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October 24, 2009

Ever So Lo-lo-lo-la-Lonely

Sarah Jane Adventures: The Mad Woman In The Attic 

Madwoman1 The character of Rani Chandra is one I've never wholeheartedly warmed to since she was introduced in the last series. Nothing but admiration for Anjli Mohindra and her acting abilities but the series hasn't really explored Rani's ambitions as a journalist and her desire to follow in the footsteps of Sarah Jane Smith. Until now. In referring to what is regarded as one of the landmarks in feminist literary criticism by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar “The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.”, I wonder if writer Joseph Lidster was playing with us by using such an evocative title or was he actually attempting to beef up the subtext about the female characters. Judging by his two part story, I have to take my hat off to a writer who makes an effort to examine some of Gilbert and Gubar's thesis that all female characters in male-authored texts can be categorized as either the “angel” or the “monster" within the format of a children's drama.

Episode One immediately throws you off balance with that opening caption of 'Ealing London 2059' and director Alice Troughton's camera prowling around the gloomy interior of said attic. It's only as the young Adam finds the symbolic madwoman declaring she's Rani Chandra in the pre-titles that Lidster seals the deal on the representation of female anxiety that runs through the entire story. The attic in 2059 and the madwoman that inhabits it are a visual symbol and representation of the younger Rani's loneliness, jealousy and bitterness at being superseded by her fellow investigators, and particularly by the absent Maria and by that other madwoman in the attic, Sarah Jane Smith. It's also telling that Lidster wrote last year's Mark Of The Berserker in which the story explored the relationship between Clyde and his father and black masculine representations. Here, he gets a chance to put Rani centre stage and finally let us see just how this young woman feels about Maria, Sarah and how she relates to the boys/men in the story.

Madwoman2 The device of using an older version of Rani to narrate the story works superbly and Episode One benefits greatly from an especially intense performance from Souad Faress. She is completely mesmerising. The older Rani is pretty much the subconscious made flesh, articulating the character's regrets at a decision made 50 years previously and which the audience does not yet know about. There is that beautiful shot where Troughton overlays the dark world of 2059 with the light, Sarah Jane, Clyde and Luke populated attic of 2009 to impress upon us quite how cataclysmic this loss is. I love the fact that the older Rani pulls no punches in describing Sarah Jane as 'mysterious and moody. You did not want to get on the wrong side of her' and presents a view of the character that is fairly atypical and properly represents what most of us would think of her if we ever crossed her path. It makes a change from the series often rather sycophantic view of Sarah Jane and does reflect the dichotomy of the 'angel' and 'monster' female subjectivity that Gilbert and Gumar's book discusses.

Like Rochester's mad wife locked away in Thornfield Hall, the Rani in the attic unravels a narrative in which her own female subjectivity, passionate, rebellious and uncontrollable, becomes the focus of the story. It's her repressed anger at not being taken seriously that drives the episode and her eventual journey to Danemouth. With this we also get to understand Rani's past life and this adds some welcome and long overdue dimensions to the character. Sam Lloyd, an old friend she reacquaints herself with, is just as resentful at Rani for her tales of the Sarah Jane gang but as we learn in the rest of the story it is precisely because of her telling such tales that she initialises and perpetuates the narratives in 2009 and 2059.

Madwoman3 The relationship to male figures in the story is an interesting one. Essentially, Clyde and Luke, much as Rani would seem to love them, could be seen as agents of cultural restriction, eroding her confidence, especially when they brag about Maria becoming the new Sarah Jane. In much the same way, Harry the Danemouth Pleasure Park caretaker, restricts and controls the alien Eve. It's ironic that our first sight of him is where he is standing next to a sign that reads 'First Aid' and 'Lost Children' as he greets Rani and the notion of lost children extends beyond Eve to embrace Rani, Sam Lloyd and even Sarah Jane herself. This sums up his role in the story, as an obsessed patriarch who feels he needs to suppress what is in effect Eve's emergence into womanhood through images of play and television created by the Ship.

As he introduces himself, 'I'm the caretaker, I'm meant to be here' then his job description is rather like all those repressive fathers in old fairy tales, guarding the submerged female sexuality of the Eve and Rani characters beneath traditional, orthodox male formulas. And yet we detect in his reverie, as he looks at his younger self in a photograph, that he sees the function of the Pleasure Park is now redundant, the liberating notion of imaginative play and pleasure has become an outmoded concept. He blames the credit crunch - a symbol of over zealous patriarchy if ever there was one and a subtle acknowledgement that that even the pleasure of this series of The Sarah Jane Adventures has struggled to get to the screen through a particular lack of abundance of cash. Brian Miller, coincidentally the husband of Lis Sladen, is great as the troubled Harry and his reaction to Rani's direct approach to 'something hidden in the Haunted Mine' articulates more about the male fear of burgeoning female power than any library full of Victorian gothic novels.

