The Mr Potatoheads of Dr Who are back on our screens tomorrow night. The toad-faced Sontarans whose heads snugly fit their helmets of course first appeared in The Time Warrior, back when Sarah Jane Smith seemed a really neat idea. I only realised recently that Kevin Lindsay, the chap playing Sontaran Linx is also Cho-je what first uses the word “regenerate” and whose little-pushes makes Jon Pertwee Tom Baker.
Lindsay returned in the following year’s follow-up, The Sontaran Experiment, playing a matching Sontaran called Styre. Did I mention how much I dearly adore The Sontaran Experiment? Yes, I think I did.
It’s important Kevin Lindsay plays both Sontarans since they’re meant to be clones. But, because he sadly died soon after, their returns in The Invasion of Time, The Two Doctors, A Fix With Sontarans, Shakedown and Mind Game (yes, they all count) were all played by different people. Some of these people even dared to be tall, more ferret than potato.
But just because they’re clones, Sontarans don’t all need to be identical. In fact, in their endless war with the jellyfish shape-changer Rutans, there’s good reason why they might want different body types in stock. They can have short, fat ones for short, fat missions, and tall ones for reaching stuff from shelves. By varying their numbers of fingers or the contours on their heads, they’re also proofing themselves against blights to one strain like parasites and diseases.
We already know that variation is part of how human apes exist, and how we’re not quite the same as bonobos. By trying stuff out our genes keep on surviving. Yet for all the evident success with which we swarm over the planet (destroying our own habitat like any other cancerous parasite), it’s a bit of mucky, inefficient process. There’s extinctions, starvations and various kinds of mutation that are, frankly, not very nice.
Indeed, the first Sontaran we meet berates Sarah for the silliness of this binary reproductive system. Cloning would, he sort-of argues, obviate all the associated weird rituals of pair bonding, like the sacrifice of costly dinner and plants’ gonads to a potential mate. Civilisation has worked out all sorts of strange rules to insist it’s all about what’s best for the children, and not merely some messy, peculiar fun.
No, I don’t want to swap the bedroom for a laboratory – sorry, Dr; you’re not off the hook just yet. But the idea of cloning questions the gestalt of assumptions making up our ever more sexualised society. That’s why it’s such a contentious subject; sex and its related feints and formalities are intrinsic to how we organise our lives.
Anyway. This is all just a lead-up to an old, old joke from one of my old, old fanzines. Because the Sontarans, right, they catch hold of Sarah and notice she’s not a boy. “The hair is finer,” says Linx and Styre, “the thorax of a different construction.” And that’s quite spectacularly silly.
The cultural assumptions of this stupid ape would have blurted, “And blimey, she’s got tits!”