Mona Lisa Frowns.
Sarah Jane Adventures: Mona Lisa's Revenge
There aren’t that many aspects of Doctor Who that could be considered sacred ground. The geography of the series is such that any idea, item and even historical events have been run across over and over again, be they the sinking of the Marie Celeste, volcano day in Pompeii or visits from Shakespeare. Not even the mythology of the series is immune to being written and rewritten, crossed out and written over again until it resembles the order slip in our local takeaway when I’m trying to decide what to have for dinner and I’m not sure if I’m in the mood for sweet and sour or a curry. It tends to depend on the original story the object featured.
City of Death is just such a story. Written by a proper writer and the nation’s favourite until Steven Moffat wrote Blink, Douglas Adams’s Paris runaround is about as perfect a story as you’re like to find in old Who and the reason I visited the city (this was in the time before I discovered the French New Wave). To grasp my love for the story, I’d suggest you read this, and this but suffice to say that my eyebrows were nestled firmly in the arches of my receding hairline when I heard that The Sarah Jane Adventures were going to have the audacity of producing Mona Lisa’ Revenge.
Sacrilege. Sacrilege! I was in the curious position of being on the theological side of the Life of Brian debate from Friday Night, Saturday Morning and like Mervyn Stockwood, then Bishop of Southwark, I was rubbing a religious talisman, in my case the keyring in the shape of the Eiffel Tower I’d bought when I was in Paris (clip here, from a documentary curiously narrated by young David Tennant). But unlike them, I was willing to watch with an open mind. I quite like Suranne Jones usually and well it is the Sarah Jane Adventures, so what’s the worse that could happen?
At least the version of the Mona Lisa used wasn’t the charming GCSE-level slap job that appeared in City of Death. And the National Museum of Cardiff, a refreshingly different idea for a "base under siege", looked suitably grand doubling as the “International Art Gallery” even if the dressings in the room from Temple of Peace in which the painting was displayed could only partially hide it’s first appearance as part of Platform One in The End of the World. The performances of the regulars couldn’t really be faulted either, the scene between Lis Sladen and Alexander Armstrong in the opening episode more than making up for Sarah Jane dropping out for most of the rest of the story.
Otherwise Mona Lisa’s Revenge was a tedious bunch of old cobblers, easily as bad as Enemy of the Bane and nudging towards Secrets of the Stars. At the risk of sounding like a prosecuting lawyer in kids television equivalent of The Hague, it’s one of those examples of a drama whose awfulness slowly occurs to you over time until you reach a point when you realise you can’t quite believe what you’re watching and if you’re like me you start shouting. It happened for me at about the time Lisa began flashing her blaster around and with relatively few anti-lulls I sat slumped wanting it to end and knowing that it wasn’t going to for many, many, many minutes.
Like Secrets of the Stars, the awfulness of the story can be largely traced to the central performance within the guest cast. Suranne Jones, like Russ Abbot before her, seems to have been under the impression that the thing to do in children’s sci-fi is to go BIG and indulge in the very worst campery no matter what the rest of the cast seem to be doing. She was loud, she was brash and she sucked the air out of every scene. Jones can be a capable actress, except instead of the camp joy of Kate O’Mara, her keystone seemed to be Geoffrey Orme’s Zaroff in The Underwater Enemy, the rest of the guest cast caught in the crossfire.
Jones wasn’t helped by the ripeness of the dialogue and characterisation gifted to her which didn’t rise above a register much higher than “Nothing in the world can stop me now, ducks”. Writer Phil Ford does seem to have a problem writing his adversaries. With the exception of Day of the Clown’s Old Bob they really are a set of one-dimensional ravers, which as Gareth Roberts shows in The Trickster doesn’t necessarily need to be so. In Mona’s case, with the exception of her serpentine seduction of Jeff Rawle’s curator, much of her action consisted of empty threats and declarations of what she was about to do if she could just do something else.
