The Sontarans (pronounced 'Son-Tahh-r'ns') featured in the BBC's longest running sci-fi series ever, Doctor Who. This ran from 1963 to 1989 and 2005 onwards. Although they weren't quite as popular as the Daleks and the Cybermen, the Sontarans remain a masterful creation for the series. The Sontarans have encountered the Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctors.
What are They?
Sontarans are a ruthless race of cloned warriors from Sontar, a planet with a greater gravity than that of Earth. The Sontarans are bulbous, toad-like humanoids with strong, compact bodies, and usually with three fingers per hand1. They require energy at regular periods to replenish their great strength, which is obtained through the probic vent at the back of their neck. This vent is a vulnerable spot: if a Sontaran is hit across the vent then it is knocked unconscious or, in extreme cases, killed.
Their distinctive ships look like giant golf-balls and fly by rotating through the air, while among their armoury of hand weapons can usually be found a slender, rod-like gun which can paralyse as well as kill.
The Rutan War
For thousands of years, the Sontarans were involved in a perpetual war2 with their sworn enemies, the Rutans. The Sontarans live for war and see the death of an individual warrior as being for the greater glory of the Sontaran Empire. Three years after the Sontarans' debut, a Rutan would pop up in the series as the featured villain, in 'The Horror of Fang Rock'.
The Sontarans were created by popular Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes for 'The Time Warrior', the opening story of the series' 11th season. This came about when series producer Barry Letts thought of a comical conversation between two warriors, Officers Hol Mes and Terran Cedicks (Terrance Dicks - at the time the series' script editor). Holmes then thought of a race of warriors who were dedicated to their on-going war with another race. He named this race 'Sontarans'.
John Friedlander, the man responsible for a number of memorable monster masks for the series, identified in the script a suggestion that the Sontaran resembled a frog. Friedlander then sculpted the now familiar egg-like reptilian heads and bloated features of the Sontaran. It was also felt an amusing idea for an alien to take off a helmet, and have an identically-shaped head.
Though the next two Sontaran stories - 'The Sontaran Experiment' and 'The Invasion of Time' were written by other writers, Holmes returned to his creations for their last television appearance in Doctor Who's original run, 'The Two Doctors'. Holmes was also responsible for some of the most popular Doctor Who stories ever and created many memorable monsters, including the Krotons, the Autons, the Drashigs and the Wirrn. He died in 1986 while putting the finishing touches to what would be his last script for the series, part 13 of 'The Trial of a Time Lord', in which the Sontarans are mentioned in passing.
Below is a description of the Doctor Who stories to date that feature the Sontarans.
'The Time Warrior' (1973)
The Sontarans require planets to use as suitable bridgeheads in their war against the Rutans. Earth briefly becomes one such planet when a lone Sontaran warrior called Linx crash-lands on the planet in mediæval times and gives a local robber baron futuristic weapons (well, futuristic for them - in reality they were just a batch of anachronistic rifles) for his attack on a neighbouring castle. Meanwhile, the Third Doctor, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and journalist Sarah Jane Smith investigate the disappearance of notable scientists from a secret research complex. They learn that Linx is transporting them back in time in order to repair his vessel. Linx is killed when an arrow penetrates his probic vent.
This story introduces the race, though it is suggested that the Doctor has encountered them before. The story also introduces the character of Sarah Jane Smith, a highly regarded Doctor Who companion. Linx recognises the galactic co-ordinates of the Doctor's homeworld, Gallifrey, which is mentioned by name for the very first time in the series.
'The Time Warrior' consists of four 25-minute episodes, written by Robert Holmes. Linx was played by Kevin Lindsay.
'The Sontaran Experiment' (1975)
Thousands of years in Earth's future, when the planet has been temporarily abandoned by the human race, a Sontaran Field Major called Styre uses a fake mayday call to attract the attention of some human GalSec colonists. He aims to brutally and often fatally experiment on them, assessing human vulnerability to a possible Sontaran invasion. Styre is killed when, exhausted from a fight with the Doctor, his energy is drained from him. With the energy source inside his ship depleted, Style collapses and dies. Posing as a 'Superior class' of human, the Fourth Doctor frightens off Styre's Sontaran fleet, averting the invasion.
