Saturday, 27 November 2010

"There's never anything good at the end of a countdown – except New Years, and even that's rubbish”

CBBC spin-off series, 2010

This time round, there was a danger that The Sarah Jane Adventures were going to feel like an obsolete pre-Moffat relic, with its Siltheen and Graskes. Even a notable lack of any crossover monsters from series five (I can imagine the Silurians turning up) sits a little oddly, and would perhaps have reinforced the show’s ancestry given how much the parent series has moved on.

Of course, the appearance of the Eleventh Doctor, this season’s selling point, goes some way to addressing this, but opener The Nightmare Man - a very self conscious attempt at a scary story – seems a patent attempt to move the series on and try new things, perhaps to limit reliance on Doctor Who itself. In fact, this is almost the most characteristic thing about this season; aside from a couple of by-numbers lapses, most of the stories have tried to showcase a more varied and mature take on the show.

Growing has obviously been a major topic, too, with The Nightmare Man particularly compounding a more teenage feel with its Skins-rated-U surprise party for Luke. It also shows a lot of confidence in opening the season with a first episode in which Sarah has very little direct involvement – although, in fact, she ended up seeming marginalised in a lot of the stories, especially Lost in Time and the final episode. Perhaps it’s a case of reality mirroring fiction and the actress’s age is actually catching up with her…? Despite this, as ever, it’s quite staggering to remember quite how marvellous Lis Sladen is; in all her little very human and idiosyncratic reactions, she seems far better than CBBC deserves and is of course the pièce de résistance of the show.

Ultimately, The Nightmare Man isn’t entirely satisfying, trying almost too hard to be teenage and scary, which seemed at odds with the series’ underlying positivity and niceness. Julian Bleach channelling Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret or The League of Gentlemen’s Papa Lazarou, but not being as scary as either, though probably quite creepy for the actual demographic (just not the ming-mong quotient), is slightly disappointing. On balance, this is probably the least successful of his Torchwood/Doctor Who/SJA triumvirate of villains.

However, it’s good to see a certain amount of dreamlike surrealism in one of the new series family, something twenty-first century Doctor Who itself has mainly eschewed, perhaps for fear of alienating its carefully built mainstream audience (with even the dreamscape(s) of Amy’s Choice being played straight). The world of the Nightmare Man does demonstrate the potential danger of ‘anything goes’ dream-logic, as it becomes a bit ‘Well why should we care?’, which, I suppose, is always the danger. Sarah’s relative lack of involvement isn’t entirely successful, either, as it falls to Tommy Knight to carry the story - but it’s okay, cos by the end Luke’s gone! (They’ll have to update that cringy catch-up sequence that plays at the beginning of every episode. Or is that just on iPlayer?! The bleeping they’d added to K9 was hacking me off too, so he’s not a great loss either.)

(As an aside, without Luke around, does it not look a bit weird to the inhabitants of Bannerman Road for Sarah to be jetting around with two schoolkids? Maybe the finale of the next season will see her lynched by a mob of concerned members of the community?)

The Vault of Secrets is one of the weaker offerings of the season, with the otherwise irrelevant Pyramids of Mars reference being probably the most interesting thing in it. (It’s also slightly saddening that in a split second of footage the visual of Mars’ surface is miraculous, by comparison to what the show could pull off back in 1975.) The links to the Dreamland animation, in the Men in Black, are less welcome, being the kind of astonishingly obvious pop-cultural ‘pastiches’ (and that’s being generous) which are destined to be repeated, ad infinitum, for decades to come. And all without being anywhere near as creepy as Hugo Weaving.

Death of the Doctor forms the meat of this review, perhaps unfairly – but there’s relatively little to say about SJA's regular stories, which are almost so routine as to be beyond reproach; they do exactly what they say on the tin, and there isn’t a great deal to analyse. In consequence, it is welcome to have a writer like Russell T Davies, who’s not exactly hampered by restraint, coming along and providing an event episode to shake up the format – in a way that previous stabs at season finales, such as the somewhat fumbled reintroduction of the Brigadier, didn’t. An injection of big thinking (in contrast to the standard ‘the gang foils an alien incursion in suburbia’) goes a long way: not only in having the Doctor appear, but doing so in a story dealing with his apparent death and its repercussions, along with the reappearance of another long-gone former companion.

