Tonight’s The Night

It’s the modern day A Fix With Sontarans, but with the added bonus of not featuring one of history’s most prolific paedophiles. For all of John Barrowman’s faults as a presenter, this is clearly an improvement. However, it was a bit harsh to completely disguise the competition winner by covering him head-to-toe in a blue body stocking – his big moment in the spotlight, and nobody can tell it’s actually him.

It was weird to see Doctor Who with a laugh track, and weirder still when the fourth wall came tumbling down. Technically, this skit doesn’t feature The Doctor, just David Tennant as himself, being thoroughly amusing in his possessiveness over the TARDIS set. I can totally picture Barrowman doing this sort of thing for real.

This was nice bit of fun, and I enjoyed the accompanying look behind the scenes too. In the context of this watchthrough, it’s a little palate cleanser ahead of an altogether darker tale involving Captain Jack, and another Doctor who’s not playing The Doctor. I’m tackling Children of Earth with one big blog entry, so I’ll see you back here in a minimum of five days.

RATING: 6

Planet of the Dead

* I will never forget the Easter of 2009. For the first time since the revival, a brand new episode of Doctor Who was not the most exciting TV event of the week. Red Dwarf, the show I’ve been running a fansite for since I was in school, returned for a three-part special, a decade after the original run ended. A huge number of us squeezed into the house I’d just moved into, for three straight nights of blogging, podcasting and boozing. Frankly, Doctor Who was an unwelcome distraction.

* I am naturally predisposed to side against the incredibly posh and privileged, so I wasn’t thrilled to have one of them as a companion. Michelle Ryan is perfectly fine, but Lady Christina is more than a little annoying. In fact, she’s reprehensible. It’s probably as much to do with me as it is with the character, but that type of entitlement goes against everything I stand for. She doesn’t steal because she needs to, she just does it for the thrill, and gets away with it because her status.

* That’s quite the collection of recognisable telly faces on the bus. One of the Julies from Bad Girls! Tealeaf from Psychoville! Her from Teachers! And apparently (I didn’t recognise him in the show, but I read afterwards that) her husband used to be in Boney M!

* Odd to be having another bus-based story so soon after Midnight. The situation is very different, obviously, but reminiscent enough to warrant an acknowledgement in the script. I was expecting the opportunity to get to know the passengers, and to discover their secrets and fears, but it was all very superficial – we got the reassuring mundanity of them cooking chops and watching telly, but we learned little about them as individuals.

* I see UNIT are still being a shower of absolute shits. They’re *just* a bunch of blokes with guns these days – none of the various leaders we’ve met offer much in the way of a humanising presence – and now shoot-to-kill is their default policy. They do, however, have Lee Evans. If you like Lee Evans, I imagine his unmistakable brand of Norman Wisdom impersonation would have been a welcome addition to the episode. I do not like Lee Evans.

* The whole thing is incredibly lightweight for a special, but that’s sort of fine – this was obviously only one of several specials that year, not the big centrepiece that Christmas usually is, and so it can afford to do something a little less serious, with its big friendly flies, its flying bus and its salacious Doctor-companion snog. It’s not bad if you’re not expecting an epic, but it does mean that the the deeply dark foreshadowing at the end is a bit of a crunching gear change. And once again, a soothsayer acts the prick by being deliberately vague, rather than spilling the beans properly or keeping schtum altogether.

* A friend of mine once got into a dispute with one of the co-writers, via the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine, regarding the politics of the ending. Suffice to say, with UNIT in the state they’re in at the moment, I’m not particularly comfortable with the supposedly pacifist Doctor concluding that joining the army will make men of those two lads. He then compounds this by deciding that the criminal aristocrat deserves to evade justice once again. I dunno. The Doctor is kind of whatever you want him to be; he’s done so much over the years that you can pick and choose the evidence that proves he fits whichever socio-political stance you care to name. But naturally, I’m going to react negatively on the handful of occasions where he takes a stance that’s categorically incompatible with my own.

RATING: 5

SJA: From Raxacoricofallapatorius with Love

Aww, Ronnie Corbett. Of all the victims of the great celebrity cull of 2016, he was one of my favourites. His presence on my screen is guaranteed to make me smile – it’s the warm feeling you get when an old family friend pops round. This was clearly written with a great deal of affection for the man, and it’s exactly my kind of in-jokey humour. Although, by my count he’s the third Rani.