This story was two 25-minute episodes, written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin. Both Field Major Styre and the unnamed Sontaran Marshal were played by Kevin Lindsay.
'The Invasion of Time' (1978)
The Sontarans have limited time travel capabilities, but want a much greater control over time travel technology. In their quest to gain this mastery over time travel, they invade Gallifrey (the home planet of the Doctor's race, the Time Lords) with the help of a race called the Vardans. The Sontarans, led by Commander Stor, attempt to steal the secret of time travel by obtaining a Gallifreyan artefact called the Key of Rassilon and use it to gain access to the Matrix, the repository of all Time Lord knowledge. The Fourth Doctor uses a 'DeMat' Gun to destroy the Sontaran invaders and the threat is vanquished.
This story consisted of six 25-minute episodes, written by David Agnew3. The Sontarans themselves don't actually appear for the first four episodes of this six-part story, arriving as a shock twist after their allies the Vardans have been defeated. Commander Stor is played by Derek Deadman, whose strong Cockney accent sounds less 'Sontar' and more 'Bow Bells'. The unnamed Sontaran is stuntman Stuart Fell.
'The Two Doctors' (1985)
The Sontarans ally themselves with a human scientist named Dastari, who has been biologically experimenting with a vicious race of carnivorous sentient humanoids called Androgums. His experiments have turned one of them, Chessene, into a super-genius. Encouraged by Chessene (who has her own hidden agenda), Dastari procures a near-complete time machine invented by scientists Kartz and Reimer - who the Sontaran warriors Stike and Varl promptly kill.
Kartz and Reimer's time experiments have been noted by the Time Lords, who despatch the Second Doctor to put an end to their work. Instead he is imprisoned by the Sontarans. The Kartz-Reimer module (as the time machine was called) was missing a vital element. Aware that Time Lords have a special 'symbiotic' relationship with their time machines, Dastari planned to extract this symbiotic link (also known as the Rassilon Imprimature) from the Doctor and add it to the Kartz-Reimer module. By coincidence the Sixth Doctor stumbled across his predecessor's predicament and puts an end to the diabolical schemes of Dastari, Chessene and the Sontarans, who all perish.
This story features both the highest-ranking Sontaran ever, in the form of Group Marshal Stike, and also the tallest Sontarans the series saw; usually no taller than 5'7, the two seen in this story were well over 6 feel tall. It is also revealed that Sontarans are fatally allergic to a substance known as coronic acid, a weakness that Chessene exploits.
The three 45-minute episode story was written by Robert Holmes. Marshal Stike was played by Clinton Greyn, Major Varl played by Tim Raynham.
A Fix with Sontarans (1985)
The Sixth Doctor is helped in defeating a pair of Sontarans by Gareth Jenkins, a schoolboy from the planet Earth. The Sontarans revealed that the boy would grow up to become the leader of a force that would defeat the Sontarans in a war in the future.
Not an official episode as such, 'A Fix with Sontarans' was in fact a segment of the 'dreams come true' children's TV show, Jim'll Fix It. Viewer Gareth Jenkins had written to the show asking if he could appear in an episode of Doctor Who. The segment was specially written by series script editor Eric Saward and starred the then-current Doctor Colin Baker and former companion Janet Fielding as Tegan. It is available as an extra on The Two Doctors DVD.
An unusual appearance for the Sontarans in a straight-to-video production called Shakedown. This one-off film made by independent production company Dreamwatch Media stars actors from both Doctor Who and Blake's 7. In it, the Sontarans appear a little different in order to prevent prosecution from the BBC, with ridges across their domed heads and coppery-coloured uniforms instead of the usual black leather. The film also featured the only occurrence of Sontarans and their enemies, the Rutans, actually being in the same room together.
'The Sontaran Stratagem' / 'The Poison Sky' (2008)
Called to Earth by his former companion Doctor Martha Jones, the Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble face a Sontaran plot to use a car exhaust and satnav device called ATMOS to poison Earth's atmosphere. The Sontarans, commanded by General Staal the Undefeated of the 10th Sontaran Battle Fleet, assisted by Commander Skorr the Blood Bringer, wish to convert Earth's atmosphere into clonefeed, creating a clone breeding-ground to aid in their war. Martha is working for UNIT4 who are investigating the ATMOS depot. This secretly houses a cloning facility, which has been used to create a hypnotised human clone workforce capable of working 24 hours a day. The facility also creates a duplicate clone of Martha.
