The Great Sontaran

May 4, 2019

Doctor Who was always ground-breaking. It may not have been the originator of many of the ideas and themes used in it’s stories, it may not have used these to their full potential, but Doctor Who always brought new ideas to the public fore, not least in the writing of some of the classic series’ leading lights, people like Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis and of course the man who could write a Who story in his sleep, Bob Holmes.

The Sontarans were first encountered in the 1973 adventure The Time Warrior and would appear in the series a further three times to date. Although against the idea of Doctor Who travelling into the past, Robert Holmes nevertheless created a fabulous bunch of characters not least the first (and many say best) Sontaran, Linx. But what did he create in the Sontarans? We look at Doctor Who monsters (generally speaking) in this manner: Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, Ice Warriors, Silurians, Sontarans and Autons. This is in no particular order, and of course we might add the Slitheen into the mix – however, we’re getting off the point.

Holmes was fortunate. Not only did he create a race of cloned alien warriors tied to an endless war against the Rutan that neither could end, he introduced the concept of cloning into mainstream science fiction and benefited from a quality actor cast as Linx. Kevin Lindsay defined the Sontaran race for his successors, and brought to life both Linx and Styre in The Sontaran Experiment.

So what? A race of clones is nothing new to us now. No, but this was before Star Wars and cryptic comments about “Clone Wars”. Doctor Who in 1973 introduced the concept of an eternal army, one which couldn’t be defeated. A race of clones, all derived from one all-powerful warrior.

The Doctor is considered the Sontarans’ enemy, second only to the shapeshifting Rutan. Typically he is able to frustrate them – it is almost as if the bigger the monster’s self image of superiority, the easier an opponent the Doctor finds them. Four incarnations of the Doctor so far – the third, fourth, and together the second and sixth – have encountered the Sontarans on television and found them to be a race of supreme ambition, resilience as well as a race of liars, torturers and murderers.

Their thirst for power is a military manoeuvre, their strategies requiring contingency and easily broken alliances with lesser species. Linx happily allied himself with the laughable mediaeval warlord Irongron in order to aid repairs on his scoutship in The Time Warrior; Stor used the Vardan’s to fool the Doctor and invade Gallifrey in The Invasion of Time; Stike’s alliance with the Androgums in The Two Doctors.

Why the use of lesser species? What is wrong with an indestructible army marching in and taking their target? This tactic can – according to The Monsters by Adrian Rigelsford and Andrew Skilleter – be attributed to two occasions where the Doctor defeated the clones with his legendary guile and wit.

Sontarans are a warrior race, and are cloned in their millions in order to live up to this culture. Their self-image is irrepressible – where Daleks have been known to panic, Sontarans are confident of victory and an honourable death. Some details of their culture can be seen to run parallel to the Klingons of Star Trek lore; this however would be a shallow comparison. Both races, as well as the Martian Ice Warriors have a warrior code that descends from far eastern disciplines.

Their key characteristic is their decisiveness in battle, their lack of mercy second only to this. They may lack imagination but weight in numbers and tactical nuance over-rides this shortfall. Their natural advantage is raw strength, a bonus due to their evolution in a high gravity world which also explains their squat appearance.

In these uncertain times of wars and rumours of wars, assassinations and worldwide conspiracies, the concept of the cloned super soldier or the genetically modified space traveller might well be the stuff of science fiction but this doesn’t stop the concept from becoming yet another frightening reality.

Robert Holmes created in the Sontarans what David and Pedler created in the Cybermen and Terry Nation created in the Daleks – a distorted, twisted reflection of ourselves, a perversion of our own humanity and a frightening prophecy of what we might become. The monstrosity of the Sontaran race is something we should not forget – lest we become it.

Artwork: Nigel Parry