Thursday, 15 November 2007

All hail "The Sarah Jane Adventures"! (spoilers)

Something else I've not been giving the blog-space it should is the new "Doctor Who" spin-off, "The Sarah Jane Adventures". So this is to make amends.

I'm at CBBC pace so I've only got the very last episode of the first series to go - as such I may have spoilers below for the last story so you may wish to skip this until BBC One catches up on Monday afternoon.

Anyways, having been piloted on New Years Day, the series proper kicked off in late September with the first of five two-part adventures. That format in itself has contributed to what many have said is a 'classic-Who" feel to the series - it certainly doesn't seem to talk down to the kiddy audience any more than most of the 80s episodes of the main series. And this also ensures a cliffhanger ending per story, something "New-Who" doesn't have most of the time. It's also one of the best children's dramas produced by the BBC in recent years - surely it must go to a second series?

I'll tackle the five stories individually. First off, to groans at what the title confirmed, was "Revenge of the Slitheen". I forgave this as it meant that one of the "New-Who" aliens that seem to have gone down terribly well with SJA's target age range (if not for many of us 'flamekeepers') had an opportunity to return, but without bothering the parent show. This opening two-parter also had to remind us of the concept and characters the pilot gave us as well as introduce them to those who missed the pilot over the busy festive season.

It helped that a new character, Clyde, was also introduced here who seems to have gone down a whole lot better than the similarly streetwise Kelsey whom he replaced (this also balanced up what had been an overly female line-up of regulars). Here Clyde was let in on the secrets and joined the gang, becoming a grounded 'Geordi' to otherworldly Luke's 'Data' - a dynamic that has worked well through the series. Thankfully that similarity hasn't been taken too far by making Luke too integrated and cool - he eschews football and fails miserably at skateboarding later in the series.

Back to the opening story - I felt it was OK, but not quite as impressive as the pilot. In fact the undercover Slitheen, the dodgy food and Sarah in the school setting did make it too similar to "School Reunion" last year. As with many of the SJA cliffhangers, this plot strives to imperil more than one of our regulars at the climax of episode one, often pulling a twist on the top. Very much the case here where they scored brownie points from me for introducing a child Slitheen who occupied the body of a real, and surely dead, schoolboy. That's still actually a disturbing concept to think about. Nevertheless, this also contributed to feeling some sympathy for the baddies at the climax when the Slitheen father pleads to Sarah and her gang for his son's life to be spared. Only Sarah appears to waver here - the others ensure all the Slitheen are defeated. This advanced one of the themes of "Boomtown" where a returning 'Margaret' pleaded for her own life with an initially ruthless Doctor.

Some kudos to director Alice Troughton (soon to become only the second director to work on all three 'Who-related' dramas) as well, for toning down the buffoonery of the Slitheen a little, if not as much as I'd ideally like. The farting was unavoidably written in Gareth Roberts' script.

Then we have the first of my favourites in the run, Phil Ford's "Eye of the Gorgon" , where SJA really strutted its stuff. Weakened only by giving away the monster in the title again this one plays with a lot of gothic stuff like nuns in hearses and creepy old houses with hidden passages. The use of Gorgon mythology was countered with old-school dismissing of any magic or supernatural forces in a way Sarah would have learnt from her Doctors. Here the Gorgons (like The Daemons) are just another ancient and powerful alien race, of which only one has survived on Earth protected by a devoted coven of nuns.

Beth Goddard played the chief nun with an evil gusto, but this story was stolen by Bea (Phylidda Law) an elderly adventuress now confined to a home and suffering with Alzheimers. But only Bea knows anything of the truth and possesses an ancient artefect sought by the Gorgon to bring more of the creatures through a portal. As someone personally touched by the tragedy of Alzheimers, you might think I felt the inclusion of this by name in a children's programme was a touch insensitive but I thought it was well handled and very brave not to 'cure' Bea where they clearly had an opportunity. A 'cure' would give cruel hope to children in the audience and here Bea is a hero despite the affliction.

In another twist cliffhanger it is Maria's Dad, Alan who is unexpectedly turned to stone by the Gorgon. Later, Sarah is blindfolded and held by the nuns as she is prepared to be the next 'host' for the Gorgon - a scene that brought back memories of a similar peril she faced in "Seeds of Doom". As with the casual mention here for the Sontarans, I felt this might be a another little bonus for us older viewers.