For the new series, the Sontarans have ditched their traditional black leather look for body armour, but consider it an honour to go into battle 'open-skinned'. In addition to their rods they wield more conventionally shaped weapons. They are also familiar with the TARDIS and Staal states There is an enemy of the Sontarans known as the Doctor… Legend says he led the battle in the last Great Time War. The finest war in history and we weren't allowed to be part of it.
Despite being a genderless clone race, in this episode Staal says that 'words are the weapons of womenfolk'. This view doesn't stop the Sontarans from chanting 'Sontar-Ha!' a lot. They are defeated by the Doctor who is aided by the UNIT carrier ship Valiant.
These two episodes were written by Helen Raynor and directed by Douglas MacKinnon. General Staal was played by Christopher Ryan, Dan Starkey was Commander Skorr.
The Sarah Jane Adventures: 'The Last Sontaran' (2008)
A Sontaran attacks the Tycho Radio Telescope outside Goblin's Copse. Professor Nicholas Skinner, who runs the observatory, and his daughter Lucy are enslaved by neural control implants. The Sontaran, Commander Kaagh the Slayer, the sole survivor of the 10th Sontaran Battle Fleet that had been destroyed by the Doctor, wears a camouflage matrix armour, which hides both himself and his space pod vessel. He plans to use the satellites orbiting the Earth to crash into nuclear reactors and destroy the planet.
The Second Series opener, this consisted of two 25-minute episodes written by Phil Ford and directed by Joss Agnew. Commander Kaagh was played by Anthony O'Donnell. This was the last story for which Maria was a regular character.
The Sarah Jane Adventures: 'Enemy of the Bane' (2008)
One thing I never expected to see was the universe being saved by a Sontaran!
- Sarah Jane Smith
Kaagh has secretly allied with Mrs Wormwood (Samantha Bond), a member of the Bane species that created Sarah Jane's adopted son, Luke. Wormwood has returned with a plot to control the powers of an almighty being named Horath, who is located beneath a stone circle. Kaagh is aiding Wormwood as a Sontaran always keeps an oath of vengeance, having been forced to become a mercenary after the dishonour of being defeated by women and half-forms (as Sontarans call children).
Part of the key to unlocking this power is held in the UNIT Black Archive. Wormwood tells Sarah Jane Smith that other members of the Bane family are after the power, and so Sarah Jane asks her old friend the Brigadier for help. Wormwood betrays both Sarah Jane Smith and Kaagh to gain the power for herself. Kaagh, choosing to act with honour, sacrifices himself in order to stop Wormwood from taking over the universe.
The second series finale, this consisted of two 25-minute episodes, written by Phil Ford and directed by experienced Doctor Who director Graeme Harper. Commander Kaagh was again played by Anthony O'Donnell. This was the last appearance of Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart as played by Nicholas Courtney.
'A Good Man Goes to War' (2011)
This episode introduces the recurring Sontaran nurse Strax, played by Dan Starkey. Though only 12, he is a key ally of the Doctor's against the Kovarian Chapter of the Church of the Papal Mainframe at the Battle of Demon's Run.
Recruited by the Doctor at the Battle of Zaruthstra in 4037 AD, where he is acting as a nurse, Strax reveals that he is serving a penance as a nurse to restore the honour of his clone batch. Helping the weak and sick is deemed to be the greatest punishment a Sontaran can endure, a sentence that may have been determined by the Doctor.
Strax is not merely a medical nurse, but a wet-nurse also, having undergone gene-splicing for all nursing duties in order to be able to produce 'magnificent quantities of lactic fluid'. Apparently mortally wounded in the Battle of Demon's Run, on his deathbed he confesses, I have often dreamed of dying in combat, I'm not enjoying it as much as I had hoped. His final words refute his warrior upbringing, declaring I'm a nurse.
The episode was written by Steven Moffat and directed by Peter Hoar.
