...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, October 18, 2010

Day 3571: THE SCARY JANE ADVENTURES: The Nightmare Man


Before we get Scary Jane Smith (thank you, Mr Will), let's give a little hearty congratulation to ITV for their new Posh Soap "Uptown Girls" "Downton Abbey" turning out to be a surprise Sunday-night hit.

The BBC must be grinding their teeth in delight at this rip-off of their "Upstairs Downstairs" revival being so popular.

After all, with "Sherlock" storming the summer ratings, who could've EXPECTED a quality drama for Sunday evenings with turn-of-the-19th/20th-Century-leanings to be a success?

But well done ITV. You put the money in so you deserved the rewards.

Now just don't go learning all the wrong lessons.

This is popular because it is QUALITY and because it is DIFFERENT. Let's not go all "Heart in the Title" or "Inspector Morse" and spawn a hundred inferior clones. Hiring Oscar-winning Dame Julian Fellowes to write the bitchfest dialogue and Oscar-winning Dame Maggie Smith to deliver the bitchfest dialogue ONCE is GENIUS; hiring someone else to make a dozen inferior models is… frankly, where you've been going wrong all these years. Do something ELSE different and you might have TWO hits on your fluffy feet!

And now back to Scary Jane for Daddy Richard's review. One look at the Fluffy Index will tell you how this is going to go: Daddy will review the first episode or two of the new series of Sarah Jane Adventures and will then get all busy with "work" and leave the rest dangling!

Don't forget to tune in to CBBC later today for the next adventure!
Is Julian Bleach the first to do the triple? Or at least first "actor who isn't Paul Kasey in a rubber suit", anyway? (Yes, ironic given that Mr Kasey is here playing a guest-Slitheen in the "one year ago" flashback.) After his ghostmaker for Torchwood ("From Out of the Rain") and of course Davros for Doctor Who ("The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End") he now plays the eponymous "Nightmare Man" for Sarah Jane.

And this is probably his best role for any series so far – yes, Davros is iconic and got the rather wonderful reveal of just what he'd done to himself to create the new Daleks, but he was in a very silly story and his screaming gypsy-curse ending served to undermine him further. Here the Nightmare Man is built up as a threat by his gradual approach over the first episode, making his appearance into the real world a genuine threat at the cliffhanger. Once here in our realist, he is almost charming in his childishness and selfishness, partly shy partly petulant, and a devilishly physical performance all exaggerated tiptoes and unnatural twists. The Pierot-esque white-face and the flower give him an aspect of sinister clown and of course, we've done psychic vampires before, not least in "Day of the Clown" a couple of years ago which this story resembles in a very much "done better" sort of way. And his ending – lifted from Sapphire and Steel's adventure six (if you're going to steal, steal from the best) – is suitably apposite and horrible, hoist as he is with his own petard.

He is a very Buffy-esque enemy, not merely his appearance, which is reminiscent of the grinning Gentlemen in "Hush", but also his fairly blatant subtext as an avatar of Luke's personal anxiety about laving home. He is bother literally and metaphorically Luke's nightmare.

If there is one duff note, it is know-it-all computer Mr Smith's naming the Nightmare Man. Calling him a Vishklar from the Seretti Dimension is making him "just another alien", rather than an almost metaphysical threat. Doctor Who has a long history of dealing with fallen gods and angels, from the Celestial Toymaker to Fenric and has always been comfortable with not pinning them down. If you have to identify the Nightmare Man, I should have preferred him named as one of the Pantheon of Chaos, a rival of the Trickster, perhaps.

Joe Lidster, this week's writer, hasn't done the triple, but it can surely only be a matter of time, as his writing just keeps on getting better. The dream-like quality that he achieves here is surely only more in keeping with Steven Moffat's new "fairy tale" house style for the parent series. And psychic concrete that was pretending to be a flyover in Guildford has to be one of the funniest throw-away lines in all of Doctor Who.

