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Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment DVD

By Eddie Robson on 08 October 2006

This is the first of 2entertain’s budget-priced ‘Doctor Who’ releases, and it has raised the odd complaint from fans. You see, ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ is one of the few ‘Doctor Who’ stories from the days of the old 25-minute format to comprise just two episodes, and when it came out on VHS in 1991 it was bundled with the six-part ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (which came out on DVD earlier this year). Isn’t it a bit of a rip-off to ask us to shell out for them separately?

Well, not really. When I bought that VHS – fifteen years ago, mind – it cost me £19.99. Due to the joys of cut-price internet shopping, the combined price of the two stories on DVD was £20.38. Now, I’m no expert on economics, but I’m pretty sure that the inflation on £19.99 over the past fifteen years is more than 39p. It’s just not that big a deal. In any case, if one judges quality ahead of quantity, then ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ offers far better value for money than the previous Tom Baker release, ‘The Hand of Fear’, which is twice as long and not even half as good.

It’s often been stated in relation to the recent episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ that 45 minutes doesn’t afford enough time for a story to develop properly. ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ shows that this wasn’t true in the mid-1970s, never mind with today’s faster-paced TV aesthetic. It very successfully hints at a much bigger picture (the far future, Earth destroyed and abandoned, alien forces looking to capture human space for strategic purposes) whilst telling a neatly contained story with just ten characters.

Its sense of realism is aided by being the first ‘Who’ story to be shot entirely on location (although the DVD booklet states that it remains the only one to be shot entirely on location, oddly forgetting a handful of late-1980s stories) – a shame it wasn’t done on film, really, it could’ve looked very nice. In retrospect it’s odd that its innovations weren’t repeated for many years, as in no respect can it be judged a failure.

With this being a budget release, extras are not as lavish as we’ve come to expect from ‘Who’ DVDs – but even so, there’s a lot more here than on most other vintage TV releases. The commentary track probably benefits from its brevity, but the participants are a good line-up – producer Phillip Hinchcliffe is very sharp, Elisabeth ‘Sarah Jane’ Sladen has stayed familiar with the details of her ‘Who’ work and has plenty to contribute, and writer Bob Baker sheds much light on a story that was in part written to a tick-list.

As well as the standard photo gallery and information text, value is added with ‘Built for War’, a 40-minute documentary about the titular monsters of the story. This is a great place to put it as all the other Sontaran stories have other points of interest that deserve attention when they come up for DVD release: in fact, what really comes across in this documentary is that they ended up becoming one of the Doctor’s most enduring enemies by accident, with two of their appearances being last-minute replacements for other scripts. It’s a good collection of material, although the new Sontaran footage shot for this release feels redundant and gets in the way of the interesting stuff.

I’m very much in favour of these budget releases, which are additional to the main range – there are a number of ‘Who’ stories that don’t exactly merit in-depth investigation, and by stepping up the rate of releases from six per year to ten, it creates the encouraging prospect of owning all of ‘Doctor Who’ on DVD at some point before the format becomes entirely obsolete. Hurrah.

You can buy ‘The Sontaran Experiment’ from Amazon.

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By Eddie Robson

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