Sunday, 13 December 2009

"Sarah Jane Smith – still involving children in your dangerous games!"

CBBC spin-off series, 2008

It feels slightly unfair judging SJA on adult terms – but, at the same time, it clearly does cater for a wide audience, despite the limitations of its format, so why not. Though not a rabid follower of all things new series, I am surprisingly fond of this spin-off – certainly more so than Torchwood, which was almost incomprehensibly awful in every way, at least up until Children of Earth. (I was apparently mistaken in thinking an ‘adult’ Doctor Who spin-off would address similar stories with a greater degree of complexity, realism and maturity – akin to season twenty-six – rather than being Doctor Who’s deformed cousin.)

Favourably comparing SJA to Torchwood is something of a backhanded complement, but let’s say that despite being as twee as fuck, it is considerably more mature and likeable a series, and leave it there.

Lis Sladen is of course wonderful – although the extremity of her Doctor-/Captain Jack-like knowledge seems a little odd or inappropriate at times; yes, she travelled with the Doctor, but even given her subsequent involvement with aliens on earth, what did she do, take notes?! It would be more interesting were she slightly less assured in this respect – but then I suppose that would simply lead to her having to consult Mr Smith even more, and the less we see of that mobile disco, the better. I’m not entirely sold on Luke, either. Fortunately though, he’s the only one of Sarah’s adolescent posse who really feels like ‘a child actor’.

Clyde, on the other hand, is great (even though he should be massively annoying); in fact, having palmed Martha Jones off on Torchwood, could things go the other way, by having him become a companion? The male companion has only featured in the new series as aberrations like Adam, the unwilling Mickey and Doctor-equivalent Jack, but I reckon Clyde Langer could work (partly because he’s straight enough to forestall the redtops’ inevitable raised eyebrows about two men in the TARDIS).

Maria’s replacement, Rani (no relation), is perfectly likeable too; in fact, she seems more natural than Maria – but is slightly less interesting. Maria went against the grain in terms of leads – as established by the new series’ Rose/Martha/Donna – by seeming a bit art school, where the template established by the Davies companions is anything but.

The budget of this series is noticeably reduced: the first series gave us original monsters the Gorgon, Kudlak, and the Trickster (who everyone seems unfeasibly impressed by; a black-robed extradimensional evil being seems pretty bog-standard to me), whereas there are conspicuously no new creations in this entire series (Clyde’s dad with blue veins and obligatory freaky contacts doesn’t count). More generally, the effects (especially the CGI) don’t match up to the series’ ambition – which wouldn’t matter except they are so obviously trying to match Doctor Who’s, and falling short; a smaller focus might be beneficial in future. (Even the Black Archive looked all too obviously like an MFI warehouse, with the security to match.)

In fact, this series is generally weaker than the first. The Last Sontaran suffers from feeling unpleasantly nineties (all the computer hacking stuff – also, the radio telescope is even less realistic than The Android Invasion’s!), and away from the team’s usual stomping grounds, the story feels very thin, while Kaagh’s literal stomping got tiresome pretty quickly. (Incidentally, his name would be okay if it was pronounced as it’s written – ‘Kaah’ – but ‘Karg’ sounds unfortunately B-movie.)

Also – though this is more the fault of The Sontaran Stratagem – this story runs with the Sontarans’ reworking as noble warriors, with their hyperbolic suffixes and absurd war chant, which seems somewhat incompatible with their establishment in The Time Warrior as the ultimate parody of military buffoonery (spelt out during Lynx’s very first appearance by the brilliantly funny moment with the little flag). They’re meant to be unpleasant little thugs – nobility and honour shouldn’t come into it.

Also, the lack of any follow-up to the events of The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End is irritating; a) given the propensity of the three series to reference one another, this feels like a big oversight, and b), why go out of the way to constantly show alien incursions that are apparently too big for the public to avoid… and then instantly forget about them the next time the same thing happens.

