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The last in the Classic Doctors, New Monsters set, The Sontaran Ordeal proved a very controversial release for Big Finish. Many complained that the Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky Sontarans shouldn't count as new monsters. If you want my angle on the 2008 Sontaran new/classic debate you can read it in my review of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. The Sontaran Ordeal isn't a release that's going to win over any doubters but for those who don't class 2008's Sontarans as new monsters the release does feature the Time War which *technically* could count as an abstract new series monster.
In The Sontaran Ordeal, The eighth Doctor (Paul McGann) arrives on the planet Drakkis just as it becomes a victim of the Time War. He is joined by Paladin Sarana Teel (Josette Simmon) and together they encounter a disgraced Sontaran called Commander Jask (Dan Starkey). If they are to save Drakkis from the trouble the Time War has caused then they must form an uneasy alliance - but how can they work together when they barely trust each other?
The Sontaran Ordeal is different from the other Classic Doctors, New Monsters stories in that it's more of a character piece of the Doctor, his race the Time Lords and how close they have come to the Sontarans as a race than it is the Doctor taking on a new series monster. For example, one scene sees Commander Jask try to convince Sarana Teel that the Doctor is dangerous and not to be trusted because of his race's involvement in the Time War that has devastated Drakkis. This is an interesting angle to take and something you could imagine happening in the new series through an episode with a similar tone to The Girl Who Waited. It's not as simple as Commander Jask being the 'enemy' anymore; whilst the Doctor knows he wants no involvement in the Time War, Sarana doesn't. She's only just met this man. In some ways it might sound similar to Night of the Doctor but no similarities are noticeable when listening to the audio.
The problem with the character exploration in this audio is that it slows the pace down. With a length of sixty minutes in comparison to the main range's usual 120 the last thing the audio adventure needs is a slower pace. The Sontaran Ordeal is nowhere near as fast-paced as Judoon In Chains or Harvest of the Sycorax; it is perhaps more comparable to the pace of The Sontaran Experiment than The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. This is something that I found surprising when listening to the audio as I expected it to be the most action-packed of the Classic Doctors, New Monsters audio dramas. Out of any of the classic Doctors, the eighth Doctor is the most comparable to a new series Doctor after all. He is the only one to get his own new series minisode and a new series audio box set solely dedicated to him due for release next year ('The Time War').
Which brings me to another issue I had with this audio drama. It feels too much like a prequel to next year's The Time War than a story in its own right. This is a story that could easily have been kept back for the eighth Doctor Time War box set, purely because it feels like an extended advertisement for it. Including a Time War story in a new series box set is cool but it would have been nice to have seen the focus entirely on Classic Doctors meeting new monsters. Why couldn't the eighth Doctor's audio drama have taken place shortly after the TV Movie, for example? It would have explained why the eighth Doctor was companion-less and could have allowed for a lighter, more romantic Doctor than the darker, more subdued version towards the end of the eighth Doctor's life.
What's nice about this audio though is the chance to hear Christopher Ryan's return as a new series Sontaran. Christopher Ryan is fantastic as General Stenk and is just as convincing at playing a Sontaran as Dan Starkey. Dan Starkey and Christopher Ryan work well together as Sontarans; I've always thought it a shame that the new series has never brought Christopher Ryan back as a Sontaran since his 2008 performance. It's equally as disappointing that Dan Starkey hasn't been given a chance to play a serious Sontaran again since Strax. I know many speculated that Strax was in this release and that was why Big Finish were classing the 2008 Sontarans as new monsters...unfortunately he isn't but I don't think he would have worked in the story anyway. Strax would almost certainly have not suited The Sontaran Ordeal's tone. It's nice to hear a new Sontaran from Dan Starkey in the form of Commander Jask anyway.
Unfortunately Paul McGann's performance on the other hand is not among his best. Too many times he mumbles lines and you can't quite tell what he is saying. It's not as spectacular as his groundbreaking performance in Night of the Doctor and sounds somewhat like an off-day for Paul McGann. Not everybody is perfect all the time of course; even my favourite Doctor David Tennant wasn't up to his usual standard in Love & Monsters and the hugely popular Matt Smith was a little underwhelming in my view in the episode The Beast Below. Hopefully he'll be back to his usual standard in Doom Coalition 3. I'm not sure when I'll get round to reviewing that one myself as I will probably buy a Big Finish bundle of all four Doom Coalitions but I am sure it will probably be a top quality box set from Big Finish.
The sound design on The Sontaran Ordeal is among Big Finish's best. Howard Carter has done a good job with the audio. You can totally picture what kind of world Drakkis is and the music sounds like the kind of composition you would expect from a new series eighth Doctor episode. As with The Tenth Doctor Aventures Volume One, you forget that it's not a composer like the new series' Murray Gold composing it and iconic new series tracks like All The Strange, Strange Creatures aren't really missed. If Murray Gold ever decides to stop composing the music for the new series, then perhaps Howard Carter would be a good person to take over?
Overall, The Sontaran Ordeal is probably the weakest audio drama in the Classic Doctors, New Monsters box set. It's by no means a terrible story but it's not likely to be anybody's favourite Big Finish audio either. The main problem with it is that it feels too much like a prequel to the eighth Doctor's upcoming Time War box set. There's not enough to set it apart as a standalone story in its own right as opposed to an advertisement for the Time War release. The story's pace is also significantly slower than the other Classic Doctors, New Monsters audios too, which is a little surprising given that the eighth Doctor is perhaps the closest to a new series Doctor. Speaking of the eighth Doctor, Paul McGann's performance isn't quite as good as usual; he mumbles too frequently throughout the audio and sometimes it can be hard to catch what he says. The character exploration with the Time Lords' part in the Time War and whether Sarana can therefore trust the Doctor is interesting though and it's great to hear Christopher Ryan playing a Sontaran again. I also like Howard Carter's sound design, which helps to create a vivid image of what Drakkis would look like on-screen.