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After the success of Leviathan, it's no wonder that David Richardson commissioned another story from Paul Finch looking at the Sentinels of the New Dawn. But, in many ways, it goes off on a tangent away from the original story, and that's prehaps why it works. Normally, successor stories don't work very well at all, particularly if there merely looking at a small element. However, because The Sentinels Of The New Dawn verges off in a very different direction, it manages to sustain itself. However, it isn't without faults, despite it's good execution.
The plot of Sentinels is complex. Very complex. It involves quite a few disparate elements, such as the time dilation experiments, the Sentinels' involvement with an Ebola crisis in Africa (predicting the real one by a good few years), and the Heliodromus, and it takes quite a lot to bring them together. This means that episode 1 and the first half of episode 2 are simply set up. The problem is tying all these elements together into a narrative is tricky, and this is where the story falls down. It's just trying to get all these story elements together into a strong narrative. It really feels like Paul Finch is trying to set up the Sentinels as a credible threat, but is trying to set out there whole stall at once. One thing that enduring villains like the Viyrans, the Cybermen and even the Daleks have is the mystery. A certain element about them that is kept under raps. But it feels like here the Sentinels have just been exposed to get people to like them. That's where the story seems to fall down for me - in it's predictable splurges of information. Certainly, all the pseudo-feudalism of New Dawn policy is interesting, but it just fails to involve me in the same way that it would have done, had it been the focus of it's own story. It's just too many ideas jostling for dominance. The pace is also an issue, because very little happens. Episode 1 is more about the time experiments and the politics of this new society, while episode 2 is all about the Heliodromus and the Ebola experiments. But the plots never really get going for them to mean anything. Certainly, there are a few impressive chase sequences, bringing to mind Planet Of The Spiders and The Sea Devils, but the action is incredibly brief and fleeting. The ideas are there, but the pacing and structure is rather manic.
The characterisation in this is a little off as well. No one seems little more than a feed for the plot, and there character developments do, in some cases, feel forced and fake. For example Stanhope is a classic Pertwee staple: the conflicted scientist who eventually aids the Doctor, and eventually dies saving the world. However, Stanhope's transformation just feels really forced, to the point where it becomes difficult to accept. And Richard Beauregard is little more than a cliche: an Oswald Mosley-type character, who never really convinces the listener that New Dawn's prinicples are right, instead devolving into every James Bond villain cliche ever (excluding the cat). The African General is also just power mad, not different or even involving in any way. There feels like there's no motivation for these characters, just a need to forward the plot. Even the Doctor and Liz feel off-kilter here, not quite the characters they should be. Oh yes, the mannerisms of each are there, but there feels to me something missing, very much a massive contrast to the strong characterisation of the team in Shadow Of The Past. The Doctor seems too cuddly and Liz seems too shocked by everything. Certainly the Ebola lab, but the Heliodromus seems to be pushing her towards the normal type of screaming girl. There's an attempt to look at why she left UNIT, but this feels fudged in the extreme, because it feels little more than an afterthought. What does salvage it is Caroline John, who makes sure her character sounds appropriately shocked and horrified. Duncan Wisbey turns in a solid performance, but with little for his characters to do, it seems a bit of a waste. Lisa Bowerman's direction is good, but it's clear she's more at home with the more intimate, character-lead chronicles than this political ideas, hard action story. The same can be said for Richard Fox and Lauren Yason, who's usually solid music and sound design seems to just fall a little flat here, unfortunately. For the most part it's passable, but it's clearly not their best work.
In the CD extras Paul Finch and David Richardson wax lyrical about the merits of this story. And while I can see that it has an awful lot of potential, it also has some serious failings. Prehaps this needed another draft to tighten it up, or the promise of a trilogy, rather than a single story, to set up New Dawn, and for differing directors and sound designers to test themselves on it. At the end of the day, Sentinels Of The New Dawn is an interesting slice of Doctor Who. It has many, many positives to it's name, but it also has many, many negatives to it too.