The Sontaran Strategem
The Sontaran Stratagem was the fourth episode of the fourth series of Doctor Who. It was the first appearance of the Sontarans in the revived series and saw the reappearance of Martha Jones as a recurring guest character.
Also of note was the casting of the Sontarans. As well as featuring the return of Christopher Ryan in a new role, this episode featured the first Doctor Who appearance of Dan Starkey, seen here as Commander Skorr. Primarily recognized later as Commander Strax, a friend of the Doctor, he would go on to appear in various other roles, several of them also Sontaran, in both the TV series and Big Finish Productions’ audio dramas during the years that would follow.
Luke Rattigan and his students toss out reporter Jo Nakashima and her notes from the Rattigan Academy. She protests, saying that she’s investigating ATMOS, Rattigan’s invention. It is dangerous. An uninterested Rattigan lets her leave. However, he goes inside and contacts his mysterious employer, recommending termination of Jo. His employer reminds him they don’t take orders from him, but Rattigan reminds him that he said, “recommend”, and the employer agrees to terminate Jo.
Some time later, Jo is in her car (fitted with ATMOS). She leaves a message for Colonel Mace of UNIT, asking him to check out several recent deaths that have happened in ATMOS-equipped cars and to pinpoint the times. At the same time, she follows her ATMOS’s instructions. After crossing a bridge, the car turns right and stops at the bank of a river. Jo is confused, as she told ATMOS to take her to UNIT Headquarters. She’s about to find her own way when the car doors lock themselves and the transmission of the car locks itself in the drive position. The car accelerates towards the bank. Jo screams as the car goes flying, landing in the river, where it sinks with her inside.
Meanwhile, Donna is flying the TARDIS with mixed results while the Tenth Doctor watches closely (warning her not to put a dent in the 1980s). He gets a call on his mobile phone, from former companion Martha Jones.
Martha waits in an alley when the TARDIS materializes. The Doctor introduces Martha and Donna and catches up on where Martha has been since she left the TARDIS. She is now engaged to Tom Milligan and, thanks to the Doctor’s recommendation, has a job with UNIT as a medical officer. She speaks into a walkie-talkie and gives the all-clear to execute “Operation Blue Sky.” Elsewhere, UNIT forces raid an ATMOS factory and capture the workers. What no one knows is that Luke Rattigan’s employer is watching the raid on a television monitor and is not very impressed.
Martha leads the Doctor and Donna into a lorry containing a mobile UNIT headquarters. She introduces the Doctor to Colonel Mace, who knows about the Time Lord from UNIT files. The Doctor isn’t impressed either with the overly military “new” UNIT or their handling of civilian workers in the ATMOS factory. Donna compares it to how the United States treats detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Martha and Mace explain why they’ve executed the raid: just the day before, fifty-two people were simultaneously poisoned to death in their cars across the world. Martha has checked the biopsies and found the unknown toxin had left each of their bodies immediately. The cars in question are of different makes and models but are all fitted with ATMOS. UNIT suspects that the technology is alien in origin.
Meanwhile, two UNIT solders, Privates Harris and Gray, are exploring in the lower corridors of the ATMOS factory. Wandering into another corridor, they find two ATMOS workers guarding a door. Rattigan’s employer remotely orders the two workers to let the soldiers in. Hypnotically, one opens the door. They enter a room with mysterious lighting and a tank with something banging underneath. They figure it must be a cloning tank and someone is growing a body. Gray tries to call for backup, but a squat armored person appears in the room and praises Harris’s skills of deduction. He tells Gray that he smells of sweat and fear. After Harris calls him “Humpty Dumpty”, the figure fires a bolt of energy from a staff to disable Harris’s legs. Gray fires his sub-machine gun, but it only clicks. The figure reveals that the room is contained within a cordolane signal that excites the copper surface of the bullet and causes expansion in the barrel, rendering their guns useless, as well as blocking their radio signals (during which time Gray tries using his pistol but finds that is also useless). Gray raises the sub-machine gun to strike a blow and the figure fires at Grey’s legs, causing him to fall the floor as well. When asked for a name, the figure identifies himself as General Staal of the Tenth Sontaran Battle Fleet, known as “Staal the Undefeated.” He takes off his helmet to reveal a face that horrifies the disabled privates.
