.

To be fair, there is an obvious sense that Chibnall is working through the production realities enforced by a global pandemic, and so it is necessary to cut the showrunner some slack here. There is some indication that this season was always going to involve a story arc like Flux, but that Chibnall had to trim episodes from the season order to account for filming restrictions. Watching War of the Sontarans, it often seems like this episode might have been originally intended as either an episode later in the season or a two-parter, if not both.

This is most obvious in the sections focusing on Dan’s return to Liverpool. Early in War of the Sontarans, Chibnall falls back on the familiar device of splitting up the TARDIS crew, which makes production on the show a lot easier by relieving the stress on individual actors. Jodie Whittaker doesn’t have to appear in every scene, if the show can cut away to follow Mandip Gill or John Bishop. It’s a production approach that does deserve praise and recognition, even if it is occasionally narratively inelegant in episodes like Fugitive of the Judoon or Praxeus.

Chibnall also uses the narrative cheat of having characters conveniently moved around the plot by seemingly random events, often rendering them unconscious. War of the Sontarans opens with both Vinder and the Doctor coming back to consciousness in media res, which handily allows Chibnall to avoid writing scenes that move the characters to the starting point of the plot. It’s very similar to Chibnall’s strategy of always having something that he can cut to, creating a sense of momentum to his storytelling that can occasionally paper over the weaker script elements.

Dan’s adventures in Liverpool feel like that should be the second half of a two-parter. They should be their own episode, instead of a subplot in this one. More than that, it feels like Flux has skipped several steps in Dan’s character arc in order to justify putting Dan in this particular plot. Notably, Dan isn’t really a companion yet. He only gets the invitation to travel with the Doctor towards the end of War of the Sontarans. However, the entire Liverpool plot relies on him single-handedly deciding to repel an alien invasion, based on little more than the assertion that he has “had some experience dealing with aliens these past few days.”

He’s gotta a lotta wok to do.

On a more fundamental level, this subplot is recognisable as a hypercompressed and rough outline of a particular kind of story that Chibnall likes to tell. It’s the story model that feels particularly indebted to the Davies era, the (usually early season) story that takes the companion home again and checks in with their family. In the Davies era, these episodes included Aliens of London and World War III, The Lazarus Experiment and The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky. Chibnall did something similar with Arachnids in the U.K., which featured Yaz’s family, and Can You Hear Me?, with Ryan’s friends.

It’s possible to imagine a version of this season where War of the Sontarans was a two-parter. The first part would be the plot thread focusing on the Doctor in the finished episode, as that its own particular type of Chibnall episode. Like Rosa and Spyfall, Part II, it is a historical-set episode celebrating the often-overlooked heroism of a real-life woman. Then, perhaps via the cliffhanger, the story would transition fighting the Sontarans in the present day. It would mirror the two-part structure of the Moffat era, like the transition from Under the Lake to Before the Flood or from The Girl Who Died to The Woman Who Lived.

It often feels like War of the Sontarans is taking shortcuts to get all that plot covered within a single episode. It’s clear that Dan cannot really carry that plot thread by himself. Even in terms of basic narrative logic, Dan needs to exposit to somebody. This explains Dan’s strange choice to record a video of him infiltrating the Sontaran command centre. (“I’m filming it for you, Doctor,” he insists.) It allows Dan to deliver exposition to the audience that he would otherwise deliver to another character. Similarly, Karvanista reappears when Dan’s level of plausible expertise runs out, stepping into the narrative role of the Doctor.

Notably, War of the Sontarans features the introduction of Dan’s parents. Like the emphasis on Dan’s working class background in The Halloween Apocalypse, this feels very tied to the classic Davies era model of building a companion. Rose Tyler, Martha Jones and Donna Noble were all defined by their relationships with their parents, and the show explored that. While the Chibnall era never really developed these bonds, Ryan and Yaz are similarly defined by their relationships to their immediate family members. Ryan’s reunion with his father is a major plot point in Resolution.

Liverpooling resources.

However, there is no room for any of this to breathe. Davies was incredibly skilled at characterisation. The audience had a decent idea of who Jackie Tyler was from Rose, what Martha’s relationship was to her family over a single phone call in Smith and Jones, and how Sylvia Noble dominated her daughter’s life from a few short scenes in Partners in Crime. In contrast, War of the Sontarans doesn’t actually tell the audience that much about Eileen and Neville. They could just as easily have been Dan’s friends or co-workers, and the script would have required minimal changes.

It’s a small thing, but it speaks to the extent to which Chibnall’s approach to Doctor Who feels very much like shallow emulation rather than anything more insightful. It feels like War of the Sontarans features Dan’s parents because Aliens of London and World War III featured Jackie Tyler and because The Sontaran Stratagem and The Poison Sky featured Sylvia Noble, rather than because it makes any sense to use those characters. Dan doesn’t feel any more human or developed, even after spending half his time in the episode with his parents.

