The Last Sontaran (Part One)

MONDAY 29 SEPTEMBER 2008 21:16:57

TV  The economy’s really broken this time isn’t it? It’s pretty difficult to write anything when everything is drifting into the shitter. Usual mudslinging between the Democrats and Republicans as to who did what to who and why, though Barack gave a wonderful speech afterwards, finally going to McCain’s jugular. More please.

I promised to write you as soon as each episode is aired and here we are. This one’s torture. I didn’t enjoy the episode as much as would have like to, which as you know is my kryptonite (well that and when its written by Steven Moffat). I think that since my personal midnight deadline is hoaving into view I’m best self-indulgently showing my working out.

I began by trying to put this new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures into context. I also wanted to work the title in using a similar style to last year’s reviews:

Is it possible to get Doctor Who fatigue and do I have it? I’ve asked this question before and it’s a horrible one especially for those of us who remember when the show was a laughing stock (© every bloody stand up comic who’s seen the candyman) and worse than that when the most we could hope for was a rolled up copy of Doctor Who Magazine and a novelisation. But sometimes, it’s true, I wonder if there’s simply too much of the stuff these days.

Too many novels, audio, dvds and television shows, too many action figures (no matter how cool it is to see Mr. Sin nestled next to a Slitheen in Forbidden Planet) and related tat. I buy the dvds religiously and the odd Big Finish story and of course read the novels so I can’t imagine what it must be like for those who buy everything, because those people must exist. We’ve already had to sit through Torchwood and genuinely enjoyed the fourth series of Doctor Who and now we’re faced with a whole series of …

The Sarah Jane Adventures

and you wonder if you can take it, if you can have too much of a good thing. And then you remember that the first story is called …

The Last Sontaran

… you just have to watch …

Part One

... at least, don’t you?

Yes, you do. I still don't understand the argument 'SJA's for kids so I won't be watching' which doesn't make much sense and hope fully this sequel will get them interested. I think the opening works perfectly well. There is a hell of a lot of new material around and though it has nothing to do with the episode, despite the main show not being on air it is going to be a momentous time for the blog. Editor Damon emailed us reviewers a list of what’s ahead and if you include the BBC7 series, there’s almost as much new Who coming up as you’d expect to find in the 70s – and that’s having already seen twenty-six episodes set in the same universe already this year. Now I realise I need to actually say whether I liked the episode or not. So next line:

I was a bit bored, to be honest.

If that seems unduly harsh, all things considered, I originally wrote:

God, I was bored.

Which is even more brutal. The Dow’s down 700 points. Fuck. When I started talking about this on Twitter earlier, someone said that there’d still be money if all the banks fail, we’ll have feudalism. Yeah, great. Twitter’s great. The MarsRover has just said that it’s snowing on Mars. So it’s not all bad. Anyway, having drowned everyone with that surprise, I knew I had to be a bit conciliatory. But only a bit:

Oh don’t get me wrong I know to some extent that it’s because my expectation of this series is capable of doing were raised by the best stories from last year, particularly Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane?. But between the predictable storytelling, stodgy exposition and disappointing characterisation it felt for all the world like the show some of us feared it had the capacity to be. And before you wonder, no this isn’t going to be a rerun of that trixy review of The Silence In The Library and I’m going to say suddenly, hooray, this was brilliant after all. F.A.B. R.T.D.! Nope.

I get really annoyed with myself when I write a line like that. As well as including the odd prop word, it refers back to something I’ve already written here, on the assumption that regular readers will get the reference. I try and justify it by saying it’s the blogging equivalent of mentioning an old storyline in drama, but really its desperation. I think it’s about here that I’m starting to get lost. And I've lost my sense of humour:

I know that part of this is to do with the downshift in complexity from the past series of the mother series, the return to a more simplistic running around on show here, so allied to ol’-Who in which the title more often than not provided a synopsis of the plot. There’s a wee bit more to this – the story being a direct sequel to the not universally liked Sontaran story from the previous season of the mother series – but subbing Sarah Jane and friends for a grey haired gent and his army pals and you’d pretty much have the first twenty-five minutes of a Pertwee story.

