NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of, “Doctor Who” are present in this review
Doctor Who’s Series 13 premiere certainly bombarded us with a lot of information. With the universe itself seemingly under threat by the Flux, The Doctor and her companions have no time to lose, and no shortage of obstacles to face! Unfortunately, the party of three quickly end up being separated after they find themselves dropped into the Crimean War of 1855, with Yaz and Dan whisked off to some other corners of time, while The Doctor is left behind to face an invading force of Sontarans!
After such a busy and convoluted season premiere that came beforehand, it felt refreshing to experience a more by-the-book Doctor Who mystery in this case. “War of the Sontarans” starts out with a pretty simple, yet inspired premise; The Sontarans have replaced the Russian forces within the Crimean War, leading to all of Russia and China becoming one giant Sontaran nation in the past. Not only is this a great hook, but it also creates an overdue opportunity to reframe the Sontarans as a genuinely imposing and destructive threat, after New Who previously portrayed them in more of a goofy fashion. Even this season’s designs for the Sontarans have been altered to reflect this, with the war-like aliens going further back to a more old-school, monstrous-looking appearance, more akin to their look in Classic Who.
For the most part, both the premise and execution of this Sontaran mystery is great. It balances action, humour, drama and mystery in equal parts, and is divided very well between the perspectives of both The Doctor and Dan. Yaz, meanwhile, instead gets thrown into a subplot that’s meant to keep developing the over-arching Flux mystery, and this is sadly the weaker narrative in this episode. Even so, The Doctor meeting historical figure, Mary Seacole, and enlisting her help against the Sontarans, makes for lots of good old-fashioned Doctor detective work and reconnaissance, while an antagonistic British general, General Logan, is desperate to strike at the Sontarans by any means necessary.
Inevitably though, the Sontarans are more than a match for the British forces. Indeed, while The Doctor and Mary convince a captured Sontaran scout to set up a parley with the Sontaran commander, Logan’s forces get decimated by the invading Sontarans, with no casualties on the Sontaran side. While this is definitely tragic and surprisingly dark, it only goes to make Logan more desperate, even while The Doctor and Mary formulate a pretty solid plan to tamper with the Sontaran supplies, which will force the Sontarans to retreat back to 2021. Apparently, this altered Crimean War serves as a mere test run for a larger Sontaran invasion, on this note, with the Sontarans actually planning an entire temporal conquest that will see them inserted into Earth’s history from the dawn of time, thus dooming the planet to become a Sontaran outpost in a revised timeline.
Dan, meanwhile, ends up serving as the other arm to The Doctor’s plan, after his parents bail him out of a Sontaran execution, and arm him with a wok that he can use to sneak into the Sontaran base in the present day. Sure, this is a little goofy, even for Doctor Who standards, but luckily, Karvanista also returns to make sure Dan doesn’t get killed. Convenient! Fortunately, The Doctor and Dan are able to make contact across the timeline shortly after this point, and with some help from Karvanista, Dan rigs the Sontaran ship he stows away on to crash into the others and cause a chain reaction, fatally crippling the Sontaran invasion. General Logan meanwhile uses explosives to destroy the Sontaran forces in the past, against The Doctor’s wishes, though nothing can be done in the end, as the TARDIS returns to whisk The Doctor away.
Like I said, this Sontaran storyline is great overall, using the inspired obstacle of the Sontarans exploiting the Flux to invade Earth, while the entire planet is distracted by the Luparian ship grid. Unfortunately, once it’s over, we have to go back to scratching our heads over the sluggish Flux mystery, which is only getting weirder and more confusing for now. In any case, Yaz finds herself stuck on a planet literally called ‘Time’, where she and Vinder, who also survived the Flux during the previous episode, are tasked with ‘repairing’ time-guarding priestesses called Mouri. Naturally, this doesn’t work too well, and the two are eventually captured by Swarm and Azure, leaving The Doctor helpless as Swarm prepares to kill Yaz and Vinder with time itself. At least this serves as a strong cliffhanger before the following episode though, after so much of this episode’s Mouri and Planet Time material otherwise proves to be dense, dry and unrewarding.
I’m nervous that, after getting such a standout Sontaran storyline in this episode, we’ll now be left with all Flux, all the time for the remainder of this season’s narrative. Hopefully showrunner, Chris Chibnall has at least a couple of more curveballs aside from Doctor Who’s over-arching Series 13 threat, but we’ll just have to see from here. Either way, “War of the Sontarans” is a very engaging and clever episode that finally puts some bite back into the Sontaran race. It’s too bad however that Yaz had to be separated into a less interesting subplot, a subplot that’s mainly there to keep developing this season’s true mystery, a mystery that once again threatens to have Chibnall taking an axe to established Doctor Who lore, history and fans be damned. On the bright side, Dan better excelled as a new companion here, even if he needed backup from Karvanista. I just hope that Doctor Who can start making its Flux mystery less convoluted after this. It’s a cool idea, but it’s not really being presented in a way that makes it the exciting universal threat it deserves to be.
Doctor Who returns to top form with a standout Sontaran mystery in, "War of the Sontarans", even if this episode's Flux subplot is much drier in comparison.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Smart, exciting historical mystery
The Sontarans becoming more imposing again
Dan's useful, if cheeky assistance in the present
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Yaz's and Vinder's Flux subplot is disappointingly dull