Plight of the Telesthesia
“Hello, how are you? I said, how are you? Good. Not too cold? I said you’re not too cold are you? Good. I just thought I’d pop round and see how you’re getting on. Yes, it is warm isn’t it. Not like the old days. The aliens, no I don’t think it’s the aliens. Well we have an Eocene councillor, don’t we? No dear, we’re not allowed to call them Silurians any more. It’s rude. How is your food synthesiser? Well, no, but it’s good for you, you need your vitamins don’t you? If you could just sign here and I’ll be on my way. I’m just going up the road to talk to Mrs Chaplet at number 43. You know whatsername, Dodo? You should get together, I think you’d get along famously. I think you have a lot in common. No, not in that way no. Well. Yes. Well. Anyway Mrs. Chandra, I’ll see you next week. Bye bye now.”
Poor old Rani clattering about that attic all alone for sixty years apparently alone. Didn’t social services pay her one visit at some point, either when she was a teenager or later? Is "The Mad Woman in the Attic" their nickname for her? What happened to her parents? Even without Sarah Jane and the gang gone she’d surely have something approximating a normal life – Mr Smith was still available too for japes -- or was the guilt so extraordinary that she began squatting in her friend’s house almost as soon as she could, shutting out the outside world until all she had were her memories? I’m being facetious of course – presenting an older version of a character as a storytelling framing device isn’t something the franchise has done on screen before (I don’t think) and in terms of creeping out the young audience must have worked very well especially with Souad Faress’s eerily accurate imitation of Anjli.
A welcome step up in quality from last week’s runaround, Joseph Lidster’s script for The Mad Woman In The Attic had to achieve two things, and at the risk of attracting Stephen Fry’s ire (yes, of course he’s an avid reader) I’m going to say it worked on a number of levels (for every use of that phrase does a kakapo die?). For a start, it had to be a vintage bit of Sarah Jane Adventures and it succeeded by offering some Moffat-lite timey-whimeyness and also pinioning on the wonders of the universe rather than some simple earthbound menace, with one of the group being dragged in because they put that wonder ahead of the safety of their friends. The threat, a telepathic alien, had much in common with Mary in the wacky Torchwood story Greeks Bearing Gifts, but rather than wanting to seduce people into animal sex, she just wanted to be their friends. Which is fortunate for a whole selection of reasons. I rather liked the simplicity of this, and, despite her horrenously non-PC puppeteering of the homeless, she was ultimately quite sympathetic and cute and giddily played by Eleanor Tomlinson.
In the midst of that though, Lidster was also saddled with writing the two episodes that the kids would impatiently have to sit through before the Doctor returns next week. The writer (presumably with some suggestions from the production team) neatly sidestepped that with a whole squeeniverse of references to the mother series. Eve is a refugee of the time war. Squee. Zodin reference. Squee. Jon and Tom, clips from Planet of the Spiders and The Hand of Fear. Squee. Snippets of dialogue. Squee. Both episodes in which Sarah Jane saw an incarnation of a Doctor for the last time depending on whether The Five Doctors counts. Squee. Which it must do because there was clip from that as well. Still counts. Squee. No mention of her meeting Eighth in Interference. Not squee. Shot of the TARDIS in the attic. Squee. Brief glimpse of David. Squee. The Bad Wolf theme. Squee. The return of K9. Squee, mistress. The resulting hilarious reaction from Mr Smith, in which the computer was clearly under the impression that he was about to be upstaged by a far more mobile supercomputer. Squee if you’re a Blakes-7 fan. Rightly none of this detracted from the main story and was simply layered in as foreshadowing. What about the darkness in SJS’s soul? Squee again, just in case because it sounded like Gwneth's dialogue from The Unquiet Dead.
But there were a few things I didn’t understand. Why did the gang’s trip to the seaside seem so long winded? Sarah-Jane and Clyde’s strolled to the theme park as though they deliberately didn’t want to get there before Rani’s story caught up. It’s another story happening at the weekend and in a deserted town to justify the lack of extras so was the in-dialogue mention of the credit crunch, a lightly metafictional reference to their predicament? I also wasn’t entirely sure why Luke decided to go sunbathing instead of chasing after Adam. And if this had been an American show in the mid-Eighties, it would have had backdoor pilot written all over it. Alien girl, her boyfriend, crazy pensioner and a talking spaceship? It’s Benji, Zac and the Alien Prince without the need to toilet train one of the cast members isn’t it? Speaking of which where were the toilets on Ship? It looked about the size of the transmat pod from Mawdryn Undead.
I also couldn’t quite follow the ending. After all of the build up of the mystery, Rani’s was put into the predicament then released from it within a couple of minutes of screen time (even if it was fifty gin soaked years for the character). I had almost expected the story to end with her still in the attic, but then there was the reveal that boy she’d been narrating at turned out to be the son of Sam and Eve called Adam and that Ship was going to put things right. Had sixty years in the company of the Mixed Up Biblical Reference People made the old thing go soft and change its mind? What mechanism were they using to make reality go back to normal? Which then led me to wonder where the rest of the gang had gone in the first place, zapped out of reality like that. Sometimes watching kids drama can be like playing a game of Kerplunk – pull out a pin and all the balls drop from the air and into a trough. But the thing is, all of that, like the winking issue in Blink, only occurred to be afterwards and none of it really impacted on my enjoyment of the episode.
Which makes me wonder why I spent a whole two paragraphs nitpicking. That's not like me, is it? I must have just missed something important. I did enjoy this. Honestly. Rubs his temples, the TARDIS pulling the Earth into orbit is cool and sod the science, the TARDIS pulling the Earth into orbit is cool and sod the science. That’s better. Good performances all round as ever and some excellent direction from Alice Troughton in bringing to two eras together through Rani’s eyes. Sam Watts provided what was one of his best scores for the series. And I did genuinely like the coda, with the new version of old gandmother Rani, kids about her feet, and a computer that eschewed a normal keyboard for some kind of blue-light flat panel configuration with a see through monitor – clearly a Mac. Nice to know too that despite what Amazon says, people will still need proper books with paper pages in 2059. It’s quite brave to present the future of one of your characters so specifically like this because it can jeopardise future jeopardy but I suppose that your mains can’t die in Sarah Jane Adventures for tonal reasons. So it’s interesting that Clyde didn’t warrant a mention …
Next time: He’s back and it’s about Dr. Tom Latimer