10/02/2011

Kids Stuff Monsters by John Connors

 In its early days, `The Sarah Jane Adventures` relied on making it’s heroine an ersatz Doctor complete with her own more feminine sonic. Her time and space travel experience was the equivalent of the Doctor’s Googlepedic galactic knowledge, the attic and Mr Smith her TARDIS and the young neighbour her companion. As the series has progressed (and who would have imagined it would last this long?) it’s developed its own rhythm, much of it based on the idea of real or surrogate families. For this fourth season the writers are confident enough to acknowledge the limitations with which they are comfortable and there’s little attempt to even stretch the adventures beyond the “Ealing Triangle”. Somehow this little show has got better and better (wobbly third season notwithstanding) and this year is its best yet.
The Nightmare Man2009’s season seemed more skewed towards a juvenile audience than its predecessors which is fair enough as it does debut on CBB. Nonetheless older viewers might have hoped for a little more in the manner of previous stories and this opener re-dresses the balance rather well with Joseph Lidster’s script ruminating on departures and fear of the unknown. Luke is on his way to Uni a year early so naturally Tommy Knight is centre stage and delivers his best performance in the entire series. An actor who has never seemed to really be challenged in the role- Luke is after all the serious foil for the other kids- Knight really puts his heart into these 2 episodes bringing Lidster’s eloquent script alive. Visually the scares are kept to a simple, effective level; basic greasepaint on Julian Bleach’s face inspires some circus scares that will probably worry the youngest viewers far more than the aliens. As he did with Davros, Bleach inhabits the character of the Nightmare Man so fully that you believe just how dangerous he is. His performance unnerves and provides the edge such a creation needs.
Lidster resists the temptation to create bizarre alternative realities for the sleeping children, instead developing aspects that we know. He uses teenage ideas of nightmares to trap the regulars- Luke being quickly forgotten by Sarah Jane, Rani forced to expose her on TV and Clyde working in a burger bar. Playing into the characters we know, these nightmares seem more dangerous than something more surreal would have been. Children will recognise the fears expressed and perhaps draw some inspiration from this climactic flourish that is all the more satisfying for taking place after all the hardware has been blown out and is of no use.
It ties up superbly, even the denouement in which it is the bonds of friendship and support between Luke, Clyde and Rani that ultimately see them triumph. As well as Luke’s departure- with it must be said rather a large amount of stuff for what he may find is a tiny room at Uni- we also wave goodbye to K9. A gimmicky encumbrance at the best of times, there seemed no reason to have the tin dog as a permanent cast member and last season the writers struggled to find anything to do with him. Great though he is, K9 belongs in another era (or perhaps another programme?)
The Vault of SecretsThe new slimmed down cast fit perfectly into the stealthy second story which finds some more shenanigans for shape changer Androvax. The gimmick of him leaping from one person to another is used more effectively this time round and Phil Ford gives the alien character some depth, while maintaining Androvax’s duplicity. Joss Agnew directs with a scope that belies the budget, bringing us in on the action and both he and Ford do their best to disguise the fact that this is something of a run-around. It feels fresh as a result, the good locations and expensive looking FX helping but what really surprises is just how well the main trio thrive without Luke or K9 (or indeed for much of the action Mr Smith). It‘s Doctoresque the way Sarah leads Clyde and Rani round the abandoned hospital and many of the plot beats are derived from deduction rather than an over reliance on coincidence. Mr Dread is just wry enough to raise a smile even if his look and demeanour are a well played riff to anyone with a genre interest. One diversion from the norm was the Men in Black’s nonchalance about people who are not the targets of their mission statement; luckily Ford handles this carefully so as to avoid too much contrivance. A scene where the kids manage to bundle Mr Dread into his box is perhaps the only unlikely moment, though I suppose you could question the androids’ efficiency as not one shot they fire lands anywhere near a target! The BURPPS sub plot is clearly present for added humour and doesn’t really go anywhere after Ocean has been deprived of her disc but it balances matters nonetheless. The ending includes a believable threat niftily contained, with the instruments already having been worked into the story.
The Death of the DoctorAfter so much fan fiction depicting miserable lives for former companions, the bustling arrival of Jo Grant mid way through part 1 is refreshingly different. Turns out she is still married with oodles of offspring and grand-children, remaining a busy, ecologically committed lady and we’re reminded how Russell T Davies likes to spring the unexpected. Given the title of the story, we know there’s to be a mystery as to why someone is faking the Time Lord’s demise so this is a lovely diversion though how it plays with younger viewers is less clear. It’s tempting to think the Shanseeth design is deliberately reminiscent of the rubbery monsters Jo used to face because their rather un-convincing look is the only downer in a story that fizzes with the collision between past and present topped off by Matt Smith’s characteristically lively appearances.
The monsters may look dodgy but their narrative is more solid; weaving a trap from people’s memories and mimicking the fussy politeness of funeral parlours, they are one of the more subtle aliens to grace this spin off show. There’s nothing cheap looking about the rest of the episode either with a great UNIT base on Snowden and a nice orangey alien planet plus Grosk, not Grask. OK so RTD has pulled this joke before with the Vinvoci but its still neat.
The second part inevitably became a big rush to a finale that relies on Davies’ love of faith in friendship overwhelming the Shanseeth’s memory weaving trap. The coffin comes in useful (though how did anyone know it was leaded lined?) and there’s an excuse for a clips sequence. The Sarah/ Jo interaction is brisk and entertaining; even Matt Smith can’t compete with Katy Manning’s chatter! In the end there are too many characters for everyone to get their fare share- Santiago gets very little to do while the Colonel’s motives (and the way she manages to con half of UNIT) remain a mystery.
The Empty PlanetI wrote this- years and years ago! Well not this, but a story in which the Doctor takes his companion to Earth and finds it empty save for colourful robots stalking the streets. As I’ve never met Gareth Roberts this is simply a remarkable coincidence but made this a particular delight for me to watch. It’s Clyde and Rani who find themselves seemingly the only people left in the world. Aware of our expectations of such a scenario the script takes a different path with some well balanced character moments for our two young heroes as they try and take in what’s happened.
What it turns out to be is a strong twist relying once again on Roberts’ love of words (plus a continuity point well played) and a climax that is more cerebral than action orientated. Both leads excel given much of the first episode to themselves while director Ashley Way convinces us that the world is indeed empty. While perhaps lacking the marquee draws of some of the other stories, `The Empty Planet` is full of strong dialogue and a sense of purpose that again underlines how well made this season is.  
Lost in TimeA bit of curio this, being set in somewhat random times in history and managing to seem drawn out even though there are three time periods going on. The World War 2 one is inevitably the most exciting, with a decent enough twist but Rani’s sojourn with Lady Jane Grey never really sparks despite some elegant filming. Meanwhile Sarah is going up and down stairs and in and out of rooms in familiar fashion but the end result is not as scary as it should be nor as poignant as it thinks it is. As for the reasons why this is all happening, they are not properly explained resulting in a bit of a mis-fire though watchable enough.
Goodbye, Sarah Jane SmithSo, is Sarah starting to lose her faculties as she gets older? Course not, it’s all an alien plot but it’s well revealed and thanks to the lively Sladenesque acting of faux Sarah Lucy White engrossing enough. The plot twirls unexpectedly and there’s some strong acting from the kids as they react to Sarah Jane’s disappearance and try and work out what happened. Ashley Way’s direction grapples with the scope of the plot well and it’s comforting to have the whole team back together at the end. As for the “Ealing Triangle` mention it’s about time the high concentration of alien activity in this small area as acknowledged.

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