In which quislings and slaves learn the folly of appeasement and Leela is christened a warrior of Sontar.
Despite the intrinsic limitations of the character and her comparatively lesser run of stories falling at the conclusion of the Hinchcliffe era (and dawn of the Graham Williams one), Leela has always been one of my all time favorite companions.
Sure, I’m a bloke, and will admit to her fetching looks and earlier, quite revealing outfit playing into matters – and she only looked that much more ravishing in cable knit sweater and comparatively modern clothes in her second best episode, Horror of Fang Rock. But the plain fact of the matter is, Leela kicked ass.
Think about it. We’d come out of a long run of Who marked by wilting lilies, ninnies and nominal feminists who were all talk and no action, fainting and shrieking in the face of terror when it all came down to brass tacks (hello, Sarah Jane Smith).
While there were moments of promise throughout (Carole Ann Ford swears she was induced to take the part under the assumption that she’d be playing a far more active Emma Peel style role in the proceedings, both Vicki and Victoria were far pluckier than their reputations may suggest and Jo, while as helpless as the rest in the event, certainly put on a brave face and made a go of it), in the grand scheme of things Doctor Who companions were just that – there to ask questions, scream and be rescued by the Doctor and/or his male compatriots.
Leela, on the other hand, came in fighting and stayed that way. Bar an uncharacteristic and quite honestly ridiculous write-off at the end of her run, she went far beyond plucky or even aggro to spouting lines like “surrender or die!”, “enjoy your death as I enjoyed killing you!” and (in response to the Doctor’s admonition not to kill an enemy as he hasn’t done her any harm) “then I shall kill him before he does!”.
With her trusty knife and poisoned Janis thorn, Leela was disinclined towards any of the standard companion predilections, with a decided propensity towards death before surrender. Strong stuff for what began as a children’s light entertainment…even stronger stuff for television at the very dawn of the feminist era. An entire generation of 90’s television shows and films should genuflect at the altar of Leela in homage and obesiance.
Speaking as a man who enjoys tussling with truly and intrinsically strong women (as opposed to those who bitch loudest and hope somehow to be taken seriously thereby…hello again, Sarah Jane Smith), to put things colloquially, Leela was the shit.
Louise Jameson would pop up in other films and series of interest over the years: the Mike Raven occult oddity Disciple of Death, a first season episode of Space 1999 (when the show was still quite watchable…no comment on the second season), the interesting if failed experiment that was The Omega Factor and a few Bill Baggs productions like The Stranger and P.R.O.B.E., but sadly is likely best known among the general public for more populist fare like Emmerdale, Doc Martin and EastEnders.
Regardless, she’ll always be Leela to me, and in all honestly, who could picture any other actress of the era filling that particular role?
With that being said, on to the story in question. The third season of the Fourth Doctor adventures kicks off with some relatively light fare involving the Sontarans.
The generally hard to take seriously, second tier Who nemeses return, but this time they’re the ones under assault, and it’s not age-old opponents the Rutans either. Some defect or x factor (it’s never actually explained) has interfered in the Sontaran reproductive cloning process to fuse an entire battalion’s worth of DNA into one super-Sontaran, whose megalomania leads him on a path to not only Sontaran but universal domination.
The Doctor and Leela join forces with one surviving trooper (designated “The Coward”) and lead a slave worker revolt to remove the menace once and for all. “The Coward” redeems himself, Leela is dubbed a true warrior of Sontar, the Doctor is mildly put off by her final solution to the affair and some quislings learn too late never to trust a fascist who rules by force of hand. Interesting enough of a ride, but quite standard and straightforward. The end.
So how’s this for authenticity – they actually cast Dan Starkey, recurrent televised Sontaran in any number of New Who telestories, as…Romana.
No, just kidding. Of course, he’s back playing his most famous role(s) as the Sontaran Strang (with a dual role as ‘Hutchins’ for good measure). Seriously, if they’re going to move beyond easily identifiable Doctor/companion/recognizable villain castings to folks even the average Whovian would be unlikely recognize outside of all that alien makeup, that’s getting pretty damn comprehensive, not to mention displaying a commendable dedication to authenticity at a profound level. Hats off.
David Collings (who appeared in the televised Who a few times prior back in the Tom Baker and Peter Davison days, generally appearing in a similarly makeup-masked role) also delivers a turn here as quisling collaborator ‘Rosato’, who claims to be operating under the assumption that Strang will be utilizing his invention solely to destroy Sontar (and thus remove one menace only to leave a greater one, Enemy of the Daleks style). But again, Collings’ casting here remains impressive for the same reasons as Starkey’s. One wonders if there are any Classic Who staffers who haven’t taken a turn at bat over Big Finish’s way…
Writer John Dorney (of Justice of Jalxar and 1963: the Assassination Games) delivers a somewhat heavy handed effort that would hardly be out of place for the Graham Williams era most of Leela’s travels fell under the purview of. Nearly as obviously (but far more ineffectually) preachy as episodes like the Sunmakers or Underworld, Tom Baker can’t even summon sufficient belief in the script to convincingly deliver his final scenes, which come across without any measure of conviction whatsoever.
In fact, Baker’s halfhearted protestations come off very much on the level of “Oh, no, please, not the tickling feather. I would just hate it if you made me laugh.” It’s as if the Doctor himself joins the audience in support of Leela’s somewhat force majeure solution to the problem of the Strang clones, leaving any nominal resistance to such sweeping reactions quite flaccid if not disingenuous in the final analysis hereof. Right or wrong, it’s hardly Who in that light.
Jameson continues to deliver a rather credible Leela, sounding very much like it’s still 1977. Her ongoing efforts with both the Fourth Doctor Adventures and a season or two of Jago & Litefoot remain quite welcome and amusing.
Baker has certainly offered stronger efforts with Big Finish, but one is forced to question whether his apparent disbelief in the script’s heavy handed moralizing plays a major factor in that. We’ll see how things go with next month’s installment together, but suffice it to say that it remains impressive that the man known for decades as “The” Doctor has finally gotten over some longstanding reservations to return to the role he personifies for so many to this very day.
Director Nicholas Briggs keeps things moving along with his typical eye towards historical authenticity, and while there are a few too many noisy explosions and battle sequences early on to suit personal taste, Jamie Robertson’s music and sound design are certainly suitable for the scenario.
In all, while somewhat of an ephemeral start to the season, King of Sontar remains listenable enough, at least for the efforts of Jameson, Starkey and Collins herein, and presents another side of the Sontarans for longtime fans to delight over.