Warriors of the Kudlak… no, it is NOT about the Liberal Leadership candidates getting into a FIGHT CLUB situation, it is more good fun from Sarah Jane Smith. As always, Daddy Richard has the review, and spoilers may follow…
With a title that is reminiscent of the first ever Tomorrow People story, "Slaves of Jedekiah" and a plot looking superficially similar to Jac Rainer's early ninth Doctor novel "Winner Takes All", you might worry that Sarah Jane was heading into a hole, but fortunately this third story is a lot better than that.
Children are disappearing and Sarah traces the connection to the local Combat 3000 game. Meanwhile, Luke has been having difficulty fitting in, finding humour, slang and play all rather difficult to grasp: as part of his education, Clyde takes him along to the Combat 3000 to try it out.
The actual plot – and the two storylines come together quite naturally, since the people that Sarah is investigating are actively trying to get hold of kids like Luke and Clyde – the actual plot is very traditional, even predictable. Yes, it's aliens; yes, they are recruiting humans for a distant war in space; yes, it's because we're just so good at it. There is one twist, which is fairly easy to spot, before we're home in time for tea. But it is solidly done, the characters are all engagingly three-dimensional – whether it's the computer nerds or the slimy human collaborator or even General Kudlak himself, they all feel real.
What's good about this is the way that we see Sarah actually at work, rather than investigating something that the children bring to her. She's clearly got an eye for spotting the strange and unusual and, although she denies being a conspiracy theorist, she is also clearly delighted when it turns out that aliens are involved.
There is a beautiful scene in part one which owes a great deal to Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting", in particular the video (which itself is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Who) – a debt that author Philip Gladwin happily acknowledges. Sarah and Maria build a device out of alien spares in order to investigate a mysterious momentary storm. The resulting machine is charming and preposterous and rather like the TARDIS, particularly thanks to the bicycle pump that Sarah uses to get it going.
It's great to see Sarah clearly putting to use the techniques that she has picked up initially from the Doctor (though she's clearly not stopped learning over the years, and K-9s Mark III and IV no doubt helped too). The reference to UNIT training is nice, but slightly odd as Sarah was never officially a member of UNIT – unless Harry persuaded her to join up after the Doctor left her behind.
There are several good moments for Maria too – the best being her improvisation when she and Sarah are caught red-handed raiding the Combat 3000 offices. Sarah passes her off as her "work experience girl" and Maria winsomely adds "it was this or building work". She also gets to save Sarah's life with a cleverly set up Chekhov's gun.
The other side of the plot sees Sarah's adopted son Luke continuing to develop along his own Pinocchio/Mr Data path of discovery about what it means to be human. This week, Luke discovers a couple of aptitudes: he's able to make people laugh by coining a nickname for a classmate, and his Bane-programmed superior physical design makes him rather good at the Laser tag wargame. It's interesting to see that in both cases, his initial delight at getting something right turns sour on him. Of course, unlike STNG's Data, Luke does have feelings; in particular, he is hurt when he gets things wrong, and wracked with guilt when he causes, unintentionally, pain to schoolfriend Lance. This "heart on his sleeve" trait makes him both more sympathetic as a character and more empathetic of the target teen audience who – I remember – will likewise be feeling their emotions bigger and harder than reality allows.
Part two sees Luke and Clyde kidnapped by teleport to Kudlak's waiting ship in orbit, leading to some more rather good special effects – the spaceship is nicely designed in a chunky Stargate-ish way, and there is a gorgeous (if predictable) view of Earth from space looking out of a porthole. In what must be a rather charming nod to the Big Finish Sarah Jane audios, it is suggested that Sarah might steal a space shuttle, in order to rescue the boys, though it turns out that blackmailing Kudlak's odious human sidekick Mr Grantham proves more effective.
Here the theme of games as preparation for war is repeated, with the kidnapped children thinking that they are escaping only for it to turn out (not once but twice) to be another trial. Thus the sinister side to play – it's not heavily dwelt on – mirrors the darker side to jokes, which Luke discovered earlier.
Ostensibly the "villain" of the piece is chief kidnapper General Kudlak. The well-structured script gives us the easy view of him as alien monster first before carefully rounding him out, to reveal apparently a noble but still vicious military tradition which is then further shaded to uncover the lonely alien underneath, cut off from his people and his war against the Malakh. (Which is interesting, because on the one hand that's Hebrew for "angel" but on the other hand that's Mad Larry-speak for fallen Time Lord ) Ultimately, he's transformed into a sympathetic figure, for all that he's done terrible things, and that's a sign of quality drama.
Even his computer isn't "mad" in the traditional sense, just living up to its badly programmed commands.
The Kudlak costume is jolly good, too, nicely insectoid with an appropriate Samurai feel to his robe – and reused in best Sontaran fashion as the Mistress and the Emperor and any other passing members of the Uvodni race, all played (you'll be unsurprised to learn) by the "man-of-a-thousand-bodies", the lovely Paul Kasey.
So the traditional plot, rather than being over familiar, becomes a comfortable setting in which to showcase some beautiful and startling imagery and some interesting and thought-provoking character work.
Next week: Yes, that's Jane Asher baking up trouble, a sinister seer is haunting our heroes and someone seems to have vanished from the gingerbread house… Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane Smith?