Doctor Who: Heroes of Sontar Review
The Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa are forced to fight for survival alongside a most unusual Sontaran platoon...
It's incredible to think that it took nearly 12 years before Big Finish decided to use the Sontarans. Robert Holmes' clone warriors had been part of the show's stable of foes ever since their introduction in 1973's "The Time Warrior", and their reintroduction to the show in 2008's "The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky" brought them to the attention of a whole new audience. However, despite using the Rutans in stories like "The Bellatron Incident" and "Castle of Fear", it wasn't until "Heroes of Sontar" that we got the chance to hear the Sontarans on audio. And, while a Dad's Army parody may not seem the natural idea to develop for their first audio appearance, its one that ends up working surprisingly well, with a lot of comedy springing from the parody. It isn't an out-and-out comedy, however, and it does have a serious story at its heart, which, while not being anything massively original, makes for a good audio introduction to the Sontarans.
The basic plot of "Heroes of Sontar" sees the Doctor, Tegan, Turlough and Nyssa arrive on the planet Samur, expecting to find a relaxing planet-wide monastery. However, the planet is deserted: until a Sontaran platoon crash-land. Soon, the time travellers and the Sontarans find themselves facing off against a deadly curse that could be fatal to both parties... As I mentioned above, the idea of creating a platoon of Dad's Army Sontarans is a little unusual, and might fill some fans with a sense of dread (after all, between this story and Strax in the new series, the early 2010's was full of comedy Sontarans), but this story does provide an explanation for its rather more larger-than-life Sontarans that works quite well in story. Having a fall platoon, who are taking the wrap for mistakes made by a general higher up, gives us the chance to explore the Sontarans as more distinct characters than ever before, and each of the six Sontarans that appear here have a distinct personality and character. Sure, these are echoes of the main characters in Dad's Army, but as far as Sontarans go, they work quite well, and bring a different energy to this story. Some may argue that it devalues and cheapens the Sontarans, but I agree with writer Alan Barnes, who, in the extras, talks about how the Sontarans are intrinsically funny, in a way, and this story just choses to explore that angle a bit more. The Sontarans have always been a commentary on the folly of war, and how, from the outside, jingoistic patriotism and empty rhetoric just look really daft, and this story offers the opportunity to explore this, especially through Trooper Vend and Turlough, both of whom share the same sense of self preservation. Barnes compares and contrasts both characters: one of whom cannot show cowardice as it is a huge dishonour to his race, while the other doesn't want to show it in front of his friends. In the end, are both of them the same, or are they different forms of cowards? It makes for an interesting comment, and it gives some agency to Turlough, in a story that may, otherwise, have struggled to find a role for all the companions. The rest of the plot is rather more standard fare: deadly curses and wrath-like phantoms are more stock in trade for a Doctor Who story. It is interestingly done, but, to be honest, it really is with the Sontarans where this story shines.
As I mentioned above, each of the main Sontarans is based on a member of the cast from Dad's Army. From Duncan Wisbey's Manwaring-esque Field-Major Thurr to Alex Lowe's Sergeant Wilson Mezz, each of the cast members key into the pastiche. What's wonderful is they capture the vocal intonation of the cast of Dad's Army, and then filter that through the prism of Kevin Lindsey's version of the Sontarans, so it sits in the best of both worlds. John Banks, particularly, seems to get the rhythm of Lindsey's portrayal down to a tee, and it is no wonder he was invited back a number of times to play Sontarans in other stories. One key actor who is missing in this story is Dan Starkey, who s perhaps best known for playing Strax on TV, but who is also Big Finish's main go-to Sontaran actor. Sadly, this is one of only a couple of Sontaran stories where he doesn't appear, and his absence is keenly felt, something we've only really got used to with his frequent contributions to Big Finish since. That's not to diminish the work of any of the other actors, just an observation about the number of Sontaran stories we've had since. Other than the Sontarans and the regulars (who are all excellent, but that's kind of obvious at this point), there's only the Witch-Guard, which does present a major problem. Not the Witch-Guard as a concept (because that's really cool), but more the execution. I found the combination of the distorted performance and the vocal effect added in post made it difficult to understand what they were saying, which left the expository dialogue to pick up the slack. Especially when they are communicating key plot points, struggling to understand them can be a problem. The rest of the production, however, suffers from no such issues, and is as superb as any you'll find in a Big Finish Production. Ken Bentley's direction is confident and assured, while Jamie Robertson's detailed sound design and cinematic music bring the story to life in a dynamic way that may have seemed impossible, looking at the script on the page. Despite the issues with the Witch Guards, it's just a reminder of how strong Big Finish normally are, and how successful the rest of the production is.
Overall, then, while "Heroes of Sontar" is nothing special, it is a solidly strong release that attempts to do something different with a classic Doctor Who foe. The plot may be a little derivative, and the TARDIS crew may not have lots to do, but where this story really succeeds is in what it does with the Sontarans. Fleshing out the clone warriors, and giving them individual characters may have defeated the point of them being clones, but this works at developing the race along the lines of Robert Holmes' original vision, as well as providing both comedic and poignant moments. It isn't the best Sontaran story Big Finish have ever produced, but "Heroes of Sontar" remains a solid first step for the classic monsters into the world of Big Finish.
You can purchase "Heroes of Sontar" as a digital download here: https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-heroes-of-sontar-312
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