In the Crimean War, the Doctor discovers the British army fighting a brutal alien army of Sontarans, as Yaz and Dan are thrown deeper into a battle for survival. What is the Temple of Atropos? Who are the Mouri?
The second episode in the six-part ‘Flux’ storyline was pretty much as good as current Doctor Who gets – a dizzying mix of space opera, character drama, social consciousness and time-hopping. War of the Sontarans contained moments to equal any in the series’ history including the reveal of a Sontaran (Jonathan Watson) on horseback, the Doctor seeing a spooky house in a black and white dimension, and a cliffhanger that should definitely have the audience coming back for more.
The episode benefited from dropping or marginalising some of the plot threads dumped on us last week; so, no Weeping Angels and not much more of nineteenth century tunnel-digging under Liverpool.
Instead, the story focussed on a Sontaran plan to make good Lynx’s claim on the planet Earth staked back in the Third Doctor story, The Time Warrior, with cutaways to a planet called Time, where the Skeletor-like Swarm and co. are about to do something terrible with actual time.
Chibnall’s tale certainly didn’t lack ambition, combining gestures to Russell T Davies’ tenure as “showrunner”, while retaining Chibnall’s distinctive take on historical drama. This meant we were treated to Sontaran soldiers fascistic-ally stomping around Liverpool and executing members of the population for breaking a curfew, and spying on a vast fleet of ships intended to colonise all of Earth’s history.
Meanwhile, the Doctor finds herself running about a battlefield during the Crimean War where she is aided by a “forgotten” figure from history books, Mary Seacole, played with great gusto by Sara Powell.
Seacole was a British-Jamacan businesswoman and healer who, as a “doctress”, used traditional herbal remedies to treat wounded soldiers. She was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit in 1991 and voted the greatest Black Briton in 2004. This Doctor Who episode took us inside her “British Hotel”, set up behind the lines during the Crimean War to provide comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers.
It was an amusing twist to find that, among the soldiers being tended to by Seacole, was a Sontaran – Dan Starkey, beter known for playing the Sontaran, Strax, a member of the “Paternoster Gang” who often served as comic relief during Moffat’s tenure on the show. Here Starkey played Svild, a more sombre Sontaran, who comes to a bitter end – if entirely expected for allowing himself to be captured.
I enjoy the way Chibnall integrates actual historical characters into his stories and I come away genuinely entertained and educated. I had no idea that the mysterious 19th century tunnels being dug under Liverpool had their basis in history; the so-called “Williamson Tunnels”, built by local eccentric and tobacco merchant Joseph Williamson.
As for Seacole, her work was forgotten for over a century. She went to the Crimea under her own efforts, having been rejected as a nurse by the War Office. Facing destitution after the war, service personnel raised money for her and in 1858 a four-day Fundraising Gala took place on the banks of the river Thames, attracting a reported 80,000 people (just because something is detailed on Wikipedia doesn’t mean anyone will read it, unless directed).
Back in the realms of fantasy, the Doctor made use of Seacole’s powers of observation, honed as a nurse practitioner, to spot weaknesses in the Sontaran army.
The Crimean Sontarans were excellent – kudos to the make-up department. Their masks echoed many classic series’ designs. Their modern day compatriots looked no less impressive, but you couldn’t help but notice they seemed to have all the shooting skills of a Star Wars Stormtrooper.
The tone of the modern scenes was all over the place, too. One moment, we are expected to laugh at Dan being rescued by his Mum and Dad (enthusiastically played by Brookside stars Sue Jenkins and Paul Broughton); the next, we are supposed to be horrified when The Sontarans execute a group of Liverpudlians. A good Terry Nation script would have set up these resistance fighters, and give the audience a stake in their fate.
As usual, too much of the story was carried by Whittaker breathlessly racing through her dialogue, as if afraid that silence would signify a lack of excitement. In contrast, the scenes with Yaz in the Temple of Atropos on a planet called Time are, fittingly, actually given some time, and this paid off as the more interesting of the episode’s plot threads. Swarm, here played by Sam Spruell, and his partners, Azure (Rochenda Sandall) and The Passenger (Jonny Mathers), are proving to be old-school Doctor Who villains – mysterious of purpose, with a gruesome visage… and a death-dealing touch.
Chibnall also plays with expectations, “fannish knowledge” and misdirection. I know I’m not the only person to compare the strange floaty and pedantic pyramids with the Megara from the Fourth Doctor story, The Stones of Blood. For a while, I wondered if the women keepers of the temple would be revealed to be the Sisterhood of Karn (they weren’t).
I must confess that after watching this episode, I found myself longing to rewatch the Patrick Troughton ten-parter, The War Games, because the actual War with the Sontarans didn’t really capture my interest. The CGI battle was ambitious for Doctor Who and seeing Sontar where Russia should have been on a battle map was a hoot. But I felt director Jamie Magnus Stone (the grandson of Magnus Magnusson) wasn’t particularly adept at the all too brief scenes of hand to hand combat. It seemed to me that time and money had simply run out.
As for me, I thought it was the best Sontaran story since Doctor Who’s return in 2005, and I am looking forward to Vinder’s friendship with Yaz developing in future episodes. Dan and his doggy pal are also fun.
So I am well up for Episode Three, Once, Upon Time, even if I keep thinking that the show is on Saturday.
Speaking of which, I resented the way the continuity announcer slathered her adoration for Strictly Come Dancing all over the start and finish of the episode – get a ballroom! Please!
Dear reader, a review is an opinion. Other opinions are available, including your own.
• Doctor Who is available to watch on BBC iPlayer | Official Web Site: www.doctorwho.tv
The Doctor: Jodie Whittaker
Yasmin Khan: Mandip Gill
Dan Lewis: John Bishop
Skaak/Sontaran Commander Riskaw: Jonathan Watson
Mary Seacole: Sara Powell
Vinder: Jacob Anderson
Eileen: Sue Jenkins
Joseph Williamson: Steve Oram
Swarm: Sam Spruell
Azure: Rochenda Sandall
Writer: Chris Chibnall
Director: Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive Producer: Matt Strevens
Executive Producer: Nikki Wilson
Executive Producer: Chris Chibnall
More Reviews and Production Information
The statue of Mary Seacole, sited at St Thomas’ Hospital directly across the Thames from Big Ben, was unveiled by Baroness Floella Benjamin OBE on 30 June 2016 in front of over 300 guests. It is the first statue of a named black woman in the United Kingdom. The statue is important in symbolising Mary Seacole’s contribution, particularly as a nurse, and that of people from ethnic communities to British society.
Much misinformation about Mary Seacole has been generated in a campaign to have her replace Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) as the major founder of the modern profession of nursing. During the Crimean War, Nightingale was recognised as the “lady with the lamp,” a heroine and ministering angel, although these are not images that she, a hard working nurse, statistician, hospital and health care reformer particularly liked. The purpose of the “Mary Seacole Information” site, however is not to add another website about Nightingale, but only to correct misinformation generated in the campaign for Seacole to replace her. For more about Nightingale’s life and work visit The Collected Life and Works of Florence Nightingale site
• Mary Seacole’s own memoir, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands was originally published in 1857, and has since appeared in several editions
The Williamson Tunnels Heritage Centre provides an insight into the fascinating underground world created by Joseph Williamson in the early 19th Century. Take a guided tour through a section of the network of tunnels and view exhibitions which depict the life and times of one of Liverpool’s most eccentric characters.
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