'The Snowmen' (2012)
In 1892, the Doctor has retreated from the Universe and no longer wishes to help those in need5. With all of time and space to choose from, his only communication from his self-imposed exile with the outside world is through some of his closest friends, the Paternoster Gang. The gang is named after Paternoster Row, where Strax works as a butler for Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny Flint.
Strax, who is alive despite having died in his first episode, seems to have replaced Madame Vastra's original coachman, Parky. He helps her spy on sinister Doctor Simeon. Now more of a comic relief character, he suggests attacking snow with automated laser monkeys, scalpel mines and acid and has difficulty remembering the safe way to touch a Memory Worm. That said, he does excel in performing his duties as a butler in his own, unique style, asking Clara Do not attempt to escape or you will be obliterated. May I take your coat? and later enquiring Madame Vastra wondered if you were needing any grenades… She might have said 'Help'...? For all his shortcomings and inexperience, he does correctly analyse the defensive situation when the house is surrounded, providing advice that the Doctor takes. Strax is also able to use his skills to keep Clara alive for a short time despite her severe injuries.
'The Snowmen' pitted the Doctor against Dr Simeon, played by Richard E Grant6. The hour-long Christmas Special was written by Steven Moffat, Saul Metzstein directed and once again Strax was played by Dan Starkey.
'The Crimson Horror' (2013)
Victorian Yorkshire, 1893: The Paternoster Gang rescue the Doctor from the Crimson Horror, a plot to destroy the world orchestrated by Mrs Gillyflower (Dame Diana Rigg). During the perilous journey to 'The North' Strax gets lost, but is given directions by a young lad named Thomas Thomas. Did this inspire Sontaran Command to later invade Earth in 'The Poison Sky' by using the ATMOS exhaust and satnav system?
Once again Strax is a comic relief character, given all the best lines. When he succesfully rescues Jenny and The Doctor with a full frontal assault, Madame Vastra unfairly puts him down with the words, Strax, you're overexcited. Have you been eating those jelly sherbet fancies again? Despite this, he saves the Doctor's life when Mrs Gillyflower is about to shoot him, mortally wounding her.
This episode was directed by Saul Metzstein and written by Mark Gatiss. Strax was again played by Dan Starkey. It was also the 100th episode since Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005.
'The Name of the Doctor' (2013)
Another episode written by Steven Moffat and directed by Saul Metzstein with Strax played by Dan Starkey.
In 1893, Strax has gone to Glasgow for a weekend off, where he spends his recreation time in drunken brawls with a bruiser named Archie. Sadly this is interrupted by a psychic conference call, in which Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny contact the Doctor's closest companions to come to his assistance, with Strax one of the chosen few. Sadly this is a trap, Jenny is murdered and Strax and Madame Vastra captured. The Doctor travels to the one place that he must never go in order to save them all. After Strax uses his not insubstantial skills to restore Jenny's life, he dies again briefly; when his past is rewritten he attacks Madame Vastra, who shoots him in self-defence, but fortunately when the correct timeline is re-established this death is annulled.
- 'Logopolis' (1981)
A Sontaran is one of the Doctor's enemies seen mocking him as he dies.
- 'End of Time' (2010)
A Sontaran sniper (Dan Starkey) attacks married couple Martha Jones and Mickey Smith, who are saved by the Tenth Doctor on his farewell tour before his regeneration.
- 'The Pandorica Opens' (2010)
The Sontarans, under Commander Stark (Christopher Ryan) are members of the Alliance that imprison the Doctor inside the Pandorica.
- 'The God Complex' (2011)
A photo of a Sontaran victim of the beast is seen on the wall.
- 'The Time of the Doctor' (2013)
A Sontaran spacecraft is one of the many besieging Trenzalore. Two Sontarans attempt to use their camouflage matrix armour to infiltrate Trenzalore; however snow shorts this out leaving them visible.
'Pond Life' - Part I (2012)
Sontarans chase the Doctor into a volcano.
'The Great Detective' (2012)
Children In Need special introduction for 'The Snowmen' featuring Strax.
'Vastra Investigates' (2012)
A second prequel for Christmas episode 'The Snowmen' featuring Strax.