And I must mention the realisation of the Gorgon itself, which must have scared the kiddies witless. Though there was no snake-hair it was a very creepy creation, as ever strengthened by the whole 'look and you'll be turned to stone' idea used so powerfully (if in reverse) by "Blink" earlier this year.

Then to "Warriors of Kudlak". Sorry, I only managed episode one of this but may catch the conclusion at some point. It just seemed a bit hackneyed and full of things I'd seen somewhere before, notably the blatant lift from the "Cloudbusting" video. As many others have already wrote the whole 'laser-tag' type game at the heart of the plot is really not of the same generation as Clyde who'd probably rather go for a Wii. Perhaps the author was pining for an earlier era or just didn't understand 'da yoof'? I also felt splitting the regular team up by gender rather weakened their appeal and I missed getting a weekly dose of Maria's Dad. Though I did like the comic cameo by the receptionist.

"Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?" was the one I'd been looking forward to, as it had been described as 'darker' than the rest of the series. As with "Eye of the Gorgon" it went more toward fantasy than sci-fi with a simple premise of removing Sarah-Jane from the time-stream and switching her with a Sarah-Jane-like replacement.

Maria, like the audience, was the only one who remembered how things should be and set about challenging the situation. Sarah-Jane's replacement (living in her house and seemingly having the same relationship with Maria and family) was Andrea Yates, played with a disconcerting estuary accent by Jane Asher. She is otherwise, I'd say, deliberately directed and styled as close to Sarah-Jane as possible. In both the 'correct' and this timeline there had been a fatal accident involving Sarah-Jane and Andrea when they were on a school trip aged 13. However in the 'correct' timeline Andrea had died while Sarah-Jane survived. Somehow this was reversed in the timeline Maria now encountered, having the knock-on effect that Luke was also absent, though he had never existed in the first place.

Thanks to Maria's meddling, Andrea is forced to remember/confront what has really happened - she's entered into a faustian pact with a cowled creature seen only in mirrors (named here as The Trickster only by Alan in episode 2) who has saved her life for his own purposes. As we'd seen at the episode's opening, in the 'correct' timeline Sarah-Jane and Mr Smith casually tell the gang and audience about an approaching meteor that is on course to hit Earth the next day, but not to worry as this will be effortlessly repelled by Mr Smith's supercomputer powers. Yes, Mr Smith is also not around but the meteor is, so The Trickster has conspired for there to be no defence. And that's about it for his motives - he wants chaos for its own sake and later sneers at the merely greedy reasons behind the other foes we've seen from the Bane onward. In fact he's also specifically deflected their incursions from this timeline.

It transpres though that the reason Maria is unaffected is something conferred upon her by a "Hellraiser"-type puzzlebox Sarah-Jane gave her early in the episode. The Trickster though arranges for Maria's 'despatch' using a Graske to catch her and imprison her in a white-void limbo. In doing so, she leaves the box behind in her living-room and it is picked up by her Dad. He has a bit of a special-effects induced 'bad trip' here and then finds another changed timeline where, although he still has no knowledge of Sarah-Jane, no-one else now except him has any memory of Maria either. Meanwhile Maria manages to escape the void but drops into 1964 rather than home, where she immediately meets up with two 13 year old girls who are about to venture onto a dangerous pier. We know it's the cliffhanger when the more sensible girl introduces herself as Sarah-Jane Smith.

Again it is to the programme's credit that the resolution in the next episode is NOT Maria managing to change what happens next - in fact she's swiftly recaptured and taken back to the void where she's re-united with a helpless Sarah-Jane. It falls to Maria's Dad Alan to do the hero business for several scenes from confronting Andrea to wrestling down the Graske. Clyde is around by now but equally ignorant of the 'correct' timeline and thus useless bar switching on the TV to see a report of the incoming meteor. Maria is returned, but Sarah-Jane cannot be without Andrea's express consent to end her contract with the Trickster. This will return the 'correct' timeline but kill Andrea.

Though it's obvious she will die with everyone else when the meteor strikes rather than falling from a pier in 1964 Andrea takes rather a long while to come to the 'correct' decision. And here is the reason I use inverted commas when referring to the 'correct' timeline as the emotional dialogue here (between Andrea and a mirror-only Sarah-Jane in the attic) questions what 'correct' should be, which is a bit more existential an interlude than I would expect.

