The Sontaran Experiment ****

A short, sadistic two-parter shot on Dartmoor, in which Tom Baker broke his collarbone

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Doctor Who story guide
Patrick Mulkern
Patrick Mulkern
The Sontaran Experiment ****

Season 12 – Story 77

"Words, Earthling, will never prevail against Sontaran might" - Styre

Storyline
The Doctor, Sarah and Harry travel to Earth via the Ark's matterbeam to repair the system's faulty receptors. The planet has become a barren heath, but it is not entirely uninhabited. A spaceship crew from the colony GalSec have been ambushed by Field Major Styre of the Sontaran G3 Military Assessment Survey. Via a series of cruel experiments, he's studying humans' physical limitations, prior to an invasion of the galaxy. The Doctor challenges Styre to a dual in a bid to stymie his plans…

First transmissions 
Part 1 - Saturday 22 February 1975
Part 2 - Saturday 1 March 1975

Production
Location (OB) recording: September/October 1974 at Hound Tor, near Manaton, Dartmoor; and Headland Warren, near Postbridge, Devon

Cast
Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen
Harry Sullivan - Ian Marter
Field Major Styre/The Marshal - Kevin Lindsay
Vural - Donald Douglas
Krans - Glyn Jones
Erak - Peter Walshe
Roth - Peter Rutherford
Zake - Terry Walsh
Prisoner - Brian Ellis

Crew
Writers - Bob Baker, Dave Martin
Incidental music - Dudley Simpson
Designer - Roger Murray-Leach
Script editor - Robert Holmes
Producer - Philip Hinchcliffe
Director - Rodney Bennett

RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
"Linx…" gasps Sarah, with a shudder, as an alien warrior emerges from a familiar golfball spaceship and removes its helmet to reveal a leering face beneath. A spine-tingling cliffhanger - the perfect blend of direction, performance and music.

(In 1975, I reacted with the same thrill of horror and recognition as Sarah, but I recalled Linx from the year before simply as a "time warrior", so the eponymous "Sontaran" hadn't acted as a spoiler. How marvellously uninformed we could be back then!)

Like the titular troll, this two-parter is short, taut and sadistic. It dovetails with The Ark in Space - in a season so interlinked that Harry doesn't even have time to change his clothes - and serves almost as an al fresco breather before Genesis of the Daleks.

Much of season 12 was pegged out by former producer Barry Letts, with Robert Holmes commissioning and fine-tuning scripts. The latter wanted to reuse his own creations, the Sontarans, so writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin were pretty much handed the monster, the Ark continuity and an all-outdoor setting. The Sontaran Experiment was recorded entirely on location, before The Ark in Space, making it Tom Baker's second production and the debut of producer Philip Hinchcliffe.

Rodney Bennett, also new to Who, takes the unusual step of treating the drama as an OB (outside broadcast), recording all the action straight onto videotape, as opposed to the standard practice of using film cameras on location. It gives the serial a freshness and immediacy. It could almost have been made yesterday.

Part one unfolds like a geography field trip going disastrously wrong. After some amiable banter, our heroes separate on the born-again Earth (Dartmoor). "Trafalgar Square should be that way," says the Doctor, not necessarily in jest. Harry tumbles into a ravine, the Time Lord encounters some grizzled colonists with South African accents, and Sarah is lassoed by a buzzing, burbling robot - a collision between a washing airer and a robot from the Smash potato ads.

The Sontarans have had a makeover. If Linx resembled a jacket potato, Styre and his Marshal are more like pebbles. Despite his heart condition, it's still Kevin Lindsay labouring away under the latex mask, delivering another terrific performance. He gives acid edge to such lines as "Ah, the female of the species", "The moron was of no further use to me" and - my favourite - "Worm!"

In his memoirs, Jon Pertwee described Lindsay as "a very funny and witty man… gay and very camp… who wore the most luxuriant clothes you could possibly imagine." The actor died of in April 1975 not long after this story aired.

Stuntman Stuart Fell wore the Sontaran suit for several scenes that didn't require a "performance", just as Terry Walsh stood in for Tom Baker in numerous shots, after Baker fractured his collarbone. Indeed, the impressive final duel between the Doctor and Styre is almost entirely enacted by Walsh and Fell.

Happily, impetus and panache prevail over problems with plot logic. Quite why the Sontarans need to experiment on humans before invading their territories is unclear. Are they just responding methodically to sadistic urges? And the Doctor's dismissal of the Marshal ("Brinkmanship, I think they call it") is less than reassuring. We're left worrying that Vira and her buddies, beaming down from the Ark, may soon have an almighty battle on their hands.

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Radio Times archive

Billings   repeat billing

[Available on BBC DVD]

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