Every classic series Doctor but the third has thus far been represented in the Lost Stories series, but the sixth undoubtedly received the most attention. His eleventh and final Lost Story, Andrew Smith’s “The First Sontarans,” is fortunately one of his best, and a great way for Big Finish’s most accomplished Doctor to bow out of one of their most accomplished ranges.
Smith famously had his script submission for “Full Circle” accepted at a young age, making him the youngest Doctor Who television writer. Here he adapts his own story idea to audio, and the skill that made “Full Circle” such a success is readily apparent. Writing four-part serial drama is challenging – each part has to build to a cliffhanger while still maintaining an overall plot for the story. We’ve seen many TV stories struggle to maintain momentum over four (or more) episodes, and Big Finish’s decision to follow this format meant they have had their struggles as well. Smith, however, overcomes this problem by ratcheting up the tension from episode to episode – in true Doctor Who fashion, despite the title we don’t even see a Sontaran until the first cliffhanger!
The scale grows larger and larger as the story progresses. First, the Sontarans are introduced. Then, for what is shockingly the first time in Big Finish history, the Rutans are introduced into the same story as the Sontarans. We then learn the true nature of the Kaveetch and their relationship to Sontar, something that justifies the title of the story without resorting to a clichéd Genesis of the Sontarans tale. Smith doesn’t hold back when it comes to action sequences: both the Sontarans and the Rutans are portrayed as ruthless warriors, there are countless deaths throughout, and humor is kept to a minimum. It’s easy to see how this came out of the rather grim season 22 – it could easily slot in place of “The Two Doctors” as originally planned. It’s also difficult to listen to “The First Sontarans” in multiple sittings, as the fast-paced, gripping plot almost demands the listener to continue.
That said, calling the story “The First Sontarans” is a bit disingenuous, as it doesn’t really deal with the origins of the Sontarans apart from explaining how they were originally created. We learn why Roath fled Sontar in the first place, and it’s tragic, but there’s little meat to the Sontarans themselves. It’s the most basic “we created something we couldn’t control” sort of tale – but maybe that’s okay for the Sontarans, who have always been one-note characters. We do learn other things – Jaka (Dan Starkey, excellent as ever) explaining the importance of the clone vats puts an interesting twist on Sontaran reproduction, oddly recasting them as concerned parents!
Also in keeping with the season 22 themes is that the regulars don’t accomplish very much. They’re certainly involved in the action – there are lots of captures, escapes, and near-death experiences – but what do the Doctor and Peri actually do apart from watching others explain and resolve the plot? After the Doctor releases Roath from captivity, watch what happens – had they just returned to the TARDIS and left, the self-destruction of the Sontaran ship would still have happened. This isn’t a criticism – I like stories like this every so often, and it makes sense for a conflict the size of the Sontaran-Rutan war to be above even the Doctor’s influence. It also helps that Colin Baker is on top form throughout, and Peri actually gets to go off on her own and do things instead of being pushed to the sidelines.
The production is solid as ever. Ken Bentley’s direction matches the frantic pace of the script, and Jamie Robertson’s sound design seamlessly incorporates TV sound effects and couples them with an effective score. Overall, “The First Sontarans” is a success. It’s not especially deep or meaningful, but it’s a well-crafted action story that never bores. It’s the sort of thing I would have loved to see on television, and it’s yet another reason why this range has been so successful.