Madwoman4 There is also all that rich symbolism of the magic mirror kicking around in the story, with imagery suggesting Disney's wonderful animated Snow White, and where the truth of Eve's condition is displayed. It's a metaphor for control - from its reflection of Eve's image to control other people to its refraction and reshaping of Eve and Rani's femininity. The mirror constructs and deconstructs female subjectivity and reflects how the two women articulate their emotions within the story. It presents their potential for transformation and what they wish or fear to become. In the end of the story Eve's reflection is the machine intelligence of her spaceship that will give her freedom and it is also that machine's reflection which grants Rani's wish to be totally alone and wipes her friends from the timeline. The mirror, and by extension the female Ship, become the engine of desire for Eve and Rani.

The figure of Eve, beyond the mirror, reflects the truth back to Rani. Right down to her desires ('Zac Efron…he is fit') and the need to articulate them with a young woman who will empathise and understand. It's a conversation that you wouldn't imagine Rani ever having with her parents, Sarah Jane or the boys. Beautifully played by Eleanor Tomlinson, Eve is yet another lost child of the Time War (and note that this is complete with a shot of her looking into the mirror, telling the 'truth' of her life) and is adrift on Earth. At the same time, Luke discusses a similar situation with Sam, revealing Sam's own lonely disenfranchisement from the world. However, the twist in the first episode is that Sam has been 'possessed' by Eve's Ship and has, it transpires, been the agent to bring Rani to Danemouth. The truth hurts, naturally, and Episode One climaxes with Eve, a time sensitive, showing her Rani a skewed vision of her pain at not being taken seriously by Sarah Jane and the others, her pivotal denial of them and her horror at what she will become - the mad old woman of Bannerman Road.

Madwoman5 Episode One is a stunning 25 minutes of drama but Episode Two does fall short simply because Lidster has to explain the set up and resolve it. It's a little rushed and cramped, doesn't quite know where to end and perhaps ties everything up a little too neatly. It was inevitable that he would return the series to its status quo by the end of the second installment. How he gets there is interesting and exciting. Once we get past the very pleasing flashback sequences (the clips from the classic series are particularly welcome) of Sarah Jane's life as the Ship scans her timeline, we're left with two very tantalising moments. The 'he is returning' image of the TARDIS materialising in the attic and the Ship describing and desiring 'the darkness' she's seen in Sarah's mind. It's more of the painful truth that Eve's race clearly paid for in the Time War and that creates a great deal of anxiety in our main characters, particularly Rani. This reflection of the truth is also all about the need to change as each character sees a reflection of themselves and their egos. It culminates in that utterly wonderful sequence of the two Rani's looking into the mirror, distraught, finishing each other's sentences and in outright denial of their futures. As well as the foretelling of the Doctor's arrival to Sarah, we have Luke defending himself to Sam and their discussion about Sam's friendship with Rani and the truth about Eve.

The scene in the Haunted Mine brings emotions to a boiling point and Eve, once she's free, is also free of Harry's demonising of her female power and free of the Ship's correcting influence. The fear of unbridled female sexual power is a classic theme of fairy tales and their patriarchal desire to control it. Again, we see the themes of Gilbert and Gubar's book in that both Rani and Eve represent the need to exorcise the 'madwoman in the attic' - here the difference between uncontrollable and volatile pubescence (that results in Eve going out of control and Rani wiping her friends from the time line) and a mature liberation and authority (Eve's reintegration with the Ship and the resulting union between her and Sam and Rani's restoration of the time line and her future family). Playtime is indeed over.

Madwoman6 A superb story, beautifully directed and acted, with a stunning score from Sam Watts and full of very rich themes but by the time the black hole in Sarah's mind gets a mention you realise that Lidster also has to fulfill a brief to bring K9 back into the series just in time for next week's Tennant fest. So, K9 conveniently gets his arse out of the black hole in order for Eve's Ship to draw off its power (the black hole, not K9's arse) and he manages to irritate the hell out of Mr. Smith into the bargain. Improbable is the word. Eve gets a cute boyfriend in Sam and a concerned father with Harry and buggers off into space leaving Rani alone. It all works out in the end, with Adam turning out to be Eve's son and restoring the time line. Alice Troughton again uses a lovely device at the end of the episode to show how Rani's future will turn out as the gang all crowd round K9 for a photo op and the scene dissolves into a sweet redemptive coda featuring the older Rani, her son and grandson and mentions of Luke and Maria. The future seems to have turned out fine.

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