09 August 2016

Audio Review: Doctor Who - The Sontaran Ordeal

The Sontaran Ordeal is a bit of an odd one for me. Looking at it one way, there's a lot going on, with each character having their own agenda, often conflicting others' plans. But on the other hand, it's all presented very traditionally. Perhaps that was part of Barnaby Edwards' intention - for this to be very solid and clear cut, in the manner of the Sontarans themselves. This story examines the Doctor at a point in his life where he's actively trying to reduce the impact of the Time War, without ever becoming involved in it, and already he seems weary.

The main thrust of this episode is in the relationship between two Sontarans - disgraced ex-Commander Jask and General Stenk. When we catch up with him, Jask is serving Ordeal - which seems to be the Ninth Sontaran Battle Fleet's equivalent of community service - but the real reasons why take a lot longer arriving. Stenk has broken the conduct of war the militaristic race live by, but only Jask was witness to it, which is why Stenk attempts to kill him twice across the course of this story.

The other major player in this is Josette Simon's Sarana Teel - a native of the planet the Doctor and Jask have arrived on. Both came due to the influence of the Time War - the Doctor to try and stop it ruining Drakkis and the Sontarans to try and enter the battle. Sarana's world was once at peace, but after being touched, just for a second, by the nightmares of the Time War, it was doomed to an eternity of conflict. Her two sons are being held hostage in the city her people are fighting against, and her only goal is their release. She doesn't appreciate the Doctor and the Sontarans getting involved, but even though they ultimately hasten her purpose, that's made perfectly clear the end of the story.

The Doctor is in a new place for Big Finish listeners. He is just trying to limit the fallout of the Time War, exacting justice where he can. In this way, he helps Jask to defeat Stenk, knowing that the former has a limited lifespan. Paul McGann doesn't sound quite at ease with material this dark, but that could well be part of his performance, as he rails against the horrors unfolding across the universe. Deep down he knows he's going to have to put a stop to it before too long. 

Perhaps it's the direction, or perhaps it's the story itself, but something about The Sontaran Ordeal makes it feel a bit distant and disconnected. Maybe it's the high-level science fiction. Unless James Goss' Harvest of the Sycorax, which could easily have been set in the same time period judging by the level of generally accepted technology, there isn't a great amount of grounding in today's society for the audience to relate to. The only aspect of the story in this respect is the plight of a love one. Sarana is the sole human in this story - all the other characters have concerns beyond the domestic, but even so, perhaps more could have been made of that. Instead, she feels quite 'stock space woman' - this isn't me being complacent, I know it's an extremely hard act to pull off. But look at the difference between her and Harvest's Zanzibar Hashtag.

Howard Carter keeps up the great work on these stories, with a score that's grand and orchestral but emphasises the quieter moments too. Ordeal goes through quite a few different movements and relationships, to best examine each of its central three characters, who eventually work together, for their own ends. Each of these has obviously been considered in post-production, with each of the big scenes feeling consistent yet unique. Carter's sound design also does the job, from the Sand Serpent attack to the spaceship interiors. He really is an asset to Big Finish's regular team, being not just a reliable contributor, but also consistently impressive. This boxset, if nothing else, has shown that. If you like his work here, do check out Damaged Goods.

The Sontarans are increasing in prominence all the time at Big Finish. After just five appearances up until 2014, they are now regularly appearing in three releases a year. Their next, The Eternity Cage, is also written by Andrew Smith. It again sees the clones trying to break into the Time War, to join the conflict, but with a different strategy. Sir John Hurt will be in the driving seat there, and we'll find out next month, just how it fares in comparison to this story. Dan Starkey is the resident audio Sontaran, and listening to this you can see why. Jask does sound a lot like Strax from the Doctor Who television series (obviously) but his personality is far removed, and that's where Starkey does his best work here. It's also nice to hear Christopher Ryan back, and it's good that the General gets such a substantial role.

The reason for The Sontaran Ordeal feeling somewhat unrelatable, and just overall a bit hard to get into, might lie in its whirlwind of settings. This is very much an adventure that happens on the move, and as such the tone never really settles, particularly with Jask, Sarana and Stenk fronting the story, when all three can turn on a sixpence. It gives the actors a good chance to show off their range, but isn't wholly satisfying as a continuous piece. I totally understand the reasoning - it just didn't work for me. This is a story that is perfectly listenable, and does its job as part of this set by examining Sontaran nature - to which the Time War is almost incidental - rather than just showing us standard invasion fare, but there's still something missing. The Sontaran Ordeal is a good conclusion to this first series, but it won't be the end of the world if you don't hear it.

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