Warning: Contains Spoilers!
Balls, I spoke too soon! In my review of The Halloween Apocalypse I mentioned the changing face of the Sontarans and said that at least they’d done away with all that Sontar-HA! nonsense. But we’re a few minutes into War of the Sontarans and it’s back again. Mumble, drone. Anyway, more of that later, let’s start at the beginning…
Having been caught in the destructive energy wave of the Flux at the end of the previous episode, the Doctor has a weird monochrome dream of a massive crooked house that looks like something out of Harry Potter and which has prompted some more fanciful fans to assume the very unlikely scenario that the series is adapting Marc Platt’s New Adventures novel Lungbarrow. Moments later, she, Yaz and Dan awaken to find themselves in the middle of the Crimean War… or so they think. But the British army aren’t fighting the Prussians, oh no; they’re up against a hoard of fully armoured Sontarans! Some of them on horseback! But no sooner have the trio encountered pioneering battlefield nurse Mary Seacole (continuing the era’s trend of introducing genuine, but forgotten, historical characters) than Yaz and Dan start to fade away and find themselves drifting off through time to other locations.
Although my views on this episode are broadly positive, I have to admit that I have a bit of a problem with the way it opens. Surely it would have made more sense to have each of the three regulars find themselves at the location in which they are going to spend most of the episode, rather than arriving in the Crimea with the Doctor, just long enough for her to give them (and the audience) a history lesson about Mary Seacole, before vanishing off somewhere else. It just feels a little clumsy to me and this simple act of tightening up might have allowed the script to fit the same 50-minute time slot as its predecessor. This is often a problem with scripts in the modern series, they feel like just one more draft would benefit them infinitely – it was certainly a problem towards the end of the RTD and Moffat eras and it seems to be raising its ugly head once again.
I really like the new design Sontarans. Although Strax was a lot of fun, I never really cared for the Sontaran uniforms as they appeared in the Tennant and Smith eras; for me the metallic blue never really worked on the helmets and shoulder pieces and the moulded rubber armour just made me think of those Britains’ Space toys from the 1980s (link included to assuage bafflement). I was never sold on them as combat dress; they just looked too clean and perfect. The new ones have a much more battle-worn feeling with heavily armoured shoulders and although they are still inexplicably blue, it’s a much darker blue and the armoured sections have a weathered cast-iron look. It’s fun to see the Sontaran commander (who proves the old adage that lots of planets do indeed have a Scotland) riding on a rather put-upon horse. It brought to mind memories of the original Sontaran Lynx riding on horseback in 1973’s The Time Warrior.
In Mary Seacole’s ‘British Hotel’, the Doctor begins to understand the full extent to which time has gone wrong. The Sontarans have been on Earth for as long as anyone can remember and no-one has even heard of Russia. The vintage map showing the entirety of Eastern Europe and Asia replaced by ‘Sontar’ was a lovely touch and sent a real shiver down my spine. At Seacole’s HQ, the Doctor also meets General Logan, a typical Colonel Blimp type character, all pomp and bluster and also a wounded Sontaran that Seacole has been treating despite the General’s protestations. As soon as the wounded Sontaran Svild opens his mouth, you can tell that it’s Dan Starkey, best known for playing Strax throughout the Smith and Capaldi eras. He’s doing his very best to disguise his voice, but it’s so familiar to fans of the series that it’s impossible not to recognise him.
But what has become of Yaz and Dan, I hear you ask? Well, Dan has ended up back in Liverpool, more or less where he left, but history has been changed and the planet is now under Sontaran rule. There are enormous Sontaran spacecraft hanging over the Liverpool Docks and Dan is chased by a Sontaran patrol for being on the streets after curfew. Don’t worry though, because his Mum and Dad are handy to rescue him by battering the Sontarans on the probic vents with a wok. They seem to have an unending supply of woks… perhaps they bought them specially for the occasion. Dan decides that his only chance is to sneak aboard one of the Sontaran ships and try to contact the Doctor. The docks make a fantastic setting for the Sontaran stronghold and these scenes with Dan sneaking about are tense and interestingly lit.