There was one scene that suggested the possibilities for the character; when faced with the outside world she (for some unexplained reason) found she couldn’t step i’th’sun lest she become oil paint again. But the melancholic implications of that weren’t full explored because Ford was too intent on replicating some of the story points about being trapped in pictures from sources as diverse as Roald Dahl’s The Witches (Solveg, pictured), Justin Richards’s Demontage and Matthew Graham’s Fear Her, a corner he was presumably painted into when coming up with the mechanism for Mona being released from the painting in the first place.
After Mona Lisa’s Revenge, we’re now expected to believe that in an already convoluted Whoniverse, when Leonardo Di Vinci painted the original Mona Lisa, he used some paint from his weirdo neighbour, made-up artist Di Cattivo, which with its alien properties led to Mona becoming a corporeal manifestation with a Mancunian accent. Di Vinci was then kept a prisoner by the splinter of Scaroth that was Captain Tancredi (“Captain Tancredi?!?”) and forced to paint six copies of the painting all with “this is a copy” marked on the canvas by the Doctor. Where those six created using the same paint? Was there a small army of Mona’s waiting to be released?
The story’s whole attitude to art was fairly suspect. The veneration of the Mona Lisa was a good idea and the painting was presumably chosen by David Fisher for much the same reason when he was writing his first draft of City of Death. It’s recognisable, iconic. And there is some Reithian merit in explaining something of when Di Vinci created the work (even if, like City of Death, it forgets to mention that the painters ironically worked on the thing in France during the revolution). But made-up artist Di Cattivo’s work looked entirely out of period to me and I say that not because I’m trying to be a farty-farty-Sewell-pants but because it breaks the authenticity of the story.
The selection of Clyde’s painting too says a lot about the judges they’d choose it above whatever else was submitted by the other students. It’s part of the cranking out the plot, of course. You have to place the kids in the gallery and the only justifiable reason they’d visit would after winning a competition. Rani’s had her episode, Luke’s is coming up so it has to be Clyde. What kind of art would Clyde do? Well we’re not going the Pushing Daisies route and working against type (no knitting) so it has to be a sub-2000 AD daub instead of anything too challenging. Nothing too witty, please.
The requisite soap element seemed old hat too (as old hat, in fact as using the phrase 'old hat' to describe something as being old hat). The material about Luke becoming more human and leaving his room untidy was the kind of thing which motored the first season culminating in The Lost Son and it seems out of character for Luke to leave his room untidy anyway. Is he doing it on purpose, is that the idea? What kind of message is that to send kids? The loss of Sarah Jane for much of the story is also a disappointment, especially since the reason was a rerun of the aforementioned Fear Her, though probably understandable if it was a production requirement. Was Lis taking a well earned break or filming her scenes for The Marriage of Sarah Jane Smith?
It's also fairly ironic that Fisher and Adams wrote K9 out of City of Death for precisely the reason he was deployed here to vanquish the enemy. True, his appearance was part of Luke's plan and he wasn't the real K9 (somehow having knowledge of his masters and mistresses despite having originated from a drawing which means he might as well equally be wondering where Romana, Leela, her K9 and the rest of Gallifrey have got to). But as the writers in the original series soon realised, you have to use the robot dog sparingly otherwise your audience will be waiting around for him to save the day, each and every week. After set up the creepiness of this monster from the painting, the writer effectively capsized his good work by making him easily beaten with a laser beam.
Having worked on accession databases in art galleries, I could also take against the idea that this museum would have cellar full of work which hasn’t been looked at since Victorian times and which the curator doesn’t have much of an idea about I’m genuinely making myself angry thinking about it which is not what you want on a Friday night and was the least of the story's problems. There’s only so much you can say against a thing before you become tedious yourself and I suspect I’m outstaying my welcome and best get out before I start making unfair direct comparisons with Douglas Adams and going into the usual tat about the decline of television in general. Suffice to say I didn’t like this. At all. And it’s probably spoiled City of Death for me, which is its worst crime of all.
Next Week: The finale. Yay!