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: The Lost Boy

Rediscovering The Sarah Jane Adventures has been one of the greatest joys this project has provided for a long time, and the last two stories of the first series have been something else. The first few adventures did the job of establishing a status quo, laying the groundwork for a finale that plays so beautifully on said status quo being destroyed. It’s so disturbing to see Luke torn away from the family and enduring the ultimate nightmare – discovering you’re a Chelsea fan.

It was a great double bluff – we trusted Mr Smith when he said that Luke was indeed the missing boy, so we spend most of the first episode believing it might be true. This gives us an excuse to explore the creepiness of that idea, and then to move on before it runs out of steam. It seemed weird at the time that the news reports focused on the idea that the boy had been kidnapped by some mad, lonely woman, rather than… you know. But firstly, kids’ show, and secondly, it all makes sense when you realise it’s part of Mr Smith’s plan.

You could tell that something was amiss with Mr Smith before the big revelation – he wasn’t doing the big fanfare when he emerged, and his voice was subtly different throughout, deeper and more clinical. I listen to Alexander Armstrong’s voice a lot as part of my job, and it’s therefore hard to disassociate his work here from his role as a game show host – since SJA was made, he’s become more famous for being himself on TV than he is as an actor. It’s like when Les Dennis was in Corrie for a bit – his performance was great, but all I could see was Gail Platt marrying Les Dennis from off of Family Fortunes.

But I digress – it was nevertheless a fantastic twist, continuing the fine tradition this series has of throwing in a complete headfuck moment as the cliffhanger. This series has even managed to make the Slitheen an effective villain – skinny Slitheen! Having them hiding as smaller-framed people not only managed to keep their presence as a surprise, but also had them shake off the last vestiges of the sometimes-troublesome size-based humour that’s always followed them around. There was barely a fart joke in sight, and as such they can finally be taken seriously as a threat.

But Mr Smith was the real villain of the piece, even though it looked for a while like it was going to be Floella Benjamin at Pharos, of all places. And when the villain is an alien supercomputer, embedded right at the heart of Sarah Jane’s organisation, there’s only one hero who can defeat it. It may have been an extremely short cameo, but oh it was so lovely to see K-9 once more. It’s a great compliment to the series that he hasn’t particularly been missed, and it’s meant that his brief return felt really special. Worthy of a finale to a damned fine series.

RATING: 9

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8

  • SJA series watched: 1 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 6 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 11 of 53

SJA: Revenge of the Slitheen

A Doctor Who spin-off set in a school beset by alien invaders? It’ll never catch on. But while I’m yet to see Class, having elected to save it for when it slots into this project, revisiting The Sarah Jane Adventures is a much more appealing prospect, thanks largely to the title character herself. It’s so nice just to know that I’ll be in her company for the next couple of weeks.

Elsewhere in the ensemble, Luke continues to be intriguing, Maria continues to be nice but a little dull, her mum remains annoying, K-9 is still conspicuous by his absence, while Mr Smith seems to have developed an element of snark since the pilot. New boy Clyde is a big improvement on the tedious girl he’s replacing – he occupies the same sort as role as the cynical cool kid, but they had him demonstrate his usefulness several times, as if he was auditioning for a spot on the team.

It was a smart move to start the series with a monster from the main show, and if you’re going to pick one to bring back for the kids’ spin-off, it’s the Slitheen. They’re more brazen with the fart gags here, not that they were ever particularly subtle in the first place. It doesn’t quite work for me, as there’s a little too much mugging, but I’m now probably triple the age of the target audience.

On the whole though, I was pleasantly surprised by the Slitheen. In their human forms, they suffered a little because they weren’t being played by actors of the calibre of the originals, but the design of the monsters has been tweaked to make them more sinewy and insect-like. The implementation is better too, with a darker paint job and more realistic textures, plus they seem to have developed a heightened sense of smell.

They were surprisingly scary towards the end of the first episode, which ramped up nicely to the multi-layered cliffhanger, and the reveal of the child Slitheen was a great twist. The first part was just like a first part from the classic series, with lots of world-building and investigation until the plot is slowly revealed, while the second episode was more like the new series, with our heroes bounding around and facing ever-increasing stakes at a fair old pace. It even had an appearance from Trinity Wells.

