Revenge of the Slitheen (Part One)

TV As a partially religious man I rarely take the lord’s name in vain, but Jesus Christ, children’s television is loud. When the presenters aren’t shouting at you, there’s a retina searing barrage of shapes and colours, cg baubles bouncing around to a soundtrack which in the late nineties would have been described as hard-core and that’s even before the opening episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures begins. My reaction to all this is probably much the same as when adults saw what we were watching in the eighties and looked wistfully backwards to Watch With Mother. Anyway, there’s a job to be done and with all the eye patch references threatening to consume this place, it’s best that for the first time ever I write the title in bold to save confusion:

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Revenge of the Slitheen: Episode One.

Well quite. In this month’s Doctor Who Magazine, during the 2Entertain interview one of the captions reads ‘The Trial of a Timelord will be a future DVD box set’ which sounds too much like a threat for my liking and the title of this episode is in much the same vein. Episode director Keith Boak not withstanding, the Slitheen were something of a lead weight around the neck of the first run of the new series, a bit too bash and loud and amused with themselves to be effectively scary, with only Annette Badland’s later turn in Boomtown hinting at the darkness inherent in their ability to scoop out the insides of their host and using the skin as a disguise. The potential was for this particular revenge to be of the Montezuma variety.

But as this episode proves it's all a matter of context; like the Autons in Rose, this is a new series being launched with the return of a familiar alien and within the setting of this kids show, with apparently smaller plans (which aren’t yet completely revealed) the big green lumpies work far better particularly as they fart and gurgle their way about, mixing perfectly into the teaching staff who in my day not only imparted knowledge but were veritable One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest of irritating habits, the bizarre turns of phrase, the plastic tubing they’d (disturbingly) give us a smack on the bum with, the bit of saliva permanently hanging out of the corner of their mouths, they all seemed to be aliens frankly and we all wished they’d embarrass themselves by passing gas once in a while too.

Here they frightened because of they way they were shot, director Alice Troughton (any relation?) selecting to shoot them from the floor, a child’s point of view, their imposing mass often filling the screen, a corridor or stairwell, their taunts exactly like those you’d here from a school bully. It helped too that the suits have obviously been augmented, much greener and far less static than in their first appearances, no cutting to non-matching CG required as they bounded about, their mouths far more flexible as they spoke, the offspring at the close of the episode, a wonderful creation. These are the aliens of London as they could have been, a reflection of what the various teams making Doctor Who have learned in the past couple of years.

Like Invasion of the Bane, this story flashed by at a lick but amazingly somehow managed to fit some neat characterization inside as Luke tries to come to terms with being human. As hinted at in that first episode, he’s on a Data-like path of discovery trying to work out the nuts and bolts of what fourteen year old kids are supposed to be like, far brighter than his classmates and inevitably being picked on because of it. There’s more than a chance he could be the break-out character, poster-boy for all the gifted youngsters stuck in the state school system, breezing through quadratic equations when what they really want to try is some quantum physics.

Much of the taunting oddly comes from Clyde, a better fit than Kelsey, far wittier than his predecessor and more complex; he’ll hopefully mellow as the series goes on. Understandably its these characters which were at the forefront of this adventure, but Sarah Jane did get some nice material related to becoming a mother, with Liz Sladen still succeeding in developing the character even within the staccato scene length of the episode. Maria also had less to do but she’s was already well established in the pilot and it is still early days; it’s interesting that she already seems very comfortable with her ‘companion’ role to Miss Smith implying that other adventures have been happening since Christmas.

It is amusing though how structurally the episode somehow managed to fall into the trap of the classic Doctor Who series, with twenty minutes of plot followed by five minutes of running (or sitting) around until the cliffhanger arrived. How despite having their name in the title, said cliffhanger largely revolved around the reveal of the Slitheen something most kids will have been aware of having watched the dvds a hundred times? I suspect it’s all part of some meta-reference, the production team producing new Doctor Who in the style of the old and they’re purposefully dropping in these quirks so that old fans will feel right at home.

This, then is a series largely defining its own path but still looking and sounding far more like a Doctor Who spin-off than Torchwood despite so far having less continuity references, with the exception of the Judoon and Blathereen (which, as Paul notes in the comments to this review, along with the mention of Justicia in Boomtown, makes the spin-off novel The Monsters Inside about as canonical as any of those things have ever been).

Certainly in the second half, as we’ve seen from the rather too long preview (which should be put at the end of the credits surely), some of the discoveries from the Slitheen's original adventure will be made again, and it’ll be up to writer Gareth Roberts to make sure that the climax isn’t simply a rerun of what we saw there but a development. The key is to provide enough magical moments such as the candles popping back on by themselves after the power cut, and to be simpler than its mother series without becoming simplistic.

So far, it’s right on track.

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