“We will do battle on your own ground, Doctor.” – Sontaran Stor
What a big sad muddle. This story confused me greatly as a child. What was the Doctor doing acting so strange? Who were the aliens? How does it all fit together? Did I just not understand? As an adult, I realize that this confusion comes not from lack of understanding but from the way the story is put together. I see how the storyline could have been a great one—the concept of the Doctor ‘collaborating’ with a powerful group of aliens to invade Gallifrey as a ruse to ultimately destroy them is great. Taken by itself, this part of the story is pretty good, especially as we see all the elements of the Doctor’s plan fall into place. There are aspects to it that kind of ruin the effect not the least of which is the appearance of the Vardans—both the shoddy shimmering cellophane and their incredibly disappointing emergence as silly uniformed soldiers. Tom Baker’s portrayal of the Doctor goes a bit off the charts. The idea of a band of former Time Lords wandering out in the Gallifreyan desert to ‘drop out’ is also a bit farfetched and makes Gallifrey seem so ordinary. Still, there are many ways in which these four parts of the story could have been redeemed to be a great serial.
Above all, my favorite aspect of this initial story is how much it makes of Leela– her ‘savage’ knife-wielding and stealth besting the guards, her fierce strength of character, and how she finds herself in her element among the desert dwellers and immediately becomes a recognized as quasi-leader. Most of all, her unwavering loyalty to and faith in the Doctor makes her seem so noble. My favorite scene in the whole story is her interaction with Rodan where she gets to utter lines like “Discussion is for the wise or the helpless, and I am neither!” and the absolutely wonderful moment when Rodan states that “Reason dictates the Doctor is a traitor” to which Leela resonds with a loyal snarl “Then reason is a liar!”
But then we get to the last two episodes and everything falls apart. The story from this point feels evidently tacked on. Was it really all a ruse just to get the Sontarans onto Gallifrey. Why then can’t the Time Lords, now no longer threatened by equals, just use their power to destroy them? For that matter, how were the simple Sontarans even able to use and manipulate the Vargans, a race so powerful that they are a match for the Time Lords? The last episode is even worse as there is lots of run around in the TARDIS that becomes comic for no reason and it all gets tied up abruptly at the end. Even characters and their motivations start fall apart as well. Yes, the Castellan has been weasely and power-hungry but surely he wouldn’t fall into service of the Sontarans so abruptly until he was sure there was no defeating them. Borusa suddenly acts cold and indifferent again just at the time his trust has been confirmed. And to top it all off fiercely loyal Leela leaves the Doctor to marry a man whom she barely knows!!!! And so what could have been a good ending story becomes overwhelmed by poor choices, script excesses, and general silliness with a weak ending.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
Before the story goes off the rails, the initial confusion brought about by the Doctor acting so strange is a good thing. It’s quite disconcerting to have him behaving like a traitor, and the little hints that he is not under some control but actually is doing all this of his own free will add to the anxiety. The height of this is when the Doctor is in the TARDIS after locking out Leela. He holds his ears in obvious pain at ignoring her desperate pounding on the TARDIS door consigning her to a fate that we are not sure of yet. What could be going on that he would turn on his loyal friend like this?
Best Doctorish line:
When Andred points out to the Doctor in reference to the Matrix “But you have access to the greatest source of knowledge in the universe.”, the Doctor absently responds: “Well, I do talk to myself sometimes, yes.”
I see know reason that the Outsiders cannot also be the same group referred to as the Shobogans though some say not.
It’s sad when you can see what could have been a good story ruined by small effects (The spaceship model effects are some of the best so why are the effects used for the Vardans so bad? And why have them turn out to be silly looking and ordinary in the end?). The attempts to make the TARDIS seem enormous by using giant rooms and swimming pools and art galleries just comes across silly. If that and the whole ending ‘twist’ of the Sontarans could be erased it would work so much better.
But above all and almost inexcusable is having Leela stay to marry Andred. What a way to totally ruin a character and all we know about her—Leela would never have stayed for ‘love’! (It’s so abrupt too–as many have pointed out, we see her building trust and relationship with Rodan more than anything else so it would almost have been less of a shock for Leela to stay for her!) What’s more frustrating is that they had a much more plausible ready-made reason for Leela to stay—she could have been taken on as leader of the Outsiders which would have made much much more sense!!