It was obviously a lot more light-hearted than your average Who episode, albeit with hints at heavier concepts, such as the dilemma over whether the help the child Slitheen escape. Sarah Jane’s speech about The Doctor was another spine-tingler, much like the one in the pilot, and felt like a mission statement. I think I’m going to enjoy this series a lot more than the other spin-off. As long as I don’t think about the fact that the kids it was aimed at are probably old enough to have their own kids now. They talk about broadband as an impressively new thing.

My one gripe is with the lengthy and not particularly discreet Next Time trailer immediately after the cliffhanger – the main show figured out that this was idiotic ages ago, the first time the Slitheen turned up. There’s over a minute of recap at the start of the second part too, which feels excessive – these are the same kids who watch Doctor Who every week, they don’t need as much of a helping hand as you think.

RATING: 7

Attack of the Graske

Ah yes, I remember playing this on the red button on Christmas Day 2005, and possibly once or twice on the website thereafter. It’s stuck with me incredibly well, as I distinctly remembered the bit where you have to cut between the two views of the family living room, and spot the imposter. Ditto for the bits where you have to pick which area of the screen he’s hiding in.

It’s pretty bloody good – entertaining, well-written and making good use of the very limited options provided by the technology to craft a game that’s as varied as possible. The production values are higher than you’d expect too; nothing too stunning, but well-directed and not scrimping on the locations and costumes. My first ever TV job was as a runner on an interactive drama for the BBC website at around the same time, and it strikes me that we’ve gone backwards since then in terms of the resources allocated to online-only ventures.

But anyway, I played through the whole game today on Youtube, as the version on the BBC website doesn’t seem to be working any more, at least not for me – as soon as I made my first decision, the video disappeared and the next one didn’t load. When I got to the end, my memory from over a decade ago faltered just as I was faced with a crucial dilemma.

The game told me I could press one button to release the prisoners and teleport them back home, or press another button to freeze everyone apart from me in time. The first one seemed so obvious as to be some sort of trap, and I figured that if I hit freeze then it would buy me the time to sort everything out properly without the Graske’s interference.

This, apparently, was the wrong decision. I got the bad ending, where the little girl’s parents remain trapped forever and she’s in the grasp of alien imposters. I ruined Christmas. I was therefore grateful for the ability to navigate back to the previous Youtube video, and choose the option that is basically labelled “choose this option, only an idiot would pick the other one”.

And my reward? A cosy family scene in which Another Rock n’ Roll Christmas by Gary Glitter is playing. Glitter’s first conviction as a child sex offender occurred six years earlier, so it was an odd choice for a game aimed squarely at the under-twelves.

Favourite line: “There’s a risk that if you switch to ITV tonight, the universe may implode.”

RATING: 7

Boom Town

* I’ve always been a staunch defender of Boom Town. It’s obviously nowhere near as exciting as the pair of two-parters either side, but if there’s one thing that this experiment shows, it’s that Doctor Who can be absolutely anything at any given time, and it certainly doesn’t require a minimum level of action or effects in order to remain entertaining for 45 minutes at a time.

* This is the new series doing what I like to call The Monoid Manoeuvre, exploring the aftermath of a previous adventure, Peladon style.  The emotional impact that being thwarted has on the monster is a new avenue, and it’s a psychological thriller at times, made possible by an excellent performance from Annette Badland. The dinner scene gets the drama and the comedy absolutely spot on.

* Ah look, it’s all the places I visited yesterday! We went to Cardiff for the weekend, primarily for the Doctor Who Experience, which was very good fun indeed. We also went to the Ianto Shrine, which is mental, and then to the very spot where the TARDIS lands in this episode, between the big watery monolith and the building with all the writing on it. I only wished I’d rewatched this episode before the trip, so that it would have occurred to me to go to the same restaurant as The Doctor and Margaret.