The difference is of course that whereas then, the brainwashed scientist would have been a government stooge, here he’s someone’s dad. Then, there would have been endless shots of Bessie flying through the countryside with cutaways to the Master asking all in sundry to obey him, whereas now we’re gripped by the angst of Maria, one of the best characters to hit the franchise, being shunted off to America and Luke stressing over Clyde disobeying Sarah Jane’s instructions not to venture into the forest (what is she his mother?).

I’ve already talked about this last year and also to an extent it’s stating the obvious. At this point I was desperately trying not to drift into synopsis; one of the problems I have with modern review is the tendency to simply tell the story of whatever’s under consideration when more often than not the reader is either thinking of going to see the thing in which case it’s being spoiled; on this occasion you’ve all seen it so what’s the point? Notice the length of the paragraphs so far. One of the other problems with the episode at least for this reviewer, is that there isn’t an awful lot to write about, especially since my imagination's on the blink too. Next, I try and explain what I didn’t like:

But the reveal of Maria’s expatriation simply lacked drama. Why disclose something like so early when we can spend the story or episode wondering why she’s being so sullen instead? I know that pre-broadcast spoilers, from Russell himself no less, explained why Yasmin Paige was only going to be in this first story, but considering what’s possible in the franchise, does the methodology have to be quite so perfunctory? Plus, the repartee between Clyde and Luke lacked zing, it wasn’t funny. It used to be funny, at least funnier than this. Sontarans look like potatoes. Huh-huh-huh.

What I don’t like about this is that its lacks something. It just seems relentlessly mean spirited and it’s not very specific, again because I don’t feel like there was much to say, I don’t really have an opinion. I’m getting desperate so I think I’ve decided to not like the episode much simply because to love it would to mean I’d have nowhere to go. So I say:

Phil Ford’s script simply didn’t swing. I think he was over compensating for the timeslot which is something I don’t remember happening last year. The Sontaran’s closing monologue seemed to go on forever, and though it was interesting to see Sarah’s reaction to discovering that in order to win the Doctor had to down a whole Sontaran brigade, and a mini-squee was necessary for the mention of the Rutans, there seemed to be a dramatic disconnect, despite the flashbacks. We’re back to watching the potential destruction of the planet based on data on a screen from a small room.

I don’t often like picking on individual writers, unless their surname is Chibnall, and over time it’s becoming apparent that in Cardiff, the name on the script doesn’t necessarily match the name of the person who wrote most of it. Plus, it looks like a large percentage of the episode budget was spent on the CG effects and I want to mention that but I can’t find anywhere to shoehorn it in. Now here’s the paragraph I always seem to end up writing, and I’m never happy with that either:

There were admittedly a few good lines (“But you’ve only just decorated.”) but if the episode worked at all it’s because of the regular elements. This is a great little cast and it’ll be a shame to see Yasmin go; like the best ensembles, even when the material isn’t all there, you’re simply happy to be watching them (see also season two of Heroes). This one was also very well directed by Joss Agnew, with lots of use of pov shots to create mystery and useful editing during the action sequences and the design worked to create depth with the facility having a perfect lived in look – this is very much a mom and pop facility.

The best reviews have an argument and some of mine do to. But I’m so desperate not to leave anything I did like out and for what I’m writing not to be so relentlessly negative that I throw a couple of the positives together in a block of text like this at the end. I should just stick to my guns, I know, and I’m seriously thinking of cutting this. Huh. They're saying that reason Sarah Palin's CBS interview was rubbish was because she was over prepared. I feel like that. I was so desperate here for my writing not to turn into a list, reduced to a flowery version of 'I liked the music' 'I didn't like the Sontaran' it has a tendency to become opinionless. At the end though I think I might win things back a bit:

In writing all this I feel like I’ve drowned someone’s kitten (especially after seeing the reaction at Outpost Gallifrey) and it could be that I have reached my Who limit and can’t see the fish for the chips (which should make watching The Trial of a Timelord boxset fun). This is only the opening episode though, and the first of the season, which as we’ve seen in The Writer’s Tale, is never an easy matter for a writer to get their head around. Now that everything’s been set up, next week’s episode could be a zinger, with much talk of probic vents and the kids using their random history homework to fight against the Sontaran. Let’s hope so.

At which point my inspiration truly imploded. We’ll not speak of this again.

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