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

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

Music of the Spheres

I remember watching the BBC One broadcast of the Doctor Who Prom at the time, and it was a great show. In isolation, this portion of it is absolutely fine, but you’d only watch it in isolation if, for example, you were in the middle of a mission to watch every official Doctor Who production just so you can mark them off a spreadsheet and write a blog about them.

As a consequence of this policy, there comes a time every now and then where there’s bugger all to say. My only opinions are that it was better when it was part of a bigger show, and the audience-participation bits seem daft when you can’t see or hear the audience, but that’s obviously not a criticism of the piece, just of the version that I watched tonight.

I liked the use of the full version of “reverse the polarity”, and I loved the use of the original theme at the end, if only for the fact that it meant that Delia Derbyshire’s work was played in the Royal Albert Hall. That is the end of my opinions. In conclusion: clearly a good thing, but not particularly engaging or entertaining in this specific context, and so therefore a neutral:

RATING: 5

Torchwood: Exit Wounds

It has become apparent over the last couple of weeks that I can’t have been paying much attention to Torchwood in early 2008. There have been so many details and plot twists that I’d completely forgotten about, which has pleasingly meant that I’ve been able to watch the stories unfold as if it were the first time. And I have to say that yes, I was duped into thinking that John was doing all this just to spite Jack. I guess it’s because I found the character so unappealing the first time round, I was prepared to believe that he’d be capable of such ridiculous behaviour.

I should have clocked something was up when the stakes were raised to ludicrous proportions – taking over the Hub and unleashing the odd Weevil is one thing, but blowing up half of Cardiff is a bit of an overreaction. Destroying a city is an expensive business, which is presumably why we never got to see any of the actual destruction, just the insides of a police station, a server room, a hospital basement and a nuclear bunker. It’s such a shame that it was all left to the imagination, because it really didn’t carry the weight and impact that something like the utter annihilation of the UK’s eleventh largest city ought to.

Then came the reveal that this wasn’t Jack’s ex doing it out of spite, but in fact it was Jack’s long lost brother doing it out of spite. Grey does admittedly have the excuse of being driven insane by torture as a prisoner of war, so this is better. But despite his ability to survive such horrors, and then to capture John, turn him into a bomb and force him to carry out his extraordinarily convoluted evil plan… he’s a fucking idiot for not realising that the ring John throws into the grave is going to end up being relevant to the plot.

Instead, he heads back to the Hub, shoots Tosh and then gets distracted by a mysterious knocking sound and runs head first into his eventual downfall. Thus proving that the inability to spot an obvious trap is a familial trait. I did like the twist of Jack having already been rescued by a previous Torchwood team, but it’s rotten luck that they didn’t set the timer for two minutes earlier, before Tosh got shot.

Yes, this is the episode that kills two ever-problematic characters with one stone. Now that their stories are complete, I can conclude that Owen did improve significantly in the second series, but not quite enough to redeem his earlier behaviour, and that while there was some fleshing out of Tosh’s character, it was still pretty thin on the ground and most of it revolved around her feelings towards Owen.

I couldn’t decide whether to be pleased or baffled by the decision to use some of Tosh’s precious final moments to resolve the question of why she was pretending to be a doctor in Aliens of London – I’m a fan of continuity tie-ups, but it felt tacked on, and it was hardly a question that was begging to be answered. Other than that, their deaths were both well realised and suitably sad, but neither character will be a huge loss to the show. There’s a reason those two don’t have shrines. (I mean, there’s no reason for Ianto’s shrine either, but more so for those two.)

So endeth the series, and indeed the first incarnation of the show’s formula, with the team 40% lighter but resolving to fight on. Which is all well and good, but meanwhile Cardiff has still been destroyed. Actual present day Cardiff, setting of many of Doctor Who adventure, completely fucked. And Jack has spent the best part of two millennia screaming and choking and dying in agony, over and over again, countless times, seemingly with little to no psychological effect. I feel like I’m far more aware the scale of the damage that’s unfolded than the show is – they barely seem to acknowledge the enormity of what’s occurred, and it makes for a flawed, but still fairly fun, finale.

