This review contains spoilers
Hard to believe that this is the first proper Sontaran story Doctor Who has done since 2008’s The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, isn’t it? Reformed Sontaran Strax may have made multiple appearances throughout the Smith and Capaldi eras, but War of the Sontarans is the first story where we’ve seen the short, brutish warmongers front and centre as antagonists in over a decade. Their long-awaited return is a welcome addition to an already packed series, and makes for a mostly enjoyable hour, though the episode itself is not without its issues.
As Chapter Two of Flux, War of the Sontarans largely steers clear of the events that lead up to last week’s epic cliffhanger and brings things back down to earth for a bit, putting much of the focus on a simple alien invasion story that merely connects to the Flux storyline in an inconsequential but intriguing manner. There are small threads here and there that largely form a B-plot, but as the title suggests, this is the Sontaran’s time in the spotlight first and foremost.
It’s great to see these bloodthirsty warriors back as proper baddies again, and plunging them into an actual conflict from Earth history is one of those ‘well, duh’ kind of ideas you’d think the show would have attempted before now. The Crimean War setting and the presence of Mary Seacole (played superbly by Sara Powell) plays to writer Chris Chibnall‘s strengths, with his penchant for exploring seldom-seen moments from history and throwing in alien threats that feel like an organic part of the historical setting both on full display here. The production team do a fantastic job of bringing the bloody Crimean battlefield settings to life, and costume designer Ray Holman‘s redesigned Sontarans certainly look the business too. Their new thuggish, grimy look is as imposing as it is memorable, whilst the odes to the original Sontaran look of the 70s proves that the old ways are truly best when it comes to Who‘s top-tier monsters.
Like in Series 12, Jodie Whittaker‘s Doctor shines best when she’s separated from her companions and thrown up against a formidable enemy one-on-one, and Jonathan Watson‘s Sontaran General Skaak is exactly that kind of enemy. After vying for attention a bit in the crowded opener, Whittaker takes a much more central role in this episode, and is superb throughout as areult of the sharper focus. Her spirited, rebellious and authoritative take on the Doctor as she rails against her old adversaries (and even some new ones in the form of Gerald Kyd‘s antagonistic General Logan) really shows off why she was so right to play the role, and her scenes crackle throughout.
Sadly, Yasmin (Mandip Gill) and Dan (John Bishop) don’t have as much impact on proceedings this week, nor are they afforded any opportunity to do so. Yaz is largely sidelined with Vinder (Jacob Anderson) as they are mysteriously transported to a strange alien temple, wherein they are simply left to hang around and talk with some floating Priest Triangles (don’t ask!) until the main plot catches up with them in time for the cliffhanger. Dan fares slightly better and gets to fight some Sontarans with a wok, spout a few zingers and have some banter with Karvanista, but this is only his second episode, and its a shame he doesn’t get to spend more time with the Doctor or Yaz so we can see their rapport develop a bit more outside of the chaos of last week’s opener.
These are just minor quibbles though compared to our main one, which is that War of the Sontarans doesn’t quite stick the landing. The Sontaran’s time-travel conquest plot is interesting in its simplicity and the action that results is breathtaking, but the climax perhaps takes said-simplicity too far, as Chibnall plumps for a simple ‘blow everything up’ solution that is ultimately bought about by telling us an important plot development in a line of dialogue rather than showing it. Had the episode gone down a more inventive avenue or developed an emotional conundrum to overcome, it would be a winner, but as it stands, its a rather dull conclusion to an otherwise decent episode.
As for a the larger plot, it still lacks cohesion, but the elements at play do go someway into keeping things interesting. Main villains Swarm, Azure and the Passenger are alluring antagonists and bring a true sense of menace to their scenes, whilst there’s lots of interesting questions for us to ponder come the end credits. Like: what’s the deal with the planet Time and the Mouri? Why is Joseph Williamson (a man from the 1820s Liverpool) wandering around the Temple of Atropos? What’s up with the TARDIS? Who even is the masked Passenger? And what’s with that spooky floating house that the Doctor sees in the opening scene? If Chibnall can pay these plot threads off better than he does the Sontaran storyline, then Flux could very well wind up finishing on a high. Fingers firmly crossed.
Whilst it may not live up to all it promises, War of the Sontarans is entertaining enough, and largely works as both part two of a larger ongoing story and as a standalone in its own right (even if the ending lacks in imagination). The return to the evil Sontarans of old is done with the right amount of care and attention, and the episode serves as a fitting reintroduction for them, showcasing them at their best in every aspect, from performance and characterisation right through to visualisation. The episode itself doesn’t quite win the battle, but for this reviewer, the triumphant return of this classic monster wins the war!