Smoke rises over a blood-soaked battlefield. Corpses lie scattered near spilled bayonets and broken guns, bereft of both life and dignity, gaping wounds mixed with mud and rain. Somewhere, a crow caws its lament for the dead. A lone rider emerges from the distance. The helmet is removed. It’s a Sontaran, the one we saw in the trailer last week in an episode we knew was already titled ‘War of the Sontarans’. So much for the big reveal.
Perhaps I shouldn’t grumble. One of the best cliffhangers of early seventies Who (yes, even better than the faceless policemen or the PATTERNED FLOOR OF DEATH) was Pertwee’s exclamation of “Daleks!” when the soldiers he met in the jungle spray-painted an invisible enemy into existence; the effect was marred somewhat by the fact that this occurred at the end of episode one of ‘Planet of the Daleks’. Although was the Dalek itself the reveal? Or was it the fact that they can turn invisible now, the sort of shock factor that predates ‘Remembrance’ by some fifteen years? And does it really matter anyway?
We could argue about this all evening. What is at least fairly obvious is that the Sontarans have had a bit of a refit. They’re still battle-hungry, they’re still a clone race (more on that in a moment), they’re presumably still at war with the Rutans and they still haven’t worked out a solution for that awkward Achilles’ heel (well, all right, neck). But the design has undergone a few changes. They’re a little taller, grubbier, wrinklier – age, as we saw last week, is a factor – and if the potato gags are still coming thick and fast on the internet, the potatoes themselves appear to be going off.
“Hey!” says Emily, watching from the armchair while I scribble notes. “That’s how you’d look if you shaved your head!”
The Sontarans are in the Crimea – where the Doctor’s just landed, in the company of Dan and Yaz – but we’ve barely recovered from the opening credits before the companions are zipped into the future, leaving the Doctor to tackle the alien menace on her own. Well, not quite. She’s joined this week by nurse Mary Seacole (a gaily frocked Sara Powell), who patches the wounds of both English and ‘foreign’ soldiers, and who keeps a Sontaran chained up in the back like a rabid dog, or perhaps the subject of some strange fetish. Well, it’s a long way from home.
Leading the fight is General Logan (Casualty’s Gerald Kyd), a man almost as well-defined as a rain-smeared street painting, and about as two-dimensional – and who sadly has nothing much to do except refuse the Doctor’s help, look deeply disappointed when his troops are mown down by Sontaran lasers and then undo a theoretically peaceful conclusion with the sort of dirty trick that would impress even Harriet Jones. It’s all done with patronising guff about knowing your place and the same awkwardness that pervades most of Chibnall’s encounters with faceless pillars of authority: they’re around to advance the plot, and nothing more. There is no sense of who this man is, where he comes from or why he’s making the decisions he has – guilt, we’re told, is the only rationale that fits, but it would have been nice to get a few notes about motivation, however brief. Instead there’s a lot of sneering, a bit of a rumble on the battlefield and then an enormous explosion, before Whittaker stomps off to her doorless TARDIS in a sulk. Powell, on the other hand, looks to be having a whale of a time – her backstory may be reduced to a brief paragraph of hurried exposition, but she throws everything into the role, whether it’s scribbling notes at the edge of a Sontaran encampment or listening to the Doctor’s plan with the rapt attention of a brown-nosing schoolgirl. “Hello dear!” she says to Dan over a monitor screen, two centuries in the future. “I don’t understand any of this.”
While all this is going on, Yaz is stuck on the planet Time, which is a silly name for a planet (“And yet,” notes the Big Bad, “here we are”). Time itself is bleeding out of the temple – a mysterious and unduly beige facility landing somewhere between a quasi-Lovecraftian TARDIS knock-up and one of the sets from Dune, guarded by robed avatars who keep phasing in and out of existence with varying degrees of intensity, according to how much the universe is currently falling apart. Yaz isn’t there long before she runs into Vinder, the outpost commander who narrowly avoided being blown into smithereens last week, and whose enigmatic CV has now been embellished with the single addition of ‘Disgraced’. There’s a whiff of chemistry between the two of them, which means he won’t make it past episode six. Come the finale, they’re part of the circle, as the gloating Swarm parades the room with the swagger of a Marvel supervillain, flanked by the rest of his gang. We still don’t know who he is, and to be honest it’s kind of difficult to really care.
For all that, there’s an impulsive silliness about this episode that actually works quite well. It’s largely thanks to Dan, who jumps straight into the messy job of saving the entire planet with a gusto that’s borderline alarming. He cracks the three fingers thing immediately, and barely even flinches when watching the execution of three unnamed intruders to the Sontarans’ dockland headquarters. Even when reunited with Karvanista, he takes every revelation in his stride with the air of a man who’s been doing this for years, presumably because Chibnall wanted him this way. Either Yaz’s sudden competence is contagious, or this is poorly-written foreshadowing for some fob watch twist. Also, I know it’s dark and the Sontarans are probably tired, but why is it they’re able to mow down an entire platoon of advancing British soldiers from the other side of a foggy marsh, but they can’t hit an unarmed Scouser from ten feet away? It’s like a scene from Star Wars, and at least that had a more interesting score.
But I wonder if perhaps it’s better this way. If perhaps we’re better off with silly: if grandiose and overblown and ridiculous is a lesser evil, an acceptable substitute for worthy-and-dull. And with that in mind, I leave you with this personal highlight: the sight of John Bishop in a clapped-out Volvo, with two people who are supposed to be his parents despite being only about ten years his senior (which is perhaps not such a stretch, given we’re in Liverpool), talking about an alien invasion. They’re telling him that the best way to knock out a Sontaran is to hit the back of the neck. “How’d you find that out?” asks an incredulous Dan.
“Fella in Birkenhead,” is the response. “He was drunk. With a mallet.”
There’s a delicious pause. And then a shrug. “Birkenhead.”
And I giggled. That can’t be a bad thing.