Warriors of Kudlak (Part One)

TV In point of fact I was probably a bit too critical of laser tag in my late review last night but one. I do remember enjoying it quite a lot whilst I was at university even though I wasn’t very good at it and largely a sitting duck. There were a couple of staff members who just seemed to play the game all day. Personally, I’d be quiet if that were my job. Oh and there was that time when I met a girl at the Laser Quest in Edinburgh. Our eyes met over the laser sighting and we killed each other many, many times. And laughed. Then killed each other some more. And then her boyfriend arrived and he killed me too. It was like a mini-version of the love triangle at the heart of Starship Troopers and I was Dina Meyer. Except clearly not. She has bigger biceps.

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Warriors of Kudlak: Part One

In fact the appearance of laser tag in this was generally accurate, although in my experience the participants were at least six years older and clearly lifers, becoming experts at these fictional war games at a time when there wasn’t anything in the real world to keep them occupied (how times change). I can empathize with Luke, who before going into battle didn’t see the attraction but soon found himself blasting away. There is an adrenaline rush that kicks in, although in some arenas it’s possible to select a spot high up and pick your opponents off which isn’t as fun as it sounds. You want to be running and jumping as happened in the episode; assassinations aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, even if, as in the film Grosse Pointe Blank, there’s an American version of Minnie Driver somewhere along the line trying to change your ways. But I have to agree with Neil – is anyone playing this stuff any more?

Despite my reservations after seeing the trailer this was another wonderfully enjoyable half hour. Time and again in The Sarah Jane Adventures you can see how horribly wrong everything could be, yet time and again it consistently surprises and delights. The story isn’t a completely new one of course – recruiting humans for an alien war was the backbone of The Last Starfighter (‘Greetings Starfighter … you have been recruited by the star league to defend the frontier … etc’) and also to an extent the Eighth Doctor BBC7 play Human Resources. What lifted this was the portrayal of the management of the project, Mr. Grantham, doing the Kudlak’s dirty work who in turn is also answering to a manager and the ineffectiveness of what they’re doing – the inability to find decent recruits is trickling up and down the hierarchy making everyone cross. Plus, could the phrase, ‘I want more children! Give me more children!’ be any more disturbing? (Yes, actually. According to The Guardian at the weekend, Jonathan King has a new album out).

After his initial appearance, Clyde might have become an intensely annoying smart arse of a character. Instead he’s generally warm and empathic, his conversations with Luke about what it is to be a tweenage human often a highlight. A lot of this has to do with cast and in fact now that Kelsey’s been rubbed from history (at least until series four when she returns as a villain) all of the young leads are quite charming in that way that the cast of the Harry Potter films are – and also with an unexpected range ... comedy … tragedy … comedy … tragedy … comedy … tragedy … You genuinely felt for Luke when he realised his one moment of feeling accepted by his peers led to pain for someone else – not really understanding why, in the main, kids tend to find cruelty strangely reassuring.

Similarly where other recent kids shows (admittedly from the US) have a tendency to go for the empty spectacle, there are some truly magical moments here of the sort which I remember from the classics of the Eighties. As Sarah Jane and Maria led the cloudbusting machine which looked as if to have been borrowed from the Kate Bush video with Donald Sutherland up the hill and switched it on and let the gold lights fill the sky, I wondered if younger viewers would have had the same thrill I did on seeing Hurne the Hunter in The Box of Delights (which is high praise indeed). Then golden beans fell from the sky!

And instead of simply being a way of getting someone from a to b, it motivated the story and showed that Sarah-Jane has become much more than a journalist over the years. There’s a useful feminist thread running through the series – in the past there would have been a cut to Maria’s Dad scratching his head over what this contraption could possibly be; now Sarah-Jane had to science bit covered. This was a great episode for her overall, seen to be genuinely investigating for herself and significantly fighting her way out of tricky situations herself.

There’s also a pleasing injection of whimsy of the kind that Douglas Adams would probably approve of – and genuinely funny. Sarah Jane and Maria turning up at the counter of the Combat 3000 looking to speak to the manager could have been dull as dishwater, a perfunctory bit of arguing. Writer Phil Gladwin offered in its place the business with the incongruous sales clerk having to do the introductory monologue for every customer and Sarah-Jane using youth patter and being told not to by Maria. The look of Dentian disappointment on Clyde’s face when he realised that Luke had beaten him on his first attempt and then trying to clunk-headedly show off to the villain of the peace. Oh and the concurrent irritation that Mr. Smith isn’t quite as good as he could be (which I’m sure is a background plot to be resolved in the final story – I think he’s holding back vital information).

If I wanted to be clearly unfair and look for flaws, it would be the over convenience that Clyde and Luke just happened to be visiting the Combat 3000 just as Sarah-Jane and Maria realised that it’s at the epicentre of their investigation. Mr. Grantham's office looked rather dark and drab and grey which was either a clever piece of design or some costs had been cut there to make way for the cloudbusting. I’m also a bit confused about the time frame – how long after the previous story was this set, and when? Shouldn’t these kids be at school, doing homework or what have you? Also, and perhaps this’ll be answered next time, why exactly is Grantham working for them? The money? The power? The girls? The machismo? Oddly enough, I didn’t have a problem with that arcade machine in the chippy – coin-ops in chippys are rarely newer than twenty years old – assuming they’re working at all.

Next week: I just know that something good is going to happen.

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