Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Toy Review – Classic Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment By Underground Toys

This one cost a lot. Granted, I got a comparatively great deal on it by purchasing from the newly discovered JRsToyworld.com; but it was still pricey at sixty-five bucks. I know that may seem outrageous to those of you who don’t share my nostalgic love of Doctor Who and the resultant addiction to Underground’s line of classic toys. It is. But I am absolutely a victim and will continue to spend way more than I should on toys representative of the franchise that nurtured my love of sci-fi long during the mighty Star Wars franchise’s dormancy of 1985-1997.
This set is from Tom Baker’s third story as the Doctor. His companions were Harry Sullivan and Sarah Jane Smith and I think a companion two-pack of the… Companions… would be nice to see down the road.

The Sontaran Experiment is one of those episodes that I vaguely recall from my youth. I got the DVD a couple of months ago (it’s funny how frequently these sets are corresponding with my viewings of the stories – this is the second set that I might have given less consideration to had I not seen the story so recently) and could remember specific things about it fairly clearly. I remembered the crazy robot thing hunting down the people, the big silver golf ball the Sontaran lived in and the Sontaran himself – Field Marshall Thyre. I specifically remember being scared of the robot more than the short, little man with the head that looked like a ham with a face.
There are a couple of interesting things to note about The Sontaran Experiment. First, it is one of the few Tom Baker episodes to be filmed entirely outdoors, which means it is all on film rather than video. One of the biggest flaws/things I love about classic Doctor Who is the fact that indoor or studio segments are so visually different than outdoor or location segments. The BBC used video indoors and film outdoors. I couldn’t tell you the exact reasons, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with money. The result as far as The Sontaran Experiment is concerned is that the whole story has a more solid look than most others. It almost seems like a movie thanks to the uniformity of the visual quality.
The other point of interest is the continuity. To a certain extent, Jon Pertwee’s entire run as the third Doctor was connected, with one story often leading directly into the next. This was not always the case, but it was definitely prevalent for his last few stories. This carried over into the first few stories of Tom Baker’s run, to the point where The Sontaran Experiment picked up with the Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane on the planet they had transported to at the end of the previous episode – The Ark in Space. The Ark in Space had picked up directly after Robot (Baker’s first story) which had come directly from the ending of Planet of the Spiders (Pertwee’s final episode), which had continued directly from the previous; on and on. This narrative continuation was likely a device to hold viewers through the transition of Doctors; but it is a welcome occurrence when viewing the stories together.
Another point of interest is that the Sontaran spaceship in this set obviously looks exactly like Epcot’s signature geodesic sphere, which houses Spaceship Earth. 
This is where I proposed to Mrs. Troublemaker, so clearly I had no choice but to order this set. Just as clearly, the guys who designed Spaceship Earth were big Doctor Who fans.
First Glance: I was surprised when the box came. This is a large set. After unpacking it, I realized my timing in adding an additional shelf for Doctor Who toys couldn’t have been better. The Sontaran spaceship is really big.
Sculpt: Initially I was thrilled with the Sontaran spaceship. It’s heavy and shiny and looks pretty much exactly like it did in the story. Size-wise it’s even close enough to be fine. I mean, there’s only so big a silver ball from outer space needs to be. Once I opened the door I was a little disappointed. I didn’t expect a fully sculpted science lab inside or anything, but I did think the seat and viewscreen would be a little more detailed and functional than they are. Essentially, they’re just these nubs sculpted from the PVC that the ship is made of. After thinking about it, though, I realized it was pretty cool that the door functioned at all. The thrusters underneath the ship look great. I’m fairly certain we never even saw what was down there during the story, so it was a nice touch to add those.
The Doctor is yet another wonderful sculpt. I didn’t realize just how many different costumes Tom Baker actually had until these figures started coming out. Even watching them now I don’t notice all the little differences in shirts, vests, shoes, etc. quite as much as I do when a new figure shows up. This version is the same sculpt as the one in the 11 Doctors set. The figure has the “concerned” face sculpt with the hat. The Doctor has the standard Character Options articulation, but everything from knees to shoulders is rendered mostly useless by the long coat. If you need a 4th Doctor that can sit down, you’re going to need to pick up the original single-carded version.
Sontaran Field Marshall Thyre (I love that name – it’s the most Sontaran name ever) is very cool. His suit is chock full of detail – something that is important in a character that is clad in all black. CO used a new technique for his elbows and knees. They put a free-moving piece over the joints to recreate the look of the knee/elbow pads in the story. These look great and work well, not restricting the movement of the joints at all. Thyre has a data pad device attached to his belt that looks very nice and adds to his uniqueness. The head sculpt on the Field Marshall is hideous, and I mean that in a good way. Every repulsive little detail of the Sontaran visage is captured, down to the condescending little sneer all fo these clones share. Thyre has the standard CO articulation. The included helmet fits perfectly onto the figure thanks to a well done collar.
