Enemy of the Bane.

TV And so The Sarah Jane Adventures have come full circle. In writing about Revenge of the Slitheen I commented on how brain-splitting children’s television is these days with its fast cutting, bouncy graphics in primary colours and music which sounds like a cut up remix of a Disaster Area concert. In places it makes the promotional film for the London Olympics with the rubbish logo look like a genius piece of sedate modernism and that’s just the bumpers and idents between the programmes. Now, during ...

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Enemy of the Bane (both episodes)

… everything in the programme itself is brash, loud and disjointed, powered by a kind of atomised storytelling which has replaced such incidentals as logical plot structure and coherent character motivation and by the end of the two episodes I was left in a grumpy old mood desperately muttering like a jilted lover “Was it me? Was it something I did? Did I not see the signs? What does he have that I don’t?” Well, perhaps not the last bit, but it’s ages (well a few weeks at least) since I felt so angry about a piece of drama. Not just because as a finale to what's been a half decent series its so disappointing, but because it was let out of its cage by the same people who brought you so many sublime episodes of Doctor Who this year.

Kermodian rant mode engaged.

If there’d been a camera in the room I suspect the expression on my face would have been somewhat like John Lyman’s during that brilliant episode of The West Wing in which he’s woken up with a hangover and Joey Lucas’s translator Kenny is shouting in his face. He looks rotten, his eyes desperately trying to focus on something, anything, coherent until in the end he has to admit “I have no clue what is happening right now.” That was me during Bane II as the convoluted plot convulsed into the kind of inherent ramblings which tend to give our favourite genre a bad name. It’s an alien doodah which when combined with a thingy could bring about the end of the universe. For the first time this series I did finally, genuinely felt like a teacher trying to look cool listening to The Jonas Brothers at a school disco.

There’s little point in me listing all of the irritations – we’ll be here all night – so I’ll just offer two.

Firstly, there’s the treatment of the Brig. I’d quite looked forward to his return to television, though for some of us he’s not really a character that’s been away with his appearances in the novels and Nick Courtney’s frequent visits to the Big Finish studios for this and that, notably his appearances in the U*N*I*T spin-off mini-series as well as the, I think, underrated video Downtime which also featured Lis Sladen briefly as Sarah-Jane. It seemed like an odd fit that he’d be resurrected for The Sarah Jane Adventures anyway considering the target audience, but the SJS connection is strong enough and it might well be a pre-cursor to his re-emergence in the mother programme, where the details of his mission to Peru might yet be revealed.

His dislike for the newer, vastly more militaristic UNIT is a welcome continuation of some of the themes begun in those spin-offs and is extrapolated well in his opening scene, as he wipes the monocle from fake Major Cal’s face. The reunion with Ms Smith was just ambiguous enough not to render any of those spin-off stories non-canonical. Nick Courtney has a ready gravitas which makes you wonder why he’s not employed more often (though watch out for him playing the Archbishop of Canterbury in this thing soon). He obviously relished the chance to be back on tv and a through line to the man we loved so in the seventies and eighties. It’s nice introduction for viewers too, he’s an old friend of Sarah-Jane who used to be in UNIT and knows how to get into the spooky Black Archives.

The problem is, because the kids are rightly supposed to be the stars, The Brig predictably gets sidelined and unlike School Reunion, the episode isn’t about the meeting of old friends and before long it becomes apparent that the man is rather incidental to the story. Courtney spends most of the following episode and a half standing or sitting around reacting to whatever’s happening and though he does get a couple of action beats including some nice cane work, he’s essentially a bystander to the main story, which I know was often the case in the 70s but seems like wasted opportunity here. Would it be so wrong for him to have a moment where he imparts some wisdom and be allowed to offer some impression to the kids watching as to what makes him so brilliant that the Doctor would name drop him at a time of crisis?

Of course, the reason the episode isn’t about Alistair is because it’s about Luke and his mummy dilemma and it’s how he fitted into the story which is the other thing which really got my goat. We’ve watched the bond develop convincingly between Luke and Sarah-Jane over the past couple of seasons and it’s interesting to see the show attempting to address the emotional apocalypse an adopted kid his age in the real world might have to address when the real thing wanders in either at the supermarket, home, or as is most likely these days on The Jeremy Kyle Show. Perhaps these kids in the real world might think that underneath these people are giant calamari desperate to steal them away from the life they know, with Spain the destination instead of the universe, but Luke’s not really the role model the adopter would want to hold up as an example of how to deal with the situation.

It’s just a pity that after an excellent showing in the last story, Luke spends most of Enemy of the Bane being psychologically shoved about so easily by his ‘real’ mother Mrs Wormwood. You can just about see the reason behind busting her from the protective shielding, but after that’s gone so well and he’s essentially been kidnapped and tried to dash off with the cosmic doodah, why does he then go and take it to the centre of the stone circle knowing the consequences it’ll have for humanity? The reason is because writer Phil Ford needs him to. Having logically written Mrs Wormwood behind the shielding he needs to get her out so that the next bit of plot can be dealt with. Equally, there isn’t a big special effects climax if Luke isn’t somehow compelled into doing the dirty even if the status quo hasn’t changed that much since five minutes before when he ran off with it.

I should say here that if Samantha Bond wanted me to do anything for her, anything at all, I’m there – her hypnotic voice has driven me absolutely crazy for years and her rather arch performance was one of the few highlights in the these episodes. Except she’s so clearly still evil, still mental, and still untrustworthy, that it undermines our belief in Luke’s intelligence that he persists in doing pretty much everything she says even when the results have proved to be so disastrous. I know there’s an argument to be made for the series being for a younger age group where writing has to lack most of its ambiguity and there’s bound to be a certain panto elements, as we’re constantly frowning in disbelief at the stupidity of our heroes, but when Jack (not Harkness) sells his cow for some beans we get watch a giant beanstalk grow and meet a giant, and I’m not sure any of the results of the over complicated bit of fantasy on offer here was as relevant or immeditately exciting as that.

Now, I know this is harsh commentary for what is essentially a production with its heart in the right place and it could just be a pre-christmas bit of malevolence before my usual festive benevolence descends. All of performances were excellent; Anthony O'Donnell’s Commander Kaagh in particular worked much better in this context than in his own story, seeking honour through freelance work rather than the usual Sontaran oaths. And it scores marks for not also somehow involving the Chandras in the solution to the alien story as a counterpoint to the still lamented Jacksons; clearly if Haresh is up to anything dodgy they’re saving it for the next series – I also hope they could find something more interesting for Gita to do than apparently get Sarah-Jane’s name wrong and have her in some state of catatonia.

I just wish that after generating what has been a very good drama series the finale hadn’t been so relentlessly mundane and predictable and exactly the kind of thing children’s television is criticised for being. Then again, I’m willing to admit its possible that I’ve just had a sense of humour bypass for a week and I’ll rewatch this in the future (as we fans always do) I’ll be less harsh and grudgingly see it’s good points – it’s happened recently with Planet of the Ood which I absolutely hated on my first po-faced viewing. Plus, I am thirty-four years old. If I was about ten, I’d probably think this was the most exciting fifty minutes I’ve ever, ever seen. At least until Christmas Day.

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