Rather wonderfully, the story is very much a game of two halves, with the first episode concentrating on the complication of changing relationships between the series "family" precipitated by Luke's decision to go away to university, what you might call the "soap-opera" aspects of the ongoing narrative if it weren't for the way that the term has become one of abuse on certain fan fora. To be dismissive of this would be largely to miss the point: the grounding in real world emotional drama is necessary both to emphasis the heightened reality of the Nightmare Man and the world he represents and inhabits, and to underline the connection between the everyday world (the world of the viewer) and the fantastical world (the world of the story). Luke's anxiety dream where he sneaks downstairs to overhear Sarah and K-9 mockingly laughing at the scene earlier where they said they'd miss him is horribly, horribly real, and the sort of thing many watching may even have experienced.

In contrast, the second episode is positively trippy, with each of the protagonists locked into their own private Nightmare – even Sarah Jane, whose waking nightmare is to be locked out.

It's actually a rather clever nightmare for Rani, giving her essentially all she dreamed of, but showing her a dark side to a career that she's clearly romanticized in her head. And in an episode that's actually very short of guest cast (and successfully making a virtue of it), it's a joy to see Doon Mackichan as the "evil" newsreader in Rani's nightmare news studio – named as Louise Marlowe but impossible not to think of her as Collatallie Sisters from the Day Today. But is she really "evil"? She is clearly an ice-cold unfeeling bitch, but she's also everything Rani aspires to be: smart, successful and up to a point doing the right thing – sure people do have a right to know about the aliens that Sarah Jane is actually covering up. It would be interesting to see this developed as a strand in the series, Rani's journalistic instincts taking her down a route of full-disclosure that Sarah herself has clearly abandoned.

Clyde's nightmare, a world where he ends up flipping burgers, is more obvious; it's the flip-side to Luke's nightmare of going away, the fear that Clyde may not get away. But to give it an extra stir of horror, Clyde's nightmare is inhabited not by another guest-star but by a decrepit wreck of Sarah Jane, repeating back to him all the secret fears and doubts he has – he's not as good as Luke, he's not important, his art doesn't make him special, he's not the one who is loved. These would be almost humdrum if it weren't for the person delivering them (a real chance for Liz Sladen to get out of Sarah Jane's normally straight-laced character and really show her acting chops). It shows a deeper side to Clyde that he has the special nightmare of the next generation of seeing someone you love and admire losing their marbles. It's possible that one's a bit near the knuckle for me.

Luke appropriately enough is trapped in the corridor between everyone else's nightmares (by implication the world of the Nightmare Man himself) here represented as a school corridor, all very "Wood Between the Worlds" (if you're going to steal, steal from the best). The triumphant "together we're unbeatable" speech may have been a little overdone (and the Murray-Gold-turned-up-to-eleven a little overwrought) but it was the appropriate "magical" or "fairy-tale" way to deal with this monster of private lonely horrors.

It's a great shame to lose Tommy Knight from the show. He gave Luke an innocent intelligence that was a perfect counterweight to Clyde's knowing streetwise attitude, and his character gave Sarah Jane a connection to the world that she had almost lot. To look for a silver lining, perhaps this going will give a little more breathing room for the often-underused character of Rani.

One rather lovely touch to leave on: Sarah's "old car" that she gives to Luke appears to be her car from the Big Finish Sarah Jane audio series.

Next Time: I say, is that Mr Dread the robot agent of the Alliance of Shades from Mr Phil Ford's Doctor Who cartoon "Dreamland"? And is that Androvax the Destroyer from Mr Phil Ford's Sarah Jane adventure Prisoner of the Judoon? It must be the Phil Ford episode. Here Come the Men in Black. "The Vault of Secrets"


Check out also Auntie Jennie for her (approving) take on the talents of Mr Lidster.


Merseytart said...

My favourite part was Elisabeth Sladen having to be heavily made up to look like an old woman - damn her eternal youth!

Alex said...

"And psychic concrete that was pretending to be a flyover in Guildford has to be one of the funniest throw-away lines in all of Doctor Who."

Psychic concrete resonates you right back! =)