Design: The Doctor’s head is painted well, but his eyes look a bit funny. Not bad, just odd. This version has a darker coat than the boxed one. His vest, scarf, tie, pants and even shoes are also decorated differently. While the boxed set 4th Doctor is my favorite paint job, this one looks the most like my mental image of Tom Baker. I’m still surprised when I see him in a shorter coat like the carded version. That’s just not how I remember him from my childhood. It’s like when you realize Vader wore a skirt.
Thyre looks fantastic. Again, an all-black character needs a lot of help to look interesting. In addition to lots of sculpted detail, OC painted the Field Marshall with several different glosses of black. His boots, gloves, helmet and uniform are all different and those knee/elbow pieces I mentioned above are slightly different as well. The data pad on his waist has big, colored buttons and looks cool. Thyre’s head is an amazing example of disgusting. I mentioned how the Sontarans look like hams with faces, well this one is colored like a ham you hid behind the refrigerator for a month. It looks awesome. Also, I would be remiss if I overlooked the port sculpted on the back of the neck of Thyre’s spacesuit – the Sontarans’ only weakness.
The Sontaran spaceship’s exterior is much more interesting than it has any right to be. I was expecting a simple, silver sphere. What I got was an impressively detailed outdoor research station. Not only is the lower portion with the base and the thrusters very well detailed for something most people will never even look at, there is a wonderful speckling of mud all around the bottom of the craft. I love that this was done because The Sontaran Experiment was definitely a wet, dirty episode. The nasty weather helped set the mood for the story, and this detailing brings that to mind very well. The only disappointment to be had is once you open that door, and it is kind of a heaping helping of suck. The seat and the viewscreen are painted white and blue; respectively. I pretty much got over the lack of sculpting detail, but it would have been nice if they had at least printed the Sontaran Commander on the screen. But the real failing here is on the door itself. I absolutely hate the date and manufacturing stamps that louse up toys. Many companies have gotten very good at concealing them – usually under a foot or inside a thigh. Character Options has been one of the good ones. Up until this monstrosity. There is all kinds of horrible crap printed and stamped inside the door of the Sontaran ship and it really just fucks the whole thing up. As much as I appreciate the detail on the thrusters underneath the ship, I would have preferred a big, flat spot down there with all of this information on it rather than putting it in a place where the toy’s visual appeal is directly affected. It’s super-ugly.
Accessories: The set includes the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver (which plays a key role in the story) and Thyre’s helmet and blaster. The sonic screwdriver is actually the same as the 3rd Doctor’s minus the yellow bits, as that’s what Baker used initially. 
The Sontaran’s helmet is a flat black that matches what is on his space suit. It fits perfectly onto the collar of his suit and looks very nice, with some great mesh-like detailing on the eyes. His blaster is simple but nicely painted and fits in his hand very well.
Packaging: Large, classic window-box. I could probably use the insert to display the spaceship the same way I did for the Axon, but I’m not sure if I will.
Overall: I can’t honestly call this set a must-have. You probably don’t need another 4th Doctor at this point, despite this one likely representing the most popular and classic look Baker sported. Having an old-school Sontaran is nice, but you can get representatives of the species from the new show (that look almost exactly the same) much cheaper. The Sontaran spaceship is the main selling point. Like many a female in many a night club – it looks good from far but far from good. If you don’t need that door to open you’ll be fine, but once you crack that sucker the whole ship seems much less cool.
3 out of 5
I can’t very well give The Sontaran Experiment set a bad (2) score, because it does deliver in the key departments. The Doctor and Thyre are great, and the ship is awesome if you don’t open the door. I suppose a little paint could help out with the obnoxious lettering and a talented customizer could probably create a better interior. If you want this set, JRsToyworld.com sold out their presales, so you’ll have to hit up BigBad or Entertainment Earth and pay a bit more. I’m not going to say it’s totally worth the price, so you’ll just have to gauge how much you love Sontarans and big, 70’s-style spaceships. Or Epcot.

Until next time, stay creepy
-Phantom

2 comments:

  1. Hi, great review! I agree with everything you've covered, but I kept waiting for you to mention what seems to me to be the biggest let-down, & that's that the Sontaran (Styre btw) figure doesn't fit inside the Ship! What's the point of a space ship if you can't at least fit the little blighter in there & shut the door on his ugly boiled potato head? Maybe I'm missing something as I have never seen the episode these figures represent, but isn't that meant to be a chair or is it a urinal? Maybe it isn't a space ship at all, it's an intergalactic public loo!
    P.S. Sorry I couldn't come up with a more interesting name to post with, but I've never left a comment on a site this like before & I don't know what the other id's mean? You can call me MsAnonymous! :)

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  2. I guess I didn't convey that concept like I thought I did, but yes - I was disappointed with the interior sculpt (or lack thereof) on the ship. Glad you enjoyed the review. Come back any time!

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