We haven’t watched anything together that was creepy enough to send our son behind the sofa and then upstairs to retrieve his security blanket in such a long time. He’s nine; those days are mostly behind us considering the level – or the “fear factor,” I guess – of the programs that we watch. So Phil Ford’s lovely haunted house story was a charming reminder of how he responds when he gets the heebie-jeebies. It’s a really fun tale about a spooky old house full of ghosts and a menacing old alchemist keeping them all prisoner. There’s a science fiction explanation, of course, but it doesn’t really matter. This was meant to scare the pants off nine year-olds after the sun’s gone down. Of course, as we’re learning about his long-term memory and anything that gives him those heebie-jeebies, this will almost certainly be the first Sarah Jane Adventure to slip his mind entirely. Maybe he’ll enjoy rediscovering it one day.
You know, the kid just does not like bad guys as much as I do. The third and final duel between Sarah Jane and the Trickster had him grumbling even more than usual – after the lights were turned on, happily – about his antics, with the interesting caveat that he just doesn’t think the Trickster is all that much of a villain. He says that the Trickster doesn’t really do anything villainous, he just lets people make the decision to stay alive instead of dying. We parents protested that changing the future can be pretty amazingly evil. This time, in the guise of an angel, he saves the life of a man named Peter Dalton and plays matchmaker, because a happily married Sarah Jane won’t go saving the planet all the time.
And see, I think this is remarkably and delightfully evil, because the Trickster can only ever be defeated by people agreeing to die. Victory over him demands sacrifice, every time. How wretched is that? He’s a great, great villain, and happily, as I discussed when I was talking about the Replicators in Stargate the other day, the law of diminishing returns never sets in for him. Gareth Roberts used him three times and he’s been retired, which is good. One more appearance would be too many. At least he gets to have that standoff with the Doctor he threatened when we met him.
Oh, yeah, the Doctor’s in this! Bizarrely, because of the complex filming schedules of the Who shows back when they were making three of them, this was actually made after David Tennant’s last Who installments. The Doctor gets to run around with the kids and K9 in a situation that is remarkably like Sapphire & Steel‘s final case, trapped in a lost, repeating second in a building with nothing outside it. They have a completely grand second part to the story with Tennant doing all his running around and shouting and Doctor things while Sarah Jane and Peter get to have the emotional showdown with the baddie. Peter’s last words, if you have a heart, will break it.
Also, for those of you who really like the Tenth Doctor, I’m pretty sure you can slot Panini’s terrific collection The Crimson Hand just perfectly in between “Planet of the Dead” and this story. It’s been a while since I read that; I should dust it off again soon. Wow, it just struck me that we’ll reach the end of Tennant’s run before September. Time flies.
Anyway, all the Doctor stuff is terrific fun, and it makes for a great balance, because he doesn’t dominate the story. The emotional core is happening elsewhere, a second away, in another room. I love it to pieces, without reservation. Anybody who binges Tennant’s run as the Doctor who doesn’t detour here to enjoy this is seriously missing out.
“The Mad Woman in the Attic” draws its unusual title from a parallel timeline situation where Rani grows up alone, cuts off human contact, and, fifty years after the events of this story, has purchased Sarah Jane’s old house so she can be a bitter old lady lost in her memories. It’s an interesting framing structure, and I have always felt it distracts a little from the much warmer present-day story. It concerns a lonely alien girl called Eve, who may be the only survivor of a race of time-sensitive beings who were “exterminated” in a war between two powerful races. “I know what war that is,” interjected our increasingly vocal nine year-old critic. Most of the story was filmed on an incredibly windy couple of days at the Barry Island Pleasure Park in the spring of 2009. Unfortunately, they seem to have picked the most boring rides in the place to use.
K9 returns to the main cast at the end of this story after just a couple of tiny appearances in the previous series. The BBC’d worked out a rights-sharing agreement with K9’s co-owners at last. The kid got really, really talkative when that happened because he was so happy. He really is getting obnoxious with the commentary and used to be a lot better about keeping quiet. Must remember to talk with him about that…
And now to October 2009 and the completely wonderful third series of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Time’s a little short this evening, so I’ll just say that our son totally loved this fish-out-of-water story by Phil Ford. The three kids assist an incredibly grouchy Judoon police captain who is stomping around on Earth looking for an escaped criminal who is hiding out in Sarah Jane’s body. It kind of suffers from the problem of convenience that you see on almost all adventure TV – an alien fugitive just happens to need some nanotechnology on the same Sunday where Sarah Jane went and interviewed the head of a nanotech company – but on the other hand, there’s a magical scene where a grouchy space rhino in a commandeered cop car orders another driver to turn down his music, which is the funniest thing ever.
