13 February 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start... 

Day 409: The Sontaran Experiment, Episode One

Dear diary,

The episode select screen seems so bare with just the two episodes on there - we’ve not had that since The Rescue almost a full year ago! It’s also been worrying me a little bit as today’s worn on, because I really couldn’t remember much caring for this story. In my mind it was a bit throwaway and dull, with a spaceship crew that I wasn’t keen on, and a robot design that just didn’t work for me. It’s one of those days - the first one in a while, actually - where I wasn’t excited to be sitting down for my dose of Doctor Who.

Which is odd, frankly, because I really rather liked the last story to feature a Sontaran, and this marks the first time they’ve gotten their name in an episode title, which makes them officially one of the Doctor’s most popular foes. Unfortunately, as the episode wore on, and I realised that we were heading for a cliffhanger reveal (in true … of the Daleks fashion) of the titular monster, I couldn’t help by feel even more that the story boils down to very little. The return of a Sontran was planned partly because they had the costume in the cupboard (although they’ve had to recreate the mask, so it’s not quite the cost-saving measure they’d planned), but also partly because of how well received they were last time around, so it seems a shame to have all the Sontaran action confined to a single episode.

I think we’re in one of those awkward situations, where I’ve spent such a long time thinking that I’ll probably not like a story, that no matter how much good there is, I just can’t get myself interested in it. I started my notes today by commenting how nice the opening tracking shot across Dartmoor looked… and then went on to wish that they’d shot this entire serial on film (like Robot, it’s been recorded on video), because everything comes across looking just a bit flat. I visited Dartmoor a few years ago, and my main memories are driving down the roads where you’ve just got these stunning vistas laid out before you. It’s a beautiful landscape, and while some of the bits we see cropping up in this episode are quite nice, it seems a shame that so much of the story feels very confined, and you don’t get a real good look out across the vistas very much. Filming miles and miles away from anywhere should mean that they use the remoteness of the location as an advantage, but that feeling just doesn’t come across.

My then-partner sums it up best on our five-year old commentary for this episode, when Sarah says that this doesn’t feel like Earth at all: ‘she’s obviously never been to Dartmoor’. I then go on to muse that if they’ve supposedly landed right in the remains of Piccadilly Circus (it’s not clear wether the Doctor is joking or not), it would have been nice to see one or two bits of evidence. Something like a crumbling Nelson’s Column in the distance, for example, just to make the landscape feel that bit more alien.

So: time for something a bit more positive, I think. As younger me points out, I rather like the ‘serial’ nature of Season Twelve, where very story leads directly into the next one. There’s a very clear through-line from Robot (or, if I’m honest, Planet of the Spiders) to around Terror of the Zygons - though I think I’m right in saying that some of the other Season Thirteen serials link back in, coming one-after-the-other, too. It’s not something I’d like all the time, as it has the danger of making the Doctor’s life seem that bit shorter, but it’s nice as an occasional one-off. It also means that this story retains several links to the previous one, leading to…

The ‘legend of the lost colony’. I love this whole idea. Nerva has been floating about in space for 10,000 years now, carrying a subset of the human race. It’s completely over-slept the alarm clock, and has been all but forgotten about. Vira is somewhat thrilled to learn during The Ark in Space that other pioneering attempts from her own time to reach out into the stars proved successful (even if they did lead to the war against the Wirrn), and it’s great to see some of these other areas of humanity, to whom the Ark is a legend older to them than even the Bible is to us. Of course it’s slipped into obscurity and myth. It also leads to my favourite line from this episode: ‘you’ve done nothing for 10,000 years, while we made an empire!’

The only bit of all this which doesn’t quite ring true with me is the idea that Nerva has never been found. The model shots in the previous story showed it floating in space not all that far from the planet - even if this group of humans managed to miss it on their way in (they may have landed on the wrong side of Earth, but even then you’d expect their ship to pick up on it), surely enough people must have seen the station over the millennia? Maybe Nerva sightings in the future are the same as bigfoot sightings currently, and everyone considers them to be fakes? I’ve got images of people creating a Nerva model out of washing up bottles and stringing it up next to a photo of Earth to try and fool their friends…

I’d completely forgotten this whole aspect of the story, but it’s a lovely little link, and adds a nice dimension to the whole Ark storyline. Harry goes on to mention that they’ve got no end of animals and fauna aboard the station, ready to bring back to Earth, and I’m somewhat surprised that we’ve never had a follow-up story showing the inhabitants of Nerva starting to re-establish the Earth. Big Finish have given us stories set during the Wirrn Wars and which return the Doctor to Nerva… maybe a follow-up could be the next story they tell us in this ‘era’?


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