DO not panic, it is NOT the Big Tent on fire… it is merely the Olympics!
And we thought the London Olympics weren't meant to be a disaster until 2012!
Anyway, we were NOT watching that, we were watching THIS: Sarah Jane, again!
Here is Daddy Richard with another review. (Spoilers ahoy, of course!)
As I'm sure you know, 1994's short play for Radio 4 "Whatever Happened to Susan Foreman" saw the real Susan (Carole Ann Ford) replaced by Jane Asher. Guess what…
We're back on spooky territory this week, after the more sci-fi "Warriors of Kudlak", with a sinister cloaked figure altering the timeline with a wave of a finger, making Faustian bargains and trading in eerie puzzle boxes.
This is a more obviously Buffy/fantasy episode and we are clearly in the realm of magic: we take it for granted that sinister cloaked figures can do this sort of thing because, well, that's what sinister cloaked figures do.
Credited as "The Trickster" he has a terribly familiar line to any fans of the old Doctor Who: particularly those who remember a certain duck-hatted blackguard from the twentieth season, with a love of chaos, a penchant for sinister bargains sealed with strange trinkets and use of the line "waking or sleeping". On the other hand, the Black Guardian would seem a little out of proportion to Sarah Jane and this Trickster's keenness to encounter the Doctor suggests that he hasn't met him yet. Referring to Sarah as an "Ephemeral" is more reminiscent of the Eternals from "Enlightenment", though of course they had a connection to the Guardians too. "Eternals" have been mentioned a couple of times in the new Doctor Who (throwaway remarks in "Army of Ghosts" and "The Shakespeare Code"… by TV's Gareth Roberts, coincidentally!) and form an intriguing part of the series "greater mythology" in the post-Time War universe.
Alex though suggests, and I think he's right, that this fellow is most like the Shadow, the Guardian's stooge from "The Armageddon Factor"; even his half-made face is similar to the Shadow's half-skull visage, as though neither of them are quite real enough.
Of course, robbing some of the fruitier episodes of Doctor Who gives him an excellent line in dialogue and he glides through the proceedings like a malevolent spectre. He appears in a mirror, as did the Shadow to the Marshal of Atrios. But interestingly, he appears to Andrea in a mirror which, in the altered timeline, hangs on the attic wall where Mr Smith would normally reside. Which might be worth thinking about.
Andrea herself (Jane Asher, obviously) is the lady who lives across the road, a slightly earthy woman who paints, either for a living or as a hobby, and likes parties, especially her own. Well, no she's not, but the Trickster has changed history in order to wipe out Sarah Jane. The usual outcome of this situation is that the alternative Andrea would be either an obvious sinner who doesn't deserve to take Sarah's life, or a saint to make it poignant that she cannot have the life that belongs to another. But she's actually quite an interesting character, a real person, obviously not evil but not above being played as selfish and occasionally spiteful. Who wouldn't want to live if faced with death and given a second chance? We all know she made the wrong choice, but could we really know we would make the right one in her place?
Of course, Andrea doesn't really have a dilemma at the end, because there's a dirty great asteroid falling on her house – her choice is death or death, so it isn't so very hard to put right what she did wrong all those years ago. But it does need Maria to be there to point out that she has the choice to make – she'd never have realised that she'd been cheated… if it weren’t for those meddling kids. (Something that the Trickster should probably have thought of!)
With Sarah and Luke banished to limbo and Clyde relegated to "some boy from school" by the altered history, much of the episode hangs on the young shoulders of Yasmin Paige as Maria. I admit it: think she's probably the weakest as an actor of the three regular kids – though Clyde's character is least well-drawn, which somewhat undermines Daniel Anthony. But she does pretty well here, holding the story together as the traditional "only one who remembers". Since we, in the audience, have seen the Trickster casting his spell we are way ahead of her, but she manages not to look stupid as she catches up. At least not too often.
Then, in a seriously unexpected twist, Maria gets the same "taken out of time" treatment – with Graske cameo (and you've got to admire a series confident enough to just throw the Graske in with need to make it 'returning main villain') – leaving dad Alan to be the surprise hero. Clearly they've decided to quickly forgo the Buffy-esque "Dad never spots that Maria is the Slayer" theme and indeed the story ends with him expecting an explanation. Development, then, is being worked into the series' longer story, and a good thing too.
The time paradox story, someone changing the present by changing the past, oddly enough doesn't crop up in Doctor Who proper very often. Usually, the TARDIS takes the Doctor straight to the source of the interference. The usual example is "Pyramids of Mars" where the Doctor shows Sarah a future where he doesn't finish the job and stop Sutekh the Destroyer. The new series, of course, showed us the inside of a paradox in "Father's Day" and it's implied that the Daleks changed the history of the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire, and that the Doctor altered Harriet Jones' timeline as Prime Minister (which Russell T Davies has admitted is what allowed the Master to step in and seize power).
So this "there's something not right with the world" type of story actually owes more to "Star Trek the Next Generation" – think "Yesterday's Enterprise" – or even "Sapphire and Steel".
But unlike those series, "Whatever Happened…" takes the trouble to be a part of an ongoing "real world". In fact a story that by its very nature demands a reset switch seems to be the least reset-y of the series so far.
Writer Gareth Roberts has thought about the questions that the viewer is going to ask. He has Sarah demand of the Trickster what happened to the previous stories, all those invasions that she stopped – the Bane, the Slitheen, the Gorgons – which is certainly what I was asking, and what a lot of regular viewers will have been asking. And we don't mind the Trickster airily dismissing them with an "I sent them away", because at least the question hasn't been ducked. It's implicit that the entity had to work to find an alternative timeline that would still be valid up to the point where his random asteroid smashes the Earth. (Which also satisfies the "and why aren't you doing this all the time?" question.)
This series of Sarah Jane Adventures just keeps on getting better (fingers crossed for the final story). To me, they seem to be better at the genuine ghostly stories – ironic, given the dismal nature of the witchcraft plot in "K-9 and Company: A Girl's Best Friend". Or maybe not, since that was just total Scooby Doo – no alien / extra-dimensional intruders at all, which clearly misses the point of what Sarah's life ought to be about: finding marvellous things, here on Earth.
Next time… Could Luke have had a life before Sarah Jane rescued him from the Bane? And what happens when a Smith goes bad? Someone is out for revenge on "The Lost Boy".
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