...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Day 2130: DOCTOR WHO: Sarah Jane Smith


These are a series of adventure stories on shiny disc from the awfully nice BIG FISH people about Dr Who's one time Best Friend Sarah.

I know that we are RATHER LATE in reviewing these adventures, what with them having first come out – with REALLY LUCKY timing (Daddy says SERENDIPITOUS and I frown at him) – between January and April this year, but we got them for Daddy's birthday and listened to them all in a row to try and cheer ourselves up while in the car.

On the other fluffy foot, being six months late is a good excuse for oodles of SPOILERS!

The first "season" of Sarah's Big Fish adventures came out YONKS ago [R: July to November 2002, in fact]. They were a bit, er, PATCHY, is the kindest word to use. The best adventure was probably the third story, David Bishop's "Test of Nerve". The best single moment in the five CD run being the EXCITING REVEAL at the end of that story of the season BIG BAD villain.

Well, several months later for Sarah – and several YEARS later for the rest of us – she has returned for another "season". This time, though, it is more of a single adventure in four chapters, and all of them are by the same author this time: promisingly, the same David Bishop who did the good one last time!

And three of them this time, the first three, are actually rather good too! They are like self contained mini-adventures that build up into a bigger story. On the other fluffy foot, this means that the fourth is rather more of a DISAPPOINTMENT. My Daddy Alex had thought of something REALLY CLEVER based on the first three episodes, but instead the last story really didn't have anywhere to go and the "surprise twist" of "oh he was one of the villains" was really QUITE BAD: a bit like having beaten SPECTRE in chapter three only to have the "surprise twist" of "oh, he was a minor henchman of Blofeld's that we never heard of before and who is only out for revenge as there is no other point in his motivation by this point"!

The first story is "Buried Secrets" which is based loosely around an (oh so easily solvable) whodunit murder in a SINISTER CRYPT in Florence. Yes, Sarah does that DA VINCI COD. But actually, rather more of the running time is spent setting up the overall STORY ARC. Listening to them one month at a time that might have been frustrating, but as part one of a continuous story it works very well. There is a clever device of opening the adventure with a fake NEWS report that is REALLY a TRAILER for the events of the other discs!

Also there to set up the next disc is the long bit at the start that consists of Sarah going to dinner and meeting Will (APPARENTLY by chance – like we believed THAT!), the brother of her old friend from Doctor Who, Harry.

Look out for the IRONY where Sarah tears her chum Josh off a strip for interfering in her life because he thinks she needs looking after – and then tears off to ITALY to interfere in the life of her other chum, Nat, because Sarah thinks she needs looking after!

Anyway, the REAL thing that you need to know is that there is a CULT called the Orbus Pastrami (or World of Pizza!) who have a GOOD side (the White Cultists) and a BAD side (the Red Cultists). The cultists all believe that the world is going to come to an end because of a book of prophecies from five-hundred years ago, and Sarah is identified as their HERALD because she is described in the book as having foretold the future to the book's author, identified only by her initials SJS.

(At this point your Doctor Who continuity antenna – free with episode twelve of "Doctor Who Adventures" comic – should start pinging!)

The adventure picks up in part two: "Snow Blind" which is set in ANTARCTICA.

Cool! (You may groan!)

Sarah manages to get VERY CONFUSED by thinking that it will be a sequel to "The Seeds of Doom". Which it isn't. SHE hasn't got her continuity antenna on!

At least she HAS bothered to check out that Mr Will is who he claimed to be. This is GOOD because it is in character for Sarah to be suspicious, but is does mean that the coincidentatron is going to be needed to explain something coming at the end of the episode!

There is some good acting stuff from Mr Tom "Duggan" Chadbon and Mr Nick "the Daleks" Briggs, although the small cast once again kyboshes any sense of surprise in the whodunit! And guessing who is this episode's "Red Chapter Acolyte" is not much harder! Never mind, the "twist" ending is very satisfying, if hardly surprising! Yes, you have probably spotted it: Mr Will is a "Red Chapter" BADDY! Or rather a confused baddy, who didn't know what he was getting into, oh woe, oh woe. More of that story later.

