But Gray’s play is an excellent tribute. Like its televisual source, it skews a bit younger than traditional Who, and the story’s much simpler but it never patronises its listener and actually offers a really interesting moral conundrum which for various reasons purposefully can’t satisfactorily resolve itself at the conclusion. Potentially, as you’ll see, it could even change our perception of a certain element of stories across the franchise.
As with many SJA stories, Judgement Day begins with Mr Smith sniffing out unusual activity, this time at a newly opened Westfield-like shopping mall and when the gang arrive it seems as though this going to be a Secrets of the Stars inspired investigation in a magician who’s tricks are too good to be true. But as is so often the case in the latter parts of the tv series, the story rapidly takes a left-turn and becomes something rather deeper and quite rightly for this format too broad and deep for the small screen.
And I’d advise you to skip the following few paragraphs if you don’t want to know what happens, but it’s properly worff discussin. I’ll post something else in bold text when I’m done.
We’re introduced to the Veritas, a group of ancient vigilantes travelling the universe punishing beings who withhold certain truths, or more specifically lie. Though they’ve initially set their sights on the magician, they quickly find Sarah Jane and brand her the “worst law-breaker” of all because of her skills, like UNIT, like the Doctor, like Torchwood, in creating cover stories and withholding the existence of aliens from the general public.
This is a world were Journey’s End and its fall out have still been forgotten (retconning the idea that even Clyde’s Dad had heard of the Daleks) presumably due to the cracks or whatever reason Steven Moffat’s cooking up. The action in the mall, in which Clyde and Sky beat back the magician’s power of illusion sets up the idea that anything out of the ordinary will create public panic, fear breeding hatred in a way which is oddly similar to DC’s new attitude to their superheroes.
In a kind of holodeck, Sarah Jane and Rani are shown various instances when the older journalist has undertaking to obscure the truth. In epic, time spinning scale, they’re shown the younger journalist helping UNIT to validate the evacuation of London after the Invasion of the Dinosaurs and whatever happens in Terror of the Zygons (the one classic bit of Baker I’ve never seen and I’m saving for dvd). There’s some obvious poignancy in the idea of the older Sarah visiting her younger self.
For younger viewers, the events of The Vault of Secrets are also rerun from this outside perspective and most specifically the block put on the Chandra’s memories so that they can continue in blissful ignorance about the existence of Androvax and The Men in Black. This is one of the few sections which drags slightly to these adult ears, but with everything else pitched so perfectly, it’s easy to forget that younger listeners might require a more prosaic rendering of events.
Even with their propensity for forgetfulness sometimes either because they were on holiday or due to some Complex Space-Time Event or because they were on holiday, some things clearly have the potential to stick. In showing them all of these events, the Veritas’s point is this: who is Sarah Jane Smith (and by extension UNIT, the Doctor, Torchwood and C-19 probably), a journalist who should be seeking the truth, to decide what information the people of the Earth should be exposed to?
Sarah Jane’s defence is this: humanity isn’t mature enough to handle it. She points to the events in the shopping mall as an example of society breaking down at the merest whiff of The Other. If humanity was aware of aliens, she says, they’d be looking for them behind every corner and society would rapidly destroy itself (in a way similar to the Veritas’s own planet which became apocalyptic thanks to a lie, hence their moral crusade).
And because of the needs of the story, they accept it, and leave Sarah Jane and friends to go on their merry way. Except this listener at least was left with the question: what does give Sarah Jane and friends the right to withhold this information from the public and doesn’t that put them in the same morally ambiguous position as every intelligence agency in history, and if we want to be tin-hatted about it their expectation that humanity couldn’t handle the grim truth of what we’re capable of?
I don’t know about you, but that makes me extremely uncomfortable. What we have here is a children’s story which is suggesting that it’s ok that underneath the information generally available to the public, there’s a shadowy network in existence of information that someone else has decided to that it shouldn’t be privy to. Replace the existence of aliens (assuming it doesn’t include the existence of aliens) with spys and terrorists in the real world and that’s somewhat problematic.
To be fair, the script does pay lip service to this with Sarah Jane regretting that she effected Gita’s brain, especially after all the knocks her own noggin has taken over the years (“Eldrad must live!”). But the format doesn’t leave much room for dissent. Rani, who Sarah says she’s trying to convince most, ultimately goes along with it despite having spent much of the story lauding Woodstein’s take down of Nixon and his cover up.
What Gray seems to be telling kids, then, is that it’s ok to have cover-up (or just plain flat out lie) if it’s considered to be for the public good (magicians included), but shouldn’t be done for personal gain. I expect the Whoniverse equivalent of Wikileaks might have one or two things to say about that. But the brilliance of the play is that it throws up these questions and inquisitive listeners are having their mind stretched in the in much the same way the televisual version has been capable of.
I’m done. You may now continue spoiler free.
Having not heard any of the earlier SJA audios, I didn’t know quite what to expect and like the Doctor Who exclusives this is an aurally rich experience, with sound aiding the listener's orientation, allowing the text to fix itself on character and dialogue. Simon Power’s music is also well up to standard, thumping away and keeping our attention, but he’s also well aware of the power of silence, knowing when to let Gray’s words drive the narrative.
The writer, who drove the latter half of the Eighth Doctor’s seminal run in Doctor Who Magazine’s comic strip captures all of the characters extremely well, especially Clyde who’s jokes have just the right mix of awful and inspired. As the cover suggests this is also a new adventure for Sky who’s quest to understand humanity creates all kinds of cute moments for the pair, Clyde's given the opportunity to play big brother in a way that was denied during their brief acquaintance on screen.
The best aspect of Anjli Mohindra’s reading is her Gita, which is just uncanny enough that I thought Mina Anwar had been lending some help at the beginning. This couldn’t have been an easy job, especially when reading Lis’s lines, especially since the original version of the script was meant to be narrated by Lis in the first person. But Anjli’s one of the better audiobook readers I’ve come across, and clearly enjoys performing the other characters, especially the aliens, as her treated voice becomes unrecognisable.
In its eighty minutes, Judgement Day retains all of the best aspects of the television series and is as good as a next episode even its central message could be a source of discomfort or comfort depending upon the listener. Which you won’t know about unless you read the spoiler zone. Or actually listen to the thing which I'd highly recommend.
The Sarah Jane Adventures: Judgement Day by Scott Gray is published by AudioGo. Review copy supplied.