Monday, 31 January 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Mark of the Berserker

Part One

“Guess it’ll be a quiet weekend, then.”

It’s only at the start of this episode that I’m realising that there are actually quite a few regular guest actors playing the same teachers and kids episode to episode. (Although they didn’t have many lines to learn for this particular pre-credits sequence!) Still, I’m a bit slow. Anyway… a big part of why my Marathon went on such a massive hiatus was that I just wasn’t that enthused about another season of The Sarah Jane Adventures. But this story has proved me wrong. This is a cracker of a script from Joseph Lidster, and easily the best story yet.

We establish early on that this is our first Sarah Jane-lite story, which is no bad thing here, as unlike in Doctor Who we have an ensemble cast. All of the other regulars get some nice development here- Clyde, obviously, but also Rani and Luke. Even the little touches- Clyde’s drawings, Rani’s relationship with her not-so-scary-when-off-duty-and-actually-a-nice-bloke dad- all add something. This is a script which gets the nuts and bolts right. And even the story’s MacGuffin, the One Ring… er, pendant, is at root just an excuse for doing character stuff as with Ghost Machine for Torchwood. Which is cool.

We get a nice demonstration of the seductive nastiness of said MacGuffin in the scene where Rani realises she can make Haresh do exactly as she says, which is at first funny but then becomes creepy. Rani, being no Smeagol, immediately does the right thing and takes it to Sarah Jane’s attic where it should be safe. (I love Mr Smith’s answerphone message, incidentally.) Unfortunately, this being an adventure drama and all, that’s not going to happen.

We get to meet Clyde’s mum, Carla. Amusingly, it’s implied that Sarah Jane finds her quite boring to talk to! But we establish quite quickly and economically that she and Clyde have a healthy, normal and very realistic relationship. Which, of course, is very quickly shattered by the arrival of Clyde’s unpleasant father, Paul, played by That Bloke Off Of Eastenders. It’s made clear that Paul simply abandoned his wife and son to run off to Germany with another woman, and that he’s taken no interest in Clyde since, or in the serious consequences of what he’s done. This forms the context for the subtext of pretty much everything that happens from this point onwards, which is very good writing.

The chat between Clyde and Paul on the swings is also brilliant and full of meaning. Clyde simultaneously resents his father for abandoning him but also longs to have his father back, and is driven to show his father about his secret alien-fighting lifestyle. It’s clear things are not going to work out well as soon as Paul, having been shown Sarah Jane’s attic, comments that “You could make a fortune on eBay.” Clyde gets what he wanted: his dad says he’s proud of him. But Paul, a Smeagol if ever there was one, steals the One Ring. And the ending, with what he does to Haresh, and making Clyde forget his own friends, is very, very dark.

Part Two

“You know what to do.”

I like this glimpse we get, Shaun of the Dead style, of this exciting other adventure Sarah Jane is having in the hospital with that cheap-looking alien slug. Of course, phones must always be switched off in hospitals; she’s incommunicado. So what Luke and Rani do, which is really rather cool, is to get in touch with Maria and Alan in Washington DC. Yay! And Alan is almost as good a hacker as Mickey is, which is highly convenient.

Paul has now crossed a line and started doing some Really Morally Dodgy Stuff. He steals- yes, steals- a car and assorted other items, and is clearly metamorphosing from a Smeagol to a Gollum. Plus, Haresh is still doing press-ups. This isn’t very realistic, really; no one is that fit, and the consequences would probably be quite nasty and permanent. Still, dramatically, it works.

The rest of this excellent episode is taken up with a car chase to Mordor- er, the marina- and some nice father and son dialogue. Paul crosses yet another line after this episode’s heart to heart with Clyde as he finds an easy answer to evade the consequences of his actions by just making Clyde forget the things he’s done wrong. Even more unforgivably, he then makes Clyde forget his own mother.

The climax, with Paul in full-on Gollum mode, threatening to order the whole world about, but here’s Sarah Jane to save the day. It’s a nice and satisfying ending, and it’s nice that Sarah Jane just trusts Clyde to do what needs to be done and throw the One Ring into Mount Doom. One thing troubles me, though; he uses the ring to make his mother forget what’s happened. There should really be consequences.

The final scene is lovely; Sarah Jane forgives Clyde as she would have done the same. And we get more mentions of the disappearance of Sarah Jane’s parents back when she was a nipper. Could this be leading to something?

Wonderful stuff. Admittedly, the story suffers from the lovely Gita not being in it (I’ve got a bit of a crush on Mina Anwar), but this is very good indeed. 5/5.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Secrets of the Stars

Part One

“This time, Sarah Jane… you lose.”

I liked this a lot more I did on the original broadcast. In fact, I liked it quite a lot. Russ Abbott is great, giving exactly the sort of performance that’s needed- a bit of scenery chewing, yes, but that’s the character. And while the rationalist in me once worried about the use of astrology here in a children’s programme, this time round I’ve lightened up a bit. We don’t really need an explicit “Astrology is a load of pants, mmmkay?” Still, I like the comments Clyde makes.

