All hail the new Sontarans! But first, let’s take a stroll down memory lane and the warmongering potato-heads of yesteryear…
Some Doctor Who monsters are certifiable design classics; the show’s very first bug eyed monsters, the Daleks, arrived essentially fully formed. In the decade since designers have usually only tinkered around the edges of their iconic look. But constant change practically defines others; the Cybermen routinely upgrade their entire shiny wardrobe. But the Sontarans are unique in the history of Doctor Who’s alien menaces. Because, strictly speaking, they should always look exactly the same. Yet almost everything about their design has been up for grabs down the decades, even the number of fingers they have. Only that distinctive idea of the broad potato-head perfectly filling their hemispherical helmet has stayed consistent. Now Series 13 has provided another ground up Sontaran redesign from Ray Holman. So it’s a good time to look back at the glorious past of the Sontaran Empire’s wardrobe clones.
The Time Pilot
One of the surprising things about just how much the Sontarans have changed is that it’s despite the team getting it oh so right first time in The Time Warrior. Kevin Lindsay’s Commander Linx bursts from his ship in a black and silver flight suit designed by James Acheron. Deceptively simple, the padding is superbly designed to create the impression of a powerfully muscled body beneath it. While the iconic sight gag of the strange alien removing its huge helmet to reveal… its huge head of almost exactly the same size and shape, it one of Doctor Who’s truly great reveals. The show frequently used half masks, with gaps around the eyes and mouth, in the years before modern prosthetics. But they’ve rarely worked better than the one designed by Sandra Exelby here. Perfectly blended, and neatly sold by Kevin Lindsay’s inspired idea to stick his tongue out!
The Sontaran Extra-Fingers
The Sontarans were back just one year later in The Sontaran Experiment, though this time the Doctor had a different face in the form of Tom Baker. But this Sontaran, Field Major Styre, has a new face too. He even had extra fingers, with Linx’s three fingered hands becoming a more human five. As explained in their first appearance, the Sontarans are all clones. It’s something the script here even reminds us of, with Sarah Jane making a point of claiming Styre and Linx look identical. Even the theory that Sontarans are organized into clone-families, rather than all sharing one template, doesn’t help.
The change is justified by behind the scenes issues, though. Actor Kevin Linsday returns to play this new Sontaran but the combination of his health problems and the difficulty in breathing he had under the original mask necessitated a rethink by designer Sylvia James, with a bigger, more breathable version than her original. The unfortunate result is that Styre’s eyes and mouth don’t blend so well with the mask. Apart from that and, well, an extra finger on each hand, the actual costume stays close to the original flight suit.
The Invasion of the Deadman
Due to the death of Kevin Linsday, comedy actor Derek Deadman takes over as the lead Sontaran for The Invasion of Time. It’s an infamously cash strapped production, resulting in a huge drop in quality for the Sontarans. The flight suit design is basically similar to before though there’s some skimping on padding, with a couple of their number looking distinctly baggy around the edges. While the padding of their leader, Commander Stor, is haphazard with the end result more Captain Mainwaring than Dave Babusita. The budget cuts even effected the finger count, with the Sontarans once again down to three on each hand.
Worse though is the decision to make the new Sontaran helmet without grills or gauze covering the eye pieces. Rather than aiding Deadman’s performance, it removes the illusion that it’s practical to see out of. Instead, Stor often looks like he has one eye as he has to decide which one to position so he can see. The new mask itself is ill fitting and dependent on lots of black makeup to try and hide the joins. Unfortunately, the end result is rather like a potato cosplaying as a panda.
The Two Sontaran Heights
The final Sontaran redesign of the 20th century brought the warmongers to a new low point. Ironically while placing them literally higher up than ever before. Eschewing Robert Holmes’ original Hobbesian description of them as being “nasty, brutish, and short” these new Sontarans were upwards of six foot tall. They were also surprisingly lean, with Group Marshall Stike cutting a shape more like an Olympic swimmer. But the costumes themselves too were desperately poor. The basic concept of the flight suit remained but was now a garish and cheap looking silver. And the thinner latex used in the masks caused them to wobble and flex alarmingly as the actors moved and spoke.