Like any good Comic Relief sketch (and lord knows *good* Comic Relief sketches have been few and far between in recent years), it gets very silly very quickly, and then more so. Of course the gang are all wearing deadly deely boppers. Of course Ronnie Corbett is a Slitheen. Of course K-9 turns up and gets clamped. And that final shot of K-9 improbably sporting a Red Nose for no logical reason is superb. Five minutes of pure joy.

RATING: 9

The Next Doctor

* This is an episode that was perhaps a little overshadowed by the hype and speculation surrounding it. It was a precision-engineered piece of publicity, with the announcement of Tennant’s departure followed quickly by the reveal of the title, and of David Morrissey’s casting. Luckily, if you take away that hype, you still end up with a pretty good episode – rather than the mystery being whether or not Morrissey is actually a future Doctor, it’s instead about why this guy thinks he’s The Doctor, and what happened to make him this way.

* Morrissey is great, as both a potential Doctor and as Jackson Lake. It’s a very classic-series approach to The Doctor – a big, broad performance with lots of quirky turns of phrase – perhaps because he was forged in Victorian London, and so is harking back to the past in the same way The Doctor did when he was younger. The look is reminiscent of McGann, for similar reasons.

* Another landmark moment in terms of links between old and new – actual, moving footage of all the previous Doctors! Well, apart from one, but Moffat hadn’t invented him yet. So exciting at the time, and yet soon to become much more common as we hurtled towards the 50th.

* There are some very dark undertones for a Christmas Day edition of a family favourite. It’s not explicitly stated, but it’s made perfectly clear, that Jackson’s companion Rosita is/was a prostitute, and that Miss Hartigan was a victim of some sort of physical and/or sexual abuse. There’s also talk of children going missing, a massacre at a funeral, and the loveable Jackson Lake losing his wife. Merry Christmas.

* I liked the Cybermen here, more so than in their previous new series appearances. They didn’t talk much, which is good – they could just concentrate on being scary and imposing, thanks to some low angles and fast cuts. I liked the Cybershades, although they’re not really that Cyber-y, they’re just attack dogs with masks on. Miss Hartigan was good too, the kind of cold-blooded, heartless mercenary that suits accomplished guest actors like Dervla Kirwan.

* Then she turned into a giant version of Preston from Wallace & Gromit’s A Close Shave, and I wasn’t so keen. It’s undoubtedly cool to see a big cyberpunk Cyberman stomping about, but it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. There was all this talk about the combination of the Cybermen’s logic and Hartigan’s raw anger being used to take over the world, and that’s more interesting than just flattening the place with a big stompy robot.

* Nevertheless, the best Christmas special since the first one, and a good start to Tennant and RTD’s farewell tour.

RATING: 8

SJA: Enemy of the Bane

The extraordinary thing about this show is how it’s forever expanding its own little world, while also maintaining such strong links to the past. The SJA-specific mythology continues to grow apace, with Mrs Wormwood and the Bane becoming the latest recurring enemies. Her asking for help and vowing that she’d turned good is not dissimilar to the current Missy storyline in the main show, with the added element of giving poor old Luke some mummy issues to deal with.

And this was all fine and dandy, but let’s face it, what I’m really interested in is the other big guest star. It was such a warm, comforting feeling to see Sir Brigadier one last time. Nicholas Courtney may have been moving a little slower than he was in the old days, but he’s still just as sharp, smooth and charming as ever. Imagine being told when the show came back in 2005 that within four years, we’d be seeing Sarah Jane and the Brigadier breaking into UNIT and stealing alien artifacts. Such a joy.

I wasn’t aware that this story was the origin of UNIT’s Black Archive, which seems to have been moved between this story and the 50th, because that warehouse looked nothing like the Tower of London. I share the Brig’s slight distaste for the RTD-era portrayal of UNIT, and it brought home just how much they’ve softened since the likes of Kate and Osgood took over. Oddly, the Major we meet is very much modeled after the old-school 70s UNIT – he’s like an even creepier Mike Yates.

