Doctor Who Season 13, Episode 2 starts right where the premiere left off, with the Flux forcing the gang back in time, and back into trouble. War of the Sontarans might not be the most inspiring title ever conceived in the history of the long-running sci-fi show, but it is one of the best episodes Chris Chibnall has ever produced in his time as showrunner.
The questions of the Flux, Swarm, and Azure will still have audiences scratching their heads by the time the credits roll, but it doesn’t feel like fans have been cheated from answers. Instead, the hour-long Sontaran-filled story feels like a decent self-contained plot. The genuinely intriguing series-long mystery to theorize over ends up being the cherry on top.
Doctor Who airs on Sundays on BBC One (UK) and BBC America (US), and is available to stream on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
Story – Tradition meets intrigue
How do you solve a problem like the end of the universe? Bung it into the Crimean War with Sontarans, apparently.
The Halloween Apocalypse‘s cliffhanger ending left The Doctor, Yaz, and Dan about to be consumed by the Flux, a mysterious interstellar destruction spreading throughout the universe. At the start of The War of the Sontarans, the team conveniently find themselves out of harm’s way. However, they soon split up. Dan is transported back to present-day Liverpool, and The Doctor remains on 1850s Earth. Yaz ends up in the Temple of Atropos, on a planet called Time.
Each individual story works. The Doctor’s plotline involving the British army taking on the Sontarans instead of the Russians is the main throughline. It receives the most screen time as a result. Although she doesn’t have a companion, thirteen makes fast friends with the famous healer and businesswoman, Mary Seacole. The British/Jamaican historical icon is not given as much attention as other famous figures have received over the years. Audiences are instead given a crash course history lesson on who Mary Seacole was. Consequently, she serves as more of a temporary companion than anything else. This isn’t unwelcome, and she does gel well with the thirteenth Doctor’s personality.
As for The Sontarans, they are little more than an “insert famous Who villain here” antagonist. Although, what they lack in original storytelling, they make up for in humor. The clone race is often the butt of many jokes when they make an appearance, but Chris Chibnall came up with some especially great lines this time. This quality writing also extends to Dan’s segments in present-day Liverpool. His ‘confused tourist’ bit inside the Sontaran ship is a highlight. It showcases Doctor Who‘s goofy humor in all the best ways.
While thoroughly entertaining, The Doctor and Dan’s storylines wrap up in a traditional story-of-the-week way. It’s Yaz’s segment that offers the most intrigue. She teams up with Vinder, who was ripped from his observation station by the Flux. Together, they try to piece together why the Temple of Atropos’ drone needs them to repair the mysterious Mouri people. It may all sound like typical sci-fi jargon, but this ongoing mystery involving the temple, and all the new questions that arise from its existence, is a high point. Trying to work out how it all links to the Flux, and new villains Swarm and Azure, keep the momentum of Season 13’s puzzle going strong.
Characters & Performances – Nearly perfect
Nearly the entire cast has a slam dunk of an episode in War of the Sontarans. Jodie Whittaker always brings charm to her performance. However, she adds a whole lot of humor and distinct Time Lord alienness this week. Seeing her tell a Sontaran to put its helmet back on in one scene, and waving around a stick for no reason in another are just two very small examples of the many times she elevated some really minor moments into funny, memorable scenes. I was reminded of David Tennant’s tenth Doctor in all the best ways. Although her Division storyline is largely ignored, it does feel like Swarm and Azure’s plot will pivot back round to it as the season progresses.
I mentioned in my Episode 1 review that I was disappointed Dan didn’t get much of a spotlight in his debut as a companion, but it’s hard to still be annoyed when John Bishop gives such a solid performance this week. He has slipped into the role so well, it’s almost like he’s always been traveling with the team. Bishop is a huge reason why this episode is so funny. He really pops on screen, whether interacting with his family, Karvanista, or The Doctor.
Rochenda Sandall does a fine job at playing the villainous Azure in a deliciously camp way. It’s still Sam Spruell’s performance as main baddy Swarm, however, that continues to impress the most. He may not have as much screen time this week, but you wouldn’t think it judging on the lasting impression he makes. Spruell manages to portray Swarm as a menacing threat with refrained acting choices. It would be easy to ham it up when playing a weird-looking bad guy on a family TV show, but he really commits to the quiet intimidation of the role.
Unfortunately, although the mystery surrounding Yaz is compelling, she has barely any storyline, and no character development once again. I appreciate the consistent characterization of the thorough police officer who tries to assess every situation she’s in. The issue is that Mandip Gill isn’t given anything other than this to work with. Hopefully, she is used more than a springboard for exposition in the future.
Editing & Pacing – A tale of two halves
This is not the best pacing Doctor Who has ever had. The first 20 minutes are used to set up the rest of the episode. As a result, the beginning really drags. You could be forgiven for thinking War of the Sontarans is going to turn into an uneventful history lesson, judging from the start. Thankfully, the next 40 minutes do a 180 turn, and progress at a much more even cadence.
The way all three character’s stories are edited together flows well, overall. Especially the way Dan and The Doctor’s Sontaran plots intersect. While Yaz’s moments in the temple might come off as boring if you aren’t invested in the Flux storyline, they do serve as a good way of cutting between the more intense moments with the Sontarans.
Cinematography & Sound – It takes a village
The score accompanying War of the Sontarans is fitting enough in its action sequences, but it’s the cinematography that really makes an impression. Chris Chibnall’s episodes have always had a high quality, cinematic design about them. However, the juxtaposition of all the different environments helps convey this beauty even more in this most recent offering. Big sets like the muddy, soaked battlefield littered with soldiers’ bodies, and the bright, alien Temple of Atropos, make for some beautiful practical and CGI designs. Even the worrisome state of the TARDIS leaking strange fluid looks oddly beautiful.
It’s clear everybody involved is squeezing the most out of their budget, including the wardrobe and prosthetic departments. The gorgeous designs of Azure and Swarm are some of the most unique characters the show has ever had. It helps make them memorable, which is of course helped by the fantastic actors playing them. Classic Doctor Who fans should also get a kick out of the traditional Sontaran look brought back for Season 13. They look more potato-like than ever before!