The Sontaran Transformation
The classic foes finally returned four years into Doctor Who’s 21st century revival. By this point the show’s new incarnation has effectively reinvented British genre television and Neill Gorton and his Millennium FX team had perfected its use of prosthetics and costume. These Sontarans, as embodied by Christopher Ryan’s Staal and Dan Starkey’s Skorr, were actually shorter than original actor Kevin Lindsay. But crucially, the production carefully selected Starkey and the supporting to be consistent heights with Ryan.
Modern techniques also allowed Gorton to pay homage to the Time Warrior design while adding more detail and subtlety than ever possible before. The overall effect is like we’ve simply put our glasses on to see the Sontarans properly for the first time. That pressurized flight suit, a legacy of Linx’s introduction as a downed fighter pilot, finally went too. In its place Millennium FX created body armour perhaps more suitable for ground troops in a full on invasion and tied in to the 00’s trend towards rubber muscled superhero suits. Though the armour’s blue colour did leave many wistful for the days of black and silver.
That story also ushered in a new consistency for the Sontarans. For the next seven years the Sontaran makeup and costume remained unchanged. The repeated use of Dan Starkey as all younger Sontarans, with Ryan as the older models, also made them feel like a true clone race for the first time. The final appearance for this version was 2015’s Face the Raven. A brief glimpse of one living in a secret community of alien refugees in London was an understated swansong.
Flux! It’s the new Sontarans!
It’s now been six years since we’ve seen the Sontarans. And they’re back with a whole new look. Thanks to last night’s trailer we have our full proper (official) view of Sontar’s finest. The blue is gone and the traditional black and silver are back. Quilted cloth replaces the moulded rubber armour, recalling Commander Linx all those years ago. The new rank pips on the collar, like mini-Sontaran ships, call to mind Star Trek: The Next Generation. And the taller, thinner, head from new prosthetic designer Danny Marie Elias, calls to mind the Two Doctors look. Perhaps understandably, considering the slightly younger Chris Chibnall is very much a child of 80s Who. Though, thankfully, much more well made with all the skill of available technology of a modern prosthetics team and without the wobbling.
But Ray Holman’s new design also reflects the same interest in medieval armour as the recent Cybermen. The metal poltroons, chestplates and greaves all show off a science fiction take on classic armour element. It’s a look which appropriately fits with Robert Holmes’ description of the Sontarans at their very beginnings. After all, it’s easy to see why The Time Warrior’s robber baron Irongron would have mistaken these Sontarans for foreign knights. They even have the horse!
Blogtor Who can’t completely ignore a few other Sontaran looks from down the years. 1994’s Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans was a straight to video adventure from Reeltime Pictures. Since the team were able to licence the rights to include the concept, but not the costume design, they were forced to come up with an entirely new design based on the original description in the script of the Time Warrior. The result may radically depart from the aliens we know, with yellow skin, ridged skulls, puckered lips, and purple uniforms. But it’s a well thought out alternative vision. Considering the production’s small budget, the quality of the masks is also striking, especially compared to their then most recent look in the BBC’s Two Doctors.
Meanwhile Strax is the undisputed king of the Sontaran fashion world. From a smart butler’s uniform to a natty plaid suit, and even an Inverness cape worthy of the Third Doctor, he’s proven that being a relentless killing machine in the service of the great Sontaran Empire doesn’t mean you can’t look fabulous while doing it. Though with Strax the only Sontaran in Doctor Who history to be a recurring character, it begs a question. If he appears again, will he resemble like his pointy toothed brothers or his old look?
Doctor Who: Flux begins on BBC One and BBC America on the 31st of October