It was no real surprise that he turned out to be a Bane, and it wasn’t the type of the story where there’s much complexity to the plot – every trap is obvious, every double-cross predictable, every story beat linear and logical – but, a) it’s a kid’s show, and b) it’s really well executed and loads of fun. It sets out to do a straight-forward job, but it does it with a great deal of success.

That said, it did provide me with one all too rare moment of genuine surprise – a plot twist that I didn’t already know about in advance from a next time trailer or a DVD cover. The Sontarans are back as well! Specifically, it’s Kaagh from earlier in the series, who was always likely to show up again having been allowed to leave Earth, but I wasn’t expecting it so soon. He’s not quite as strong as he was in his first appearance, as he’s playing second fiddle to Wormwood a lot of the time, and so unable to assert his dominance.

But even if this story – and indeed this entire series – did nothing else, it gave us Sarah Jane and The Brigadier being reunited and facing off against Sontarans, on actual telly in the 21st century. Quite extraordinary.

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.67

  • SJA series watched: 2 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 12 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 23 of 53

I’ll be back to Bannerman Road before I know it, but first, it’ll be Christmas again…

SJA: The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith

I don’t understand it. There I am, happily watching a nice lightweight fantasy show aimed at 9-13 year olds, and then next thing I know there are tears streaming down my face. This was an extraordinary episode, easily matching, and indeed bettering, a great number of stories from regular Who.

The Trickster is a cracking invention, and he works so well as a recurring character because he’s essentially a What-If Machine. Whenever he turns up, you know you’re in for something weird and alternative-timeline-y, but it’s a different scenario every time; after tackling “what if Sarah Jane died as a child?” and “what if Donna never met The Doctor”, it’s now “what if Father’s Day happened to Sarah Jane?”.

It’s all there, right down to the heroic sacrifice via a car accident. It was obvious throughout that it was heading to the familiar conclusion, but that didn’t matter, because what happens when Father’s Day happens to Sarah Jane is that you get Elisabeth Sladen being incredible. While it’s entirely possible that my response is more emotional than it might have been were she still with us, it takes nothing away from the strength of her captivating performance.

Sarah Jane acts recklessly and selfishly, with all the arrogance and hubris of The Doctor at the worst of his excesses. And yet we’re always on her side, because the entire first episode is given over to establishing her reasons – she does the wrong thing, but you can completely understand why. It’s a universal theme; in one way or another, everyone’s either lost parents, is scared of losing parents, or has to deal with not having parents to lose.

Raw emotion is always bubbling under the surface, but there are plenty of fun moments to be had while exploring the past with Sarah Jane’s parents, such as Luke’s impeccable ability to count gobstoppers, or their distinctly 00s choice of pseudonyms. There was even a reference to “miners on Peladon”, which is admittedly not the most surprising Peladon reference I’ve seen this week.

It all led up to stonking cliffhanger, with a cheap but effective rendition of a destroyed Earth, bolstered by the Planet of the Apes inspired inclusion of a befucked Big Ben. And as a resident of Ealing for ten years next month, I appreciated the Greenford tube sign, even if the font wasn’t anywhere near correct. Thinking about it, that must have been Ace’s local station too; I wonder if she ever found herself on Bannerman Road at any point?

Oh, and I loved the mix-up with the police box, which even went as far as playing the appropriate bit of music from the main show. Funny, tragic, creepy, heartwarming; this story is very special indeed. And who was that I glimpsed in the next time trailer? I’m going to cry again, aren’t I?

RATING: 9

SJA: The Mark of the Berserker

We’re definitely into uncharted territory now – I had no idea there was such a thing as a Sarah Jane-lite episode. Presumably it means that the next serial will be kids-lite, and if so then this one has definitely got the raw end of the deal. It’s all well and good, but maybe I’d rather see Sarah Jane chasing a three-eyed alien slug around a hospital?

I jest; while it does feel like there’s a little of the magic missing in her absence, the kids are up to the job of holding things together, and it’s a very interesting proposition. There’s no alien villain as such, just an alien artifact for people to misuse, which is usually Torchwood territory. Unsurprisingly, SJA does it better; while it’s a bit annoying that they’ve reached for mind control for the fourth story in a row, they at least use it to tell a very human story.

