The Family Stone
One of my current guilty pleasures is The Well, a short form haunted house adventure produced by BBC Switch, the slightly hazy department brought in when it was decided that the BBC Childrens shouldn’t cater for anyone over the age of twelve to offer something to older teenagers, in this case one of those 360 degree productions that also includes a computer game on the website.
You’ve probably heard of it before because it’s also the very horror drama Karen Gillan recorded before moving to Cardiff and though its slender plot-based running time (the episodes are about eight minutes long) doesn’t allow for much in the way of poetic dialogue or revelatory performances (The Kevin Bishop Show was a better expression of Karen’s charms), there are some truly disconcerting moments as the four central teenagers become enveloped in The Well’s mystery and it’s particularly sinister because it was filmed just round the park from where I’m sitting.
It provides an interesting contrast for Phil Ford’s "haunted" house adventure The Eternity Trap which is obviously focused on the younger age group. The Well also has its fair share of torch-lit dark corridor moments but is dealing in psychological horror as each of the characters finds themselves becoming part of “whatever’s down there” in some cases almost killing them in the process. In this Sarah Jane adventure, though the regulars are often captured and lots of threats are made against them, all of them are in a kind of implied danger and none of them really got hurt – only Enrico Casali from The Wheel in Space, sorry, Commander Ridgeway from The Sea Devils, sorry Erasmus Darkening was hurt in the end (though given we knew nothing much about him and he was only sucked into a portal I expect even that’s not true). The rule seems to be – kids tv – no hurt the regulars – hazy teenage tv – hurt them plenty.
Yet The Eternity Trap does mange to be properly unsettling in places and not just because of Adam Gillen’s (no relation) performance (which seemed to pitched somewhere between Richard Pearce giving us his Jeremy Fitzoliver in The Paradise of Death and Dustin Diamond giving us his Screech in Saved By The Bell). For once, the budget constraints of the series work for the story, cutting Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani off from most of the fantastical elements which usually aid them in their adventures, Mr Smith, K9, the Attic and Luke (Tommy Knight probably off doing his GCSEs or filming a Luke heavy episode for later in the series) and conveniently their mobile phones and putting them into a single scary location (assuming this wasn’t recorded in about five different locations like these things usually are). Aided only by a sonic lipstick, tricorder wrist watch and some not-ghosts with a keen eye for well paced exposition, means that easy answers aren’t always forthcoming providing some genuine mystery.
Ford and director Alice Troughton work their way through the haunted house playbook from top to bottom, but in a fairly knowing way, in that way that Tom Baker refers to when he says "Doctor Who is watched at several levels in an average household. The smallest child terrified behind a sofa or under a cushion, and the next one up laughing at him, and the elder one saying 'sh, I want to listen', and the parents saying 'isn't this enjoyable'.” We know that the books moving about, doors closing, wind in a still room, random sourceless noises and presences appearing and disappearing and the monster we can only see in eye of terror of its prey through point of view shots or red eyes in the darkness are clichés hoary and old but we can giggle at the fact that this could be the first time some kids are exposed to them knowing that they’ll graduate to Poltergeist, The Blair Witch Project and Halloween later. They might be cliché’s but they work.
When Troughton stops us from being able to see what’s going on outside the televisual frame by not providing obvious cutaways and calls on composer Sam Watts to layer in some deathly inhuman sounds on the soundtrack it’s difficult not get a slight chill, especially if like me you’re watching it in a cold room (and can’t be arsed to get up and put the radiator on). And we can tell that Ford knows what he’s doing because in the opening episode, when, and not for the first time in the Whoniverse, he invokes Nigel Kneale; this isn’t a couple of kooks investigating the phenomena in the house but scientists from the Pharos Insitute on a research trip, a trope that Kneale consistently used, and it’s suggested that the ghostly activity might be a way of proving the Stone Tape theory, which the Quatermass writer of course turned into a tv play in the early 70s that also revolved around a haunted mansion (and not using the inverted commas that have to surround the pile at the centre of The Eternity Trap).
As a threat Erasmus Darkening was a little bit disappointing. The trapping of those poor people in a nether dimension was a bit non-specific (certainly less clear than in Big Finish's The Chimes at Midnight) and with the exception of that wonderful shot of the multitude on the stairs had all of the hallmarks of an Ainley Master special, lots of tell, not much show, plenty of giggling, lots of tricks. Rather like Torchwood’s Bilis Manger he promises much, has volumes of personality, is a bit creepy, probably frightening enough for a generation who missed out on The Demon Headmaster, but is also somehow aireless. It’s the timeslot perhaps which stops this leather-pated scoundrel from turning up to eleven; Sumpter constantly seemed forced to hold something back, as though he was expecting the next line to be filled with some black language that would open up the gates of hell and he didn’t want to go too far just in case. Perhaps another time (editor, please insert a funny joke here about European exchange students. Thanks).
But all in all, I’m quite enamoured with The Eternity Trap. It’s certainly Phil Ford’s best script since The Last Sontaran and like that season two opener, really benefited from being set in one location and with a tiny group of characters, far away from the multiple location large cast stories in which the needs of production have a habit of overwhelming the story. I’m not sure why Floella Benjamin plays Professor Rivers like she’s still narrating the documentaries on the Black Guardian dvd boxset all strange intonation and wild line readings but on the upside story also features Callum Blue, the Fitz Kreiner I have in my head and the best Doctor we’ll never have because he’s too much like David Tennant. Despite a floppy wig Callum gives a knock out performance as Lord Marshwood, yet another apparition after a year and a half on (the not quite as good after Bryan Fuller left) Dead Like Me. There’s a nice screwball relationship brewing between Clyde and Rani with the former’s habit of joking about everything he sees like a demented comedian's Twitter account and roving hands clearly getting on the latter’s wick and it’s nice to see Sarah Jane not treating a threat like it’s the scariest thing she’s ever seen, remembering that, to paraphrase a different franchise, she’s flown from one end of the galaxy to the other, and seen a lot of strange stuff.
Next Week: The series risks stepping over sacred ground. Will Mona have a tattoo on her back that reads "This is a fake"?