A writer immodest enough to take the format and give it a good shake is a rare thing in SJA, so although self-conscious ‘big stories’ aren’t really my bag, this one is almost a relief. (Big, that is, in terms of its emotional ramifications – turning out the sun, for example, may seem big, but doesn’t mean anything compared to meeting up with a familiar character from thirty years ago.)

I imagine a lot of people’ll focus on the sheer amount of elements crammed into Death of the Doctor, whereas most stories have only one or two main building blocks – say, The Vault of Secrets’ returnees Androvax versus the Men in Black. Here, not only do we have UNIT (and their Gerry Anderson-like base in Mount Snowden), but the Doctor and his apparent death, new monsters (the Shansheeth), old monsters (the Graske/Groske), an alien planet, Jo Grant’s return, and a Luke-alike in Jo’s grandson. While this would seem to suggest that Russell is up to his old Stolen Earth/End of Time ‘more is… MORE!!!’ tricks, these elements actually gel and feel far more organic than that comparison would suggest. In fact, it really shouldn’t work, yet I enjoyed this story far more than my generally low opinion of Davies’ writing would suggest. In fact, I kind of loved this story, apart from anything else for its atypically measured pace, which, in the first episode, gives Sarah and Jo a surprising – but welcome – amount of time to both reminisce and become acquainted.

It’s a relief that such a continuity-heavy concept is fictively justified by a plot which revolves around memory. Similarly, Jo’s appearance feels entirely appropriate to the idea of the Doctor’s funeral, rather than something arbitrarily slotted in, thus dismissing the idea that maybe her’s and the Doctor’s appearances in this series would be better used in separate stories.

For a continuity fest, it’s impressive how fleet-footed it mainly manages to be – even without the Shansheeth drawing out Sarah and Jo’s memories for their own nefarious purposes, it is natural that the two ex-companions would share these things. Likewise, a rare nod to Liz Shaw seems natural in the circumstances – and, oddly, links into her presence on a moonbase in late New Adventure Eternity Weeps. Strangely enough, I doubt that makes her horrific, sulphuric acid-spewing death canon though.

I’m no fan of Jo, though I do have a certain grudging fondness for her; I coincidentally watched the (yes, dire) Time Monster for the first time before seeing this, and the contrast between her twentieth and twenty-first century appearances brings home how much emotionally-driven characterisation the new series has given to the companion role. On the basis of stories like The Time Monster it’s hard to credit Jo with any original thought at all, so though her wild post-Doctor life is laid on a bit thick here, it’s almost revelatory to hear her actually talking about the Doctor in retrospect, when we were never allowed any access to her thoughts about her life with him back in the seventies. (She does look a bit… desiccated, though.)

Perhaps because the character is effectively brought up to date, or brought in line with her modern counterparts, I felt a lot more pleased to see her than I expected. For all that I’m cynical about his generally overinflated reputation as a writer, Davies has certainly got a handle on Jo in presenting her – though exaggeratedly – as a batty, be-ringed free spirit. She’s well on her way to becoming one of Doctor Who’s fabulously mad old dears, á la Amelias Rumsford and Ducat. I like how Rani immediately thinks she’s “fantastic,” and Santiago is unembarrassed by her – I mean, she would be an awesome mad relative, who all the normal grown-ups’d shake their heads about. (Though quite why she brought her grandson to the funeral is anyone’s guess. Santiago is slightly hatefully right-on, though that might be mainly down to the excessively low-cut T-shirt, but at least the cons of his globetrotting life are brought up in the second part.)