Indeed, it feels like War of the Sontarans is approaching Dan as a character who has already spent a considerable amount of time with the Doctor, rather than effectively being rescued while serving as the plot-driving mechanism in The Halloween Apocalypse. Again, this feels like Chibnall is taking his cues from Davies without quite understanding why those cues work. These sorts of “home again” stories often end with these companions reaffirming their choice to travel with the Doctor, but they are also built around the idea that travelling with the Doctor has already changed these characters.

That said, Yaz is the character who feels least served by the splitting of the ensemble. Yaz effectively gets dumped into the grand mythology part of the episode, the section that most obviously and most loudly gestures towards the season’s serialisation. After all, the Sontarans are pretty much finished at this point the long-form story, while Yaz’s function is to meet up with Vinder and she also briefly gets to interact with Joseph Williamson. She winds up on “the Planet Time” and becomes the first member of the primary cast to have a face-to-face in-the-flesh encounter with the season’s big bad.

Temple of doom.

There are small gestures towards characterisation. The “WWTDD” written on her palm is very charming – even if there’s something frustrating in having the Swarm literally articulate what that acrynom stands for. Similarly, there is something very charming in the way that Yaz weaponises the Doctor’s vow to rescue her. “Yaz, I will find you,” the Doctor tells her young companion. “Promise,” Yaz instructs the Doctor. “I promise,” the Doctor responds. It’s very similar to Clara’s “don’t apologise, make it up to me” manipulation of the Doctor in The Magician’s Apprentice, even if it is a bit blunter in terms of execution.

The sequences in the temple are suitably ominous and vague, but they do return to the idea that time is broken and that order must be restored to time. “Time must not be unleashed,” the Triangle Priest warns Yaz. “Time is evil.” The implication seems to be that the guardians and priests in the “Temple of Atripos” – named to suggest “atrophy” and “entropy” – have imposed order on time itself, and that either its disruption has broken their system or the break in their system has caused its disruption. As the Doctor notes, “Time is being distrupted.”

War of the Sontarans is rather ambiguous about what that actually means, in a way that seems likely to be a result of script revisions and the compression of the overall arc. Early in the episode, it is suggested that the Sontarans exist in a constant present – they always have been, as it were. They have erased the nation of Russia, and replaced it with Sontar, and it is as though it was always Sontar. (Seacole and Logan vaguely remember the name “Russia”, but as an echo. The Sontarans have “always been here.”) Logan explains that the Sontaran engagement was so brutal because they seemed to come from everywhere simultaneously.

This is a big idea that suggests a fundamentally broken way of looking at time, disconnecting cause and effect from one another. It isn’t just that the Sontarans are fighting in the place of Russians, it’s that there never was a Russia. It’s a bold concept. However, the second half of the episode seems to push away from that implication, revealing that Skaak actually invaded the past from the present. It isn’t even that the Sontarans conquered Russia. The Crimean War is explicitly the first conflict into which the Sontarans are inserting themselves. It makes all the weirdness around Russia seem like a red herring, and rather pointless.

Death comes to time.

Again, this preoccupation with the idea of a temple that maintains the ordered flow of time, and the consequences of destroying that temple on the flow of time, fits quite clearly with the thematic preoccupations with the Chibnall era. War of the Sontarans suggests that the flow of history is a system that needs be maintained and monitored, and that there needs to be a structure in charge of administering that system. It is, perhaps, the logical culmination of the thematic underpinnings of episodes like Rosa and Kerblam! It explains why the TARDIS is a police box with two police officers in side. It’s about maintaining order.

The Swarm admittedly gets a little more characterisation here, serving to distinguish him just a little bit from previous Chibnall era villains like Tzim-Sha and Ashad. The Swarm is more of a monologuer, more of a conventional supervillain who seems to actively enjoy being evil. It’s not the most nuanced or compelling characterisation, but at least there’s something enjoyable in watching the Swarm lounge around the temple, stretching and leaning like a bored cat. The Swarm seems just a bit tired of all this nonsense. (When sharing his name with Yaz and Vinder, he sighs, “Translations, but they’ll do.” It isn’t worth his time to explain.)

To be fair, it still seems debatable whether the Swarm and Azure are compelling antagonists to support six whole episodes of Doctor Who, even allowing for the way that Chibnall has tied the character into the Doctor’s past. It is interesting that Swarm seems to know Yaz, and also that he seems so fascinated by the idea of the Doctor’s companions. “Why does she choose you?” the Swarm wonders aloud to Yaz. “Any of you?” It’s interesting to wonder whether that angle might play into the development of the Swarm and his relationship to the Doctor.

