...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 3578: THE SCARY JANE ADVENTURES: The (Unspeakable) Vault of Secrets


Before we get Scary Jane Smith (yes, I know that's how I started last week) Daddy Richard would like me to big up the most recent-est release from the BIG FISH audio people: "A Death in the Family", which, says Daddy, is Big Fish's "Curse of Fenric".

That's HIGH PRAISE indeed, 'cos "The Curse of Fenric" is Daddy's favourite story: a story that ties together threads that have been developing for ages, turns the timey-wimey up to eleven, features shocking revelations about his companion's mum, and in which the Doctor takes down a GOD. Yes, it's just like that.

Recommended that you listen to, (at a bare minimum): "Project: Twilight", "Project: Lazarus", "Arrangements for War", "The Harvest", "45", "The Angel of Scutari", and "Project: Destiny", first!

Fortunately you don't need nearly such a huge back catalogue to understand this week's Scary Jane adventure. Just "Prisoner of the Judoon" and "Dreamland". Simples!
You might think that this is the throwaway story, between the emotionally heavy "The Nightmare Man" and the season big-hitter "Death of the Doctor", but there's something quietly profound going on underneath the surface of this story: a sense of sadness and nostalgia about lives wasted and the serious question of a genocidal manic seeking redemption posed for a tea-time audience.

Ocean Waters (Cheryll Campbell) personifies the spirot of nostalgia. Superficially she's a comic creation; her organisation is called "B.U.R.P.S.S." for goodness sakes; even her name is a pun on "River Song" and "Amy Pond". And yet there are a couple of moments, just a couple and I wonder if it's Liz Lis* Sladen adding them herself, where Sarah Jane steps back and notices Ocean's real situation. In part one, where they find Mr Dread's press clippings and discover that Ocean is a genuine abductee, Sarah Jane wonders to herself, "if only she'd thought of a better name [for B.U.R.P.S.S] perhaps someone would have taken her seriously". In part two, they all pretend to have had the same attack of the mind-rubbers that Gita has, but just watch Sarah as she sees how hurt Ocean is that they've all forgotten. She winces to herself, knowing that – however necessary to protect Rani's mum – this is cruel and hurtful for Ocean.

And think also of the genuine terror that she experiences when her personal "nightmare man", Mr Dread, comes literally bursting back into her life.

Ocean's life, tragically wasted since her abduction in 1974 1972*, curiously mirrors that of the android Mr Dread too, whose life was literally put on hold in that same year by his masters in the Alliance of Shades (and an alliance of "shades" would be a Spectrum; one wonders if they include a "Scarlet").

The Men in Black androids from "Dreamland" are evolved into much better characters here. They are closer to the Agents from the Matrix, of course, than Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones: I particularly loved that their reaction to the sonic lipstick was to all do the "Agent Smith neck-crick" thing. The ridiculously oversized guns are jolly funny as are the detachable hands, and also a nice Auton pastiche, although a bit more Addams Family "Thing", than scary Auton arm from Rose.

Mr Dread in particular is a rather lovely creation, even if his "prepare to be incinerated" catchphrase is a bit rubbish. Played by Angus Wright, he's got a very dry sense of humour and a slightly world-weary attitude, like he knows that his job is now rather pointless and that anyway Sarah Jane has much more right to defend the Earth, and is just plain better at it. He is, essentially, (as referenced several times by Clyde) a Terminator, but one that knows just how ridiculous he is.

It's a real shame that he's used up all his battery juice. (Oh, but he has – he says he has a five-hundred-year battery, and uses up four-hundred and fifty years in activating the transmat, so fifty years left… but he's been operating on Earth since the Nineteen-Fifties… fifty years ago.) It would have been rather nice to employ him as a kind of recurring guest robot, as K-9 was in the first couple of series.

And was anyone else expecting Sarah to open up his freezer with the line: "Mr Dread… I need you!"

Of course, he's wrong about one thing: he tells us that, without the second activator disc, the vault is sealed forever and his purpose is now over. To which both Alex and I replied: transmat! In just the last few minutes, Mr Dread himself has used the transmit equipment to get Androvax's Veil ship out of the vault (and, incidentally, one presumes the second disc too); what's to stop anyone else doing the same?

Anyway, also returning this week: Adrovax, Destroyer of Worlds, Last of the Viel.

How many times has Doctor Who done a "last of the… [insert species here] in desperate gamble to save their people" story? Particularly when the "last of the…" in question turns out to be a bit of a baddie?

Well about twice, actually: there's Eldrad, last of the Kastrians, ("The Hand of Fear") and obviously Scaroth, last of the Jaggeroth ("City of Death"). At a pinch you might count Broton of the Zygons, but he's not "last" of his race. Not least because he's expecting a terraforming (Zygo-forming?) ship to arrive with survivors. Possibly Monarch of the Urbankans (whose plan to resurrect his dead race in digital format is the very same plan that killed them all in the first place). Oh, and Rassilon's whole get-out-of-Time-War free gambit.

What is a twist is that Androvax, the not-actually-any-more-last of the Veil, manages to get away with it. You're far, far more likely to have this plot fail and the Doctor moralise on about "everything having it's time and everything dying" (and if it's Davy Ten, get that faraway look in his eye). And yet here, as Ocean tells us, hanging a light on it, we get a definite "win" for the aliens.

Now, arguably that's a "win" for the Universe and Sarah Jane too: a victory over entropy from just one more species spared from extinction. And it's worth remembering that – aside from the almost casual attitude towards exploding Slitheen – almost no one ever dies in the Sarah Jane adventures; even Androvax himself is still struggling manfully on despite the lethal swamp-viper venom allegedly about to kill him at any moment.