That Jo’s aspirational post-Green Death lifestyle, which is sketched in rather than being left to the imagination, is implicitly due to the seize-the-day mentality that rubbed off from the Doctor, is one of those Russell tropes which irritate me slightly, but which overall didn’t stop me enjoying his return to the Doctor Who universe. (See also the sledgehammer emotiveness of concepts like ‘the Doctor died saving hundreds of children’; portentous dialogue (“You smell of time; he is coming”); pseudo-mystical alien-dialogue (“brothers of the wing”); a penchant for spuriously ‘exotic’ names (Santiago Jones); tortuous coincidences bent to shape the story (the sonic being in the TARDIS and Sarah’s lipstick having been ‘drained’); and the Doctor as the stuff of intergalactic legend; etc, etc.)

However, these things are tempered by the more sympathetic attitude to continuity that has become the norm since 2005, with it being more about events’ emotional consequences than an excuse to roll out old monsters. It still heartens me to hear characters react to the most outlandish elements of Doctor Who in broadly real ways; ie, Sarah Jane wondering what face the dead Doctor has – in a way no-one did in the old series.

That the explicit references to previous stories include less-obvious ones like Jo and Sarah’s Peladon jaunts or The Masque of Mandragora is quite lovely, because it’s less the events in question that are important than the characters' tactile memories of those experiences (ie, Sarah remembers the orange grove the TARDIS landed in in the latter story, rather than Heironymous and the Helix energy). Davies effectively couches continuity in terms of memory rather than relating it in dry, ‘factual’ terms. That he also gets in a reference to the unseen Third Doctor excursion mentioned in Timelash takes continuity references to a new level of tortuousness – again, though, it is justifiable as a simply tactile memory for Jo, and so doesn’t feel painfully fanwanky.

Incidentally, as a fan who’s used to numerous returns and reappearances in various media, it’s easy to be all too blasé about characters returning to the world of the show thirty-odd years down the line; but it is insane, and we should be so grateful that Doctor Who brings out the kind of good feeling that makes people want to return to characters decades later. This must be pretty unprecedented, mustn’t it?!

In a way, perhaps because such a Doctor-centric idea is at its centre, and because of its less furiously paced speed than is normal in SJA, this feels more ‘Doctor Who’ than the spin-off show, even if it isn’t necessarily ‘like’ an actual episode of Doctor Who. David Tennant’s appearance in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith did feel like an excursion for the Doctor into spin-off territory, even though in both appearances the Doctor doesn’t turn up until the end of the first part (which, given the ratings-winning kudos of bagging these leading actors, is nicely judged not to overshadow SJA’s regular cast). In some ways, it does feel odd throwing away such a fertile concept as the Doctor’s death/funeral (think Alien Bodies) in a ‘mere’ CBBC spin-off, but it comes off well, and gives a bit of scale and gravitas to a series often more disposable than this.

As for Sarah, with a fourth Doctor under her belt (as it were), Sarah has effectively become a latterday Brigadier-figure; that is, a friend rather than companion per se, who repeatedly encounters different Doctors. I’d love for her to still be popping up when she’s the age Nicholas Courtney is now. Speaking of which, I’m not sure how much longer that ‘the Brigadier’s stuck in Peru’ excuse will hold up – I mean, there are airports in South America.

It comes as something of a surprise for me to say it, but overall this story is outrageously lovely, and probably one of my favourite of Davies’ stories - which isn’t saying that much, but it's nice that his return doesn’t make me want him to piss off even more permanently. It’s in scenes like the Doctor’s talk with Jo where Davies shines, and which I actually found quite moving, especially because of how nicely the reason for her departure in The Green Death links with Amy and Rory’s recent marriage. That Jo tried to get in touch with the Doctor at UNIT is specifically strangely affecting, especially since, as he was based on earth at the time, there’s no reason she’d expect the definitive end to her association which we, as viewers, know to expect.

