...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Day 2193: SARAH JANE SMITH: Invasion of the Bane


(Okay, yesterday REALLY)

For my BIRTHDAY, the BBC have pulled out all the stops and produced a SUPER NEW spin off episode from their TOP SERIES!


But we have to wait until tomorrow for the "Thick of It" special. Meanwhile, today there is a SARAH JANE SMITH ADVENTURE.

Actually, that is worth a WHOOPEE! too 'cos it was JOLLY BRILLIANT!

Even SUPER-SPLENETIC Mr Charlie Brooker (who we do love!) in the Grauniad said so!

But what did Daddy Richard think…

You cannot beat a really good squiggly-Cthuloid monster (except apparently with an Intergalactic mobile phone!).

Sarah Jane Smith, twice-erstwhile companion of the Doctor and owner of K-9 mark III (or possibly IV) last starred in a spin off pilot a frankly gob-smacking 25 years ago.

Let us all hope that coming dangerously close to being called "Sarah and Co" is the only way in which "The Sarah Jane Adventures" resembles "K-9 and Co"!

Fortunately, "Invasion of the Bane" was completely unlike that 1981 pilot, "A Girl's Best Friend". This hour long New Year special was gripping, fast-paced, well plotted and acted, with terrific special effects and absolutely no attempts to have K-9 carol the cringing viewer.

Mind you, there was a boy running about in skimpy white attire…

Luke (formerly "the archetype" Рoh weren't you just hoping they'd name him "Archie"? No? That was just me, then) was, thankfully, nothing like Sarah's ward Brendan. He managed to rise above the clich̩ of "artificial super-intelligent human child" (see, "A.I.", "V", "D.A.R.Y.L" in fact pretty much any twee combination of letters) by playing with a charming innocence. That's really quite difficult to do (see "A.I.", "V", "D.A.R.Y.L etc) and any contrivance of the plot designed to give Sarah a young side-kick and the "son she never had" at the same time is completely forgivable. It's Christmas.

Luke is actually the third of a trio of young actors who were all very good.

The lead role goes to newly moved in Maria (how do you solve a problem like…) who basically gets to be Rose Tyler aged 13, with the Doctor played by the mysterious lady who lives opposite at mysterious Number 13, Bannerman Road.

In an interesting role-reversal of the usual fairy-tale, Sarah-Jane gets to be the good step-mother, while the real mothers – Maria's self-centred harridan and of course Momma Bane – are the ones who are bad. (Actually, you have to ask: if Maria's impossibly pretty dad has custody, and mum has a new partner – Ivan – then why does dad have to pay maintenance? Alex guesses mum had really good lawyers.)

Or if you prefer, Maria is Gwen Cooper meeting Captain Jack and his underground hub. Only in a more grown up version. You can almost follow the same beats as we are introduced to Sarah's world through Maria's voyage of discovery.

Third in the trio and Maria's first friend in the road is swaggering neighbour Kelsey, who appears looking for broadband and music channels and quickly leads Maria into the dangers of the Bubble Shock factory tour. Kelsey has a habit of being a bit over-emphatic and switched rather quickly from denial to demanding action of Sarah and her alien gizmos, but was still quite fun. No doubt to future generations she will be seen as evidence the creators were hopelessly out of touch with "real kids", just as the Doctor's late 80s companion Ace is seen today. (Obscure connections: is her frequent use of "shaming" genuine street slang or a reference to Brigadier Bambera of "Battlefield" whose cuss of choice was "oh, shame"? That'll be just me, again, then.)

Sadly the forth member of the team, the tin dog himself, was reduced to a cameo, stuck in an artificial black hole like a little Dutch Boy (presumably awaiting copyright clearance until Bob Baker's latest attempt at a CGI "The Adventures of K-9" finally runs into the grass). That black hole might look suspiciously familiar to viewers of last year's "The Satan Pit" (seen one black hole, seen 'em all) and in fact it's not the only example of clever cost cutting to make the budget go miles further.

