Released simultaneously with the epic eight-parter The Invasion, Doctor Who - The Sontaran Experiment is by contrast brief and to the point. One of the earliest episodes to feature "Fourth Doctor" Tom Baker in the role previously essayed by William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee, "The Sontaran Experiment" (first broadcast in February-March 1975) was a rare two-parter, the first since 1965's "The Rescue" and the last until 1982's "Black Orchid." Where "The Invasion" unfolds like a novel, "The Sontaran Experiment" is more like a neat little short story. Confined to a small area with just a few characters, it's a nice change of pace for the series.
The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companions - investigative reporter Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Royal Navy doctor Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) - travel to earth's distant future, a dozen centuries or so after the planet's surface was devastated by solar flares. In what was once central London but now resembles the isolated, rugged terrain of Dartmoor (where the episode was in fact shot), the Doctor sets to work repairing some devices called transmat refractors.
Though this earth initially appears devoid of animal life, it eventually becomes clear that a Sontaran scientist named Styre (Kevin Lindsay) has lured human astronauts to the planet, capturing them to conduct medical resistance research in advance of a Sontaran galaxy-wide invasion. For the uninitiated, Sontarans are bloated, cloned, and warlike alien astronaut types somewhat resembling third stooge Joe DeRita in Have Rocket, Will Travel with a Cockney accent and attitude like Warren Mitchell (Alf Garnett on Till Death Us Do Part). They first appeared in a 1973 story with Jon Pertwee.
Running just two 25-minute shows, "The Sontaran Experiment's" best assets are its appropriately confined telling. The script by Bob Baker and Dave Martin limits the action to a few acres of land and features just eight characters beyond the show's three regulars. Director Rodney Bennett generates some moody suspense with the episode, and Tom Baker, despite his relative neophyte status at this point in the series, is a delight as the Doctor.
It's amusing to contrast the limitations of British sci-fi producers versus their American counterparts, and how the former frequently turn this into an advantage. Where Hollywood producers, armed with a lot more money to begin with, could within an hour's drive from Hollywood reach myriad varied locations resembling all kinds of alien terrain(jungles, deserts, etc.), British producers were pretty much limited to places like Dartmoor, but here the location is so well used it hardly matters. Amusingly, the actors playing the astronauts all have South African accents (while Styre is more East-Ender), but again this was a deliberate casting decision, as the writers wanted to hint that in the future other accents might die off and that a South African one would eventually dominate. Well, okay.
Video & Audio
"The Sontaran Experiment" was shot almost entirely on location yet, unlike the usual practice on British television of the period to do location work in 16mm film, the entire show was shot on tape, which holds up well here. The mono sound is acceptable. Optional English subtitles are available.
Though a brief, inconsequential show, The Sontaran Experiment is fitted with some good supplements, the main draw being Built for War, a 39-minute documentary in 16:9 enhanced format, tracing the creation and series appearances for these admittedly minor villains. It features interviews with various writers, story editors, producers, and actors, including Sladen, later Doctor Colin Baker and actress Nicola Bryant (also from the Colin Baker era), as well as lots of choice episode clips spanning two decades.
Also included is a full-length audio commentary, which can be listened to in conjunction with Information Text which appear like subtitles and provide additional data on the program. Featured this time are actress Sladen, co-writer Bob Baker, and producer Philip Hinchcliffe. Finally, an okay photo gallery rounds out the package.
Inexpensively priced, Doctor Who - The Sontaran Experiment is a compact little package of a compact little adventure in the Doctor Who canon, and Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.