But even so, this is still, quite unusually, a rare example of the "score draw" in the Doctor Who universe.

And actually that's a better moral than the traditional: "if you're evil, you can never achieve anything good and your race are all better off dead".

Interestingly we never do really address the question of whether Androvax is "good" for saving his people or "evil" for all the other worlds he has destroyed. Obviously, destroying twelve planets is evil, and he's played throughout as duplicitous and self-interested. And yet he is without doubt expending his life to save his people. So as I say, interesting as it's left to the viewer to think about.

In a way there's almost too much plot. All the body swapping is certainly larks for the regular cast, all of whom get a go at the snarling lizard-in-a-human's-body shtick (though Liz Lis* Sladen remains far and away the best and most sinister at doing it: like "aged Sarah" in Clyde's nightmare last week, she's really good as a wacked out alt-Sarah; after all these years, people are starting to notice she can do this kind of thing). And the jokes come thick and fast, if pitched at a somewhat juvenile level.

But all the light-hearted froth seems to, ironically, pin down the more serious meanings underneath. And the incidental music will insist on tossing in comic stings, particularly over Ocean's disappointments, where something a little more downbeat would have underlined the genuine sadness of her situation, rather than mocked it.

And there's Mina Anwar's acting as Gita which swings wildly between hilarious and "hilarious"! It is a real shame that they mind-rubbered her at the end. There's a much richer vein of comedy to be found in having mum "in the know" (and trying to keep dad Haresh the headmaster in the dark) than in just returning to the mum and dad mustn't find out status quo. It would have been a nice flip of the season two arc where Maria's dad knows but mum Chrissis is, as far as we know, clueless. Plus, for a while there it genuinely strengthened Gita's character as she coped pretty admirably under the circumstances. A shame to undermine it again with more silliness.

But I loved the Pyramid of Mars.

Next time: Warm up the ol' android duplicate and get ready to infiltrate and kill 'cos it's "The Death of Doctor Who"… oh, no sorry, that's "The Chase"; this time it's muppet vultures and someone's painted the Graske blue for "The Death of the Doctor"
Don't forget to tune in to CBBC later for the next adventure!

*corrections per Mr Tat, thanks


Tat said...

Once upon a time, when Gerry Anderson still thought a Spectrum pop group was a good idea, it was possible to join Spectrum for - I think - 2/6. But as you weren't allowed to be a Colour and get to find where all the SPVs were hidden you were only permitted to become a Shade.
A few footling comments: 'Lis' rather than 'Liz' and it was 1972, not 74. That last detail concerns me more because whatever happened in 1972 was four years after UNIT was formed, so there was this lot, Jo-and-Mike-and-Benton-and-the-Brig AND Torchwood all running around catching aliens and we still got invaded once every four weeks. And despite the existence of a hyperspatial vault and cryogenic chambers they locked the Master in a castle on the Isle of Wight with swords on the walls.

Millennium Dome said...

"whatever happened in 1972 was four years after UNIT was formed"

That would be the UNIT that was formed between 1975 and 1979 ("Web of Fear" and "The Invasion"), wink, nod, smile, chuckle.

Look, even with those naughty boys at Doctor Who Magazine recognising MY solution to the Mawdryn Undead problem, we really just have to agree to disagree over the UNIT dating because the only possible solution is that NO ONE is right; the dates flatly contradict one another (and no, dating by HAIR DO will not do). UNIT stories (or all the ones before "Battlefield" anyway) take place "sometime in the 'Seventies. Or 'Eighties" according to taste.

I'm happy to accept that something "timey-wimey" (for want of a less irritating term) has gone wrong with Earth's history during the Doctor's exile (maybe to do with the Monk's actions in "No Future", or even the catch-all excuse of the Time War), although actually I rather like the implication that the Alliance of Shades decided Earth no longer needed defending just at the point where UNIT were about to be set up because UNIT were about to be set up and we could start to look after ourselves.

And NO ONE believes that "Torchwood" were up to looking after us!

Mind you, a vault full of spaceships that would blow up the Earth if they are activated and the Master never tried to use them to escape between "Terror of the Autons" and "Mind of Evil". How very unlike the fellow.

Tat said...

I'm taking my dates from an unimpeachable source, a US President (that's using 'unimpeachable' in the sense of 'should have been but got zapped by Toclafane instead'). On-air confirmation in 2007 trumps Jeremy Bentham's guesses in 1979.
And I'm not suggesting for a moment that Torchwood were in any way adequate, merely asking how they filled Canary Wharf with alien goodies when UNIT and Men In Shades were collecting it all too.
Moreover, I don't care what the naughty boys at Pravda think - they can't even get Hartnell titles right.

Millennium Dome said...

Well, no, they're not "guesses"; they're "adding up". ONSCREEN, "The Abominable Snowmen" is dated to 1935. ONSCREEN that is stated to be "over 40 years ago".

As for "onscreen confirmation in 2007", what Mr President Winters actually says is: "First contact policy was decided by the Security Council in 1968." ("The Sound of Drums")

That adds NOTHING to when UNIT was founded. It takes nothing away. If you WANT to interpret the President's words as fitting your paradigm that's nice for you, but it doesn't trump anything.

Onscreen confirmation in 2008, however, from the Doctor himself, is that he worked for UNIT...

"A long time ago, back in the 70s -- or was it the 80s?" ("The Sontaran Stratagem")

SERIOUSLY, there is no winning this argument. You are wrong. I am wrong. There is NO WAY to make it work.