'Demon's Run - Two Days Later' (2013)
An explanation of how Sontaran nurse Strax, who appeared to die in Glorious Battle at the Battle of Demon's Run in episode 'A Good Man Goes to War', becomes Madame Vastra's butler in 1888.
Sontaran Spare Time
Sontarans are a warrior race, each one believing it is a glorious thing for a Sontaran to die in battle, but this is unlikely to be a recurring hobby for most of the species. Even Strax has only died twice to date. How do they spend the rest of their time? With both a Sontaran's nature and nurture exactly the same as all those around them, are they able to develop an individual identity?
To begin with, all species need to eat to survive. Though Sontarans receive energy directly through their probic vent, this does not prevent Strax from enjoying more conventional food, with Vastra mentioning jelly sherbet fancies. This, though, is believed to be an exception rather than the norm.
There are military activities that Sontarans pursue to hone their skills in battle. These include fighting and brawling, hunting, target practice, and Strax enjoys reconnaissance missions (although this doesn't prevent him from getting lost in Yorkshire). They also like to plant little flags on the planets on which they land, claiming them for the Sontaran Empire.
Another popular pastime is conducting medical procedures on living beings. Field Major Styre performs a series of experiments in 'The Sontaran Experiment', and when Kaagh has a whole 45 minutes to while away before Earth is obliterated in a nuclear apocalypse, he plans to kill both time and Clyde Langer by performing experiments on him. Animals too are apparently fair game for experiments when they are not fair game for hunting; Strax mentions 'laser monkeys' and 'projectile acid fish'. Their experiments are not confined to biological research, as is shown by the fact they have developed a rudimentary form of time travel.
Perhaps their biggest joy, other than war, is to chant 'Sontar-ha!' in unison while doing a cross between a clap and a punch. All in all they come across as a rather frustrated race, which leads us naturally to sex and sexuality.
The Sontarans are a cloned warrior race, created artificially in factories with whole legions manufactured at a time. As a factory-made product that has no need to be able to breed naturally, it is implied, though not confirmed, that Sontarans are neutrally-grown clone drones, neither male nor female. Linx states that humans have a primary and secondary reproductive cycle. It is an inefficient system, you should change it. Strax, who is described by the Doctor as a 'typical middle child of six million', asks Vastra and Jenny, I'm not an expert on alien species, but you're both women ones, aren’t you? before enquiring Am I the man one? This implies that, not having a translatable gender himself, he is unsure how to react around species divided in this way. Does Strax have any experience of sexuality after being raised in a species without sex?
This question is discussed in the series, with The Doctor stating that two genders is a bit further than he can count. Strax is regularly confused, for instance calling Clara a boy and then ordering her to Silence girl, sorry lad! in 'The Snowmen', later confessing that he never realised that Professor Song was a woman7 in 'The Name of the Doctor' despite having been semi-present at her birth8. Strax is not the only Sontaran to be puzzled, with Linx asking Irongron, a human male, What is this? Girl? You have two species on this planet? when he first meets Sarah-Jane Smith, before concluding The girl is not of your kind, Irongron. The hair is finer. The thorax of a different construction... Indeed, Sontarans seem more likely to be called 'potatoes' than either male or female9.
In 'A Good Man Goes to War' it is revealed that Strax is able to undertake a role normally considered feminine, that of being a wet nurse, boasting of his ability to 'produce magnificent quantities of lactic fluid'. In the minisode set immediately after, 'Demon's Run – 2 Days Later', while recovering from his injuries, Strax is initially undecided about accompanying Vastra and Jenny to London until they mention 'spectacular dresses', at which point he readily agrees to go, assuming that he will be the one wearing them10.
Strax, though, may be an exception. Other Sontaran warriors seem less equal minded than the Doctor's favourite Sontaran nurse; Kaagh and Staal consider women and children to be inferior. This may simply be, as a warrior race, they consider only other warriors their equal and those who do not fit into that category are conceived as contemptible. As human women and 'half-forms' are not normally soldiers, they do not share warrior values in common and so Sontarans relate to them with derision. That said, it is revealed that Strax, though comparatively old by Sontaran standards, is only 12. It is possible that most Sontarans die in glorious battle before becoming sufficiently mature enough to be able to understand this most delicate of topics.