...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Day 3218 (again): THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES: The Mad Woman in the Attic


It's all TERRIBLY exciting this week, as Dr Woo himself will be dropping by for his old chum Best-friend Sarah's wedding to that rotter from the adverts who doesn't pay to be privileged!

By way of a TRAILER, here is a flashback to last week's carnival ride of JOLLY DESPAIR! Here are Daddy Richard's thoughts:
Apparently, this two-parter has earned the joint-highest appreciation index to date, a well deserved reward for writer Joe Lidster. Joe, who wrote this and the memorable episode "A Day in the Death" from Torchwood's second season, seems to be cornering the market in "regrets": a signature style is a tragic figure looking back, with flashbacks, on the disastrous decision that brought them to their current, usually dreadful, pass.

In this case, rather shockingly, it's one of our youthful heroes: a now-aged and abandoned Rani looks back on an empty life from the year 2059. This is heady stuff for a children's show.

We all have days when we are frustrated or belittled by our nearest and dearest, when we find their enthusiasms exasperating, or when we mistake their interest in someone else for excluding us. I dare say many of us have even wished to be left alone once in a while. WE don't really mean it, but what if someone granted that wish. That's the concept behind this week's story, almost fairy-story-like in its simplicity.

The framing device, set in the future, sees a local teenager, Adam, come exploring Sarah Jane's abandoned old house, only to discover the self-styled "mad old woman of Bannerman Road", namely Rani Chandra, alone in the attic.

She tells him the story of she's been alone since an ill-starred day fifty years ago, and we follow her through all the simple things that she – and in fairness her friends too – got wrong. Luke and Clyde are chatting online with Maria in America: they don't fail to include Rani but enthuse too much to her about the "brilliant Maria" so she feels left out, with an underlying sense that she feels second best, like she's Maria's inferior replacement (which is a clever riff on the "new girl coming into the show" to generate extra empathy with the audience who may also be feeling that she "took Maria's place"). When Sarah Jane pooh-poohs her suggestion for an investigation – typically in character for no-nonsense Ms Smith, and also typically in character she later recognises she's been dismissive – then Rani steals off for an adventure of her own.

Lured back to her old home town of Danemouth by an e-mail from her one-time friend Sam, a lonely orphan who has recently stopped communicating with her, she agrees to investigate a "demon" haunting a closed down funfair. Rani rightly deduces that the demon is actually a lost alien, who turns out to be a girl called Eve who is being looked-after by the caretaker and her mysterious Ship, who appears to speak from mirrors (yes, just like the Magic Mirror in the Disney "Snow White"). What Rani fails to realise is that Eve has dangerous powers which she cannot properly control, and Rani's interference threatens to unleash them.

There is an interesting moral question that's not really picked up on but it informs the feel of the whole show: Eve takes people who are homeless, lonely and makes them happy though playtime. But it takes their will away. We would label that "bad" but it's not her intention, and – if she's a utilitarian – she may well not even see it that way.

What is particularly wonderful here is the way that the story properly grasps the series' central idée fix that "the universe is wonderful and terrible at the same time". Eve is both wonderful and terrible, neither she nor her Ship are actually evil, but they do have, as I say, an alien morality that skews nicely away from what we might expect; they are literally fey, like fairy-folk they are perilous for mortals to be near. And for once you can understand why anyone would want to be in this world of prophetic time-seers even with all the danger that comes along with it.

Given that the title itself is a literary reference (to Mrs Rochester in "Jane Eyre", or possibly to the "Cracker" episode of the same name), there's some pretty heavy referencing going on: Eve comes from a race of time-sensitives (see "Warrior's Gate") who were caught up in "a war" (obviously the Time War, see in particular "The Unquiet Dead") and faced "extermination" (guess who!). And that's even before we get to the flashback clips (a device which itself is a reference to "Mawdryn Undead" and many others) where we get to see – whoo hoo – actual old Doctor Who clips from the third and fourth Doctor eras. And of course "he is returning" and "the darkness" allude to the prophesies in Doctor Who's 2008 series (go directly to "The Fires of Pompeii") or maybe the similar prophesy in "Planet of the Dead" – the clip from "Planet of the Spiders" is also a visual reference to "there is something on your back".

Meanwhile, Harry, the fairground caretaker, is played by Brian Miller, aka Mr Lis Sladen, who last appeared in Doctor Who (alright Doctor Who proper) in "Snakedance", also playing a Carnival worker. So that's a reference too.

And, getting self-referential, the conclusion sees Eve's new family taking a familiar shape – but, as Alex remarks, if Eve is Rani, Harry is parent-figure Sarah, computer-in-the-wall Ship is Mr Smith and fish-out-of-water orphan Sam is Luke, then where is their Clyde analogue?

Showing Sarah her future is a great idea, and knocks her back just the same way that seeing her past did in last season's "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith". It's almost a pity that the pay off will come almost immediately, as it might have been nice to have that hanging over us for a little longer.

On the other hand we do get the final resolution of the long-running "K-9 in a cupboard" plot, releasing the tin dog to take a bigger part in the adventures now that the BBC have permission to do so, it would seem. "So you'll be staying," says Mr Smith. "Oh good." Brilliant.

If anything there is too much good material, as it does slightly squeeze out a decent resolution. The major twist, that Ship deludedly grants Rani's unintended wish, and strands her in a world without Sarah-Jane, comes too close to the end, meaning the "I'm really here to set things right" resolution is rushed, almost as an afterthought.

If I might propose a solution, I'd have used a little non-linear story-telling: bringing the twist up to the front of the story and having Adam trying to get old-Rani to tell him the background. If we start with the illusion that Ship is malevolent, then the twist becomes that she's actually just as hurt and confused as Eve. Adam could then explain this to old-Rani who from that realises who he must really be.

We finish with "mad woman in the attic" Rani being replaced by "happy granny surrounded by family" Rani, which is another of the series' touchstones – the need for family. This too is rather more fairy-story than science fiction, the idea that timelines can be casually rewritten like this not really being in keeping with the Doctor's usual philosophy. (And it doesn't bear too close an examination in logic either; given that we can reasonably expect Sarah-Jane and gang to save the world again in the not-too-distant future, having Ship edit them out of existence would surely mean old-Rani wouldn't have a planet to stand on!)

But in fairy-story logic, this is just right: the ill-starred wish gets you into trouble and the selfless act gets you out again, which is just what happens here. Even if the order is a bit muddled.

Next time… Something old, something borrowed, something blue… that'll be the TARDIS, then. He is returning! But is the Trickster really giving away the bride at "The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith".


1 comment:

lizw said...

I think there may be a wider reference, not just to Mrs Rochester, but to Gilbert and Gubar's influential work of feminist literary criticism. That was all about how women need to resist being defined as either angel or monster, which seems very relevant to Eve's character (though Rani herself doesn't seem to successfully free herself from that dichotomy, being cast in the "monster" role before Adam's intervention and then, as you say, the fairytale grandmother - and she needs male agency to get even that far, too.)