Blurb: Dowcra base. The third Elite Sontaran Assassination Squad closes in on its target. A dozen trained killers, but even they will be unable to bring down the invincible Strang…
Manipulated by the Time Lords, the TARDIS also arrives on Dowcra. And the Doctor is set to encounter the greatest Sontaran ever cloned...
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson published by Big Finish Productions and released January 2014.
Setting: The planet Dowcra sometime between 2520 & 2530 (Rosato states that the Draconian War is going badly).
Continuity: This story takes place between The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Horror of Fang Rock and after the audio story Night of the Stormcrow. Rosato states that the Earth-Draconia war is going badly (see Frontier in Space). The Doctor mentions that the Time Lords once sent him back in time to prevent the creation of the Daleks (see Genesis of the Daleks).
Canonicity Quotient: The Doctor's stance on the Sontarans seems a bit off. In this case it wouldn't be genocide and while the Doctor has always preferred the non-lethal path when possible he's also been pragmatic when necessary. I also think that it seems funny that no one else ever decided to use the special properties of Dowcra to create a similar teleportation device.
Discussion: I liked the first season of fourth Doctor adventures overall. However, it was kind of clear that they'd rushed that first season to completion. Some of the stories felt like they needed one or two rewrites. Sometimes the actors didn't seem right for the parts. Other times the music felt completely off. Yet, there was some good. After some patchy performances, Tom began to hit his stride and suddenly it felt that aside from age added to his voice that he'd never left the role. Louise Jameson was just wonderful. She was the real standout winner of the new line. She recreated this beloved character giving her a freshness and energy that has made the intervening 35 years melt away and has given nuance to her performance that gave Leela extra depth that we could explore in this new audio medium. Hoping that the next season of fourth Doctor and Leela adventures would capitalize on the good while improving the elements that were weaker.
Opening the season with a John Dorney story was probably the best decision that they could have made. As always, Dorney shows why he is one of the kings of the Big Finish audios. He understands character so well and pairing Leela with a cowardly Sontaran, a character that should be the ultimate warrior, creates a touching and noble relationship as they each learn from each other and grow. Strang is your typical Doctor Who villain, convinced of his own invincibility and full of insane ambition. He thinks that regular Sontarans are to soft and that they should declare war on all other races, something that tax the resources of any race whether or not they believe themselves to be invincible. Rosato is a scientist who is so blinded by the desire to see his crowning technical achievement that he believes the lies given to him by an incredibly evil being so that he can suppress his conscience in what he is seeing around him. The Doctor is as baffling as always which owes as much to Dorney's writing as it does to Tom's interpretation but he still seems to "get" the character, which makes it a good listen.
I also thought that a lot of the plot was really interesting and most of the major points came together in a satisfying way. The idea of a Sontaran mutant variation with increased strength, stamina, durability, reflexes, intelligence, and aggression is a really neat one. I also liked that he was feared by the other Sontarans for the very reason that he displays here - that he would like to remake the race in his own image. I also liked the idea of a device that could allow you to teleport anywhere in the universe. It's the sort of power that the Time Lords have along with time travel and you can see how this moreso than Strang's super race is probably why the Time Lords sent the Doctor on this mission. Even that element is nice because it does mirror Genesis of the Daleks so well. I do think that the Doctor is viewed as a little to idealistic here as the situation in Genesis was different. He was going to kill already living creatures. Here he was just going to blow up vats before they coalesced into living beings. There was also no history to preserve here, which was part of his underlying argument for keeping the Daleks alive in Genesis with the good that they'd do by causing other races to rally together against them. Still, it is a point of view that you can see the Doctor taking and that wonderful scene with Leela was worth it. To have the Doctor so justifiably angry with Leela while at the same time giving Leela a very reasonable point of view was amazing. I really hope that this comes up again later in the season because this was riveting material and could really explain the way that the Doctor and Leela interact in season 15. The Doctor calling the TARDIS' lack of moral compass a design flaw was wonderful and the way that he comes down on Leela not because of what she did but that he feels like it's what she's taken away from their travels is just so heart breaking. I love everything about it.
There are a few elements that don't work for me though. One of Strang's issues is that regular Sontarans take prisoners. It seems like he feels like all defeated enemies should be killed instantly. Yet, he takes Vilhol prisoner and at the same time also takes prisoners of other races to help him build his machine. So ok, his super race hasn't hatched yet so he doesn't have the resources to do everything himself, but if he's also super intelligent can't he see that this is a problem that will always scale upwards? There will always be extra work that prisoners could do that his own super race would not be able to do so it makes sense to take them. It just didn't strike me as a particularly smart point of view. Then we're told that Dowcra is in a particularly weak area of space/time, so shouldn't someone else someday also come up with the same idea for a universal teleportation device? I expected the Doctor to do something to the instability in space/time but nothing happened, so the threat is there to be exploited again. Rosato's motivations are hard to fathom. I expected him to overhear the Doctor talking to Strang when Strang talked about how he'd have a more ruthless Sontaran race that doesn't take prisoners and will basically go out and exterminate all non-Sontaran life. Instead he walks in later and has his change of heart when Strang is killing the Doctor. But...surely Rosato has seen Strang kill others. Strang has convinced him that it's for the greater good that he'll create, so why is his killing the Doctor any different? The Doctor's a clear threat and he'll eliminate him. The change of heart just didn't seem to have a strong enough impetus. Then there's the end which seems confusing. It sounds like the Doctor puts Leela off the TARDIS. He tells her to leave and a door opens and shuts. Yet in the next story she's still there. I'm guessing that was supposed to be an internal door and he let her stay but that really wasn't clear by what happened in the scene. I expected the Doctor to have to pick her up in the next story.
I loved the production on this story. Louise Jameson really seems like she's enjoying getting to sink her teeth into some real character development for Leela. Leela's strong here and even gets to disagree with the Doctor on something which always makes for some powerful stuff. Tom also brings his A-game and his anger at Leela and his quiet introspection later is fantastic. He doesn't disappoint in the earlier material either being funny and a bit of an annoyance to blowhards like Strang just as he was in the classic series. Dan Starkey is good as Strang. Many have said that he sounds just like a classic series Sontaran but I thought that he was missing some element of it. Still, he gave Strang some depth as a character, which I enjoyed. It was also wonderful to hear David Collings as Rosato. As soon as I heard that voice I knew that it was the same as Chief Mover Poul from Robots of Death. Even though Rosato's motivations have dodgy writing he's great as the character. You feel his excitement over his invention and he gives you a real insight into why someone would be willing to believe so many lies because of the good that he feels that it could do. The music was also fantastic. This really felt like a classic Dudley Simpson score, which helped to transport me back as I listened to this story. The series really seems to have gotten over the hiccups of the earlier season and this feels like a Hinchcliffe era fourth Doctor story. I'd love to have more stories about morality and character told in a fairly dark tone like this one. It also seems like the story fit into the two-part format far better than many of its predecessors and it seems like the writers at Big Finish have finally figured out how to tell classic Doctor Who stories in that length.
Final Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: A brilliant character study centered around a strong idea, The King of Sontar would have been excellent anyway. Yet, Tom and Louise bring their A-games to their performances this time. The story fits into the timeframe with nothing feeling like it was missed and the whole production feels like you're listening to audio from a story that was actually made in 1977. It ends with some of the most riveting drama that I've heard from Doctor Who in a long time. While it's got a few plot flaws, this is a story that you really have to listen to. I strongly recommend it.