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Has Doctor Who mishandled the Sontarans in the modern series?

As the warmongering clone race returns in this week's Doctor Who, Chris Connor wonders if they can be redeemed after years of disappointing or non-existent stories.

Doctor Who
Published: Saturday, 6th November 2021 at 10:00 am

By: Chris Connor

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Doctor Who has amassed quite the legion of iconic villains over its near 60-year history. Of course The Daleks, Cybermen and Master are probably the most iconic – but sat not far behind are the potato-esque warrior race of clones, the Sontarans. It's just a shame that in recent years, the Sontarans haven't really been given their due.

The Sontarans made their debut in the 1973 serial The Time Warrior facing off against Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor, with a lone Sontaran called Linx travelling back to the Middle Ages while UNIT and the earth-bound Doctor investigated the associated disappearance of several top scientists.

While the Sontarans were a hit with fans thanks to their design, mannerisms and warmongering attitude, they've been used surprisingly sparsely within the context of the show. In Doctor Who's original run they were given their most frequent run out as adversaries to The Fourth Doctor in The Sontaran Experiment (where they were seen experimenting on human astronauts in the future) and The Invasion of Time, which saw them trying to invade the Doctor’s home world Gallifrey.

This week, the Sontarans make their long-awaited return to the modern series in Chapter Two of Series 13, titled War of the Sontarans. This, remarkably, marks the first time the species have been a major antagonist since 2008’s two-parter The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky. This first appearance in the revived series saw the classic flight suit ditched in favour of a Millennium FX-designed armour suit. Meanwhile, the story saw the Sontarans poisoning the Earth’s atmosphere, and was carried into the Sarah Jane Adventures storyline The Lost Sontaran (which saw Sarah Jane face off against the species once more, 35 years after her first encounter with them in The Time Warrior).

While entertaining at the time, it’s a shame these were the only major modern appearances of the Sontarans prior to their return for Doctor Who: Flux. Of course under the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, Strax (played by Dan Starkey) was a recurring ally from 2011’s A Good Man Goes to War until 2014’s Deep Breath. Alongside his employers Madame Vastra and Jenny, Strax made for a fun foil for both Doctors, and was a nice counterbalance to the more serious traditional depiction of the Sontarans to that point. But he was also, essentially, comic relief, relegating the Sontarans to a load of punchlines rather than a threat in their own right.

Sontaran

Sontarans as seen in Doctor Who in 2008 (BBC)

Does it do justice to a warrior species treating them as no more than a fun bit of light relief? What made the Sontarans such a fan-favourite in the 1970s was their sense of menace and unpredictability. These were worthy opponents of The Doctor who more than earned their warmongering status and were constantly out for blood.

But in the revived series a lack of appearances has left them without a chance to come into their own or capitalise on the strengths of these 70s storylines. Compared to the Daleks, Cybermen or the Master, viewers haven't been given the chance to engage with the Sontarans and the show hasn't really developed upon their characterisation in the original series.

It's also undeniable that the depictions of the Sontarans since 2005 have treated them far more as joke monsters than their appearances in the classic series, and it'll be interesting to see whether War of the Sontarans matches their new battle-hardened appearance (a welcome change from the previous blue design) with behaviour to match.

Doctor Who

A new-look Sontaran in Doctor Who series 13 (BBC)

Overall, the Sontarans have certainly earned their status as a recognisable staple within the iconography of Doctor Who – but it's clear the show has struggled to fit them into the overarching story since the show’s return in 2005. Despite a brief comeback in 2008, they have been mostly confined to extended cameos in the years since with War of the Sontarans representing their first major storyline in 13 years.

While this series will no doubt find a much larger role for them, it also remains to be seen how each of the villains within the overarching Flux narrative will feature, with additional appearances from The Weeping Angels, Ood and Cybermen to fit in alongside them in just six episodes. Is there really room for them all?

One can only hope that the Sontarans finally get their chance to shine - and aren't just sidelined in favour of another monster once again.

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Doctor Who airs on BBC One on Sundays. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.

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