I love the very succinct pre-titles sequence, where Trueman admits that he’s a fraud before, suddenly, he’s not. And the regular characters are dealt with well, too. I really like the treatment of Rani’s parents- they’re quite friendly with Sarah Jane and therefore less likely to show any tiresome suspicion about what she’s up top with their daughter. Plus Gita continues to be lovely. And Rani gets some nice treatment with the “apprentice journalist” angle continuing- also of course one of the reasons why her parents seem to be cool with their daughter hanging out with this mysterious woman from over the road.

I love the confrontation scene between Sarah Jane and Trueman; at first it’s a clash between the worlds of reason and superstition but evolves into some delightfully entertaining chewing of the scenery. And, unusually, we get a fairly coherent explanation of what’s going on; astrology hails from a previous universe where astrology works. I’m picturing Russell Grant as a Great Old One. That’s not a sentence I ever envisioned myself writing.

Part Two

“Mars has entered the Milky Way and Aero is in conjunction with the Galaxy.”

It’s such a shame that, in a story with such a strong plot and some genuine twists courtesy of Gareth Roberts, the recap at the start should contain such a blatant spoiler. Among a very few scenes from last episodes is one in which Luke reminds us that he wasn’t born and has no star sign- we can immediately guess how it’s going to end. But then again, perhaps that’s me as an adult being unfair and this sort of thing is appropriate to the young children watching. That’s my problem with fully enjoying The Sarah Jane Adventures, really: I’m just not the target audience.

The situation gives us a real sense of threat and of the clock ticking as Trueman takes over everyone, star sign by star sign. The stakes are high: not only do we get the now-traditional montage of world news, but even Trinity Wells herself has been taken over! But more immediate, of course, is Clyde, and his escape from mind control is a nice clue to the audience of how all this is going to be resolved.

I really like Sarah Jane’s comment that “I know what it’s like to be taken over”…

So, not quite good enough for top marks, but a solid piece of drama, and a 4/5. But I’m beginning to wonder whether a 33 year old man like me is really competent to judge!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Day of the Clown

Part One

“Both of you- promise you’ll never breathe a word about what we do.”

Well, we’ve come across clowns twice before in the Marathon: in The Celestial Toymaker and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. But by this point the gradual shift in the perception of clowns is almost complete, and the “clowns are creepy” meme has completely taken over. Everyone in this story seems to find clowns unnerving right from the start, and I certainly do.

Blimey. Been a while, hasn’t it? At least for the last week and a half I’ve had the excuse of my right arm being in a sling which made it rather hard to take notes, but the hiatus in my Marathon has been going on for several months longer than that! I just ran out of steam for a bit, really. Plus I was less than enthused with the prospect of a season of Sarah Jane Adventures to put behind me before I get to the stuff I want to see, but on the other hand determined not to skip anything as I’ve come so far without doing so. Still, I’m definitely back now, and at a pre-hiatus pace of several reviews a week. It’s a New Year’s resolution and everything. Honest!

Phil Ford’s back, and so’s Michael Kerrigan, helming what I believe to be his first story in the wider world of Who since Battlefield. And there are still echoes of Maria, and rightly so. But this story is mainly about the new family moving in at Bannerman Road, and the introduction of Rani. It’s quite a shock in the context of the Marathon to see a character who seems to have been around so long being introduced so late on.

The whole conceit of Rani’s dad, Haresh, being the headmaster is rather well developed throughout by means of his rather amusing antagonism with Clyde, but this does come at the cost of the character appearing as something of a caricature during his early scenes. Still, Rani’s mum, Gita, is lovely and warm, has a very pleasant Lancashire accent, and gets a nice introduction scene with Sarah Jane coming round with some tea and sarnies. (Aren’t people so much more neighbourly on the telly than in real life? Sarah Jane is supposed to be a bit of a recluse, as well.) Plus she’s played by Nina Anwar, who, in one of those nice Actor Spotting Moments that have added so much to the Marathon, played Constable Habib in The Thin Blue Line. I’ve, er, got a bit of a crush on her.

Oh, and how come Sarah Jane doesn’t like it when Gita calls her “Sarah”? It seemed to be fine for the Doctor and Harry to do it but not now, apparently.

There’s not a lot of plot this episode but that’s ok; we need to introduce Rani. The concept of the clown works rather well in that respect as we can get lots of creepy premonitions of what is to come without anything having to happen. We finish with the plot all poised to start…

Part Two

“Annoying ringtones have their uses.”

Rani is rather nicely made a member of the team here as Sarah Jane’s reluctance is simply overtaken by events. I like Rani; she’s brave, inquisitive and has a very different, more light-hearted, family set-up than Maria did.

I had a bit of a Fanboy moment at the bit where Sarah Jane’s looking at pictures of clowns on her laptop and up pops Clara the Clown from, er, classic tale The Celestial Toymaker.

The plot is by-the-numbers here, although there’s a nice moment between Sarah Jane and Professor Rivers of the Pharos Institute, played by everyone’s favourite Lib Dem peer Floella Benjamin. Also, Gita continues to be fab as she walks into an invisible wall without even spilling any tea. Classy.

The ending is surprisingly effective, with Clyde making a load of actually rather good jokes and an almost Gaimanesque element of the dark side of fairytale in the image of children caught by the Pied Piper being kept in a kind of limbo ever since Hamelin, but fading away after a time. Brr! 3/5, I suppose: somewhat by-numbers, but a nice introduction for Rani.