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October 17, 2009

Androvax Must Live!

Sarah Jane Adventures: Prisoner Of The Judoon

Judoon1 Well, I’m sorry but even as an adult I was bored rigid by that opening story. Is it me but, as each series of The Sarah Jane Adventures escapes onto our screens, isn’t there an obvious deterioration of the writing as it gradually suffers from the need to constantly talk down to its intended audience and cope with budget cuts? Throw in what is clearly becoming a format with a paucity of ideas – crashed spaceship, possessed humans, comedy parents – and a fear of acknowledging that this is taking place in a post-Children Of Earth society and you do start to wonder why they’re bothering. And that’s a shame because good children’s television now resembles one of those rare animals that Stephen Fry searches for in remote jungles and then coos over on Last Chance To See.

Quite oddly the opening episode of Prisoner Of The Judoon decided to not only do a pre-titles sequence that insists on reminding us of the format (journalist with a bus pass investigates low budget goings-on with immaculate conception son and his black and Asian friends) but also show what looked like a ‘pissing your cash down the drain’ whizzy CGI sequence of outer space with pretty planets and things as Sarah Jane provides a narration that er…sort of duplicates the function of the pre-titles anyway. Are the producers suggesting that kids are really that incapable of having an attention span or remembering the set up from the last two years?

Judoon2 Still, we at least get a name check for the Shadow Proclamation and a reintroduction for one of the parent series more charismatic alien beasties, the Judoon. Their bluff Keystone Kops buffoonery is rather endearing and Captain Tybo crash landing in an abandoned council estate suggests Labour urban renewal housing policy has taken on some interesting dimensions. However, just as the gang opt to go and have a dig around at the crash site, the opening episode comes to a screeching halt with the appearance of Gita and Haresh Chandra. Like much missed Alan and Chrissie, I can understand their place in the format, but the grinding gears of the story are severely exposed as writer Phil Ford crudely crow-bars in their involvement at Genetech Systems by having Gita break into a high security establishment to do a spot of flower arranging. The big problem is that once Ford gets them to Genetech they’re really surplus to requirement and Gita and Haresh turn into comedy stooges boggling at aliens.

Certainly, the core of Episode One is the lovely chemistry that still exists between the leads and then the majority of their scenes with Captain Tybo. Clyde continues to get the amusing one-liners, ‘Cor, you need a mint, mate’ he utters as Tybo regains consciousness with the Judoon equivalent of ‘what the hell hit me’ after being whalloped by his Veil prisoner. The Veil looks like a Jem’Hadar with jaundice, has a name that sounds like a cold relief medicine and does rude things with its tongue. I did feel sorry for Tybo as Sarah Jane tore him off a strip for letting Androvax escape. Can rhinos look crestfallen?

As Rani and Luke distract Tybo, Sarah and Clyde go to the aid of a little girl and her mother. There’s an effective scene where Sarah reassures the girl, Julie, that aliens are not monsters but are people just like her, however when you think back to what the 456 were doing with children in Torchwood then Sarah’s nonsense really doesn’t seem credible. And, rather creepily, Androvax is hiding inside Julie, and when he’s detected, it all gets a bit pervy. A leather clad alien waggles its tongue suggestively not once, but twice at Clyde. And the second time it happens it’s a possessed Sarah Jane flapping her tongue at him. Oh, she’s old enough to be his grandmother.

Judoon4 It’s at this point that the story then moves into something that resembles the first episode of The Twin Dilemma. Lis Sladen enrolls in the Colin Baker acting school of non-subtlety and puts on a funny, raspy voice, looks like she’s bunged a cushion up the back of her leather jacket and then proceeds to try and convince us that Androvax is actually a sympathetic character. It turns out Androvax is a galactic bully only because he saw his planet destroyed. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit risible and her performance will either have you wishing this was The Hand Of Fear or rolling on the floor with laughter. Or both. Mind you, the kids watching will be able to do some wonderful imitations in the school playground.

The humour does work when it involves the Judoon and I found the scenes where Tybo sprays window cleaner on Clyde to wake him from the Androvax trance and the mass Judoon argument about signage when releasing their imprisoned Captain worth a chuckle. The highlight of Episode One is the scene with Captain Tybo driving the police car and the scene at the traffic lights. Funny as the encounter is, Clyde’s Starsky And Hutch reference and the earlier nod to Jack Bauer certainly indicate an attempt to keep older viewers happy whilst the kids giggle at monsters and Sarah Jane being butch. Still, a Judoon leaning out of a police car and grunting ‘Have nice day’ to a petrified boy racer is rather special.

Judoon5 Following a rather perfunctory Episode One cliffhanger, resolved by that hoary old cliché of talking a computer into not self-destructing, Episode Two carries on in much the same fashion. Sladen bounces about with a rictus grin, popping out a forked tongue and rasping away, often unintelligibly, as Androvax who uses the Genetec nano-forms to build a rather splendid War Of The Worlds copper coloured spaceship. More Judoon turn up and are as comically inept as their Captain and there’s a lot of running around corridors with Clyde, Rani and Luke as they a)try to avoid the Judoon and b)try to avoid Gita and Haresh and c)try to stop the advance of the munching nano-forms.

Yes, why are Gita and Haresh still in this story? Apart from a pitiful attempt at screwball comedy, they really have no purpose here. Even Gita’s breathless revelation that they saw aliens at the conclusion holds no weight at all because, unless Gita and Haresh went scuba diving on the same island as Donna Noble, the entire world is now fairly comfortable with regular alien invasions and kidnapping, particularly at Christmas.

Sladen’s clearly having fun, going completely over the top, bless her, but it’s such a shame that the rest of us aren’t. It’s a story we’ve seen in the series rather too many times and whereas previously there’s a solid emotional core and a sincerely felt moral message that cuts through the frippery in The Sarah Jane Adventures, here sadly it’s largely in absentia. The motivation for Androvax is barely explored beyond his feelings of jealousy and inadequacy and only really comes alive in that decent scene in the copper coloured interior of the ship. And there is only so much parent-child bonding between Sarah Jane and Luke that one series can possibly take and here it is only redeemed by Tommy Knight’s great line of ‘So take your spaceship and give me my mum back’. Conveniently, having studied the Androvax’s ship schematics off screen, he also saves the day.

Judoon6 Joss Agnew doesn’t so much direct this as just leave the camera running and sneak off for a crafty fag, displaying only a modicum of the flair shown in last year’s The Last Sontaran. The visual effects are generally very good but I do wonder how much money went into the big CGI zoom in to Sarah at the start of Episode One when clearly it’s been a struggle to get the series made. The regulars are troopers and cope with some atrociously unnatural dialogue but their camaraderie is still very appealing. It’s a disappointing, rather underwhelming, start to the series and the forthcoming appearance from David Tennant will no doubt be a much needed boon.

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