Monday, 6 April 2015

Eye of the Gorgon written by Phil Ford and directed by Alice Troughton

This story in a nutshell: Deadly nuns, turning people in statues and a gnarled alien that has been trying to get home for generations...

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: Sarah manages to teach the kids a lesson about getting old and still counting without ever having to resort to preaching at them. I love how crabby she can be at times, barking at Maria for slamming the door of the Attic and threatening the sensitive alien equipment. She recognises that Maria is going through a hard time and counsels her gently on the matter. A relationship between a woman of sixty-plus and a teenage girl should be faintly icky and yet given the strength of the writing and performances it never comes across that way. It is just two people who have found each other accidentally and fill a void in each others lives and it is rather lovely. For Sarah Jane Bea is a frighteningly possible portent of the future, a woman who had fantastic adventures with aliens but finds herself losing those memories due to her debilitating illness. Sarah understands that Maria doesn't mean what she says about wishing she had never met her and comforts her in the wake of Alan turning to stone. Watch Elizabeth Sladen giving it her all (which is an impressive amount let me tell you) when Sarah Jane confronts Sister Helena at the climax. She still isn't afraid to let Sarah be frightened either, understanding that watching your authority figure reacting with real fear is what will make the kids at home clutch at their pillows.

Best Friend: 'You took our home apart six months ago...' The personal drama that unfolds amongst the Jackson family throughout season was quite unexpected and delightful. It helps that Maria's parents are extremely well cast and never seem to be acting up for a CBBC drama but real characters who are undergoing a separation and trying to find a way to communicate in this new understanding. Maria has the unfortunate position of being in crossfire as her loud mouthed, insensitive mother blunders her way back in to their lives without thinking. Maria thinks Chrissie is moving back for good where she is just making a gesture to her new boyfriend to try and bring him to heel. I really like how critical Chrissie is of Sarah Jane (she calls her and Luke weirdoes and that is probably one of her more pleasant descriptions of them) because it stops the show from getting too twee to have a figure who is always questioning what is happening behind the scenes. Maria is often written and played as a character mature beyond her years but it is worth remembering that she is a teenager and can be prone to tantrums as she does here when she orders her mum out of her room. I'm sure we all had moments like that when we were growing up. For any children watching who have suffered the experience of their parents divorcing this is terrific material, showing what a turbulent time it can be emotionally. It astonishes me that this show can comment so candidly about such a dramatic event in a young persons life. There is a subtle edge of tragedy about Alan Jackson, a man who has had his heartbroken by his ex-wife and is trying to put on a brave face for his daughters sake so they can move on with their lives. The tear that rolls down his cheek as Chrissie talks wistfully about their history together shows that he hasn't entirely moved on.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'The only figures I was ever interested in was fellas phone numbers.'
'Everyone gets old'  is a fantastic mission statement to remind the children who are watching this story. A lot of kids write of the elderly as past it but Eye of the Gorgon is a firm reminder of the lives they have lead and the stories they can tell if you only stop and listen.
'Unfortunately Mrs Cribbins always was something of a useless old fossil...'
'I'd shut up if I were you or the Abbess might show you her idea of solving a problem like Maria...'