Reusing the CGI for an alien from Torchwood's "Greeks Bearing Gifts" (not the same alien, obviously) rather than appearing cheap, actually adds a subtle continuity to the Doctor Who Universe – the same species able to appear in both the spin-offs managing to enhance them both.

And apparently the mother of all savings was achieved by reusing a trial piece that the Mill prepared for the Nestene Consciousness way back in "Rose". Any similarity to the cover of the Target novel of "Terror of the Autons" was entirely intentional(!)

At the time, they decided to go down a different track for the Nestene, but who in their right minds would pass up the opportunity to use the fantastic octopoid horror that becomes the Mother of the Bane?

And when the effects are this good, who cares if they’re second hand! The Bane attack on Sarah's house is as good as, if not better, than anything in Doctor Who.

On a similar note: "Bubbleshock", the Bane's fruit drink and weapon of choice, first appeared in "The Highest Science", also by Mr Gareth Roberts – so not only is it organic, but it's re-cycled too!

Oh, all right, that was Bubbleshake but it was still mind-bending!

There's some pretty sophisticated satire going on in here, challenging kids to think about marketing ("It's organic!") and addiction ("Drink it! Drink it!") as well as learning there's more to see in the world around you. In many ways this is really getting the idea of what the original Doctor Who was often about in stories like "The Green Death" or "The Sunmakers". Watching the show on many levels means that you can appeal to a whole range of audiences, and spot the allegory makes a great game for all the family.

I'm really disappointed that Sarah Jane only got viewing figures of 2.9 million – narrowly pipped by "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" for goodness sake! (Though "Deal or No Deal" wiped the floor with both of them.) And I'm astonished that the BBC missed the trick of double-banking this with "The Wind in the Willows", instead putting a nature documentary in between for maximum kill-the-transfer-viewership power.

Charming as "The Wind in the Willows" was – and in particular Matt Lucas doing all his Little Britain voices as Mr Toad – it was paced like a lethargic hedgehog in hibernation. A later slot in the evening and every granny in the country compelling the family to watch with her propelled it to twice the audience that Sarah got. Oh, what they missed!

Of course, the main way that "Invasion of the Bane" diverged from the "Rose" "Everything Changes" formula is that it had a good, proper Doctor Who villain: Samantha Bond – yes, they should never have sacked Miss Moneypenny! – as Mrs Wormwood. Absolutely terrific. Icy and precise, and getting to order henchmen – well hench-squids really – about with memorable lines like: "kill her properly, this time!"

She's last seen descending (into hell?) as her factory explodes around her, but promising dire revenge next time! I do hope she'll be back.

Big Finish's first series of Sarah Jane CDs were at their best when Sarah had a Moriarty figure to face off against – in that case it was Miss Winters, previously seen in "Robot". Plot arc and a strong female villain – and Russell T Davies is known to like to pick the best of the ideas from the books and audios of the sixteen-year interregnum…

And of course, Russell is also well known for including strong, well rounded female characters. "Invasion of the Bane" indulged another bit of role-reversal with almost all the leading characters being able to enter that place that no man may go: the Ladies. And do you know, it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference.

The best moments, of course, are the confrontations between the two leads: Mrs Wormwood is terrific, but Sarah Jane is a perfect match for her.

Somehow, time has stood still for Elisabeth Sladen. Except for the very occasional moment when she looks a little careworn around the eyes, she is almost unchanged since the 1970s. The story manages to combine much of Lis and Sarah's natural characters: she's got Sarah's pluck, of course, but also something of the Diva about her now that she gets from Lis. She does carry more cares than she used to, she's more protective of people and more protective of herself and both of those things make her secretive. But she's still got some of that cheeky humour and she is never less than totally believable.

Also, Sarah does not need K-9 to give her the "we are in a car" (or "we are in a bus" perhaps) hint.

Bright girl, Sarah, she'll go a long way.

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