Stuart Ian Burns gets Sarah Jane Adventures: Lost In Time.
One of the story ideas for the new series of Doctor Who which I’ve coveted over years but is unlikely to happen is for a good old fashioned pure historical, one in which the only sci-fi element would be the Doctor and his plus one. I know these were largely curtailed in the 60s due to poor ratings, but the contemporary twist would be that the TARDIS team and the audience after decades of conditioning would assume that a monster or some other fantasy element is the cause of whatever mischief is, but in the end historical truth would assert itself. In other words, a reverse of The Time Meddler.
While we wait for Moffat or his successor to come to his or her senses, Lost In Time is an entertaining stop gap, with enough historical exposition to keep Lord Reith’s ghost from haunting Mark Thompson for a couple of nights at least (or at least until Strictly’s on and the poor John’s grave rolling begins again). It’s also one of the more blatant homage’s to the classic series, The Key To Time season retold in just over fifty minutes. Oh how Russell and Rupert Laight must have chuckled as they made sure one of the objects was an actual key. It’s just a pity Lalla Ward wasn’t available or willing, probably.
But this is an episode filled to the brim with homages of one form or another not least in the figure of the Shopkeeper, who appears from Mr. Benn, casting the team out to the various points in time, albeit without a new choice of fancy daywear. Cyril Nri tries his best with a part that mostly replicates the cast of Trial of a Timelord in standing around commenting on the stories and offering some much needed cliffhanger acting when required. Who is this mysterious figure, one of the Trickster’s lot or something else? Perhaps there's another Shopkeeper out there holding the balance of power, their constant Sinden/Davies-like rivalry a cosmic version of Never The Twain (but fighting over the health of planets and moons rather than a cheap bit of Carltonware or a mahogany table).
Each of the three yarns also looks towards other fictions. Rani’s story, though based on fact has the beating heart of a Philippa Gregory novel, putting a recognisable human face on a historical queen. Demonstrating that a quite complex drama can still be told on the BBC in a couple of rooms, a cast of few and some entertaining corsetry, this neatly describes the events leading up to the scene in Paul Delaroche’s painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey which hangs at the National Gallery, actress Amber Beattie sympathetically portraying the doomed young monarch rather misused for religious point scoring.
Given that for some younger viewers the second world war is as distant a memory as the Nine Day’s Queen, perhaps we should be cautious in welcoming Clyde's story, Theories abound on whether the Nazi’s did indeed land on England’s mainland shore as depicted here and in its anticedents Went the Day Well?, The Eagle Has Landed, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, um, The Curse of Fenric. But the exposition is clear enough to explain that Thor's so-called Hammer is changing history so instead let’s just give a cheer for what is a really ripping boy’s own adventure of the kind which seem all too rare now and no I didn’t see that coming. I did indeed yelp.
Sarah Jane’s segment is almost pure Sapphire and Steel, with just a pinch of Moffat magic and a public information film from the 70s. Arguably the weakest of the three, it does still have a peachy performance from Gwyneth Keyworth as a Charley Pollard alike and the random casting of Lucie Jones from last year’s X-Factor as the kind of figure Princess Superstar warned us about. The problem is perhaps that this the story with the least direct jeopardy for the main character (apart from returning hime obviously), though at least kids might get the message that its dangerous to play with matches.
The editing challenge of running these three distinct stories next to each other is carried off well, even better perhaps in cutting between distinct timeframes than The Hours or Julie & Julia and without their direct plot connections. On reflection, both of those films would have clearly benefited from a fez wearer offering a running commentary to his parrot ("She's running out time! There's no way she'll manage to cook all of those recipes in a year! Why do they all look like Meryl Streep?" "Sqwark!"). The trick is in giving Clyde the majority of the action beats, balancing the pacing and having using the old hyperlink cinema trick of matching the shapes of shots in different locations.
What also ties the episode together is the willingness to, for want of a better phrase, “go there”. In both of their stories, Rani and Clyde are the victims of discrimination. If Rani’s is the same kind of euphemistic public school insult endured by Martha Jones during Human Nature, the Nazi’s description of Clyde is absolutely shocking, especially for this timeslot. The strong way that both of them deal with it is how role models are made, both Anjli and Daniel motivated to give some of their best acting of the season (last week’s near two-hander accepted). Too late sadly for forthcoming dvd documentary Race Against Time, but a welcome detail nonetheless.
Another excellent story then in what’s turning into what might be the best series yet, despite the Fordist Rentaghost influences. Continuity buffs will also be pleased to see, thanks to that newspaper clipping, we finally have a date for when these episodes are happening, contemporaneous with broadcast and so definitively after The Big Bang and so confirming the reset of the extra year which was a legacy of Aliens of London all those years go, although as I’ve just discovered it's all a bit of a mess anyway since The End of Time is apparently supposed to have “happened” in 2009 before Planet of the Dead and The Eleventh Hour in 2008 when Saxon was in power (breath). Yes, I know, the silence, the cracks, the time war, the Faction Paradox ...
Next Week: Speaking of which, the Earth wasn't as defended as we thought judging by the weaponry.