RATING: 6

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 6

  • Torchwood series watched: 2 of 4
  • Torchwood stories watched: 26 of 37
  • IndividualĀ Torchwood episodes watched: 26 of 41

Ahhh. I have enjoyed the second series a lot more than the first, but I’m still nevertheless extremely glad to be getting back to Doctor Who – it’s been wall to wall spin-offs and specials for so long now that the relative normality of a regular series is increasingly appealing. Even though I’m not a fan of the series in question, I’m looking forward to re-examining why.

Torchwood: Fragments

This was a bit more like it. In most series, a format-breaking episode is often a risky proposition, diverting from established best practices out of some practical necessity or the urge to experiment. On Torchwood however, it’s just nice to not have to watch another bog-standard episode of Torchwood, as we’re presented with four short origin stories, explaining how the band got together. I mean, ideally, this kind of backstory would have been useful to know a little earlier – say, more than one episode before half of them die – but you can’t have everything.

Let’s take those stories one by one, then…

Jack – It’s always good to see glimpses of olden days Torchwood, and this is very much the version of the organisation that Queen Victoria founded, with its zero-tolerance approach to the presence of aliens. Jack too is recognisably closer to the version from Doctor Who Series 1; the wise-cracking whilst in peril is one thing, but also the morally dubious decision to accept Torchwood’s bounty hunting missions is far more in keeping with the rogue Time Agent mentality than the version of the character we have today.

So the how-Jack-got-recruited bit was all well and good, but the bit explaining how he took command was a bit weird. It makes sense that it would come after every other bugger had died, but you’d hope for something a little more epic than one of the team going mad and killing everyone, following a glimpse at an unspecified future event. It seemed like it was mostly there to serve as an origin story for the notion that the 21st Century is when everything changes. In fact, given the date, there was a brief moment where I hoped it would be something to do with The Master pissing about in San Fransisco, but it wasn’t to be.

Toshiko – Yep, could very much have done with a bit of backstory at any point prior to this. We finally know why she’s there in the first place – she was just an ordinary woman who got caught up in some alien-related shit – although the way it panned out made it seem slightly less voluntary than you’d hope. Jack basically blackmailed by giving her the choice between working for him and rotting in a UNIT facility for the rest of her life. Since when did UNIT treat people like that anyway? They’re the good guys, always have been – it’s like someone was getting them and the pre-Jack Torchwood muddled up. The Brig would never have stood for that shit.

Ianto – We basically already knew Ianto’s story, as it’s all documented in Cyberwoman, if you can bear to look. Therefore, this was a much lighter and more comedic story than the others, and also the most enjoyable. Ianto basically fanboyed his way into the organisation by turning up and doing the job anyway, and it was nice to see the origin of the pterodactyl too, just to complete the set. Note how Jack didn’t relent and offer Ianto the job until after they’d rolled around on the floor and nearly snogged. The dirty get.

Owen – This was always going to be the tricky one – can they come up with a decent justification for this guy being a complete prick for the entirety of the first series? As soon as you saw him with a long-term partner, you knew it would end badly. I thought they were going to go down the route of her leaving him or cheating on him, thus setting him off on a spree of revenge against womankind. But actually, the story of her illness was a lot more touching and sensitively-handled that I’d have thought.

So ultimately it’s the trauma of losing a loved one that makes Owen like he is, which I’m not sure is justification for his rampant misogyny; the same thing happened to Ianto and he wasn’t a prick about it, plus if his experiences gave him an irrational hatred of anything, it should be aliens, not women. But at least there is now a reason to feel sympathy for Owen – some element of humanity to soften his personality and help us to accept his flaws. This was urgently needed about 23 episodes ago. Ah well.

Oh, and the reanimated corpse of Owen was completely fine after standing next to an explosion and being buried in debris, by the way, despite how we’ve previously been told that he might as well be made of glass. The framing device was perfectly standard Torchwood farewalk into a massive trap, nearly get killed, figure out who set the trap – but a decent way to set up the finale. Just a shame it’s Captain John again. The big bad of the series is not an alien invasion, or an all-powerful monster, or a power-hungry evil geniusĀ  – just a petulant git who wants Jack to give him some attention.

RATING: 7