* It was fun to see the new series addressing the whole Police Box thing, and Mickey not knowing that such a thing was once a common sight in Britain. Sadly, that was about as good as Mickey got in this episode. I get that his role is to be resentful of Rose’s new life, but he goes beyond that to being completely unreasonable about it. Of course she’s going to run off to find The Doctor when Cardiff starts tearing itself apart – it’s not about you vs him, it’s her trying to save the world, you fucking plum.

* The bit where The Doctor finally notices “Bad Wolf” reminded me of how fun it was at the time to spot all the clues, explore the supplementary websites, and to speculate about what it all meant. Him dismissing it all as a big coincidence was very nicely done.

* Fave lines that I’d previously forgotten: “What are you captain of, the innuendo squad?” / “It was a very icy patch.” / “She’s climbing out of the window, isn’t she?”. There was probably more, but I stopped jotting them down halfway through, as it was all pretty fresh – it’s not one that you’d particularly make a point of revisiting, and I evidently haven’t all that much over the years, but it’s a nice little pit stop before the big finale.

RATING: 7

Aliens of London / World War Three

* You don’t get recaps of important plot-related information at the start of a story these days, do you? Recapping a cliffhanger, yes, but I don’t think the show would feel the need to remind viewers of the companion’s backstory today. It’s a common criticism that it makes the Moffat era inaccessible to the casual viewer, but why should I give a fuck about them?

* I love the way the episode explores the aftermath of Rose’s departure, something the show’s never done before. Of course she’d be declared missing, and of course her mother would be distraught, and of course everyone would blame the boyfriend. Also, I’d forgotten that the whole RTD era is consequently always set one year in the future. So many things that would later become recurring are set up in this episode. I debated whether to bother including Trinity Wells in my ever-expanding list of tags, but in for a penny.

* Erm, Rose says to The Doctor “you’re so gay” at one point. Are we OK with that? I guess RTD has those privileges, but still, it felt weird coming from her mouth. Has the world changed so much in twelve years that I’ve already found something that I don’t think would be included these days? If so, good, because I didn’t like it.

* Tosh! Actually the actual Tosh from Torchwood, not just a different character played by the same actor. I remember my reaction to her being announced as being part of the cast for Torchwood, and it’s the same as it is now: still no idea why anyone would say “ooh, we should get her back”.

* Yeah, the farting isn’t brilliant, and it gets old pretty quickly. It’s a shame, because the Slitheen could have been great – the central concept of faking an invasion as a cover-up for the aliens already being there is lovely – but the execution lets them down. Also, some of the CGI as they’re shedding their skin suits doesn’t quite stand up on the upscaled Bluray.

* Something that I hadn’t twigged before: Jackie finding out about The Doctor is a parallel for humans making first contact with aliens. And favourite lines that I’d forgotten about this time include: “Mainly because everyone thinks I murdered you”; “You’re a very violent young woman”; and “Oh, boll…”

* It’s a good episode for making you go “ohh, it’s whatsisname”. Kurt from Teachers! That big Welsh man from Rovers and shitloads of other things! Big Meat from a shit episode of Red Dwarf! Either Rupert or Hubert from Mr. Bean’s New Years Eve party! Andrew Marr!

* If you’re going to do a cliffhanger with everyone in danger, don’t immediately cut to a “next time” preview of them all escaping. Jesus, I know that they fixed this problem from the very next two-parter onwards, but surely it should have been thought about before transmission.

* Massive Weapons of Destruction, deployed in 45 seconds. I see what you did there. It’s not terribly subtle as a piece of satire, but how amazing to have such a subversive line in a Saturday teatime family show. I also liked Rose’s earlier line about having no idea who the Prime Minister was due to having been away for a year – at the time probably a reference to the upcoming general election, but in hindsight possibly also to do with the Blair/Brown power struggle. The guy in the cupboard was blatantly supposed to be Blair, if anyone specific.

* It’s probably the weakest story of the series so far overall, but there’s still some great moments, particularly towards the end when The Doctor admits he’s putting Rose in danger, and Harriet Jones stands up and takes control. It’s not a shit episode by any means; as always with RTD, there’s a lot of heart. This isn’t a story about an alien invasion, it’s about how the alien invasion affects Rose and her family, and I’m totally on board with that.

RATING: 7