Image Credit: BBC (Fair Use)
Image Description: The Doctor stands on the foggy battlefields of Crimea
Victoria Walker reviews Series Thirteen’s second episode – and warning – there be spoilers ahead!
War of the Sontarans was certainly a departure from The Halloweeen Apocalypse, in a way many were hoping (and I was expecting) it would be. While it didn’t bother me, a criticism I heard no end after Series Thirteen’s first episode was that it was all over the place. War of the Sontarans settled down somewhat compared to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty to talk about.
Starting the episode, the setting was something that excited me. I did not watch any of the trailers before settling down to watch it, so it came as a surprise. As a fan of historical costuming, the fact it looks as though designers worked directly from portraits of Mary Seacole to produce her outfit pleased me greatly. As for the Doctor, though they may stand out as a woman wearing trousers, it’s nothing compared to her previous incarnations’ apparel. Very often, the Doctor has had their shirt showing when travelling back to the Victorian age, a garment that was considered almost like underwear at certain points.
More in keeping with the period was Lieutenant-General Logan, who was well-characterised with many of the traits you’d expect of a man in his position in that period. As for the women, I remarked in my Witchfinders review that the fact the Doctor now presents as a woman had not been utilised to much of an extent in many episodes. Here, I felt that it was treated quite well and fairly without compromising much of the story. Mary Seacole had her insistence on calling the Doctor ‘a Doctress’, much as she did herself, while there is an implication that the Doctor may not have had as much issue convincing Logan to follow her plan had he perceived her as a man. These add well to the gist of the attitudes of the time, without getting overly bogged down in the details.
Detail was also something given to Dan in this episode, who had previously just been a generally nice chap. I admire his intrepid spirit, and the jokes he is given feel a lot more natural than many of the ones given to Graham. His community spirit, meanwhile, lends itself well to his actions stopping the Sontarans around Liverpool docks in this episode. This plotline also continued to build a friendship of sorts between Dan and Karvanista, which is being presented as a more healthy alternative to that between Yaz and the Doctor.
Speaking of Yaz, she continues to develop in interesting ways. I think the ‘WWTDD’ on her palm is absolutely adorable; lending itself to a theme that showed some potential in The Halloween Apocalypse: that of loyalty. Perhaps spilling over into idolatry in this case, Yaz holds the Doctor in the highest regard. It will be interesting to see the payoff when she finally discovers the whole Timeless Child thing happened. That said, there has not been an overabundance of Doctor and Yaz moments yet in this series which makes it difficult to predict how things will go.
Of course, I can’t finish this review without talking about the Sontarans. I love the Sontarans, and they sit beside the Dominators, Meglos, and the Cybermen as some of my favourite Classic Who villains. I think it’s brilliant that Chibnall is trying to pull them out of the comedic hole they have occupied for the last decade or so and make them back into the terrifying warmongers they used to be. With the execution of Svild, along with Ritskaw executing humans in the docks, we see the brutality of the Sontarans in a way we have not seen in a while.
Chibnall’s changes don’t mean there is no room for comedy, however. The jokes surrounding the Sontarans, and especially Skaak, were funny without compromising how sinister they are. This was helped by the avoidance of putting too many Sontarans next to humans, keeping them imposing without necessarily contradicting audience expectations of their appearance. We also, as a final note, have the hint of a series theme of revenge and honour, as hinted by Svild swearing death upon the Doctor and Mary Seacole, and the General exploding all the Sontaran ships as they fled in retreat.
Overall, however, it is the Sontarans, or lack of them, that were the downfall of this episode for me. There were a lot of bits and pieces I very much liked, mostly relating to the Sontaran plot, and the cuts to the Temple of Atropos got in the way of this. I just didn’t care about what was going on there, and I wanted to see more Sontarans instead. As I always say: I cannot stand an episode that is dull, and much less dull parts of an episode I find otherwise exciting. Swarm and Azure have not yet captured my interest (though I know they’re a hit elsewhere in fandom) and though I love Yaz the temple did not give her very much to do. I like War of the Sontarans but my critique is that I wanted more of what the title promised. In summary, I would say: a little more Sontarans, a little less crystal aliens with glittery eyeshadow.