The Doctor examines the ATMOS equipment and concludes it is advanced but not alien technology. He notes that he didn’t expect Martha to work for the military, but she points out that he left her and she is working with UNIT on her own terms. Donna has been using her own skills to go over the personnel records. She returns with the Sick Days file, which is empty. There have been no sick employees at the factory in months, if ever, which is more suspicious. The Doctor wants to go see Luke Rattigan, the creator of the ATMOS system. Mace assigns him a private, Ross Jenkins. Meanwhile, Donna and Martha chat and Martha notes that her family suffered because Martha didn’t tell them about her involvement with the Doctor.
In the basement, Staal finishes the hypnotic programming on Gray and Harris, assigns them orders and returns to the Sontarans’ ship via a teleport pod. The Doctor prepares to go the Rattigan Academy and Donna says that she’s going home. The Doctor thinks she means she is leaving for good. He babbles on about how he’ll miss her until he figures out she’s just going home to talk to her mother and granddad. Meanwhile, Martha talks to a factory worker, Trepper, who seems to have come from Poland just to work. She finds him little more than an automaton with a rapid heartbeat, as he speaks in an emotionless monotone and he claims he works 24 hours a day. She goes to find Mace. Gray and Harris offer to escort her to the colonel. They take her to the basement and lock her in the cloning chamber.
Donna returns home and explains to Wilfred where she’s been. He takes it well, but warns her not to tell her mother, Sylvia. When Sylvia comes in and demands to know where Donna has been, Donna says she’s been travelling.
The Doctor and Jenkins travel to the Rattigan Academy, and the Doctor notes that even UNIT jeeps have ATMOS. Jenkins says that until the system has been proven dangerous, the government refuses to remove ATMOS. They arrive at the academy and meet Luke. The Doctor checks out the science labs and goes to Luke’s reception area, which contains a large piece of tunnel-like sculpture. The Doctor notes that Luke couldn’t have created the equipment in the science labs. He triggers a control on the piece of “art,” revealing it’s a teleport pod.
The Doctor ends up teleporting the Sontaran spaceship. As they notice him, he teleports back. General Staal makes it through before the Doctor can sabotage the pod. He removes his helmet. The Doctor, realizing who he’s up against, taunts Staal about his honour and bounces a ball off of the wall behind Staal. It hits his probic vent, the Sontarans’ one weakness. Staal, stunned, collapses. The Doctor and Jenkins make their escape. Staal recovers and fixes the teleporter, then returns to his ship with Luke. He has his second-in-command Commander Skorr, “the Bloodbringer”, begin the invasion.
Skorr teleports down to the factory and confronts a captured Martha, saying for her, they need something more sophisticated than the hypnotic programming they utilised in the factory drones and the privates. He renders her unconscious and begins transferring her memories into a clone.
Staal realizes that he is dealing with the Doctor, the last Time Lord. He tracks the Doctor through the ATMOS device in the jeep and drives it into the river. The Doctor overrides the device by reverse psychology: he orders it to do what it’s doing anyway so it will disregard his orders and do the opposite. It stops just short of the river and the Doctor and Jenkins jump out, expecting an explosion, which turns out to be unnecessary as the ATMOS just sparks and shorts out. With the ATMOS destroyed, Staal assumes that the Doctor is dead and confirms with Skorr that the Martha clone is ready. Luke assures him that the initial test run resulting in the fifty-two dead car drivers was successful and they are ready to unleash ATMOS on a wider scale.
The Doctor goes to pick up Donna while Jenkins finds a vehicle without ATMOS so they can get back to UNIT. Wilfred and Sylvia both recognize the Doctor from their previous Christmas encounters with him. The Doctor calls UNIT and talks to the Martha clone. She promises to pass on his warning about the Sontarans but tells Mace that everything is fine. The Doctor then examines the ATMOS in Donna’s car and triggers a hidden device exposing gas nozzles. The Sontarans detect the activation and Staal realizes the Doctor is still alive. He orders the invasion to begin and the Sontaran ships close in.
The Doctor realizes the gas is poisonous and there are over four hundred million cars on Earth with ATMOS. Wilfred tries to move his car, but at the same time, Staal orders the converters to be activated and every one deadlocked. As Wilfred gets in his car, the doors suddenly lock themselves and the engine starts. As the ATMOS device begins to emit a poisonous gas, the Doctor tries to disable the ATMOS to get Wilfred out. ATMOS vehicles activate everywhere. At UNIT, soldiers try to destroy their ATMOSes by shooting at them. Mace learns that all other cars equipped with ATMOS have been activated.
Meanwhile, the Doctor’s efforts to get Wilfred out of his car fail. He is interrupted when the gas starts setting off car alarms on the street. He looks up to see other parked cars emitting the gas. Up above, the Sontarans and Rattigan shout a war chant as the invasion begins.