...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, September 28, 2007

Day 2457: THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES: Revenge of the Slitheen


We have done our best to check Mr Frown's pictures on the television, but we cannot be CERTAIN that there is not a zip-fastener under the fringe of his new hairdo, and an ageing Lady Thatcher on the inside!

We have, however, had MUCH more fun than watching Mr Frown's boring old speech to the Labour. No, we tuned in to CBBC1 instead.

Thanks to digital television, we have seen the WHOLE of Ms Sarah-Jane's first new adventure. Other viewers might beware of SPOILERS by not reading further!
Well, it is hardly a spoiler to mention that the Slitheen are back. They look a lot greener than they used to, and their feet seem a little different, more claws less hoofs, but for the most part they are the same giggling childish sociopathic entrepreneurs that we knew from "Aliens of London". Much of the upfront publicity mentioned the identity of the cross-over villains from TV's Doctor Who, no doubt with the best of intentions: to maximise the number of people who say, "hmmm, I might watch that".

And they got one-and-a-half million viewers, which doesn't sound a lot compared to the mighty Doctor's conquest of Saturday nights, but it was a substantial step up for CBBC on a Monday, so I hope that they're all pleased.

Crucially, the scripts play to the Slitheens' strengths: they're very, very funny. Martyn Ellis as Mr Blakeman, the headmaster, manages to be malicious and hilarious at the same time. He's not quite as loveable as David Verry's acting Prime Minister Joe Green, but he does a magnificent line in world-weary sneers, both at the "pitiful humans" and at his own bumbling semi-competent henchman Jeffrey.

They're also directed very nicely: a lot closer to Joe Ahearne than to Keith Boak. Again, recognising the successful bits, the exploding Slitheen/gunking is a welcome return, and the explosion effect deserved its several uses. The monster suits – three credits for the excellent Mr Casey this week! – in spite of the teeth and claws are obviously funny rather than sleek, so thankfully no ill-judged attempts to mix and match with fast moving CG Slitheen here.

The addition of a twelve-year-old Slitheen child was not quite as successful. Arguably, the Slitheen are big naughty children anyway, and funnier because it's grown ups who are farting and giggling and plotting ludicrous schemes, so a child Slitheen is redundant. Then there's the obvious need to gloss over the really horrible fact that poor portly schoolboy Carl must have been killed and eviscerated by or at least for this twelve-year-old. Finally, the ending misfires, just a little, by presenting us with a "difficult moral question" is it all right to let a murderer die even if they are twelve? Slightly out of keeping with the tone, I felt. But then Carl Slitheen is teleported to safety anyway, so we don't really get to know what Sarah's answer would have been (although it is just possible that Sarah used the sonic lipstick to activate the teleport, but it's not clear).

And although the "even your school friends could be Slitheen" idea is superficially a reasonable addition to the mix, do our plumper school kids really need another reason to get picked on? (See also "Harry Potter and the Fat Kids are Evil".)

There's a very – and I mean very – "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" vibe to the central characters: the new school, the fishes out of water, the "will I fit in?" angst. It helps that they've found a couple of very charming young actors to play Marcie and Luke. I'll reserve judgement on new new boy Clyde for the moment, as I thought that he was a little too forced at times, and the script wasn't quite sure whether he was Xander or Cordelia. (And given that they end up dating, that's quite scary.)

He did get possibly the most interesting scene of the episode, though, when he takes the opportunity to sneak up for a private root around Mr Smith – Sarah's awfully convenient computer system – and Mr Smith momentarily turns nasty on him. Hopefully that's being set up for a future story. (Remembering Harry Potter again, "don't trust anything that can talk if you can't see where it keeps its brains".)

And I did enjoy his look of embarrassment about the "Wolverine" deodorant (and the deodorant itself a joke that is funny in two different ways).

Luke's learning curve was good to watch too. Cleverly, the creators – TV's Gareth Roberts and the Russell fellow – have used key characteristics of the Doctor and split them between Sarah and son: she is brave and resourceful and has a sonic lipstick; he is brilliant at science and knows almost everything. Mind you, that used to be K-9's role – Luke even has some of the literalisms.

