Stuart Ian Burns sneezes into Sarah Jane Adventures: The Vault of Secrets.
If I didn’t have my usual seasonal mountain of man flu to contend with this week, I would of course still have been distracted from watching this week’s Sarah Jane Adventures by the big news story which effects all of us and whose far reaching implications won’t really be understood for at least a few months, probably some years. The public reaction to the announcement might have been less than stellar on the day, but I think that the decisions taken show strong leadership and long term thinking for which we should be grateful. Once we’ve found out what the proper trousers will be like alongside the leather sea jacket, man bag and wooden sonic screwdriver (can you believe they got Weta Workshop involved?) I think we’ll all be in agreement that it was about time that the Eighth Doctor received a new costume.
As you can see from that jokoid, there’s a huge difference between having an idea for a joke then executing it in such a way that the punch line can’t be seen coming towards you like a truck driven by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Amongst The Vault of Secrets many problems, was writer Phil Ford’s tendency to spend half of his time setting up jokes as though they're more important than such things as storytelling. So we have an alien action group with acronym BURPSS, founded by someone called Ocean Waters, with a member called Minty, androids called the Men in Black whose leader is called Mr Dread. Sure enough, every single one of these set ups resulted in a wise-crack or punch line and usually from Clyde’s lips.
You could say, well, it’s just for kids, kids will find it funny. But will they really? The only point of comparison I have is Rentaghost which was what was on tv when I was that age and used to have jokes about as sophisticated. I don’t remember laughing very much at Timothy Claypole, so I wonder if they’re really laughing when Langer makes the inevitable quip about toothpaste. Are they laughing at the references to Mulder and Scully, Will Smith and the Terminator films, all targeted well above their age group (to go along with the Starsky and Hutch and Jack Bauer references from this story’s prequel last year)? Much of this feels rather beneath the Doctor Who universe somehow. Slitheen granted, I thought we had higher standards.
Whilst we wonder about their sense of humour, we could also ponder the shortness of a child’s memory, because The Vault of Secrets wasn’t just a sequel for last year’s Prisoner of the Judoon but seemed to actively go out of its way to replay that story. Last year Androvax was trying to retrieve his own ship, this year it was retrieve his race’s ark ship. Last year the taciturn Judoon chased him with big guns, this year the taciturn Men In Black chased him with big guns. Last year Rani’s parents are capture ... you get the idea. The earlier admirable animation Dreamland was also strip-mined for its Area 51 references, not least the vault itself. I’m surprised it wasn’t revealed that Georgia Moffat’s Cassie and Ocean were family. Was this really the best way to count time before you know what?
Even individual scenes, like the vehicular humour returned, and somehow less funny since it was also another Terminator reference. Again. It's also incredible that after four years the kids can't tell when their best friend Sarah Jane isn't herself even with her back to them, shoulder's hunched. There’s a pernial discussion about how science fiction, and Doctor Who in particular, is doomed to repeat the same ideas and tropes over and over, but to this level of copy/paste? Can we expect in another twenty years the future’s equivalent of Alan Barnes will talking about The Vault of Secrets in a dvd extra, offering their version of his spirited defence for replacing Baker’s head for Pertwee’s in the TV Comic strip (cf, Stripped for Action – The Fourth Doctor). Or it could just be this cold making my grumpy.
Whatever, despite the shameless derivativeness of the script, production wise, this was still very robust, so couldn't, in the strictest sense, be unentertaining. The directing and performances were up to their usual standard, even if Mina Anwar never can decide if she’s in a cartoon or not (was Camille Coduri ever this broad?) and the interior of the vault as epic in CG scale as the gridlock in Gridlock or what we must assume was happening in orbit during The Big Bang. The episode was probably at its best when it brushing against elements of the parent series like the pyramids on Mars or the BURPSS and Chandras only having a superficial idea about the aliens having apparently forgotten now about the Dalek invasion. Is this an after effect of the rebooted universe or are we supposed to infer that Amy Pond still won’t remember the events of Journey’s End? I'm going back to bed to ponder, sleep and sneeze some more.
Next Week: Another costume change. White shirt?