Secrets of the Stars (Part Two)

TV Many rels ago before David Tennant was playing the Doctor let alone announcing that he didn’t feel like it any more (James Purefoy anyone?), Doctor Who Magazine ran a series of four article which dissected the structure of a typical four episode story. Unlike Luke, I don’t remember everything I read, so right now I can’t recall the most of what (I think it was) Gary Gillatt wrote but I do remember two things. Firstly that essentially said structure amounts to an episode of set up some running around for two episodes (extended to ten depending on how long the story is) and then the conclusion. I’ll talk about structure some more later.

The other observation was that if a story’s rotten at its opening, it won’t improve for its entire duration. There may some good things about it but – and I know these weren’t Gary’s actual words – you can’t gold plate a dog turd. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true – there are many Doctor Who stories which begin well but flounder somewhere in their execution – and the series is replete with examples of those as anyone who’s sat through The Space Museum and The Mind Robber can attest. But we love it anyway for all these flaws, because just now and then it, bucks such trends and like non-league football team working their way through the FA Cup, now and then it repays the faith we have in it.

Sadly, part two of Secrets of the Stars was interned into the former camp; having begun rather badly with the exception of that lovely scene about Luke’s lack of womb-time, the worst elements of the opening half continued: Russ Abbott continued to over-act, the kind of cult leader that needs hypnosis since natural charisma won’t do it for him; the inability to trust it's audience's intelligence and over explain everything to the point of not giving the characters enough to room to breath and have a moment unrelated to the plot and a tendency to run away from anything remotely unpredictable should it make to target audience at all confused by what they’re seeing.

But what really hurt this episode most was over familiarity. Like the “classic” version of the parent series, The Sarah Jane Adventures has developed a structure which we’re now seeing story in and out. In episode one, the threat is revealed and in the second episode our heroes go and confront it at its lair, having worked up some kind of plan. To be frank, there’s only so many times that the gang can turn up at some building/spaceship/house just after the cliffhanger resolution, trick their way in then talk the villain into submission, no matter how entertaining the incidental moment. This is the third time it’s happened this season and I’d be surprised if even the most undemanding kid would notice. Here, the approach was even reduced to a quick scoot past the human rope line in the car.

On top of that we’ve the return of incidental imagery; a hynotised population marching the streets their loved ones close behind looking perturbed (The Christmas Invasion on), the budget saving re-emergence of the juddering CG shot of the Earth from Journey’s End and the hooped tractor beam from The Empty Child, another global catastrophe being commented on by the world’s media (which did at least have that fun moment with Trinity Wells being taken over) and a global catastrophe for that matter, and Luke ultimately saving the day because he’s special, his lack of a star sign, this story’s equivalent of the Doctor’s hand as important plot point waiting to come to fruition. I’ve pointed out that nu-Who’s repeated tropes too in the past, but not even those were quite as pronounced as this.

Which means that in these episodes the series has dipped into the category of “undemanding fare”, the description usually branded on films in the satellite pages of the Radio Times when the reviewer’s on a deadline, only has a couple of lines and can’t think of very much else to say. The performances of the regulars are still good, there’s some fun dialogue and the music has the requisite drama, it’s well directed, it’s also just so frustratingly bland, and though it’s good that it was brave enough to not to save Trueman and make some general observations about the mechanics of cults, it’s pretty worrying that this was dropped into the same slot as last year’s epic Warriors of Kudlak and rattled out of the fingertips and onto the keyboard of the same writer as Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? which was one of best stories the franchise has produced in any media.

Still, I’m an optimist and I’m sure all of this is just a blip. With three more stories to go, including sequels to that alternate reality tale and the pilot there is plenty of time for Gareth, Phil and the team to get their mojo back. Even if, so far, with the exception of Rani the Chandra family have been no substitute for Jacksons and those wonderful double act scenes between Clyde and Luke have been kept to a shocking minimum, there’s still room for some surprises and a change of tone and how many times have we seen that? I was about to say something like "Who would have thought the Davison era could produce The Caves of Androzani", but then I remembered what came next. So perhaps I'd best leave it there.

Next Week: My love for you is like a truck, berserker ...

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