The story being mostly that Clyde’s dad is a twat. The bullied kid at school uses the power to get revenge. Rani rejects the power as soon as it makes itself known. He uses it to steal, cheat and brainwash his own son. All the stuff about why he walked out and the effect it had on Clyde was brilliantly handled, and must have really resonated with many of the young audience, but all I could think about was how horrible this man was. Stealing his son’s most precious memories, the essence of who he is, so that he could snatch him away. And he made Rani’s dad do press-ups for, like, ages. The man’s a monster.

Mind you, Clyde did his fair share of ridiculous things too, not least taking his dad to the attic in the fist place, just to show off. This is unbelievably stupid, as is Clyde’s dad for casually mentioning Daleks like they’re an everyday thing, and yet still being skeptical about the existence of aliens. And then at the end, don’t throw the pendant into the sea, silly bollocks. Either it’ll wash up somewhere for someone else to quite literally go Full Circle, or a fish will use it to take over the world. Is that what you want? Cause that’s what’s gonna happen.

I did really like this episode, I promise, it’s just that the silly bits are more fun to write about. I’ll finish with one more thing I enjoyed – Maria turning up unexpectedly over Skype. Much like The Doctor’s various long distance companions, I like the idea of a wider network of people in the field. Maria and her l33t hacker dad essentially filled in the function of Mr Smith, who was also given a week off – maybe there’s a Mr Smith single-hander later in the series.

RATING: 7

SJA: Secrets of the Stars

I think it was around this point that I stopped watching The Sarah Jane Adventures on a regular basis. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it or anything like that, it was just that I fell behind and never bothered to catch up. From this point on, I’d just tune in whenever The Doctor showed up, so other those couple of episodes, it’s all going to be new to me from now on, which is exciting.

I can’t be sure exactly when it was that I stopped watching, but having remembered the Sontaran and Bradley Walsh, I’m pretty sure I’d have remembered Russ Abbot. The show seems to have adopted a policy of getting mid-range light entertainment figures to play the villains, and I’m all in favour. As with Bradley last time, it was a performance that dominated the episode, and was a lot of fun – you could tell Russ was having a whale of time chewing the scenery.

It was a somewhat similar plot to the last story, with entertainers going evil and trying to steal people away. All three stories so far this series have involved mind control too, so I hope it starts being more varied soon. This time, the bad guy was an astrologist, although his show was more like that of a medium or stage hypnotist, so they covered all the shyster bases. It struck me that when he mentioned The Doctor and triggered a flashback, it should have been Pertwee or Tom that Sarah Jane saw, but admittedly this might have gone over the kiddies’ heads.

The slight problem with using astrology as the bad guy’s weapon is that it means you have to treat astrology as a real thing, when it very much isn’t. The way it was used, with star signs allowing Russ Abbot to control a twelfth of the population at a time, was similar to the blood control in The Christmas Invasion, but I found it easier to buy into that because I don’t dispute that blood exists.

But as always, the real story is how it affects the gang, and I spent a good portion of the episode thinking that Luke was being a bit of a tit by sulking so much over his lack of birthday. Then I realised that Luke’s struggles are the show acknowledging how it feels for kids when they’re “different”, whether that’s because of race, sexuality, gender issues, disabilities, autism (a big parallel in Luke’s case), or being created in a lab by a soft drinks manufacturer. In the end, it’s Luke being different that saves the world, and the show is doing admirable work for its young audience.

Also, I enjoyed Trinity Wells being taken over by Russ Abbot too. About time she got involved in the action.

RATING: 7

SJA: The Day of the Clown

Alright, whose stupid idea was it to give a new lead character in a Doctor Who spin-off the same name as a recurring villain from the 1980s? Unless, of course, she’s really The Rani’s latest regeneration working undercover, and they’re building up to the ultimate shock twist. Either way, I’ve already warmed to her much more quickly than I did with Maria – she’s more ballsy and strong-minded, and without wanting to be cruel to an actual child, the average standard of acting has been raised. Her dad being the new headmaster is a nice extra detail, plus her mum is Constable Habib.

She was initially set up to be a nightmare neighbour for each of the incumbent regulars – she’s far too inquisitive for Sarah Jane’s liking, Clyde’s not going to want to hang around with the headmaster’s daughter, and Luke’s just pissed off that she’s not Maria – which meant that the story’s function was to give her the opportunity to prove them wrong. She already feels like a natural addition to the team, so job done on that score.

