A First-Timer Watches Doctor Who: “The Sontaran Stratagem”

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Martha’s back! And she’s all buddy-buddy with Donna. Another thing she’s doing: protecting the Earth from ill-intentioned aliens.

“The Sontaran Stratagem” is the first of a two-part story arc focusing on the Sontaran’s earthly infiltration. Who are the Sontaran? A breed of stalky, Bruce-Willis-bald warriors with a hate-on for the Doctor. To wipe out humanity, they’ve enlisted a Zuckerbergian child genius named Luke Rattigan, who became rich at the age of 12 after inventing a powerful search engine. His latest contraption is a GPS device that eliminates all CO2 emissions from cars—though it can also kill the driver. And it uses alien technology from the Sontarans.

Here’s where Martha comes in: since the adventures of last season, she’s become a full doctor and been hired by UNIT (the Unified Intelligence Task Force) to help keep the planet safe. She’s called the Doctor back to earth—using her own old cellphone, which she left in the TARDIS—in the hopes that he can provide some expert advice.

Rattigan is a fun character. This episode was first broadcast in April 2008, at a time when Facebook—and the whole culture of Silicon Valley teen geniuses—was still becoming the norm. Rattigan’s snide, full-of-himself sociopathy makes for a humorous high-tech parody, and actor Ryan Sampson is appropriately pubescent in the role. The idea that technologies like Facebook are “taking over our lives” becomes literal via Rattigan’s bid for world domination.

The danger of everyday technologies is also relayed through the ATMOS system, Rattigan’s deadly GPS. “Everyone’s got an ATMOS,” Donna says, highlighting how quick we are to jump on the latest tech bandwagon—with little attention to its origins or consequences. The faulty GPS system is an especially shrewd satirical symbol: the ATMOS may direct your car, but it’s leading humanity astray.

Donna was supposed to have a simple relationship with the Doctor—i.e. no flirting—but it would seem that when you ditch your home life to travel through space and time with a man you met once at your botched wedding (during which your husband shacked up with a giant alien spider), things inevitably get complicated. As mentioned above, Martha and Donna take an instant liking to each other. And since they’re friends, Martha gives Donna some advice: keep your family in the loop. We don’t know too much about Donna’s family yet—though her mother seems quite Jackie-esque—but Martha’s warning that the Doctor is “like fire” felt like foreshadowing of bad things to come.

And since we’re on the topic of bad things, “The Sontaran Stratagem” ends with a cliffhanger: the ATMOS system gassing everybody! Until next time, when presumably the world doesn’t, in fact, get totally screwed…