Out of Gas
Sarah Jane Adventures: The Gift
… lacks a moment in which Clyde and Rani huddle over some client software like Tweetdeck watching words like “weird”, “plant”, “flower”, “splotches” and “twilight” trend in the TwitScoop while the All Friend column is awash with detailed eyewitness reports (well as detailed as they can be in a hundred and forty characters). This would have been the nu-Who equivalent of the railway station scenes in Doctor Who and the Silurians. Instead, they were watching BBC News via the iPlayer which whilst a brilliant expression of a governmental programme to get decent broadband into schools also seemed somehow, rather dated.
But The Gift overall felt very old fashioned, but in a good way. I complained last year that Enemy of the Bane, the climax of the second season was “brash, loud and disjointed, powered by a kind of atomised storytelling which has replaced such incidentals as logical plot structure and coherent character motivation”. The Gift couldn’t be more different. Perfectly paced, with a simply plot structure and mostly useful characterisation, it offered the chance to stop and think about the themes being offered up and to laugh at the hijinks of the kids, and concluded with a scene that was about as close to the conclusion to Children of Earth or The Waters of Mars as this adolescent franchise member is likely to have.
After the kind of chase through a warehouse which has all the hallmarks of a typical climax to a story in this series, Writer Rupert Laight (whose previous franchise credits have included some excellent short stories for the Doctor Who website, the novelisations of previous SJA stories and most interestingly one of the stories in Big Finish’s Sarah Jane Smith spin-off series) unexpectedly drops us into a homage to the Stanley Kramer’s film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (or when wet Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) with the Blathereen standing in for Sydney Poitier (or the Klingons). The dialogue between the kids before hand is very on the nose; airing his suspicions, Luke says that it doesn’t matter what colour they are, they’re from the same planet as the Slitheen, as the camera pans across the kitchen to reveal Clyde and Rani.
Then, uniquely, a good ten minutes of the episode are spent at the dinner (in an empty Rani’s house, the parents conveniently at a conference apparently) with the kids enduring the table manners of their guests, their potentially racist remarks cleverly making us sympathetic towards the Blathereen, so that we understand when Sarah Jane takes them into her trust. The message until this point is that you can’t take people at face value; as I think Rani says at one point, there are bad people on the planet Earth as well. But it’s genuinely amusing, aided by some supreme voice work from Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes of all people, demonstrating the benefits of getting proper actors in for such roles. Alice Troughton really enjoys stepping up to the challenge of filming the always difficult table scenes, my favourite shot between Sarah Jane and Rani at the sink as the mayhem of the meal plays out behind them.
The rest of the story is like that. There aren’t that many big action sequences, no speedy runs through corridors or shouting and not a lot of intercutting in the editing actually, with the story quietly playing out in refreshingly long scenes allowing the actors room to act which also benefits the characters, with a return to the neat bits of screwball comedy which were the hallmark of the first season, in this case between Clyde and Rani. If it didn’t quite work in the attic scenes were Sarah Jane seemed strangely listless initially at the prospect of her perfect (yet soon to be narratively sidelined again) son Luke somehow being ill which is an impossibility and should have tipped her off that something horrendous was in progress, the later scenes in which she enjoyed the reverse of her own domestic dinner party in the Blathereen ship were hilarious messy, bringing to mind the likes of Tiswas or Fungus The Bogeyman. That right there is how to entertain kids.
A fair use of CGI too. Though the production team couldn’t stretch to a Slitheen reveal this time, the unveiling of the vivid red petals of the flowers was very effective and the shots of the spores flying through air, though cartoony, had the same disturbing power as the virus droplets in those scenes in Outbreak as we watched them hover over our heroes and their classmates. Of course, in a perfect world there would have been dozens of these scenes with populace fleeing as the spores degraded even further the air quality of London, but as is always the case in SJA, even if the moon is falling to earth, it’ll be viewed through the eyes of our heroes, the catastrophe being left to our imagination through reported speech. Perhaps, just as we’ll never know what happened to these kids during Children of Earth, there’s a version of this story were Prime Minister Denise Riley is staring UNIT out across the cabinet table and asking them if they have any good gaseous pesticides.
If there’s a problem with the thematic heart of the story, it’s that having passed on to kids the anti-racism message, the needs of the narrative to have a villain leads to the reveal that the Blathereen were villains all along, a turnaround which is fairly dark stuff for something in the CBBC slot. People who aren’t like you are ok – oh no wait, no they’re not, they’re bastards after all and they want to take your land. Laight does briefly leave the possibility hanging that perhaps the Blathereen are set up, but it’s not long before they’re shown chomping their way messily through another meal. Anyone who’s read the spin-off novel from which they’re sourced, Stephen Cole’s The Monsters Inside, will know that they really are as bad as the Slitheen anyway, I suppose.
Viewed through the prism of recent franchise editions, the conclusion of this story is also fairly challenging. Having spent the best part of three years saying that sentient beings deserve a second chance, and third, and fourth, and … with the whole conversation about the execution of Margaret in Boomtown having already seen much of her family destroyed by a missile, with whole stories which talk about the orphaning of aliens, Sarah Jane uses Mr Smith to destroy the Blathereen couple, splattering their remains across the inside of the attic in a moment that inappropriately reminded me of the Marvin scene in Pulp Fiction, and like Tarantino’s best scene (!) it’s played for laughs and is very, very funny.
The final moments of the episode demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the series. The scenes in which our heroes are huddled together amid the orange goo, the actors clearly trying not to laugh, like the earlier were Clyde is trying to hide the tin dog under the table much to Rani chagrin are adorable and demonstrates as I’ve already mentioned over and over and over again that when the characters aren’t simply spouting masses of exposition at each other we like spending time with them. That's what ultimately made this episode so entertaining. Plus Clyde's one liners. And the continued rivalry between Mr Smith and K9.
About the only thing really wrong with the story was the coda. The perfect end to the story and the season would have been a pan away from the group in that attic wiping Blathereen remains from their eyes, having saved the world and enjoying the consequences. That final montage which is supposed to bookend the series and may be trying to be as depthful as an Angela’s philosophy montage from My So-Called Life but ends up being as anodyne as similar monstrosities in Heroes or Defying Gravity (“Some people say that life is a dream. It could be a dream. It depends if we dream and when we dream and what we dream about etc”).
Good god, I hope they never do that again.