Classic Doctor Who on BritBox: A brief history of the Sontarans
Mark Harrison | On 07, Nov 2021
Offering 626 Doctor Who episodes broadcast between 1963 and 1996, BritBox is bigger on the inside. If you’ve watched all of the new series already, then why not join us as we turn on the TARDIS randomiser for a monthly primer on the adventures of the first eight Doctors…
Along with the Daleks, the Cybermen, and (arguably) the Weeping Angels, the Sontarans are part of Doctor Who’s A-list of monsters. The others have all clocked up multiple appearances in Doctor Who’s modern era, but Flux Chapter 2: War Of The Sontarans will send in the clones again.
Memorably described by the Third Doctor as “nasty, brutish, and short”, the Sontarans were created by Robert Holmes in 1973. They’re bred for war, which makes them utterly ruthless and, in the right hands, very funny too. In the new series, their appearances range from their ATMOS terraforming stratagem in the Tenth Doctor’s era to the recurring role of Sontaran nurse Strax, friend of the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors.
But if you’re looking for a primer on the Sontarans before seeing what they’re up to next, this month’s column covers their clashes with four classic series Doctors, all available to stream on BritBox UK. Sontar-ha!
The Time Warrior (Season 11, 1973)
“By virtue of my authority as an officer of the Army Space Corps, I hereby claim this planet, its moons and satellites, for the greater glory of the Sontaran Empire.”
A spherical spaceship crashes in Middle Ages England and its pilot, Commander Linx (Kevin Lindsay), emerges to claim Earth for the Sontaran empire. It’s the sort of introduction that tells you everything you need to know about Holmes’ ingenious creation. Also notable as Sarah Jane Smith’s very first story, The Time Warrior sees Linx kidnapping scientists from the 20th century to help him repair his craft, while also supplying futuristic weapons to medieval bandits. It’s a must-see for various reasons, not least that it’s hilarious, firmly establishing the Sontarans as a funny bunch as well as a scary threat.
The Sontaran Experiment (Season 12, 1974)
“When I ambushed the GalSec ship there were nine survivors. I have already used up five of them and I have been studying the free behavour patterns of the remaining four.”
Their next appearance came in a two-parter written by the late great Bob Baker and Dave Martin. More than 10,000 years in the future, Earth is mostly uninhabited following an evacuation, (see the previous story, The Ark In Space) and Field Marshal Styre of the Sontaran G3 Military Assessment Survey (that’s the Sontaran HSE, to you and me) is testing the capabilities of the human astronauts who’ve responded to his phoney distress signal. Again played by Lindsay, Styre is quite a bit nastier and more sadistic than Linx, minting the Sontarans’ mean streak.
Horror of Fang Rock (Season 15, 1977)
“The planet is obscure, but its strategic position is sound. We shall use it as a launch point for our final assault on the Sontaran rabble.”
The opening story of Season 15 doesn’t actually feature the Sontarans, but it gives background on their oft-mentioned but never-seen conflict with the Rutans. Inside a lighthouse off the south coast of England, the myth of the Beast of Fang Rock turns out to relate to a shapeshifting alien who’s scouting out Earth for a takeover. With great scripts by Terrance Dicks, Horror of Fang Rock is often remembered as one of the scarier classic series outings and the Rutans’ one-and-only screen appearance to date is a good’un.
The Invasion Of Time (Season 15, 1978)
“There is no advantage in killing, yet. Slavery is more efficient.”
By the end of that season, the potato heads are back in force and invading Gallifrey itself in a story written as a last-minute replacement for the planned finale. After communing in secret with a mysterious race known as Vardans, the Fourth Doctor returns to Gallifrey and reclaims the title of President that he abandoned in Season 14’s The Deadly Assassin. Leela is banished from the Citadel and the Time Lords are commanded to show absolute loyalty to their new masters, but the Doctor has a plan that doesn’t count on the Sontarans turning up halfway through the story.
The Two Doctors (Season 22, 1985)
“We have no need of allies! Sontaran might is invincible!”
Holmes returned to write this multi-Doctor outing for Colin Baker’s first season, in which the Sontarans work with genius biogeneticist Dastari to try and steal the knowledge of the Time Lords from the Second Doctor’s DNA. Meanwhile, the Sixth Doctor and Peri arrive in Seville in the 1980s to investigate the disturbance to his timeline. Here, the Sontarans are just one item on this weird shopping list of a story, both typical of its era and yet grimmer, grosser, and even more stuffed than other serials. And so, it features a lovely return for Troughton’s Doctor and Frazer Hines as Jamie, as well as some of the worst, most gratuitously violent scenes of its era – bon appetit!
Thank you, baked potatoes…
– Also available on BritBox, the 21st-century versions of the Sontarans are represented in Season 2 of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Sarah Jane and her young friends face Commander Kaagh (Anthony O’Donnell) in the opening two-parter, The Last Sontaran, and the season finale, Enemy of the Bane.
– “Sontarans trying to subvert the course of human history” are the Fourth Doctor’s first words in Robot (Season 12, 1974) as his brain cycles through the events of the previous season. They also appear as one of the pre-regeneration remembrances in his final serial, Logopolis (Season 18, 1981), as they’re this Doctor’s most commonly seen enemies after the Daleks and the Master.
– If you really fancy a deep-dive, there was a 1994 fan film called Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans, which licensed the Sontarans and the Rutans from Robert Holmes’ estate and also had a script by Terrance Dicks. The project was very unofficial, so it doesn’t feature the Doctor or any other recognisable Doctor Who elements, but it does have companion actors Carole Ann Ford and Sophie Aldred in different roles. The feature isn’t available to stream, but there’s a 1995 novelisation that was reprinted in 2014 if you want to go looking…