Stuart Ian Burns says Sarah Jane Adventures: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith
Back in the distant past, in mid-October when I was still exactly in my mid-thirties, it seemed as though the production team were taking the brave step of writing out Luke and K9 in an effort to move away from the too easy deus ex machina style story conclusions which have tin-dogged the series from the start. Luke may have stuck around as a dismodied head and shoulders on a flatscreen, making fleeting appearances to justify his continued presence in the introduction ("Boy GEEENIUUUS"), but the stories since have arguably been more thrilling because, with one obvious exception, the remaining attic allies have needed to rely somewhat on their wits, putting the clues together without too many easy answers (even to the point of taking Mr Smith out of the equation for this or that reason) and a fair bit of trial and error.
Which makes me wonder whether Clay and Gareth, in crafting the conclusion to Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith and this season are being entirely serious when offering a solution that requires the combined effort of Luke, K9, Mr Smith and newbie electronic soap tray Mr White and a return to the worst excesses of previous stories: the kind of easy research leaps Lisbeth Salander would be proud of, action sequences lasting what seems like mere seconds piled one on top of another in which characters shift geographical area in moments and not always through teleportation and a villain that requires the emotional fallout from a fake global terror to be destroy. Epic concepts like Clyde trapped in the orbital golfball which would have been explored over whole episodes in the old Doctor Who (and did in the case of The Space Pirates) are ushered in and out all too soon.
As ever I was simultaneously elated and appalled, especially since the first episode is actually a quite sensitive (well sensitive for this panto) portrayal of Alzheimer’s or at least the stresses of watching a trusted friend or family member getting old. Who of us hasn’t forgotten something or witnessed someone else forgetting something really rather major like the current residency of their son and wondered – are we or they alright? Lis wonderfully demonstrated first the denial to friends, denial to oneself before acceptance and the decision on whether to fight or relent and let nature take its course.
Of course, in the real world none of this is brought about by a milfian temptress in a red sports car with matching couture. Like Samantha Bond and Suranne Jones before her, Julie Graham senses rightly or wrongly (it oscilates) that this isn’t the place for subtlety though she manages in the first episode to just about convince us that Ruby could be a potential replacement for Sarah Jane, cleverly approximating some of Lis’s business (the walk, the stance, the flick of the hair). By the cliffhanger, the needs of the show kick in of course and it's as though Kate O’Mara is in the room (not least because Ruby’s plan, to steal people’s life essences wasn’t a million miles away from the real Rani’s in her first adventure, if you squint).
Ultimately ranking about a seven on the Zaroff scale you still have to applaud the determination with which Graham sells the Katesh’s gastroschisis state and the boggle eyed notion of a stomach which exists outside an alien’s body, the writers sadly failing to have Clyde suggest it as useful alternative to a gastric band. What I would have liked to have seen would have been a proper battle of wills between Ruby and Sarah Jane the latter having already lost her wits before the former reached ascendancy. Would I be wrong in suggesting that the title character has been even less present this series, mostly falling into her old form of having to be rescued? In nearly ever story this year she seems to have been zapped or put through some sort of mental torture.
Which brings us back to doe in which I also expected the Doctor to arrive for good measure. Whilst its true that both Rani and Clyde also have a hand in the solution, there’s always something slightly unedifying about a character who’s previously had little input on a story charging and saving the day. Perhaps Luke’s still ill-advised scarf is meant to hide the chord which is being used to dangle him in like the original gods that would be brought in at the close of a Euripidian Greek tragedy. Aristotle hated this approach to drama and said so in Poetics where he proposed (radically for 335 BCE) that the resolution of the plot must always spring from the internal actions of the play, a model which has worked for much of the rest of the series.
Or as Hitchcock says, if you show a gun in the opening reel it has to have gone off by the end. What just about makes it saleable (other than the fact that Luke did at least put in an appearance in the first episode) is Tommy Knight’s burst of adolescent vitriol, his character bawling out Rani like a refugee from a John Osbourne play, as though what we’re actually seeing is the result of some whole other unseen narrative which is happening at Oxford, with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as the main villain (a tricky bugger once you’ve reached the middle section). When he later clumsily tells Rani that he loves her, it begins to seem almost exactly like my university experience.
But predictably amid all the shouting and running, the best scene is the quiet moment between Rani and her mum, in which Gita describes quite logically the jealousy of seeing her daughter palling about over the road with this second mother figure and the secret they clearly have between them, Mina Anwar perhaps suggesting, just as she did with the alternative version of the character in The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith that the feckles, flowery, “HELLO SARAH!” version of her character is an act or defence mechanism and that, eep, Gita might have hidden depths which is quite a contrast to Graham’s gurning from across the road. It’s this contrast which has, on the whole, made this series such a joy.
Next Time: I don't know. Time's caught up with us.