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October 29, 2010

All these places had their moments. With lovers and friends I still can recall. Some are dead and some are living. In my life I've loved them all.

Stuart Ian Burns witnessed The Sarah Jane Adventures: Death of the Doctor

The Green Death was broadcast before I was born, Jo Grant leaving the Doctor before I was even conceived.  Yet seeing Katy Manning clumsily burst through the doors on the fake funeral presided over by the Buzzie, Dizzie, Ziggy and Flaps from The Jungle Book, I'm still filled to the brim with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, giggling at the sight of this older version of the girl who broke Mike Yates’s heart now breaking a vase, words spilling out of her like the Doctor himself with post-regenerative verbal diarriah, a young endogenous mix of her own husband and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles at her side.

Jo If nothing else, Death of the Doctor is a successful demonstration of the power of merchandising, the ability of the videos then dvds, novels and audios to keep a character alive, pickled in amber at the age she was when she originally appeared in the programme and making her important and much loved even to those of us whose first identifiable memory of the programme is Leela and K9 tracking through a corridor in some story or other (The Sun Makers?) so that when she does re-emerge “baked” our hearts leap on greeting an old friend.

Still waiting for my own Doctor Who girl so that we can make some, I don’t know what Jo’s significance is for any children watching; it’s a few year since School Reunion and even though that story will probably still be present to them for much the same reason Timelash is unfortunately to us, it’s not a bad idea that a new set of youngsters discovering the franchise for the first time should be introduced to the concept that the Doctor had a different face and companions and history before the new married couple, that same story should be roughly retold from a slightly different perspective, with some different chaps with wings.

My guess is that at least initially a lot of this material will head on over their heads except for the useful information that Amy and Rory are on a honeymoon whilst this adventure is going on, the youngsters giggling instead at the Muppet vultures and hiss at another dodgy authority figure whilst the adults are enjoying a meditation on memory, of old and new adventures, of finding a stimulating place in the world even after you’ve done what could have been the most exciting thing in your life.  In this script, Russell T Davies proves that it’s possible to write for both age groups without resorting to dated Terminator references.

And both adults and kids can agree that Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor has now clicked, the actor inhabiting the skin of the character with supreme confidence, the weight of a millennia travel gathered across his shoulders.   What we have here is (along with the climax to his first series) evidence that he’s clearly consolidated his approach, so much so that in places (aided it has to be said by a writer who’s clearly enjoying the opportunity to write for a Doctor he didn’t initiate) he almost manages to unseat the title character from her own series.  When Matt suggested in a recent DWM interview: “You’ve got to bed into this part.  I’m going to get better.  I’m going to push the part to its limit”, he wasn't lying.

So well does he capture the mix of dottiness and sober reflection and fiery danger at the heart of the timelord, that it's almost impossible to tell how accurate Davies’s dialogue is in relation to the Eleventh Doctor; rather like Paul McGann reading Tom’s previously abandoned words for the audio Shada, Smith's able to make the words his own.  Davies could just as well be giving him the full Tennant and I’m not sure would noticed.  Not that it stops the ticks of relevant previous Doctors from seeping through, a Tenth like growl when faced with a decision in an air duct, a quite Pertweesque “yes” in agreement at the relief of a still living Smith and Jones in a lead lined coffin.

With so much else happening, it’s also a pleasure to see the kids being given to emotional weightlifting too; whilst some might find it difficult to care for the plight of a teenager travelling the world as part of a family tree that seems to have an abundance of disposable income, albeit aiding worthy causes, there must be children watching who for various reasons have also been farmed off to older relatives losing contact with their parents.  With Davies offering a rare occasion when Haresh isn't simple straight man and genuine father figure to Rani, the writer's big theme in this secondary storyline that parents are good, something most of us can agree with.

Death of the Doctor is, then, one of the few occasions, blue little man group accepted, when Sarah Jane Adventures genuinely aspires to be more than programme just for children.  Sam Watt’s music brings an epic quality to a story, which like some of the best classic Who, is ultimately told in about three rooms, a corridor, some ducting and a quarry.  Ashley Way’s direction favours the close-up, all the better to capture the obvious chemistry between Lis and Katy born from years spent on the convention circuit together, the former graciously seceding the focus for a couple of weeks to a fellow actress reliving her youth.

In the final scene, Davies offers his equivalent of God's Final Message to His Creation, retconning the thematic undercurrent begun in the first season of nu-Who of the Doctor’s positive effect on the people he touches, essentially clearing up the grey skies, brushing off the clouds and cheering up a range of classic companions, taking off the gloomy mask of tragedy fitted on them by spin-off authors in the wilderness years, at least the ones still alive on Earth in whatever year this season of SJA is set in (sorry Dodo) which for some of us was rather more potent than the Doctor’s apparent publicity baiting new regenerative cycle.

On first inspection this seems like the writer disregarding even criticising the very merchandising that gave his returning character the life and relevance which made this story psychologically intelligible to most of us of a certain other age.  But in fact, he’s been rather more sensitive.  Glance through the relevant wikia pages and we discover that with the exception of Ace, whose timeline is a mess anyway, he’s simply adding to their on-going stories and in the case of Ben and Polly inadvertently offering a third act happy ending to love story told across decades via short fiction in the style of When Harry Met Sally.  In other words, returning me to the merchandise that led me to this story in the first place.

Next Week:  Challenge of the Gobots.

All these places had their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I've loved them all

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