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November 21, 2009

Green Fingers

Sarah Jane Adventures: The Gift

Sja2a For a finale The Gift doesn't exactly end the current series with a satisfying bang unless you appreciate the entire cast getting drowned in bits of exploding orange Blathereen. More of a sloppy whimper. Rupert Laight's script captures the frivolous nature of the series and its characters well and still manages to get across a number of important messages about tolerance and acceptance of those different from yourself. Which is fine if he didn't, as Stuart Ian Burns quite rightly points out, turn his Blathereen making all the friendly overtures into the villains of the piece. Not an unexpected move but it does rather imply the precis of the story, about the nature of trust, is perhaps more akin to 'keep your friends close but your enemies closer still'.

The Blathereen are quite clearly the stock Slitheen costumes given a coat of orange paint and, whilst obviously keeping the budget affordable, they do actually work rather well because of the bright idea of bringing in voice talents like Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes. This covers up the money saving aspects of reusing alien costumes that even four years later on are, just from a technical view, one of the few new series failures. But with Callow and Margolyes in full on mode and a script fizzing with one liners, The Gift just about gets away with the Blathereen.

The Gift also reconfigures that unforgettable scene from Boom Town where Margaret Slitheen sits down to dinner with the Doctor and they mull over the moral issue of whether killing a murderer makes you no better than they are. As Sarah and the kids get ready to entertain the Blathereen couple I wonder how many viewers' itchy prejudices needed scratching about humankind's on/off relationship to 'the Other'. The discussion about race and culture in the kitchen as they make dinner for their visitors is a rather timely one that reflects the continuing anxieties about the naturalisation of immigrants and mimics the kind of dialogue some adults may well inadvertently and innocently be using themselves as one of their children invites a few friends home for tea.

Sja3a The alien or extraterrestrial experience in Sarah Jane Adventures has also been a mix of wide-eyed reflections on historical and social references to the colonised or the conquered, a united impulse to fight that which is perceived as evil and as a threat to the 'family' or an essay in the struggles of the decentred subject (the 'lost child' is a popular one). With the Slitheen it's more or less a jab at capitalism and its effects and where conquest is about developing mass markets and making lots of money. Here, it literally is about squeezing the Earth dry in order to turn it into a diamond. When we get to the Blathereen, Laight is blurring the lines somewhat and leaves us and Sarah Jane having to think twice about the wonders of the universe and our 'friends' waiting for us out there.

What's intriguing here is that at first the Blathereen are portrayed as political functionaries of the Raxa High Council and then it is revealed that this is merely a front for two farmers who want to turn the Earth into a massive food store. The Blathereen story and the sub-plot about Clyde cheating at his exams dovetail quite neatly here. Honesty and hard work is the best policy it would seem and cheating could be seen as symptomatic of some inner trauma. With Clyde it's possible to see his desire to get through exams with the aid of K9 as a reaction to his dysfunctional family environment and with the Blathereen it's obviously an advantage to them in their competition with the Slitheen. A psychological battle going on between those two Raxicoricofallapatorian families is an interesting aspect to somewhat one-dimensional aliens.

Far better is the sub-plot about the alien plant given to Sarah Jane. As its spores infect those around her and spread across London to become the food stuff that the Blathereen will gorge on, Laight's story starts to push all sorts of Day Of The Triffids type reactionary buttons about 'Frankenstein foods' and GM crops. In the very week this story went out Professor Robert Watson, the chief scientific adviser at Defra called for UK trials of GM foods, arguing that the Government needs to be more open with the public about the risks and benefits of genetically modified foods. The Gift isn't exactly going to do him, his report and the government any favours as it not only tells a tale of alien plant spores choking the world to death but it also chucks in a cheeky swine flu allusion too.

Sja5a A great plus here is the very natural dialogue and playing between the regulars. Laight's script tunes in to the ensemble dynamic and offers plenty of fun, especially with Clyde trying to use K9 to cheat at his school test. I also liked the continuing spat between Mr. Smith and the metal dog that's then used as an example of forgetting your differences to work for the greater good. Good CG effects for the Rakweed too and a stereotypically Doctor Who method of negating their effect. The school bell won't quite have the same meaning anymore for some children I'm sure and the use and subversion of the familiar within the cause and effect of these adventures offers a knowable and accessible universe to younger viewers.

With the Rakweed eliminated via sound waves and the Blathereen blown up in the attic with their own farts, The Gift adds a coda that's surplus to requirement and somewhat at cautionary odds with the cheerier disposition of the series as a whole. The second episode does have a natural ending in Sarah's paraphrasing of the Fifth Doctor, 'there should have been a better way' but the tacked on epilogue just implores you to stick two fingers down your throat because of its nauseous political correctness about friendship.

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