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Doctor Who: "The Sontaran Strategem"

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This entry seems a bit premature since we're in the middle of the story and it's a true two-parter filled with all sorts of questions we're not going to get answered until the next time around. More to the point, it feels a bit like wheel-spinning before the real action begins. Did we need such a slow build-up? Did we need that 20-minute (or so it felt) bit with the two slow-witted UNIT soldiers deciding whether or not to open an obviously dangerous casket of goo? How about Donna flashing back to all her most treasured moments from her past adventures with The Doctor, all five of them? (At least this was in the BBC cut. I can only assume that Sci-Fi cut it from American airing and, for once, I understand.)

Not that it was a bad episode, mind you. And it was certainly better than writer Helen Raynor's last Who script, the dreadful "Daleks In Manhattan"/"Evolution Of The Daleks" two-parter. That one had a great premise (Daleks in 1930s New York) but dreadful execution. This one has a fairly familiar premise, echoing back to season-opening "Partners In Crime." But I'm intrigued with where it's going, even if it feels like we've been here before.

Looks like this series has a bone to pick with corporate culture this year. First we got the stealth fat babies of Adipose. Now we get the alien GPS system Atmos, a great source of directions so long as you don't mind getting killed every so often. (Has anyone really taken a good, long look at Garmin?) It's a classic bit of technophobia–I can imagine a '90s Who series doing something similar with cell phones, if one had been around–but the real target here isn't the gadget but the gadget-makers.

There's quite a bit of old Who business in this episode. Both UNIT and the diminutive, militaristic villains the Sontaran come from the old series. I don't know if they've ever been in episodes together before (readers?) but the pairing gives the Doctor a chance to take some not-so-subtle jabs at military culture in the modern age. Tennant's reading of, "Oh, don't salute," is pretty priceless, as is the phrase "Homeworld Secuity."

But I'm not sure the jabs really go anywhere yet. Apart from UNIT's mean-spirited interrogation of the potential "illegal aliens" there's little sign of militaristic excess. And the two soldiers who figure so prominently in this episode would be stupid in any profession. Meanwhile, the Sontarans just seem like classic fascists, more effective for the creepy way they inspire boy genius Luke Rattigan (Ryan Sampson) than for any other reason. Still, that element is pretty creepy, and it seems plausible that a self-styled übermensch like Rattigan could look to the Sontaran for inspiration. (Quick aside: If you enjoy evil teen geniuses I can't recommend the movie Wild In The Streets enough.)

Of course the big news this week is the return of erstwhile sidekick Martha Jones (recent A.V. Club interview subject Freema Agyeman). Once smitten, twice shy, she now informs The Doctor that her tragic crush on him has passed and there's a fiancé in the picture. (Or, for this episode at least, out of the picture, since he's abroad at the moment.)

The rumor is that Jones' return will be followed by a transition over to Torchwood. For now it's good to have her back. She's got good chemistry with companion-of-the-season Donna (sisterly devotion to The Doctor tinged with a little bit of jealousy) and it's nice to see her character evolving, even if The Doctor doesn't entirely improve of its direction. Of course, she'll have to escape from her current predicament to keep moving in any direction at all. (I'll do my best next week not to call her doppelganger "Martha Clones," but I can't make any promises.)

And so, with the Earth in grave peril, we reach the end of the episode. There's nothing really wrong with this installment (apart from all the padding and the awkward way Donna's grandfather climbs into a car just in time to ratchet up the tension a little bit more). I am hoping things pick up a little next week, though. Impending doom from outer space dwarfs should feel a little more dangerous than this.

Grade: B