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!
Blindingly brilliant. Gareth Roberts’ “Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?” introduces us to a fabulous villain called the Trickster. The entity fades in and out of history, causing chaos and creating alternate timelines. In his first gambit, he causes thirteen year-old Sarah Jane to switch places with a friend who died in 1964. It was Andrea Yates, played by Jane Asher, who gets forty more years of life, and the house across from Maria. One day, Sarah is just gone, Luke never existed, Clyde has no idea why Maria has his number, and Maria is the only person on Earth who knows that this party-loving artist across the road is in the wrong time.
Graeme Harper directed this one. I’ve praised him several times in this blog and this is among his finest hours. The tension is unbelievable and everybody’s performances are just amazing. I’ve never said much about Joseph Millson, who plays Alan, Maria’s dad, because there’s not always room in this little blog, but he’s on fire this time. He spends part one afraid that something’s wrong with his daughter because she insists in this story about Sarah Jane, and then once Maria vanishes and only he can remember her, he’s cold fury. And I love how the soundtrack plays with our emotions with snatches of the Kinks and Sandie Shaw. There is not a better choice in all of music for this story’s tale of memory and inspiration than “Always Something There to Remind Me,” so somebody thank Bachrach and David for writing it, would you?
The kid loved it, and was about to explode with excitement in the end, although he was quick to qualify that the Slitheen story is his favorite. I correctly guessed that he would really hate the Trickster, which is a shame, because he’s going to have to put up with him a few more times. I can’t wait.
Last time, I said that The Sarah Jane Adventures never fell on its face like Doctor Who occasionally does. That said, “Warriors of Kudlak” is certainly the program’s weakest story, but it’s still very fun and is guaranteed to have eight year-olds thrilled. It’s the one where an ugly space alien is abducting teenagers who score really high in a Laser Tag game. The premise is ridiculous and the resolution is unbelievable, but it’s done with spirit and wit and a sense of fun, embracing the silliness in a way that keeps kids engaged. Ours absolutely loved this one. He’s only played laser tag a couple of times, but of course he loves it and was really looking forward to this story. Hopefully once this virus horror is over we can take him to Splitz Alley for another round.
The very best decision that the Who production staff of the time – Russell T. Davies, Phil Collinson, and Julie Gardner – made might have been commissioning Phil Ford to write the lion’s share of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The previous two stories were certainly entertaining, if a little heavy on the kid-friendly gak, but “Eye of the Gorgon” is on another level and extremely good. I often said that this program was as good as and occasionally better than Who, and never, ever fumbled like Who sometimes does. Ford’s a big reason why. He has a perfect touch for the show. His scripts are both witty and dramatic and often have some light continuity references. Playful but serious. This story has some sinister nuns in service to a three thousand year-old space monster, which is really the sort of thing we watch Who for in the first place.
It also has a remarkably interesting supporting character, Bea Nelson-Stanley, played by Phyllida Law. When she was younger, she and her late husband Edgar were archaeologists and they came up against aliens on at least two occasions: they battled both the Gorgons – the space monsters of this adventure – and the Sontarans, whom Sarah Jane had met a couple of times. Two things strike me as worth mentioning about Bea: first, it’s a really sympathetic portrayal of somebody suffering from Alzheimer’s. Second, Chris Chibnall should totally commission Phil Ford to write a story where our current Doctor meets up with Edgar and Bea in the 1950s. I think there’s a beautiful history there that I’d love to see.