War of the Sontarans is functional. It does what it needs to do, with a minimal amount of fuss. That said, looking at the ingredients in play in the episode and the potentially interesting ways to develop those ideas, it does feel somewhat underwhelming. War of the Sontarans is sturdy but undistinguished, which feels like a misfire.

14 Responses

  1. While I do agree with a lot of things in this review, I have to disagree about the use of the Sontarans. You say the Sontarans are been used in this episode as a major threat on the scale of the Big Three (Daleks, Cybermen and The Master), except they are very clearly not.

    It is specifically stated they are a consequence of the Flux – they are about as relevant to the ongoing story arc as the villains from “The Vampires of Venice”. I doubt anyone saw this episode and thought the Sontarans would be popping up again as major players. As you note, this is Series 13’s equivalent of the toyetic two part stories of the RTD era so you are effectively critisising Chibnall for using a villain in the kind of story they are suited to.

    I would also disagree with the idea the Sontarans are been taken too seriously. Their threat is based entirely on the fact everyone confronting them is out of their league and the episode is clearly making fun of them at various points (the commander choosing the Crimea War so he could ride a horse, two patrolmen beaten by an old couple banging them over the head with kitchen utensils). It was Moffat who created the idea the Sontarans where not serious villains and this episode is kind of how they are treated prior to that. Decent threats but obviously B-list or C-list bad guys.

    • I don’t know about this. There’s something inherently absurd baked into that first image of the Sontarans in The Time Warrior, a little solo pod landing and a little potato man landing and planting a little flag to claim the planet as his own. I think the best Sontaran stories have always understood that absurdity. (That said, I am in the minority of not hating The Two Doctors.)

      And, to be fair, when I talk about trying to elevate them to “classic monster” status, it’s more things like the “… of the Sontarans” title construction, which feels like it’s checking off a list of things that the Sontarans need to do to earn that status. Or the attempt to provide a serious explanation for the “probic vent” that becomes a major plot point in the episode and to explain why (beyond production logistics) Sontaran stories regualrly feature lots of extras wearing helmets, which feels very much like having the Daleks fly up stairs in Remembrance of the Daleks or Dalek or the “my vision is not impaired!” in The Stolen Earth. It feels very much like “… there’s a logical reason for this, we swear!”

      • I guess the point would be best served with comparing the Sontarans to the Zygons. Despite been treated with the same level of seriousness in their first appearance as the Sontarans, the Zygons also get the “[[Blank]] of the [[insert villain here]]” title scheme (along with many one off villains) and the Moffat era put them front and center of the 50th anniversary special with a follow up storyline. You could argue that is also building up a silly minor villain to classic status.

        I think part of the problem is many Doctor Who fans are practically allergic to the concept of a Doctor Who villain who is not scary or treated seriously, which is a little silly when the main villain is an army of pepper pots with egg whisks and plungers. Episodes like “Hide” have suffered from this phenomena as did the Sontarans themselves in the Moffat era. I suspect that was the logic is going on with the Sontarans this episode (and even then the number of jokes made at their expense makes it clear that treating them like the Daleks from a story perspective is not the intention).

      • The difference is that the Zygons, like the Daleks and the Cybermen and even the Angels, got the “[blank] of the [blank]” treatment quite early on in their Doctor Who careers. “Power of the Daleks” is three seasons after the Daleks first appeared, “Tomb of the Cybermen” appeared two seasons after the Cybermen were introduced, and that’s around the point that you ended up with “Time of the Angels” relative to their own appearances. The thing about “War of the Sontarans” is that it comes forty-eight years after the first appearance of the Sontarans. It’s been so long that making that transition feels like a big deal precisely because it hasn’t happened yet.

        The Zygons are arguably an illustration of this point. In Day of the Doctor, they are like the Sontarans in The Two Doctors. They are not the main attraction. The main attraction is the return of a beloved star (or two) from the earlier days of the show, and the villains need to be somebody who have some weight, but who won’t distract from where the real fireworks are. The Zygons do get a two-parter the next-to-following season, but every story bar one in that season was at least a two-parter. There are plenty of aliens who appear in consecutive or next-to-consecutive seasons without it being a big deal – the Sontarans first appeared in two back-to-back seasons, the Angels appeared in the third, fifth and seventh seasons of the revival, the Silurians went from being reintroduced in the fifth season to having a recurring character in the ensemble in the sixth.

  2. Has anyone explained yet why all this chaotic stuff going on with time has people being sent across time *and space*?

    • To be fair, as the disgraced Warren Ellis was very fond of pointing out, because the Earth is constantly moving through space and the odds it being in the exact same position when anybody is displaced in it are infinitesimal, all time machines in fiction are also capable of space travel. With that in mind, it seems as likely that travelling in time will send the person literally anywhere else as to wherever they currently are. Plus Doctor Who has always relied on that sort of loose logic in these matters.

