Eye of the Gorgon (Part Two)

TV All told this hasn’t been a good week for television. There was the ITV phone scandal, the fallout from which was fairly delicious for those of us who remember the channel wars a couple of years ago when Doctor Who was head-to-head with Ant & Dec in the ratings – their executive producer credits were apparently ‘vanity positions’ which must have caused the two of them to blow the cherryade through their noses when they heard Michael Grade say it on the Today programme (assuming they weren’t listening to the commercial alternative). Oh and obviously seeing Grade being harangued even if none of it happened on his watch. Some of us never forget.

Over on the BBC of course there was the announcement of job losses and the making of less programmes as a way of plugging the gap in the license fees. It was inevitable that a statement would be made to explain that Doctor Who would not being one of the shows to be axed and indeed whenever I heard one of these pronouncements I almost expected them to be made by Jim Bowen in his Bullseye voice: “Right, you’ve got Spooks, Casualty, Eastenders, costume dramas and Doctor Who … they’re safe….” Some of the grumbling from viewers and commentators surrounded the admittance that there would be an increase in repeats, but specifically what they calling ‘rolling’ repeats or another chance to see programmes again during their broadcast run.

And hooray for that. In the bad old days, even with video recorders, if you forgot something was being broadcast or the video was confused and recorded the other side, you were stuffed. I have a tape somewhere which has ten minutes of some television movie about a boating disaster were the first half of Dimensions in Time is supposed to be – and that’s never going to be repeated. Which, after finally seeing it online about ten years later is not such a bad thing. Now we have rolling repeats and there are very few shows that you can actually miss even without access the magic Sky+ box or Tivo. It’s because of rolling repeats that a week later than planned I can quite comfortably say:

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Eye of the Gorgon: Episode Two

A mirror. I love that. One of my favourite ideas in all of Greek mythology is that Medusa could be destroyed by her own reflection – it’s an unsubtle reminder that the one talent that we have, the one thing that we’re really good at is probably a curse and could eventually destroy us if we take it too far. It’s redolent of rock stars living fast and dying young and writers whose first novel is a work of genius and they spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture the magic. It’s also been seen before in Doctor Who – Dalek Sec for example, but I think this is the first time that it’s appeared in its most literal form.

And it’s important that Bea was the one to pass on the advice to the youngster and not Maria working it out for herself. It’s the show passing on a salient lesson (without being too preachy) to younger viewers – that pensioners, even those suffering from a debilitating mental illness, are not worthless and do have one or two things they can teach you, even if it is how to beat an alien gorgon who wants to take over the world. For all the running around and being captured this time, the core of this episode was those scenes between Phyllida and Yasmin and it’s pretty heartening to see that the production team, despite the shorter running time, are still giving some room for their cast to just act, that character is just as central to the show as plot (which I know runs rather contrary to what I said last week about the soapier elements but the difference here is that they were working in service of the narrative).

I can only echo what I’ve written previously about all of these actors and their characters. There is another valuable moment though when Sarah-Jane suggests at the climax that she’s found a Doctor substitute in these kids; that’s not too far from the truth. On each occasion so far, it is the children who in the end have saved the day which is to be expected in a kids show, but it does rather put Sarah-Jane in the position of still being rescued by someone and the writers do have to be careful not to make her appear too weak. Now and then you do feel as though she’s being held back, or not making the deductions you might have expected her to in the past – knowing the Medusa myth, why didn’t she work out what would hold back her adversary?

To an extent it feels like the same approach to the hero as cropped up in the opening series of the new Doctor Who when everyone but the timelord in the end seemed to beat the bad person and it would be gratifying if once or twice Sarah was the one to save the kids or the world. I’m guessing that on this occasion that mirror had occurred to her but not having one to hand and being held in bondage by the nuns she couldn’t do anything about it so hoped that Maria would have put two and two together and for us to see the thought process would have spoiled the ending.

You could also argue that we were also seeing a repeat of some of the elements of nu-Who – threat of bodily possession, the religious imagery and the nuns being at the top of the list. I’m glad they didn’t decided to let Sarah Jane be possessed – that would have been a horrific step too far as 42 & Human Nature demonstrated. My conclusion on this is that that kids like repetition – see Teletubbies ('Again! Again!'). They like to see variations of a formula rather than something totally new. Like the Blink-style statues, they could potentially pick up on the similarities and the fear will be carried over, at least a bit subconsciously. And wasn’t that an amazing shot, of the garden filled with statues of people in a range of positions of shock and awe, presumably as the gorgon’s gaze fell upon them? As Damon said in his review of the first episode earlier in the week, this is a great looking series and should not be overlooked when people write about dropping standards of children’s television. The talent is there if you give people the money and the space to do wonders.

I suppose the only real disappointment is that didn’t make more of Cardiff Castle (which is actually more of a mansion now); there are many more painted rooms just like that library which could have been worked into a more elaborate story about the power of myths – and indeed the history that Luke explained about how the convent was created evoked the original story of the mansion. But as the mirror demonstrates, the production are trying to keep things as simple as possible and perhaps they didn’t want to waste some of those other locations if the story didn’t really demand it. Plus that stone room was suitably gloomy and perfect for the kind of ritual being performed by those nuns. It’s ironic that The Daemons was shown on BBC Four tonight not long after this CBBC repeat, since the ritual being performed by the sister was certainly reminiscent of the Master’s chanting in that story.

But I suppose the greatest complement I can give the show is that even if you going in one end in a fairly grumpy mood (which I did) you’ll come out the other end smiling. It has enough moments of charm and calm and excitement and humour which the best of Doctor Who and children’s television should have, spooky when it needs to be and also incredibly literate and layered – when Bea offers “What are they teaching you youngsters at school these days” it confirms that it’s playing to two audiences, both kids and the adults who are watching it with them (which would please Tom). A character like Maria’s mother might be horrendously irritating if you’re not in the right mood but I think we’ve all known the type and actually it’s probably the type that might be horrendously irritating if you’re not in the right mood. I just hope we’re not seeing Donna-lite and that we’ve got thirteen episodes of something similar coming up.

Next week (well tomorrow night): It’s the laser tag story which looks utterly pants, probably because unless you were a pint-sized Andy McNabb, laser tag was pants when you were a kid.

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