Blurb: The TARDIS arrives on a moon-sized asteroid orbiting two gas giants. With an amazing view, it’s a chance for the Doctor, Steven and Sara to unwind after their recent adventures.
But they quickly find themselves in the midst of battle - on one side: a familiar group of space-suited soldiers - members of the Space Security Service. On the other: strange, squat aliens in body armour.
Surviving the initial hostilities, the Doctor and his friends discover that the SSS squad is on a terrifying mission. With many lives at stake, they have to venture deep inside the asteroid in search of a hideous weapon. But who can they trust in the battle against these Sontarans?
Format: Full-cast audio drama starring Peter Purves and Jean Marsh published by Big Finish Productions and released December 2016.
Setting: The unnamed planet of the Nil, c3900 AD.
Continuity: This story takes place between two episodes of The Daleks Masterplan, The Feast of Steven and Volcano and after the other audio adventures set within this gap. Steven mentions being on Mechanus (see The Chase). Steven tells the Doctor that they can't take a platoon of soldiers with them, because it'll be a repeat of the situation with Natalie Lang (see The Anachronauts). Sara remembers her time in 1950's London (see An Ordinary Life).
Canonicity Quotient: The continuity seems very poor in this story. Sara is from the year 4000 when humanity has encountered the Sontarans many times, but the story makes it seem as if she has no idea what one looks like with its helmet off, which makes no sense for a security officer. The Sontarans are shown to be completely ignorant of humanity even though they have encountered them numerous times. They also lack any understanding of civilians and leaving the war, even though this is not an unusual trait among alien species in the Doctor Who universe. The Sontarans claim that the Rutans shapeshift due to technology rather than an inherent biological process. The Doctor doesn't recognize the Sontarans or Rutans despite the fact that both races predate Gallifrey's advent of time travel and had some interaction with the ancient Gallifreyans. The story ends with the Doctor and company wishing to get back into the fight with the Daleks although the Daleks Masterplan has the crew surprised that the Daleks have found them and wanting to avoid them. Oddly, the Doctor doesn't recognize the Sontarans despite the fact that they were at the Armageddon Convention and so was he (see The Empire of Glass).0.50
Discussion: It's very difficult for the Early Adventures to use returning villains, because they're usually constrained by some sort of continuity issue. Yet, the Sontarans presented a unique opportunity. In The Time Warrior, the Doctor is very familiar with their race, implying that he's encountered them at least once in the past. Therefore, it was almost an inevitability that one of The Early Adventures would deal with the Sontarans. They allow the range to use a well established foe of the Doctor without any issue with companions or the Doctor not recognizing them later on. I'd have preferred it if they'd chosen an early gap just to maximize the potential number of Sontaran stories with the first Doctor, but this works out ok.
As usual, I'm not a big fan of Simon Guerrier's continuity. He seems to think that pretty much anything that happens in outer space happens all at the same time. So here we have a story that's clearly set late in the 4th millennium between the fall of the Earth Empire and Sara's time of 4000 where humans are almost completely ignorant of the Sontarans, even though they've been fighting them for centuries. It's also weird that the Sontarans act like they know next to nothing about the humans. Yes, the Sontarans are a military race, but they have to know b this point that that's more or less unusual in the cosmos. Lots of races that they encounter have a civilian population and have people that go from one to the other. Yet, here, the Sontarans can't believe the entire concept regardless of whether or not they know enough about human culture to know that that's normal. It's also annoying that the Doctor acts so completely ignorant of the Sontarans. He's already supposed to have met them at The Armageddon Convention by this point, and it's really unnecessary for Guerrier to insist that the Doctor knows absolutely nothing about them. Yes, it's nice that Sara knows far more about them, putting the shoe on the other foot for once, but having the Doctor remember that he saw a few of them once wouldn't have really changed the narrative. I also don't understand why he included the line about Sara not knowing what a Sontaran looked like with its mask off. Surely in the thousands of years that humanity has been fighting the Sontarans they've been able to find at least once body and surely a security officer like Sara would have been informed of all the different types of alien threats that she might encounter. It's an annoying slight on an otherwise fairly strong story.