Let’s see – obsessive-compulsive list coming up: in the new series alone, the public have been faced with large-scale alien activity in Aliens of London/World War Three, The Christmas Invasion, Army of Ghosts/Doomsday, The Runaway Bride, Voyage of the Damned (kind of), Partners in Crime, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, and the aforementioned series four finale. Oh, and guess who wrote EVERY SINGLE ONE of those stories (save one – and Helen Raynor doesn’t appear to have a personality so she doesn’t count). Tsk.

Normality is reset each time – which is understandable, but begs the question, why bother in the first place? Journey’s End combined three series, but with no repercussions, save a reference to "those Dalek things," and the Brigadier’s comment that "now the cat’s out of the bag about aliens…" – so what’s the point?

The Day of the Clown was pretty good, but suffered from over-explanation, which diffused its creepiness (that every single threat Sarah faces absolutely has to be alien, rather than something more nebulous, is gratingly literal), while this and the subsequent Secrets of the Stars both end with possessed people wandering around, as in The Christmas Invasion – an example of slightly lazy feeding off the parent series. In fact, these stories feel too similar for one to follow the other in the run – the main difference being that Bradley Walsh makes a perfectly serviceable villain, whereas (the equally washed-up) Russ Abbot is a bit shit.

The Mark of the Berserker didn’t do that much for me either – do we really need a Sarah-lite story in a run of six stories? In another example of the spin-off’s stringent following of the new series’ formula, this story in particular was hampered by the sledgehammer emotional content – although, arguably, it was a little more ambiguous and thus interesting that usual, in the interplay between Clyde and his hitherto unseen absentee father. (On a side note, isn’t Three Non Blondes’ Jocelyn Jee Esien fab? I sort of fell in love with her here; I’d rather she had a bigger role in the series than Rani’s dippy mum.)

The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith, much like the previous season’s Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? (incidentally – any kids’ show referring to that particular Bette Davis psychological melodrama is automatically a winner in my book), is the strongest story here because it tears up the rule book in terms of format, while its emotional content derives from the situation, rather than being bolted on.

As for Enemy of the Bane – I hate the mentality of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into finale stories, in the mistaken belief that it’ll mean more, so, much like its predecessors, this ended up feeling flimsy, lacking the preceding story’s more effortless epic quality.

The Brigadier’s triumphant return was a huge disappointment, simply because it wasn’t allowed to be triumphant. The man barely even talks to any of the regulars, let alone interacts with them to a significant degree! I fully realise that this is probably due to Nicolas Courtney’s advanced age, but it could have been no barrier to his involvement had the character been written with this in mind (rather than slashing his involvement because he wouldn’t be running around or dodging bullets); he’s barely even present! There’s certainly no character development, and his involvement here seems ultimately a rather thankless missed opportunity.

It would still be wonderful to see him return in a bona fide – and, preferably, character-driven – Doctor Who story, one that was actually concerned with the character beyond his being used as an end-of-season reveal.

On the plus side, his walking-stick gun was, it has to be said, kind of inspired. Given that, in his civvies, the character is deprived of the military background which defines him (to an extent, he is ‘just an old man’ here), it was canny to give him a memorable visual addition (akin to recognisable accoutrements like Sarah’s watch, sonic lipstick, and Nissan Figaro); a gimmick appropriate to a kids’ series, but which also goes some way to diffusing his potential quaintness.

I’m well aware my opinions here are more or less irrelevant – I have no doubt this series is wonderful for its primary target audience – but, still, it is worth watching for more than fanboy completism alone, though I do feel some of the limitations of the new series’ format which it replicates are exposed.

However – the fact that this series is as good as it is is quite a shocker. I need only direct your attention to the trailer for the Bob Baker K9 series to show how bad a children’s DW spin-off could be, appearing as it does to encapsulate everything tawdry and lazy about kids’ TV. ‘Darius, Starkey, and Jorjie’? When even the names don’t have any bearing on reality, you know you’re in trouble. And, rationalising the disparity between a London setting and Australian locations by saying it’s set ten years into a globally-warmed future – for the love of god, just SET IT IN AUSTRALIA. At least then the whole thing’d be comfortably out of the way.

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