So it’s Luke’s turn for a parent-issues story, but because I’m just that way, here’s a picture of everybody else instead. And everybody else includes Nicholas Courtney, making a long overdue return appearance as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart! It’s really nice that Courtney got one more shot at helping to save the day. Phil Ford’s story honestly isn’t one that really plays to his strengths, but the reality is that Courtney wasn’t the healthiest of old fellows at the time – he passed away a couple of years later – and yet the actor’s still got some twinkle in his eye, and the Brig’s got a monster-stunning gadget in his cane.
This went over much better than the previous few adventures with our kid. Myself, I think I’d have preferred the main villain – Samantha Bond, returning as the evil Bane called Miss Wormwood – to not have every single answer as the story unfolds, but it’s still a fun romp with several fun and exciting moments, kid-pleasing slimy goop, and a tremendously satisfying cliffhanger that reveals Miss Wormwood is in league with the disgraced Sontaran soldier we met at the beginning of the season.
I completely love that Wormwood and Kaagh have their big blustery bad guy “give us what we want” standoff with our heroes in a small flower shop. And I especially love that after Wormwood gives her long “join with me and rule the universe” speech to Luke, he silently takes the macguffin from her as though he was considering it, and instead just runs away with it, without saying a word. The Sarah Jane Adventures is at its best when it subverts the rules of sci-fi adventure TV. There’s a lot to love about this show.
That’s all from Bannerman Road for now, but we’ll look at the third series very soon, after we’ve watched the next couple of Doctor Who one-off specials. Stay tuned!
It’s not as though every installment of Doctor Who and its spin-offs can proudly boast their originality. Never mind the frequent homages to other fiction, the show repeats itself sometimes. So you get a Peladon story that’s a whole lot like the previous one, only longer, and you get Terry Nation writing the same Dalek adventure about three times, and you get this, which is the Christopher Eccleston story “Father’s Day” again.
In its defense, the Trickster remains an interesting opponent, and the clothes in 1951 are nice. But this story doesn’t have Shaun Dingwall to carry the emotions and Sarah Jane has to be written as breathtakingly, criminally stupid to fall for this. It’s a badly-timed story anyway, coming as it does right after Clyde dealt with his abandonment issues in the previous adventure. The direction by Graeme Harper is as good as ever, but this isn’t Gareth Roberts’ best script, and it’s definitely the weakest of the three with the Trickster.
Although there is a little moment I found interesting. A year previously, some critics complained about a scene in Roberts’ “The Shakespeare Code.” Then, Martha was reluctant to leave the TARDIS in the 1600s, fearing the racism and bigotry of people in the period, but two women of color walk by in nice clothes and that settles that. The past just isn’t racist for forty-five minutes and she didn’t have to deal with anybody being ugly toward her color until “Human Nature” later in the season. Here, Rani walks into the all-white village fete and every head in the building turns, leaving her to dismiss them as quickly as she can by saying “yes, ethnic person in the 1950s,” and trying to get down to business. I like “Shakespeare Code” much better overall, but this scene feels much more honest.
Our kid, again, wasn’t very thrilled. It’s too simplistic to just say “he’s seen it all before,” but that’s a big part of it. He’s seen enough to know – from “Father’s Day,” from Star Trek, from Stargate SG-1 – that Sarah Jane should not be interfering in her past. So he shook his head and he scowled and rolled his eyes with an “oh, no” a few times. That’s three in a row that he didn’t enjoy, which I didn’t expect. Hopefully this run will end on a high note for him!
There’s no getting around it, this was a tough episode for our son. There’s a sci-fi plot and some side comedy, but the core of the episode is Clyde’s father coming back from out of nowhere, having abandoned his wife and kid five years previously. So it’s an important story that lets actor Daniel Anthony let down Clyde’s guard and be a wounded fifteen year-old for the first time. It drags a lot to the surface and left our son unhappy and confused. We had to talk a bit about families afterward, and why Clyde would still be willing to do anything for his dad, including reveal the secrets of Sarah Jane’s attic. I’ll leave it there, with extra cuddling.
Uh-oh. Our son offered some troubling proof that he’s going to be struggling against an anti-fun gene as he gets older. Tonight’s story posits that there was a universe before our own, with its own laws of reality that contradict what we call “physics.” Half-remembered by civilizations across the cosmos as “astrology,” this power from some old time doesn’t actually have any real influence on us, but the entities from that old time can use it, and, millions of years ago, set in motion a plan to re-enter the reality that would replace theirs. And our son called hogwash on it. He is perfectly prepared to accept, say, Daleks stealing planets and sticking them in a great big engine, but he drew the line at some other universe’s physics having any influence or power over our own physics.
So between the episodes, we had a chat about how there’s quite a lot of science fiction that deals with forces or powers or gods from the Old Time, and that he’s going to experience a heck of a lot of it if he continues watching or reading in the genre. Even if I’ve never read a word of Lovecraft, I know what Cthulu and Nyarlathotep are, on account of how Lovecraft was such an unavoidable influence. I also pointed out that this episode’s writer, Gareth Roberts, had penned a Doctor Who story in series three, “The Shakespeare Code,” and it also dealt with some very old entities messing with what we think are the laws of physics. Still, this really wasn’t one of his favorites, and he was ready to scram and rebuild an International Rescue pod he’d made with Lego just as soon as our heroes saved the day.