What's really great about this one is how implacable the Sontarans are. A lot is made about the invulnerability of Sontarans in other stories, but here they're actually portrayed as invulnerable. They jump down hundreds of meters of volcanic shaft and land in magma and crawl out again. This makes them terrifyingly dangerous. It's also neat that they're studying human psychology with shades of The Sontaran Experiment. Sometimes the Sontarans are portrayed as completely monolithic and unchanging. Here, we're presented with Sontarans that wish to improve by incorporating any trait from another species that will make them better at warfare. This gives them a new dimension that makes them a lot more interesting to hear about. There's also a nice twist where the Doctor saves the lives of the colonists by convincing the Sontarans that the fact that they can't shoot back makes it so unchallenging as to not be worth the effort. I also like that at the end of the day, it's the Doctor who defeats the Sontarans, outsmarting them and leading them to a fairly brutal fate. It's the kind of thing that the first Doctor would have done with reservation, and it's nice to see Guerrier play with that aspect of the character again.
Another really interesting thing that Guerrier added was the fate of Pappas. Sara knows that when humans investigate in a year that they find nothing alive. Yet, there's a whole civilization of Nil on the asteroid. Sara sees that as proof that they must all be wiped out. Gage sees it as hope that they find a way to escape. It's a nice point about point of view with time travel, allowing the gaps in knowledge to work for you instead of against you. It was a neat point, and I was glad to see it used in this story.
Of course, Guerrier's real strength is in characterization rather than plotting. This is also where his continuity shines. I've already mentioned how he gets the Doctor with the right amount of ruthless cunning. There are also some nice moments for Steven. Most writers just mention that Steven was on Mechanus to check a box. For Guerrier it's an important character point, one which the Sontarans latch onto, so that they and we can better understand Steven's character. There's some development of Sara as well, showing that she's changed while traveling with Steven and the Doctor and explaining why she seems so different in episode 8 of The Dalek's Master Plan than she does in the preceding episodes. There's also some nice narration about how Sara so easily slips back into her old life when working with Gage. She enjoys the combat and she works fluidly with a fellow soldier. It's foreshadowing what's to come with her character and helps to highlight the tragedy that even though she may have come a long way with the Doctor and Steven, she's still fundamentally the same person that she has been from the beginning.
One thing that I really want to highlight on this one is how absolutely wonderful the music is. Big Finish typically has good sound design and background music, but this time they've outdone themselves. There's an eerie quality to the music here that helps to highlight the unusual and unexpected element so the story. It gets mixed in with an the powerful beats that represent the implacable Sontaran foe. There's a back and forth between the two musical elements that indicates the mix of the two elements, and it's really quite wonderful to hear. The sounds are also good with various laser blasts, explosions, the sounds of electrocution all standing out.
The performances are also great. I've taken Ken Bentley to task before on the Early Adventures, since it seems to me that his have been average at best. Until now I've only really enjoyed the ones directed by Lisa Bowerman. Yet, even though I wasn't a fan of An Ordinary Life he does seem to have a penchant for directing Steven and Sara stories. The Anachronauts also had some fantastic performances, and he brings out the best in Purves in Kingdom here. Marsh sounds better than she has in years. Although she's obviously aged since 1965 she gives a far more energetic and nuanced performance than she did in An Ordinary Life. Purves still shines, being a master of narration, but also giving great performances as The Doctor and Steven. His Doctor still seems a tad to impish for Hartnell but he's able to give a really varied performance in a voice that's pretty far removed from his own. Of course, he benefits in that his regular voice hasn't aged much, so his Steven sounds really good as well. It's always great to hear these two titans on audio. I'm just worried that with this story being obviously intended to lead directly back into The Daleks Master Plan that Big Finish must know something that we don't, and that this might be the last story that they do with Marsh.
Final Rating: 9/10
Recommendation: A fantastic story, using the Sontarans to great effect and giving them a fantastic first outting with the Doctor. The performances are top notch and the music has never been better. The continuity is pretty awful, which keeps it from getting a perfect score but otherwise it's a pretty gripping yarn. I recommend listening to it.