F For Fake
Sarah Jane Adventures: Mona Lisa's Revenge
I love a good postmodern joke. Especially in Doctor Who. There are several crackers about the Mona Lisa and contemporary art in City Of Death. The problem with Mona Lisa's Revenge is that it tries to extend the punchline on its own terms and the results go down as well as a fifth rate comedian on a wet Friday night at the Glasgow Empire. I don't really mind that Doctor Who and its spin-offs constantly move the goal-posts as far as established continuity are concerned. That's the nature of the beast and no doubt someone is out there frantically trying to square the circle between one version of the creation of the Mona Lisa and this one. So, I didn't sit nervously expecting some contrived ret-conning of the events of City Of Death to explain why Mona Lisa comes to life and has a Northern accent. What I do find annoying is that I'm presented with something so irritatingly dull that I find it painful to watch.
Orson Welles once made a rather clever film, terribly postmodern, about art, reality and forgery. I was hoping we'd get some of those playful ideas here but Phil Ford's script isn't as clever as he seems to think it is. Beyond the main idea of actually bringing La Giaconda to life, he quite clearly hasn't much of an idea what to do with her once she's free, waving a Sontaran blaster in the air and sounding like Melanie Sykes in the old Boddington adverts. I half expected her to bellow out, "Ey, Luke are your trolleys on right way round?" as she picked on Luke for his guilt over a tantrum with Sarah Jane. Ford would have been as well to emulate Duchamp and Dali, who really did know how to send up Da Vinci with a few well chosen Freudian jokes, in this rather tiresome fifty odd minutes.
I couldn't quite work out whether this was a story about a teenage boy's emergence into masculinity, a teenage boy's discovery of his true talents, a really annoying Northern woman clearing pretending to be the Mona Lisa or the repressed love affair between Mr. Harding and Miss Trupp. In the end it was trying to be all of these and yet not entirely succeeding to be any of them because Ford can't settle with any confidence on his theme. The potential story of how a woman in a painting, brought to life, would cope when she finds herself in the real world, is squandered. It barely gets a look in and it's the jewel that's sitting in the middle of the Jackson Pollocks that are so carelessly being thrown together in this story. If anything could have given the story he(art) and soul then Mona's desire to escape her frame of representation, with a comment on the aesthetics, reproduction and exploitation of imagery, would have been very interesting.
For starters, and it's something that personally annoyed me, there's a rather unconvincing and crass discussion between Clyde and Luke about art which for anyone who knows even a modicum about Renaissance art would seem tantamount to blasphemy. Art is apparently not about geometry, it's about soul. A simplistic analysis that makes Leonardo Da Vinci, who probably knew a fair few things about geometry as well plate tectonics, anatomy, solar power, flight and mechanisation, just a another head in the clouds artist who pops a bit of paint on a canvas? Also, I'm all for encouraging those of school age to think seriously about careers in the cultural industries and it's great there is a message that says 'drawing is cool' but did we really have to have those that care about art, about how it connects to everyone's lives, represented by two very worn out old cliches like Mr. Harding and Miss Trupp. They both look like they've wandered out of the Festival Of Britain and seem an unlikely pair to be left in charge of the International Gallery. It employs an assistant curator who comes on sexually to the visitors and is jealous of a woman with no eyebrows.
The set up at the International Gallery suggests a cultural environment that's weak-willed, stuffy and repressed where even those cliches of their day Professors Rubeish, Kettlewell and Kerensky might feel at home. Besides, the security around one of the world's most priceless art treasures is seemingly non-existent and seems almost symptomatic of the insecurity and weird sexual undercurrents at the heart of Harding's obsession with Mona Lisa too. His and Trupp's behaviour suggests that anyone in the arts has to seriously overcompensate in order to stand a chance of getting their leg over. This is stuff best left to poor 1970s sit-coms along with sensible shoes, big bow ties and cardigans and lines like 'Security. The Mona Lisa has been stolen!'
Whilst Episode One just about gets away with it, and is helped greatly by the scenes between Luke and Sarah, the brief exchange between Mr. Smith and Sarah in the attic and Clyde's realisation that he might be talented, it is Episode Two that plunges this story to its place right at the bottom of the series' league table. And I'm looking at you Suranne Jones. She makes Russ Abbott look like a respectable graduate of the Stanlislavski school of acting. It's a BIG performance and it's thoroughly irritating. She's not entirely to blame because it's Ford who has somehow decided that it would be entertaining to have the Mona Lisa come from Salford and use words like 'sugar' and 'blag' and refer to Harding as 'Harders'.
There is also a lot of exposition in Episode Two. Lots of telling and very little showing to try and explain Mona's relationship to her brother but I'm not entirely clear what exactly Mona Lisa is seeking revenge for? Yes, she wants to free her Abomination brother from a painting but how does that work as an act of revenge? Revenge on whom? The artist? People who visit art galleries? Ford hurriedly cobbles together a mishmash of explanations via at least four characters and even reuses his own 'energy force trapped in a meteorite' plot from The Day Of Clown. The worst aspect of this is the whole Chekhov's gun use of the Chinese puzzle box. It was obviously signaled in Episode One but by Episode Two Ford thinks we've completely forgotten about it, even though it's being mentioned rather a lot in dialogue, and he bungs in a flashback to Episode One. Similarly, it happens with Clyde's drawing of K9. Insultingly, it's assuming the audience's attention span resembles that of a gnat.
Whilst all this is going on the star of the show has unceremoniously been framed in a picture and dumped on the floor for much of Episode Two. Whilst Lis Sladen may have wanted a bit of a break, I was rather miffed that we weren't going to see much of her in her fetching Pertwee outfit of blue velvet jacket and white frilly blouse. Whilst she's sorely missed from the story, I appreciate that the three regulars work very hard to try and make this dog's dinner remotely palatable. I quite like the ideas of creatures hiding in paintings and the story of the Abomination is interesting but the execution here is spoiled by an over-ripe performance from Suranne Jones, an unclear revenge plot and way too much running about and talking.
One thing that did bother me about the idea of paintings coming to life was that Ford flagrantly ignored his own vague suggestion that what was in the frame, only what was painted, would be given life. Mona Lisa suddenly has a whole body and can walk, the silent highwayman (and Clyde does point out that he can't speak because his mouth was never painted) who can fire pistols repeatedly even though they're supposed to be single load. How on earth can he fire them anyway, did the artist paint the bullet primed in the chamber? We've also seen much of this before - Luke's growing pains and his last minute bluff with the villain particularly - and now we're in the third year of SJA this familiarity is starting to breed contempt. By the time K9 pops up from a drawing and zaps the Abomination, Mona Lisa's Revenge has more or less drifted along on a sea of improbable and highly coincidental MacGuffins, scenery chewing and vague ideas. Now, can someone please write a real script because this one has definitely got 'this is a fake' watermarked all the way through it.