If our son has any genuine fear of clowns, it’s news to us. Other than getting creeped out by the clowns in the Doctor Who serial “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” a year ago, he’s never said a word about them as far as we can recall. But he spent the first episode of this story muttering unhappily and letting out an occasional stage whimper as Bradley Walsh comes and goes in a flash of color and the blink of an eye. And speaking of eighties Doctor Who, this story, written again by the great Phil Ford, was directed by Michael Kerrigan, who had directed the serial “Battlefield” just a few months after “Greatest Show” had aired.
Apart from being a tremendously fun and creepy hour, with, admittedly, an incredibly convenient resolution, “The Day of the Clown” is a lovely little nexus point for the actors in the Who world. Walsh, of course, has played the companion Graham in the most recent two series of Who, and he got to work again with Anjli Mohindra in this year’s “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.” Mohindra tells a hilarious anecdote about how Walsh did not recognize her under her space alien prosthetics and makeup which you should go and read, but in fairness to Walsh, I enjoyed her in the next several years of SJA very much and had no idea that was her as Queen Skithra either. And I just read now that Mohindra’s been dating Sacha Dhawan, the current Master, for the last few years. Small universe!
So yes, this is Anjli Mohindra’s first adventure as Rani Chandra, the new girl across the road from Sarah Jane. She’s fun and wonderful and if you remember how the Doctor Who forums in 2008 were all babbling about how the character was called Rani and you thought it was only silly grownups who wondered whether this Rani was the same as the Doctor’s old enemy the Rani, the name tripped up our son as well. “Did she say… Rani?” he asked, eyes wide. Had to pause for the confusion.
For what it’s worth, I like Rani Chandra just fine and am very, very glad this wasn’t some stunt of Russell T. Davies’s to drop a bombshell on Bannerman Road. But I am also just fine with one day the Rani escaping the Time War and regenerating herself into a sixteen year-old girl in a London suburb.
And now back to 2008, where we get to read between the lines and realize that when the Daleks stole the planet Earth the last time we saw the Doctor, they unwittingly took with them a pissed off Sontaran who’d been grouchily repairing his ship since the destruction of General Staal’s fleet. This one’s called Commander Kaagh and he’s a fun, fun villain. Our son likes the Sontarans, but he’s been confusing them at first glance with the Judoon every time. I think that’s why they decided to give Sontarans blue armor in the modern age, but it apparently doesn’t help as much as a grownup might think.
Phil Ford’s story really feels like what I was talking about with Stargate earlier this week. They’ve got some woods, an old relay station, an alien and two speaking parts, and they made wonders from it. There really is a lot of running back and forth, but it’s done with lots of action, a baddie who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with his laser rifle, and one of Doctor Who‘s finest “thumped in the back of the neck” resolutions. Maybe Kaagh can’t shoot straight because the injury that left him that scar messed up his depth perception?
And so this is a farewell to the original SJA team. Actress Yasmin Paige decided to focus on her education, so this was Maria’s final story. I like the character who replaces her, but it always seems a shame that she left so soon since Maria was the original audience identification figure. But honestly, the program, which was good from the beginning, gets even better from here.
I just adore watching the way our son responds when friends or foes from the past resurface. Toward the end of part one of Phil Ford’s “The Lost Boy,” the baddies start unzipping their foreheads, revealing themselves to be Slitheen, and the kid bellowed “You have GOT to be kidding!” Then at the end of the adventure, K9 gets to come out of hiding for a contractually-obligated cameo and he shouted “Yay!” He also joined in with my laughter when he absolutely no idea why I was laughing. Maria explains to her dad that Slitheen are not a race, but a family of chancers, like Only Fools and Horses, but green. So I got a very good giggle and he fake-laughed atop me despite clearly not getting the joke.
Should I tell him that Only Fools and Horses is the same program that Jackie Tyler was referencing when she called Pete a “Del Boy” back in “Father’s Day”, and that it starred David Jason, who he knows as the wonderful Captain Fantastic in Do Not Adjust Your Set, which we watch together every couple of weeks? Probably not.
Anyway, “The Lost Boy” is a fine season finale. It does what the Who world typically does in a finale: bring back an old baddie, pull the rug out from under us, threaten the unity of the heroes, threaten the planet, that sort of thing. It’s incredibly fun watching it all unfold, and realizing that the Slitheen cannot trust their mysterious, unseen ally. I especially like how Clyde proves that he’s more essential than anybody credits him, believably using his wits in a couple of key scenes. And while nobody’s heart is broken by the Slitheen returning to the shelf for a couple of years, I just can’t help myself. I really enjoy the big green farting chancers!
The Sarah Jane Adventures will return to our lineup in the summer, after we have watched series four of Doctor Who. Stay tuned!