Chapter 45. Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment (1978)

Synopsis: Arriving on the surface of the Earth, thousands of years since the planet was abandoned, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry find a small party of explorers hiding in terror from a mechanical hunter. The machine has captured other members of the party and taken them off across the rocky terrain. Hidden among the rocks is a Sontaran with a sinister mission – and Sarah is about to become his next victim.

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Stranded
  • 2. Unknown Enemies
  • 3. Capture
  • 4. The Experiment
  • 5. Mistaken Identities
  • 6. The Challenge
  • 7. Duel to the Death
  • 8. A Surprise and a Triumph

Background: Adapted by Ian Marter, based on the 1975 scripts by Bob Baker and Dave Martin. This completes the run of stories for Season 12.

Notes: Consistent with his new ending to The Ark in Space, Ian Marter has our heroes arrive in the TARDIS – which lands before toppling over. As soon as the three travellers have emerged, it vanishes for no clear reason. As in that earlier book, the space station is referred to as Terra Nova. The robot kills Zake with a vicious whip of its tentacle, rather than pushing him over a ravine.As viewed by Harry, Styr (not Styre) is an imposing being:

… an enormous figure – like the statue of a huge, thick-limbed man somehow brought to life – was gradually silhouetted against the circle of daylight. As it lumbered out of the far end of the tunnel into the open, Harry glimpsed its coarse greyish hide – like pumice stone -shuddering at each step. 

Sarah recognises him and her point of view gives us even more vivid detail:

… the gaping oval panel was filled by a squat, lumbering shape like a monstrous puppet. Its domed, reptilian head grew neckless out of massive, hunched shoulders. Each trunk-like arm ended in three sheathed talons and was raised in anticipation towards her. The creature began to lurch down the ramp on thick, stumpy legs, the rubbery folds of its body vibrating with each step. Mean eyes burned like two red-hot coals amid the gnarled, tortoise-like features, and puffs of oily vapour issued from the flared nostrils.

….The wobbling folds of its lipless jaws were suddenly drawn back, baring hooked, metallic teeth. Sarah stared transfixed at the ghastly smile while the creature slowly shook its domed head…. The shrivelled, tortoise face thrust forward, its red piercing eyes boring into her.

The ‘three sheathed talons’ on each hand neatly fixes the continuity error of the TV episodes. According to the Doctor, Sontaran brains are like seaweed and their lungs are made from ‘a kind of spongy steel-wool’. Styr’s ship is the size of a large house, like ‘a giant Golf-ball’, consisting of a ‘honeycomb of modules’, small, interconnected spherical rooms arranged around a central control chamber. Styr’s robot – called ‘the Scavenger’ here – is a bell-shaped hovering dome with probing tentacles and there are a few of them, including one on guard inside the ship and a spider-like one that Harry dodges. Inside the ship, there are also two other Sontarans, lying dormant in recharging pods.

Styr reports to a ‘Controller’, not a ‘Marshal’, who tells him that a rendezvous with the ‘Allied Squadrons from Hyperion Sigma’ is overdue (is this a squadron of various Sontaran factions or are the Sontarans allied to another race? There’s no mention of the Rutans at all). Styr has a weapon secreted in the arm of his suit.

While unconscious, the Doctor has a vivid nightmare about the TARDIS, wrecked and heading towards a black hole, being overrun with rats while a giant cat emerges from the console and sleeps on his chest. He speculates that the Sontarans might be prospecting for a mineral not known in this galaxy – Terullian – and he keeps many objects in his pockets, including:

… marbles, pieces of twisted wire, shrivelled jelly babies, weird keys, a pirate’s eye-patch, strange coins, sea shells, a dead beetle…

… but not his ‘Liquid Crystal Instant Recall Diary,’ in which he thinks he wrote some notes about Sontarans in the past. Harry hallucinates Sarah as a vicious, snarling beast and is attacked by an illusionary giant spider-like creature.

The Doctor and Sarah each destroy a Scavenger robot with the sonic screwdriver. Styr sends Vural to his death over a ravine. The Doctor pours a flash of Glenlivet whisky into Styr’s probic vent and Styr swells to over three times his normal size before he and his ship deflate like balloons into congealed heaps. The Doctor remembers he set the TARDIS ‘Boomerang Orientators’ so assumes it’ll be back on Terra Nova. He, Sarah and Harry depart via the transmat field, thereby making the story fit with the previously published Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen.

Cover: The Doctor holds a log as a weapon in front of a background of a supersized Sontaran helmet. Another strong illustration from Roy Knipe.

Final Analysis: While this is based on a two-episode adventure, it’s by no means the shortest novel; indeed, it feels like it takes up the same page-count as, say, the six-part Genesis of the Daleks, without becoming padded or over-written. It’s another Ian Marter ‘movie version’, with everything turned up to eleven. Predictably, the horror elements are more grotesque – the terrifying hallucinations of faces emerging from rocks, soaring monster-infested wave, burning desert sands or giant ants. Marter’s real skill is in the characterisation: He makes Styr a much more terrifying presence than the TV version as the huge, hulking ‘golem’ is wheezing and gurgling, but also flawed as his sadism makes him forget the real purpose of his mission; Sarah’s ability to be both terrified and brave, as in the way she responds defiantly to Styr’s interrogation by pointing out that it’s not her fault if her mere presence doesn’t match his data; and Harry is still as bewildered by the technology, particularly the Doctor’s description of Sontaran biology, but he’s still got a great way of summing things up – calling Styr ‘the Humpty Dumpty thing’. What was merely a side dish on TV has been reimagined as a macabre banquet.

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