As for the past-companion namechecking, though shamelessly fannish, hearing mention of Ian and Barbara and Ben and Polly (and even Ace*) on BBC1 in 2010 made me giddy as a schoolgirl. The fact that all those mentioned are doing something inspirational is an example of Davies’ quite literal thinking, which grates on me slightly, but as it isn’t exactly an exhaustive summary I can live with it; personally, I prefer the broader idea that they aren’t all necessarily on top of the world, but obviously that wouldn’t be as appropriate to SJA’s optimistic outlook (on more general principles, it is undeniably limiting to demand that Doctor Who can never be sad). I don’t quite believe in, say, Tegan as a right-on campaigner for Aboriginal rights, but former companions wouldn’t seem human if it wasn’t implied that their travels with the Doctor had affected them, and injecting humanity into them is Davies’ forte.

While bizarre, the idea that a still-young Ian and Babs are mooching around Oxford is also inexpressibly lovely. It could be seen as presumptuous of Davies to furnish these characters with post-Doctor lives, but I guess that’s the price of having someone take a more hands-on approach to the series’ past. Also, it does tie the series together in a charming way to realise even sixties companions who seem like ancient history are still alive and kicking, if only in the Doctor Who universe.

On the other hand, that the Doctor’s rounds in the coda to The End of Time actually took in EACH AND EVERY companion is absurd, and another example of Davies’ utter lack of restraint. The idea of the Tenth Doctor tracking down, say, Dodo, Turlough, Steven, Mel or Grace is ludicrous, but makes me laugh at its audacity rather than heaving a weary sigh. That wilful ludicrousness is quite representative of Davies’ output, but I’m glad it has seen an expression, in this somewhat unassuming form, in a story I really enjoyed. (This even more extended ‘reward’ does smacks of fanboy completism – did the Doctor do it alphabetically or chronologically?!) I’d also throw my vote in with the idea that referencing back to past characters isn’t alienating for newer audiences (if done right), but rather provides a glimpse of history and backstory - which, frankly, Doctor Who has enough of to spare.

More prosaically, I don’t like Matt Smith’s new shirt/jacket; it looks like he’s cosplaying… as himself… badly. (But at least this variation in his costume was due to technical considerations, the usual Paul Smith shirt vibrating with the SJA cameras.) The Shansheeth are possibly the worst new series/spin-off monsters, both in realisation and design, and certainly the most tawdry of Davies’ animal-aliens; they look like refugees from a particularly cash-strapped production of Alice in Wonderland. But let’s just peg that as a cash issue and move swiftly on.

For my money, Death of the Doctor has a hell of a lot more interesting concept - and, let’s face it: is just better - than any of the 2009 specials; maybe Davies really did just need time to recharge. Similarly, perhaps stories without the pressure of building up to regeneration/end of an era, suit him better. Having said that, he does manage to make this return to the fold act as a coda to The End of Time (cos the twenty-minute one actually in that story obviously wasn‘t enough...), in its discussion of regeneration, and an epitaph for the Tenth Doctor. Some people might see this as further self-indulgence from Davies, but I kind of like the emphasis put on the Doctor's ‘death’ and renewal, because it’s natural the characters should discuss it. It's the opposite thinking of earlier versions of Doctor Who, where the production teams bizarrely never felt the need to put these thoughts into the mouths of earlier companions - an extreme example being TARDIS newcomer Tegan’s total non-reaction to the Fourth Doctor’s regeneration, in Logopolis/Castrovalva.

Overall, Death of the Doctor may be an exercise in linking the old series to its Davies and Moffat eras, but the story is a lot less clunky than that implies. The fact that the actual plot boils down to a scheme to get hold of the TARDIS, and the Shansheeth’s plan being somewhat more ambiguous than straight-down-the-line villainy, is welcome. A corrupt UNIT officer is quite a nice inversion of the generally faceless UNIT of the new series, too, and shows a tendency to tackle sacred cows which also sees expression in the story’s (albeit affectionate) mockery of Sarah’s “staggering” piousness and the show’s home-in-time-for-tea ethos.

The main thing this story made me wonder, with fearfully predictable geekiness, was which other old-school characters I’d like to see return? I guess Leela is the obvious one - being popular and memorable, but unusual - though it might be harder to flesh her out as a believable human being. Or, apparent Captain Jack-like immortality aside, Ian Chesterton - ironically, as William Russell’s age could give some real scale to the Doctor’s recurring association with human companions.  