Other thing to spot: this month the base is nearly empty because everyone's just flown home for Christmas. This is quite handy but a bit OBVIOUS in the "let's disguise that we have no cast" stakes! (Though wait until next time!)

Slightly forced cliff-hanger ending aside, adventure three "Fatal Consequences" would have been a satisfactory wind up to this year's stories, featuring as it does the final thwarting of the "Red Chapter" and their plan to help the prophecy of doom along a bit, with a bit of genetic engineering and a bit of continuity linkage back to the very first Big Fish Sarah-Jane Smith story: "Comeback" by Terrance Disks.

Exceptional guest cast this time around include old "Blake's Seven" sparring partners Stephen Greif and Jacqueline Pearce as basically the White Queen and the Red Queen respectively.

The twist in the tale this time – somewhat telegraphed by earlier dialogue, unfortunately – is that (gasp!) Sarah's chum Josh is a "White Chapter" baddy. Well, they aren't supposed to be "baddies" as such but… The CLUE that we spotted was that Josh always calls Sarah "SJ" – just like she is known by her initials in the prophecy – because he has been brought up thinking of her that way!

It all builds up VERY EXCITINGLY to a multiple cliff-hanging question of "Has Josh shot Will?", "Has Will shot Josh?" and "Has Jacquie shot Sarah? (clue: we don't think so!)"

(The trailer for part four ALMOST managed not to give away who survived this cliff-hanger… and then blew it!)

Now, here is the CLEVER thing that my Daddies had thought of (it took both of them!): Daddy Richard spotted straight away in episode one the link between Florence, Italy; knowledge of the future; and Sarah Jane – the Mandragora Helix, due back in our neck of the woods at the end of the twentieth century and therefore overdue (hence the "Red Chapter" deciding to take things a bit into their own hands).

But what Daddy Alex thought – the REALLY clever bit – was this: the "Red Chapter" think that the aliens are NASTY and will do anything to stop them. The "White Chapter" are SUPERFICIALLY the good guys, trying to protect people – mainly Sarah – from the nasty "Reds" BUT they think that the aliens are GOOD. Only we already KNOW that the Mandragora Helix is really EVIL and wants to control mankind through SUPERSTITION.

So what ought to happen is that the "White Chapter" should be revealed to be SUPERSTITIOUS IDIOTS who will DOOM us all, while the "Red Chapter" are actually vicious killers with the wrong methods but the RIGHT IDEA!

Only that doesn't happen. Boo!

This means that the final chapter, "Dreamland" is a bit directionless. Sarah is persuaded by the "White Chapter" to go up in a space shuttle. And that's it, really. Why does Sarah go up in this shuttle? Why was it so important to the "Whites"? Was there any significance to the discovery of a comet last seen from Earth five-hundred years ago? Was the entire prophecy and the two cults just a MONSTROUS MISUNDERSTANDING?

Rather than any answers, we are distracted by the space pilot turning out to work for the "Reds" and dooming them all in rather pointlessly melodramatic fashion. Sarah drifts away into space and WE ASSUME does not come back.

David A McIntee had a similar go in his book: "Bullet Time". What is it with Best Friend Sarah that people want to kill her off ENIGMATICALLY?!?!?

In some ways it was a HAPPY COINCIDENCE (you see, I DO know what serendipitous means!) that these stories came out in the months before Sarah was seen on telly again for the first time in thirty years in "School Reunion". In others, it shot the continuity of this audio series completely to pieces, what with Sarah being very much ALIVE not to mention having her robot dog friend K-9 all in one piece (even if he's not quite working).

It is always good to here Ms Elisabeth Sladen reprising the role of Sarah-Jane: she brings a convincing sense of conviction, warmth, indomitablility and human vulnerability to Sarah. It is no surprise that she was the companion that got to come back and meet Dr Who again; nor is it any surprise that she has been given not one but THREE spin off series from the original. First there was "K-9 and company", then these audio adventures, and soon she will be back on the telly in "Sarah-Jane Adventures".

Third time lucky, anyone?

1 comment:

Liberal Neil said...

Yes, the second series was stronger than the first, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought it tailed off a bit towards the end.

I was listening to the first two in the new 'I, Davros' series earlier - Davros' pre-Genesis of the Daleks backstory if you will.

Marvellous stuff - well worth a listen.