The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith is one of those problematic stories the modern nu-Who franchise is throwing in, now and then, in which one of the main characters breaks the unspoken rule about heroism and gives in to the lure of their position for selfish ends. Torchwood does this kind of thing all of the time in attempt to make it look dangerous, such as resurrecting Owen or sending a small child literally away with the fairies. In this case it’s even more awkward because as Frank has already pointed out, the choice that Sarah-Jane makes is the same as Rose in Father’s Day – saving a parent or in this case both of them – and in the process bringing about an armageddon more horrific than even the grimmest and grimiest of monsters wouldn’t contemplate.
It’s a parable, an attempt at teaching kids that no matter the attraction, just because you can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should and especially if, like Sarah-Jane, who has clearly forgotten the lesson the Doctor taught her in Pyramids of Mars, you really should know better. Years from now an academic fan looking to pad out one of those books will probably attempt to apply a thematic framework to this, that it’s about music piracy, it’s about drugs, it’s about teen pregnancy, it’s about oil in Iraq, and you shouldn’t give in to peer pressure. What they’ll probably overlook is that we’re all human, and that actually it’s the certain knowledge that what we’re doing is wrong that makes us do it, a thrill to breaking the rules. Just once.
Sarah-Jane [...] has clearly forgotten the lesson the Doctor taught her in Pyramids of Mars
That’s what probably stops us from turning against Sarah-Jane. Unlike the Rose of series one, she’s well versed in time travel and its effects and she knows that even as she’s chatting to her parents Blinovitch is rolling in his floating zero gravity grave. But like Rose, she’s human and Liz Sladen’s amazing performance communicates why she can’t stand idly by and watch whilst her own flesh and blood drives off to certain doom if she’s in a position to do something about and to hell with the consequences. Far from weakening the character, it strengthens her because we’re now seeing that the rest of the time, whilst she’s charging around essentially pretending to be the Doctor with her sonic lipstick, it’s all bluff. A side effect of that is that it makes the Doctor an even more idealistic figure because we understand the anguish he must be going through in not plunging back into the time war to save the rest of the time lords.
The fact that we’re able to discuss such weighty issues is a mark of the strength of what was probably the best written episode of the season, just as Whatever Happened To Sarah-Jane? was the best of the last. It might even be better than that, because it gave all of the team something to do, a moment of heroism. I agree that the moment in which Sarah-Jane’s mum realised that she had to die in order for the future seemed like the kind of fudge which left a plot point in the eyes of the actor and their ability to display some unlikely thought processes, but I’d argue that what Gareth Robert’s script was in fact trying to articulate that we’re watching a kind of predestination time loop, that within Sarah-Jane’s memory we can see that time dropped out of kilter already and that we’re just watching it fix itself, part of the suture being the inspiration put in Barbara’s head of what she had to do.
I discussed similar quasi-mystical interventions when writing about The Zygon Who Fell To Earth the other week and like ‘timey-whimey’ and I know that they’re a useful cop-out for what might simply be unclear story beats that even the best writer couldn’t make convincing, but despite my usual protestations that it’s all a fairy tale and that children are very good at filling in the gaps, it would be nice now and then to consider that not everything is quite so superficial, even if its not being enunciated. Clyde and Rani, for example, displayed a mature and philosophical attitude to their situation, even in the face of their own parents all but being dead to them and the world they know having gone, perhaps assuming that everything would write itself, Roberts is clearly trying to show that nothing lasts forever.
nothing lasts forever
Even though perhaps more could have been said as to how the future got into that state (alien invasion? global thermonuclear war? dead Doctor much earlier than Turn Left had it?), those scenes were particularly well acted and directed against the parched landscape (quarry) with Daniel and Anjli diving right into the more challenging than usual material and Mina Anwar’s stunted cognition making the characterisation of Gita elsewhere seem all the more misjudged. But there was little to criticise anywhere here: Rosanna Lavelle's Babs though initially straightforward displayed inner depth and in place the years seemed to drop away from Elizabeth and we caught a glimpse of the girl who danced through time with Tom.
Director Graham Harper brought an epic sheen to the whole story; despite having a smaller budget than he’s been used to lately, across both episodes there was return to the cinematic approach of last year, and whilst the 1950s scenes recalled a more typical BBC costume drama, the sight of The Trickster, especially in that shot where he appeared to the kids against monochrome future reminded me not only of the opening of Genesis of the Daleks, but also appropriately Ingmar Bergman’s iconic manifestation of Death in The Seventh Seal.
That kind of sophistication transferred to the jokes. I’ve had issues this series with the reliance on Clyde to inject humour into stories, striding through scenes and tossing out one-liners like Chandler Bing on Ritalin and more often than not it has detracted from the danger. At the risk of over analyzing (what now? Have you read the previous six paragraphs?), the lines about “ethnic in the 1950s” and “fashion in the Punjab” were hilarious and made the treatment of Martha through history during season three look positively heavy handed. But it’s also the willingness to take the piss out of series standards such as the police box, complete with a full on blast of the Doctor’s theme. I know similar jokes have been done before in the likes of Logopolis, but having complained that this second season has skewed in general to a lower age group than the first, it’s just gratifying as to be able to watch and laugh without having to continually make mental allowances for the demographic reach.
he does indeed look like something John Barrowman might put on display
Is the Trickster gone forever? For all his gothic bluster, assuming that this was a time loop he’s not the cleverest of interdimensional beings for not noticing. But I think that Gareth is writing a trilogy here -- the character didn't seem to die rather temporarily lose his grip on this dimension -- and that he’ll be back for the next series and as is the way of these things I wouldn’t discount Sarah-Jane decides to taking the battle to his domain (budget permitting). There’s no denying he’s a great character and spooky even if his design now and then he does indeed look like something John Barrowman might put on display. Given the time trivial connection, I wouldn’t be too surprised if Steven Moffat graduates him to the main show properly so that we can see how effective his against someone who really understands his vocation. Either way, if The Sarah Jane Adventures has a legacy, it'ill be these stories, and it’s telling that this wing of the franchise is at its best when the focus is on the title character instead of one of the kids.