Which is for the best, because the plot itself was a little thin. It was telling that they made a reference to Kudlak, as it is a very similar premise – new attraction opens in town, kids start to go missing, it’s an alien. This time, the alien is popular daytime quizmaster Bradley Walsh, or rather loveable Corrie rogue Bradley Walsh, as he was then. He does a much better job than I’d have expected, alternating between the classic creepy clown, Professor Emilius Browne from Bedknobs & Broomsticks, and the actual Pied Piper of Hamelin. It’s a memorably disturbing performance by any standards, let alone CBBC’s.

I also liked his mannequins coming to life, like Auton Clowns, but it’s a shame they were only in it for a couple of minutes. There were a few things that weren’t quite right, such as all the adults, in the middle of a spate of missing children, finding the concept of kiddie-snatchers dressed as clowns, handing out free balloons, so preposterous. I’m getting annoyed at how SJA seems to have diverged from the main show in terms of public awareness of aliens – it’s like the events of The Stolen Earth didn’t happen here, which might be easier to accept were it not for the fact that Sarah Jane, Luke and Mr Smith were part of those events.

The climax whereby humour is used to defeat fear was a good idea, but it fell slightly flat because Clyde’s delivery of the jokes was a bit shit. Nevertheless, there’s always plenty to enjoy in SJA, and I’m enjoying the increasingly obscure back-references. Pharos are back again, along with Floella Benjamin, and there’s also a mention of good old Aunt Lavinia from K-9 and Company. And, obviously, a photo from The Celestial Toymaker, a story that was wiped a good 20-odd years before the target audience was born.

And finally, that pocket-sized instant forcefield generator that Sarah Jane gives Rani is very useful, isn’t it? It’s surprising that they’ve never used it before, considering it could protect them from virtually any alien threat within seconds.

RATING: 7

SJA: The Last Sontaran

We’re back to spend another couple of weeks in the delightful company of Sarah Jane Smith, who in this installment is facing a threat that’s all too familiar to her. As with her recent reunion with The Doctor, it always works well when Sarah knows what she’s up against, and is suitably scared. It’s only a shame that she didn’t follow up on her urge to call in UNIT, otherwise Martha could have completed her hat-trick.

There are parallels to be made with The Sontaran Experiment, what with the lone Sontaran operating in a sparsely-populated area, the presence of Sarah Jane, and the format being 2x 25ish-minute episodes. It was also one of those stories I always enjoy, where they explore the aftermath of a previous adventure. By fixing one problem, The Doctor has inadvertently caused another, and the world is threatened once more in his absence.

Furthermore, it was also a damn fine Sontaran episode, with Kaagh behaving exactly how a good Sontaran should, motivated purely by bloodthirsty glory and the promise of honour. Of course, with this being a kids’ show, he unfortunately had to be slightly incompetent with it, otherwise he’d have just slaughtered them all with ease. Liberties were also taken with geography and timing – Sarah Jane always seemed to turn up just in the nick of time to save someone from trouble, even if she was miles away just seconds ago. Nevertheless, a great start to the series.

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten that the break-up of the original gang started so soon. Maria is off to live in America, which is not as good as living opposite Sarah Jane and fighting aliens, so it’s odd that she seems keener than her dad. I’ll probably miss him more than I’ll miss her, but I’m glad to see the back of her annoying mum. How can she still be skeptical about the presence of aliens after seeing massed ranks of Daleks in the streets?

Maria’s departure struggled for screen time against the exciting alien story, and it was odd when she suddenly decided to chat to Luke about it while he was rushing to concoct a knock-out gas with Kaagh en route. Maria is one of those characters where it’s hard to have a strong opinion either way – she’s just sort of there – but I did get slightly choked when Sarah Jane described her as “the daughter she’s always wanted”. My only emotional response to her departure is due to its effect on another character, which isn’t a good thing.

And finally, the rebooted Mr Smith seems to have gained a sassy sense of humour, which makes him even more like a non-portable K-9. He’s also incorporated the release of a solitary balloon as part of his startup fanfare, and I swear that he’s got a new sound effect that was also a sound The Book makes in Hitchhikers. Excellent.

RATING: 8