Revenge of the Slitheen (Part Two)

TV I carried on watching CBBC after The Sarah Jane Adventures tonight so that I could catch the news headlines during Newsround (or nr as it seems to be called now). I knew that the Burmese horror might not be mentioned but I was interested to see how they’d treat the Tory party conference. During the seventies, I remember the John Craven version of this stuff being pretty literate and in fact I knew people who would actually get their news from the interestingly coloured shirted one sitting on the brown set. How times have changed. Instead there was a shouty young correspondent who looked bizarrely like a girl I knew at university (no not in that way) standing in front of the Houses of Parliament with the camera at a weird angle talking to me like I was four years old.

Now I know that nr is supposed to cater for a wide youth audience but this was literally ’Gordon Brown is the prime minister. He may call a general election because he wasn’t voted for by the over-eighteens as Tony Blair who used to be the prime minister y’know handed it to him. It all depends what happens in Blackpool where the Conservatives are meeting.’ Cut to some VT of Dave, Dee, Dozy, Mick and William Hague sharing some laughs around a breakfast table on the promenade. I was being talked down to, something I don’t ever remember Craven doing and in fact it was like a kids version of the old Alas Smith & Jones sketch, ‘And now some news for the elderly’ (‘Hello. Hello, yes. The prime minister, THE PRIME MINISTER, yes, nice woman, nice woman who runs the country, yes, well she says it’s all going alright basically, yes […] Well take care, I’ll pop ‘round again in the morning’.

The reason I’m mentioning all this is because it’s in stark contrast as to how well The Sarah Jane Adventures is pitching to it’s audience, packing in enough fun and action and jokes for the kids and actually a fair amount of comedy and … oh hold on I’ve forgotten to do something …

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Revenge of the Slitheen: Episode Two

… what was I saying? Oh right, a fair amount of comedy, surprises and call backs for adults. Even if I wasn’t a fan and therefore bound to watch anything the series currently with taxi cab logo is connected to, I think I would still want to tune into this and not be to embarrassed about it. Only now and then when a point is being stressed does it seem as though it’s anything other than a family show and couldn’t be broadcast in a later timeslot, perhaps on a Saturday night. Unlike the approach to politics in new new nr (which admittedly won back some of my respect for a viewer piece about eczema) it grants that the viewer has a modicum of intelligence.

The Slitheen youngster, for example, could have been the Scrappy-Doo of the clan, an irritating little shit undermining the genuine menace inherent in these maniacal beings. Instead as the episode went on, writer Gareth Roberts underlined that this was indeed a family to the point that when the inevitable happened at the conclusion it seemed genuinely shocking that our heroes would let the father and son die despite everything they’d done. Certainly it’s the same lesson that occurs at the conclusion of the TV Movie when the Eighth Doctor offers The Master his hand, but the explosion of Slitheen matter, a moment which previously in both their debut story and earlier in this episode has been played for laughs became genuinely shocking, the thematic implications of Boomtown taken to its deus-ex-machina-less conclusion, providing an unexpected depth which implies that actually this series isn‘t going to be going for the cute and funny all the time.

Once again the episode was structured in a very old school way, with a ten minutes scene in which the aliens developed their plans and the Doctor, sorry Sarah-Jane and her companions, sorry, young friends worked out how they could be beaten. Mr. Smith (Blake 7’s fish tank computer Orac with a decent screen) is a useful narrative shorthand, but like K9, he’s not perfect, he can’t give an answer to every question immediately. As I’d feared last week, we were taken over some old expository ground, but as the infernal machine lost power just as it was about to reveal the Slitheen weakness, I wonder how many kids shouted ‘Vinegar!’ at the screen (I did). This beat worked either way because in the subsequent scene in which Clyde remembered something which was seeded in the previous episode there was a fair bit of excitement in watching the characters trying to work out the answer, both if you knew the explantion or not and demonstrated once again that Kelsey’s replacement does have a fair few more rocks in his head. But judging by his interigation of Mr. Smith, he does seem like he’s going to be a bit of a Turlough though with the potential to go rogue before find redemption.

The second half was the race against time, an attack on the Slitheen base with two bottles of vinegar and some wits, no less ludicrous a frontal assault than the kind which appeared in the classic series which usually involved Pertwee rolling up in a milk cart dressed an a cleaning lady or whatever. Their dash through the street demonstrated that either this series has some clever accountants or it’s not been a victim of BBC budget cuts just yet. Look -- a street full of cars and people! Well alright, the cars are at odd angles which is strange considering the power is supposed to have instantly rendered them inoperable and the people look nothing like the kinds of people you find in suburbia (unless those fashions are supposed to be a nod to that fact this series is set in the future, by the Whovian calender). But look cars! People! No quick cut from Sarah’s house to the foyer of the school. Actually some of the action in this story has been better directed than in the mother series and we haven’t even reached the Graham Harper one yet.

In the Doctor Who Magazine preview Russell T Davies said that he was concerned that the stories might be a bit small scale but in the end they all became epic and the Slitheen’s plan was the first demonstration of this. How fun that in this adventure, the problem at hand spanned the globe and even led to a dimming of the Sun! A similar threat in the closing episode of Torchwood seemed overblown and wasted but here it was handled perfectly well (Texan Slitheen!) and logically and in keeping with stories of the past -- where once it was Earth being crippled by the same three Cybermen now it’s apparently two male Slitheens and their spawn. Just as you were thinking -- actually Sarah-Jane, there a military organisation you know who could be helping out with this, she’s on the phone to them in the closing moments (’My love to the Brig…’ -- squee). You could gasp at a conclusion in which the whole plan is scuppered by a blast from the sonic-lipstick, but it gave Luke an important redemptive moment and a neat bit of alien avoiding action to boot (he’ll make a great Rugby player when he gets to college).

Ultimately though the episode was about the name within the title. Liz Sladen, given some breathing space, an attic to pace in or the arm of a couch to sit on, mesmerizes and commands in way I‘m not sure we‘ve seen before, even in her earlier ‘solo‘ appearances, the likes of Downtime or the Big Finish series. Watch the moment when she’s relating her life story to Clyde and talking about traveling in space and time; to some kids it’ll be a revelation, to others it’ll be a confirmation and to the rest of us, nostalgically reliving those old adventures through dvd, it’s a communion because we’ve been right there with her and you almost feel as though it’s Liz herself as well as her character thinking back over those old times. The character has very much come to terms with her own place in the universe and how the Doctor fits into that; she’s no longer resentful of being left behind, happy to be a defender of the Earth (and lord knows with the Torchwood approach to that, it’s going to need it). When she says that she hopes the Doctor returns, you wonder if a late season cameo isn’t entirely beyond the bounds of possibly. When asked about it in the pre-show publicity, Liz cheekily didn’t rule it out …

Next week: Things look decidedly mid-period Pertwee -- nuns AND a gorgon?

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