Following Russell's return was always going to be hard to equal, but in taking a completely opposed, sparer approach, The Empty Planet pretty much does. I’m going to skip over that though, as you can read a fuller review I wrote for this episode, on Kasterborous.

Lost in Time, perhaps most explicitly of this run, continues to push the series into new areas: I like its multi-location format, even if it doesn’t go into demented Chase-like territory, and it’s a relief that the Bannerman Road Gang aren’t explicitly ‘fighting aliens’ for once, persevering with a looser approach to the format. There’s a surprising, and welcome, degree of pathos to Jane Grey; in fact, all the strands are surprisingly satisfying considering their brevity, and how easily this could have turned into a bitty, disjointed mess (ahem, The Chase again). I particularly enjoyed the pip-pip derring-do of the budget Eagle Has Landed – especially the gun-wielding schoolmarm-cum-spy! – although this probably only serves to highlight the (relative) limitations of Daniel Anthony, giving him an action-based rather than emotionally probing mini-story. Though there are moments – for example, when the Nazi commandant calls him a ‘negro’ – where the script does veer into more emotional-driven territory.

There is a certain Moffat-ness to this episode (Matt Smith aside, one of few concessions to the spin-off’s relationship with its newly-rejuvenated parent series), in Jane’s shades of Madame de Pompadour, and the climactically timey-wimey (sorry!) delivery of the key. It’s also rather lovely that a kids’ program is prepared to give an emotional kick – even if it could be accused of being a little ‘schematic’ – of a type that Doctor Who itself seldom delivered prior to its revival.

And so to Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith: SJA doesn’t have a very good track-record with finales, and - regrettably - this one doesn’t fail in delivering an underwhelming story, continuing a characteristic and slightly annoying insistence on ‘high-concept’ finales (tag-teaming returning villains; a Sarah-equivalent figure). I think SJA falls down in this department because the big, showboating approach it tries to crib from the parent series just doesn’t suit its own style, which is at its most effective when tackling a more intimate tone and scale. 

Having said that, Goodbye… does try for the kind of sensitivity which the series often succeeds at surprisingly well, but falls a bit flat with Sarah’s fears about ageing. Plus, the manipulation of her life feels like a retread of The Wedding of…, and isn’t quite compelling enough to justify the lack of any major threat for the majority of the first episode. Also, the non-appearance of the Trickster (who I’m starting to warm to, if only because his nemesis-status makes him feel ‘significant’) is countered by a ‘Ruby’s evil!’ reveal that’s a bit meh (a disembodied stomach?!), while also invalidating even more the rather weak cowl-wearing budget alien threat from earlier. Plus, Ruby’s true nature also nullifies her role as a Sarah-analogue, the heavy-handedness of which is a bit much; ‘Mr White’, the Alfa Romeo, the secret cellar.

I mean, Hickman and Roberts – shouldn’t that have been fun?! Instead it was desultory and charmless. (An evil exile? Jesus.)

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith has none of the ambition of stories like Lost in Time to broaden the series’ tenets. Maybe that’s appropriate to a finale, but as I have serious issues with the way all Doctor Who-family series tend to end with some slightly desperate ‘big’ story, it feels disappointing in comparison to the best mid-season stories of this run. Lost in Time would have made a more memorable and ambitious finale, without ticking the ‘this is a finale!’ boxes, which are so very tedious.

Anyway, I’ve said waaay more than is strictly necessary in regard to a CBBC programme, especially since I’m only really interested in it as an adjunct to Doctor Who (though it still has its own charms) - so I will end on this note: has Luke been doing crystal meth at uni, or what? He looks like he’s dying!

*Ace’s fate as a philanthropist billionaire doesn’t necessarily negate the character’s Space Bitch and 'Time’s Vigilante' phases in the New Adventures, or her time-travelling motorbike and eventual life in seventeenth century France (…or whatever).

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