On the surface, “Into the Dalek” looks like just another Dalek adventure, just a small and low-key one, without many sets or speaking parts. The kid was incredibly pleased; it’s everything a ten year-old audience wants from Who, along with tips of the plot hat to an earlier adventure, “The Invisible Enemy” and its antecedent, Fantastic Voyage. It’s co-written by Steven Moffat with Phil Ford, who had contributed so many entertaining Sarah Jane Adventures, and it gives us a second glimpse of Michelle Gomez’s mysterious new character of Missy, who we met very briefly in the previous story. It also introduces Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink, a new recurring character who works as a teacher alongside Clara at Coal Hill School.
Unfortunately, it also introduces two new elements to Capaldi’s Doctor which I really can’t stand: he doesn’t know whether he is a good man, and he hates soldiers. Mercifully, these get resolved soon enough, but it’s the introduction that bothers me. There isn’t one. At some point in that summer of 2014, Moffat actually had to clarify that these are both holdovers from the hundreds of years that the last Doctor spent defending Trenzalore, because they aren’t detailed onscreen at all. I like that the twelfth Doctor is very brusque and rude, but I wish that he had quietly said something like “I’m sorry, I can see that you’d like to be a good person, but the last several hundred years were difficult, and I don’t want to be around soldiers right now.” The character may not have needed to know about that, but the audience did.
I made the mistake of misusing the word “fun” when I was attempting to tell our son that this story was a good one. It was certainly the wrong word. It’s fun to me watching the story, written by Phil Ford, come together and go in unexpected directions, but it is not at all fun in the sense of it being a pleasant and entertaining and possibly funny adventure. The poor kid spent the hour wondering when this moody tale of a spirit-being completely destroying Clyde’s life and turning everybody he knows against him was ever going to get “fun,” and it doesn’t, not in that way. It’s a very atypical Sarah Jane Adventure, with a surprisingly unflinching and downbeat ending.
Anyway, I really enjoy this story, and everybody involved really deserves a round of applause for making it work. Once the curse does its whammy on Clyde’s name, so that people instantly start to hate him as soon as they either see or hear it, it means that the characters we love turn incredibly cruel and hateful. This isn’t “teevee possessed” acting; it’s gut-punchingly real and you just want to invite poor Clyde home and give him your spare room.
Part two sees Clyde having to abandon his name to keep anybody else from hating him, and he finds help from a homeless girl called Ellie. The depiction of homelessness is very stark and very real, and all the business of the spirit-thing needing to be defeated takes a back seat to his story. Neat design and special effects, but Clyde has to do his world-saving duty, tries to get back to Ellie, and doesn’t get a happy ending. After the hellish three days he’d gone through, he doesn’t get a happy ending. There’s a very neat twist to resolve one element of the story – there’s a troubling notion that a “night dragon” is kidnapping or stealing homeless people – and maybe somewhere out there, Ellie might have one, but it doesn’t look like it. Sometimes saving the planet from space monsters is thankless and awful work.
“The Vault of Secrets” is a delightful love letter to the films of Barry Sonnenfeld, with little winking tributes to his Men in Black stories as well as a couple of hat tips to his pair of Addams Family movies. It brings back the villain Androvax from the previous season and puts our heroes in a skirmish between him and a trio of Men in Black. They’ve been patiently guarding a hyper-dimensional vault full of captured alien tech in suburban London for decades.
I actually really love this idea. Apparently there was once a group called the Alliance of Shades, and they spent twenty years on Earth – 1953-1972 – trying to keep humanity from learning about extraterrestrials. By 1972, I guess they figured it was a lost cause and disbanded. In fairness to them, Pertwee’s Doctor and UNIT were saving the planet from alien threats every four or six weeks, and they couldn’t possibly keep it under wraps forever. But Men in Black lore continued, of course, into the present day, and one of the last people to have her mind mostly wiped by them has been running a society of UFOlogists. Just as well BURPSS never had any joint meetings with that LINDA lot. Maybe that would have been too meta, even for the Doctor Who world.
I warned our son before we got started that this is the most bleak episode of Doctor Who. He asked what bleak means, and he’ll probably associate the word with this story from here on out. He hated it. It was too scary in the first place, and the horror movie deaths of everybody, culminating in Adelaide’s suicide (!), was one nail in the heart too many. It’s brilliantly made, a co-write by Russell T. Davies and Phil Ford, and everything from the scene above in the airlock to the destruction of the shuttle is just amazing, but there’s certainly no joy or happiness in this one.
The story is set on Bowie Base One in 2059. One day about five years ago, not too long before he died, it occurred to me that David Bowie would make the greatest companion in all of Doctor Who. Not as an actor, as himself. Just imagine Capaldi’s Doctor in the usual silly Christmas romp, a celebrity historical where the celebrity plays himself. And at the end of it, the planet saved from Santas or Christmas Trees or Little Drummer Boys or whatever dopey holiday thing they come up with, the Doctor says his goodbyes to Bowie like he did Dickens and Shakespeare and “Herbert” Wells and Christie and whoever and Bowie says “You know, I think I’ll stick around. Do a little traveling. Broaden the mind.” Maybe not for a series – but why not? – but maybe five or six episodes.
We all learned too soon after I spent that evening licking my lips at the magic of my idea that Bowie was far too ill in 2015 to have done anything of the sort. Later still, I learned that they did something somewhat similar in one of the comic books. I’ve never been tempted to read it. Maybe one day down the line, one of Who‘s producers will break the modern companion mold in a huge way and let our hero travel with somebody internationally famous, or historically famous, even if they cast a present-day actor to play somebody incredibly unlikely like Ray Bradbury or Rod Serling. It’d make a great change from twentysomething British girls.
And then there was that time that the Mona Lisa came to life and started stomping around a gallery with a Sontaran blaster, trapping people in paintings. Is this the silliest, most wonderfully ridiculous story ever? Yes.
“Mona Lisa’s Revenge” is one of my favorite stories from the series. It’s written by Phil Ford and features Suranne Jones, most recently the star of Gentleman Jack, as a pissed-off painting come to life, looking for her “brother,” another living work of art. Jones plays her as a Batvillain with a northern accent, full of appropriate puns like putting people in the picture.
To help in her scheme, she releases a highwayman from his centuries-old painting. Clyde tries a little small talk with him, asking whether he knows Dick Turpin. The highwayman can’t answer; he was painted with only a mask, and no mouth underneath. I giggled through the whole story because it’s hilarious and huggable, especially cackled at the Dick Turpin gag and our son joined in, despite having no idea who Dick Turpin is. Afraid he was a little lost by this one, complaining between episodes that it was very confusing.
Of course, it might also have hit a little close to home for him. Sarah Jane and Luke are still on the outs after an argument about his untidy bedroom. Today’s actually the big cleaning day for us; the kid’s always had a much larger material world than any child needs, and it really is long past time he let go of some of his preschool-age toys. It’s a tough one, because he donated his Thomas the Tank Engine trains and tracks, which he cared for and loved and treated so incredibly gently for years, to the afterschool program for the littler ones, and watched with horror as the five year-olds went at them like that bit in Toy Story 3 where the smallest daycare kids beat the daylights out of Woody and his crew. He may be too old for Bob the Builder, but if he keeps his big Scoop under the bed, nobody smaller than him can destroy it.
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.
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!
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!