Again the resolution adds a further twist as our heroes (now including Luke) return to a more familiar attic, complete with Mr Smith. But they return with Alan in tow, who is now in on the whole set-up and this poses a cliffhanger of a sort rather than a traditional reset where somehow his memory would be wiped.

This leads straight into the situation at the opening of the last story, "The Lost Boy". It's certainly the best title as the eponymous boy might actually be one of three characters, even if we are initially led to believe it refers to Luke. Having been largely absent for the previous story it does give him a bit more of the action here. I have to add here that I inadvertantly found out two rather large spoilers for this before watching it, and I'd definitely have enjoyed it even more without that knowledge. So I say again, don't read it here if you haven't seen episode one.

It starts with Alan taking last week's revelations rather badly, citing Sarah-Jane as a bad influence on Maria and planning to move away from the area. This is altogether encouraged by ex-wife Chrissie, who has never quite gelled with Sarah-Jane (nor been able to correctly remember her name). Meanwhile another pesky news report punctures procedings for our regulars. Now this element was very brave of the producers to include in light of recent events - two distraught parents are appealing for the return of their lost son, Ashley, at a televised press conference. A picture flashes up of the boy - a double for Luke. Chrissie immediately calls the police - this only confirms her suspicions about the weird lady across the road.

Partly because of one of the spoilers I knew, I was taken aback by the tone of the story so far. If anything it was darker still than its predeccessor throwing up all sorts of real-life nasties we hear on the news. Although never actually mouthed, there's every possibility of Sarah-Jane being seen as a potential paedophile or deranged child snatcher! Though I have to say this always going to be a bit of an elephant in the room ever since our heroine adopted Luke in the pilot, with Mr Smith helping to falsify the official records. Apparently.

Luckily, through some vaguely explained UNIT string-pulling, Sarah-Jane is released from arrest on a never specified charge. Luke is given up to Ashley's parents. (Bit of artistic licence here as I'm sure Luke would have been interviewed by the police rather than given straight back to the parents).

In some ways this should be the weakest point in the story as it points out how glibly the adoption has been treated previously and also how we didn't really know Luke's origins or if he somehow started human. Our questioning heroes had never questioned. Even his non-existant belly-button could have been surgically removed by the Bane. But it works, as it captures the theme of Sarah-Jane's world falling apart after Mr Smith confirms that Luke and Ashley are a genetic match. Significantly, Sarah-Jane goes on to reject Maria, in order to lessen the hurt of the latter leaving.

Mr Smith gives Sarah-Jane a distraction from the trauma which she readily accepts - investigating experiments in telekinesis at the Pharos Institute. There she meets an obnoxious child genius, Nathan, whom she compares unfavourably with Luke.

Meanwhile Luke is not finding life as Ashley very comfortable - they have little in common and he remembers nothing of the life documented in photos he is shown, while his parents lock him in his room.

Things start to veer back to more normal SJA territory when both the child prodigy and Ashley's parents start acting suspiciously and using strange technical terms like 'the Xyloc'.

Clyde tries to visit Luke but is batted away by Ashley's parents who give him a photo of the previously happy family to prove their claim. Clyde takes this immediately to Mr Smith for analysis, saying he suspects it's been faked. Mr Smith concurs - he faked it himself.

Luke briefly escapes after spotting Clyde but is recaptured just as Ashley's parents are visited by an irate Nathan who advises never to trust a Xyloc. Seeing no further need for discretion Ashley's parents reveal themselves as Slitheen, albeit ones with new slimline bodysuits (which also appear not to have a flatulence problem). Nathan angrily rounds on Luke and soon reveals himself as another Slitheen. But this is the child Slitheen whose father was 'murdered' by Luke and friends earlier in the series. This is his revenge.

Back in the attic Mr Smith explains he is a Xyloc and zaps Clyde from the room.


Credits roll.

Another sublime double-whammy cliffhanger ending a remarkable episode. Even though it was the Slitheen appearing and Mr Smith's betrayal I'd heard this was still a belter and I really can't wait for the resolution next week. Had I not known I wouldn't have guessed - the disguised Slitheen displayed none of the trademark giveaways and Mr Smith just seemed to be being Mr Smith until the last scene.

I do have a vague suspicion that all is still not what it seems, but not sure whether this will exonerate Mr Smith's actions or magnify them. Maybe K9 will ride back to the rescue?
A final update next week I think!
Some screencaps by Wear Your Wellies Graphics

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