      The bigger issue is that the time travel seems to be sending the characters wherever the plot needs them to be, which is a huge contrivance. It’s not one that I worry too much about, but it’s very indicative of the larger point about how Chibnall writes and the sense in which this is such a hyper-compressed season that “sure, they are magically transported to the next plot point!” is a viable mode of plot development.

      Say what you will about the Moffat era, which – like all Doctor Who – uses this sort of plotting a lot, albeit with less intensity. But at least Moffat generally trusted the audience to be smart enough to be in the joke, and to be able to accept that the story was operating by story logic because it was a story.

      • Yeah, I agree – it went down a lot easier with Moffat’s (or Davies’) panache.

        The Chibnall era kind of feels to me like a whole season of Kill the Moon and In the Forest of the Night. Not devoid of virtue, but always straining credulity – too far.

      • As somebody literally writing the book on Kill the Moon, I’d disagree strongly with that assessment. The issue for me isn’t that Chibnall’s Doctor Who strains credulity, it’s that it strains credulity for the most banal and generic of reasons. When it does things like that, the reason is always “… it moves the plot along” rather than “… because it’s fun or clever or playful.”

  3. I just read your review on Kill the Moon, and I can appreciate it, and I even agree with it.

    But.

    If the moon’s gravity increased to that of Earth’s, however it did it, it would throw off the equilibrium between the two, and, I dunno, throw us both out of orbit. Or something. That much is beyond me.

    Tides can’t be everywhere at once.

    Nuking the moon would probably break it into pieces. Some would enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

    So, your points are valid as far as the episode’s storytelling is concerned. But if you know enough science to realize what nonsense is on the screen, suspension of disbelief gets really, really hard.

    I know not everybody is science-y. (I’m not, particularly, or I’d be able to explain all this better.) This episode would have worked better if they’d found a way to make their points without orbital mechanics being a factor.

    I mean, what else, WWII airplanes with air-breathing engines that aren’t pressurized flying in space? (Oh wait.)

    Anyway, I’m not trying to pick a fight, because I love your blog. Kill the Moon certainly has its good aspects. Just not in the science. (And I’m much more sensitive about throwing science out the window since the pandemic.)

    • This season of Doctor Who’s ticking along just fine. It’s better than S11 and 12.

      But if you ask me, it’s far below the level of what this show can achieve at its best. And that’s not surprising coming from Chibnall–it’s still at least a bit disappointing.

      • I’m waiting for all six, to see if I’ll like it or roll my eyes. I haven’t given up!

        But, you know, one thing from this discussion is just how much a showrunner/writer has to do competently to keep enough of the fan base happy:
        – dialog (Moffat!)
        – characterization (RTD!)
        – pacing
        – narrative instead of exposition
        – at least a little science
        – everyone integral to the plot
        – aliens that seem alien
        – alien names that are sufficiently memorable
        – some metaphors/subtext to keep people like me happy
        – probably a billion other things.

        What a job!!
        And that’s just the writing.

      • Ha, I actually didn’t mean to send that reply to you, lol. That was for Darren.

        Yes, Doctor Who has to be a lot of things. But it can also be anything. I’ve come to the realization that it’s probably my favorite show of all time because it has the richest premise for a tv show that’s ever been conceived. Despite the fact, it takes a really special writer to fully harness that potential. Chibnall hasn’t managed it–neither could most writers. It’s not the strongest knock against him.

    • I’d never tell others what to be bothered by or not. Me personally? I’ve long since accepted scientific inaccuracy in sci-fi stories. Even the showrunners of “The Expanse” have noted that the show is only accurate to a point. That goes doubly so for Doctor Who, which once had an episode called “The Impossible Planet”–one of my favorite episodes–, despite the fact that it’s not impossible to orbit black holes. Our own galaxy might have one at the center of it. Scientists thought for a long while that Sagittarius A might be a supermassive black hole. It’s perfectly fine to be bothered by it, and I get why many dismiss it. I happen to strongly disagree, of course. When it comes to “Kill the Moon”, I think the ‘wtf did you just say’ face that Clara makes it quite clear that the episode, at that point, is knowingly throwing science out the window.

      • I hope I didn’t sound like I was saying what should bother anyone else. I was just talking about what bothers me.

        I agree with you about the premise of DW, it’s simply brilliant. And thus hard to harness.

        But as far as scientific inaccuracy, I’ll put up with it up to a point. (Same as everyone, I suppose, just we all have different points.) Mostly, though, I don’t watch much of anything, and that’s part of why. I’d rather read.

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