Yaz meanwhile finds herself in the Temple of Atropos on the planet Time, where there are serious problems and a robot drone urges her to help. The flux has damaged the stasis field from which the mysterious Mouri Gatekeepers hold back time and time is breaking though! Sounds very Sapphire and Steel, doesn’t it? But they’re not available, so Yaz and Vinder (who has also been transported to the temple) find themselves in the unenviable situation of having to help even though they have no idea what they’re doing. The Temple of Atropos is beautifully designed, with a nice old-school Doctor Who feeling about it, bringing to mind The Keys of Marinus or the temple in The Aztecs. The Mouri are well-presented as well, blinking in and out of existence and leaving only their scorched robes behind. The fact that they are silent and unmoving also works really well, adding tremendous weight to the mystery.
Meanwhile, back in the Crimea, the Doctor persuades Svild to arrange a meeting with the Sontaran Commander, using the prospect of capturing their arch nemesis as a lure. I’m not sure how I feel about being back in a universe where the Doctor is a universally known threat, but I suspect I’ll have to get used to it, as it’s sure to return when Russell T. Davies takes the reins once again. In parley with the Commander, the Doctor discovers that the Sontarans have taken advantage of the chaos caused by the Flux and simultaneously invaded the Earth at several points during its history. It seems that old habits die hard. This plan is confirmed when Dan contacts her from the 21st century, but the Doctor is able to compromise the power supply of the Sontaran ships in the 19th century, causing them to retreat and at least foiling part of their plan. In a conscious reference to Doctor Who and the Silurians, General Logan blows up the Sontaran fleet as they are retreating.
The Doctor manages to get the damaged TARDIS going again and picks up Dan (who has met up again with Karvanista) from 21st century Liverpool before tracking Yaz to the planet Time. But someone has beaten her to it! Oh no, it’s the ghastly crystal-skeleton twins from last week, now named as Swarm and Azure and they’ve brought a strange masked friend with them called simply ‘The Passenger’. I love how mysterious these characters are after years of ‘in your face’ villains! They’re so evil too; none of this ‘I’m invading your planet but I’m struggling internally over it’ nonsense for these guys. Before the Doctor turns up, they murder two of the Guardians and put Yaz and Vinder in their places, knowing that they will be killed in front of the Doctor’s eyes when Swarm carries out his plan to release the full force of time itself. Wow, what a cliffhanger!
I was worried about this episode. A lot of people were worried about this episode. Series 12 built up great momentum, only to drop the ball in the closing minutes and it was heartbreaking. But so far, Flux just seems to be getting better and better and I’m really enjoying the way that it is playing out. This serial has that sense of mystery and other-worldlyness that I love about Doctor Who and the cliff-hangers make all the difference. I’m still convinced that the ongoing serial format is the way forward because it brings back the viewer week after week, rather than the single story format, which pretty much tells the viewer that it’s okay to miss an episode or two. When the ongoing story format was announced, fans kept harking back to The Key to Time and The Trial of a Time Lord, but those were completely different entities. No, it never worked very well in the past… because it was never done this way in the past.
War of the Sontarans proves that the quality of The Halloween Apocalypse was not just a fluke and my confidence in the series increases with each passing episode. It could still go pear-shaped, of course; that’s always a possibility, but on an entirely linear basis, I’m really enjoying it. It’s not an established pattern for any Doctor to do their best work in their last season, but Jodie Whittaker could just be the Doctor to buck that trend. I do hope so, because I really wanted the first canonical female Doctor to work and I hate the way that the blandness of some of her previous episodes has been co-opted by misogynistic NMD types to reinforce their ‘all male Doctors’ agenda. For that reason, it feels hard for me to criticize Jodie’s previous seasons – even when they’re bad – but I’m pleased to report that may not be a problem with Flux.