Despite being the title character and notionally the heart of the series, Sarah Jane herself was stepped slightly back from the limelight, concentrated as it was on the three juveniles. Perhaps that is inevitable in a CBBC-aimed series. On the other hand, it enables her to act much more as the Doctor by proxy, appearing when she needs to save the day rather than finding herself in Scooby Doo-esque peril all the time. Not that she wasn't back to hiding behind boxes a la "Robot", of course. Good to see Sarah working out a practical defence against the Slitheen on the hop, as it were. Lis Sladen was, as ever, marvellous, able to transition from mumsy to hard-as-nails and make it look entirely natural, wielding a sonic lipstick like she's been doing all her life.

The story itself – "Aliens of London" meets the shallower bits of "School Reunion" – was fairly thin, mainly an excuse to re-introduce us to Marcie and her rather strange friends and to run around chased by a Doctor Who monster. It was nice that it took the time for some proper character moments. And there were plenty of good gags too.

I might just say that I thought that the Slitheens' Earth-shattering plot was a little too big – switching off the sun is the sort of thing that ought to attract the attention of the Doctor even if building, what, over a hundred fake school technology blocks all around the globe hadn't given him time to blunder into them all on his own.

And of course it was as full of loopholes as the last time the Slitheen tried to destroy the world. Surely the technology to switch off a star is more valuable than the frozen rubble of the Earth might ever be? Revenge aside, why go to the trouble of obliterating an inhabited planet when there are at least two uninhabited ones right next door. (Saving the fact that, in the Doctor Who universe, selling off Mars means picking a fight with the Ice Warriors, of course.) If the inductor drains light and heat from candles and – from the Sun – why doesn’t it drain the heat from people. Or indeed Slitheen. And – I suppose I have to mention it – even if you could turn off the Sun, it would still be eight minutes before we noticed as the light and heat takes time to get here. And likewise when you turned it back on again.

Alex cogently suggests that it could it be that it just sucks the energy coming from the Sun, rather than the sun itself – hence switching off the Sun instantly from Earth's point of view. That would be in keeping with the rest of the plan, but isn't what the Sun turning blue special effect suggests.

Continuity references abound: from the blatant namedrops of the Blathereen (Doctor Who novel "The Monsters Inside"), Clom (Doctor Who episode "Love and Monsters"), the Judoon ("Smith and Jones") and "love to the Brig" (surely not still Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart!); to more subtle visual references to the Bane (Sarah Jane Adventures "Invasion of the Bane", obviously), Abbadon (Torchwood "End of Days") and a Jagaroth battlecruiser (Doctor Who "City of Death"). This isn't just fun in a trainspotter way of ticking all the fanboy boxes, but also helps to build a consistent universe for the Doctor and his friends' adventures – something that the whole time travel thing usually mitigates against. We've never entirely gained a picture of the Earth's place in the Universe at the beginning of the twenty-first century. While still unclear about the "big picture", it's interesting to get the idea that there is a kind of "galactic underworld" where Raxicoricofallapatorian mafia families vie for dominance while Judoon enforcers are employed – by whom? – to force them out of business.

Speaking of continuity, timewise it does not appear to be long after "Invasion of the Bane", as there are several references to Luke being "born yesterday". As it's the start of term – implicitly the start of the new school year – that means it is probably set in September 2008, about a year an a half after "School Reunion" (which fits with "Invasion of the Bane" too).

On the whole then, not quite as satisfying as the New Year's Day special – maybe I'm just missing a really meaty confrontation with the villain: Samantha Bond's Mrs Wormwood gave us that in spades; headmaster Blakeman doesn't quite get the same face off (except in the literal sense). Nevertheless, these were a hugely fun pair of episodes with a real vibe of old-school Doctor Who about them, not just Sarah but also that cliff-hanger halfway though – long live the cliff-hanger, I say! This one was not only quite a doozy, but also the triple-peril cliff-hanger of "Aliens of London" but done right. Shows what good direction can do.

Next time… Nuns!

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