The Good: What a fine, creepy, atmospheric pre-titles sequence for this story as the camera pans in on Lavender Lawns and a ghostly nun stalks one of the residents in the dead of night. This is star studded cast of the sort of actresses that you would only expect to find in prestige drama, which goes to show the kind of respect that Russell T. Davies commands in the industry if he can attract names such as Phyllida Law, Doreen Mantle and Beth Goddard to what is essentially a children's programme. It's even more astonishing that a show on CBBC should be able to explore and discuss the idea of obsolescence, decrepitude and Alzheimer's in such a subtle and powerful way.  Law is especially good as Bea Nelson-Stanley, a role that could have so easily have been misjudged but instead she is a genuinely potent example of a woman who is trapped in the throes of dementia and only has moments of lucidity. The hints that are husband was a man who tackled aliens is laughable at first until she is able to accurately describe a Sontaran. Luke develops a nice relationship with her and manages to catch her at one of her stronger pauses between episodes. She is willing to trust him because he is patient and is willing to listen to her reminisce. Is the ghostly manifestation of hysteria or a cry for help? It depends upon you opinion of the elderly. There is something pretty creepy about nuns and I'm surprised that Doctor Who has never picked up on the idea before now - check out the great shot of the nun appearing from behind a tree as Sarah Jane leave Lavender Lawns in her car. They are women in a position of trust and authority so to see them behaving in such a violent and unexpected way is quite unnerving. Beth Goddard understands precisely how to play a villain in a family entertainment show, taking the role seriously but offering the odd wink at the audience to let them know it is okay to be scared of her. I love how she pockets Alan's fiver when he is rifling through his pockets for smaller change and she has some great lines throughout the story. Nuns kidnapping a young that's a brave action to take. 'Events get recorded on their surroundings and then under certain circumstances they get played back' - an idea that is well worth further exploration but is just treated as a throwaway concept in a first season that is fizzing with imaginative  concepts. It's something that would be returned to to chilling effect in season three's The Eternity Trap and season four's Lost in Time. Phil Ford has been paying attention to the best of Doctor Who, recognising that the central monster needs to be revealed in exquisite stages and then only exposed in its entirety at the end of the first episode. The Abbess slumped in her chair with her habit obscuring her hideous features and gnarled nails curled around the arms of the chair is a fantastic appetiser for the grotesque that is to be revealed. Aren't the production values on this show surprising? Look at the stunning location work set at the Abbey, a beautiful old building that Alice Troughton photographs to the hilt. Inside is even more impressive; a warren of ornate rooms, stone carved corridors and handsome grounds. Eye of the Gorgon was broadcast in the same year as Blink so it is hard to determine who first had the idea of turning statues into a chilling prospect. Whereas the Weeping Angels are fixed until you look at them and then they come to life, the statues in this story explore the reverse effect. You are perfectly functional until you look into the eyes of the Gorgon and then you are calcified for the rest of your life. It's a pretty scary notion, being trapped in stone for all eternity and is chillingly realised when we visit the Abbey gardens and see just how many people have been transformed. There is a whole bunch of screaming statues littering the grounds. Alan being a victim of the Abbess brings the danger of sticking close to Sarah Jane right home for Maria. I really wouldn't want to lose this character (Elisabeth Sladen and Joseph Milson are the lynchpins of this first season) and so there is a personal stake involved. I don't think I was fully aware of how well the tone of this series judged until the scenes of both Maria and Chrissie talking to the petrified version of Alan. These scenes should be absolutely ridiculous given they are trying to emote with a statue of their father/ex-husband but instead they are poignant and amusing, mostly because we are made aware that he can hear every word they are saying with a tear that runs down his cheek. Scenes of Maria trying to get through to Bea as she is trapped in the past of her mind are also affecting, Law's performance really coming into its own. Given that this is a riff on the Medusa myth it is quite apt that the Gorgon should be turned into to stone herself as Maria reflects her calcifying rays back at her with a mirror.

The Bad: The only scenes that didn't really work for me were the 'serve the Gorgon' chants and the giant alien portal in episode two. It's the only point where this feels like it trips over into traditional children's television.

The Shallow Bit: Alan Jackson. What a babe.

Standout Scene: That wonderfully poignant coda where it looks as though Maria is going to be able to cure Bea's Alzheimer's with the talisman. Had that been the case it would have destroyed the integrity of this story. There are such easy answers with dementia and it would do no good in convincing children otherwise. The trade off is the gift that Maria does manage to give Bea, which is one last message from her dead husband.

Result: 'No one listens to you when you're old...' I've always considered Phil Ford to be the meat and potatoes writer on The Sarah Jane Adventures, always providing something enjoyable but never truly tantalising your taste buds like the best of the series' writers such as Gareth Roberts and Joe Lidster. However looking at his work on the show one thing stands out in particular and that is that his first (this story) and last (The Curse of Clyde Langer) scripts for the show are amongst the finest. This was the story that convinced me that this show was going to be so much more than just another kids show on CBBC, offering some insightful commentary on some adult themes, displaying a sizeable amount of budget and featuring sterling performances of the sort you simply don't get on your average teatime children's TV show. It's no wonder so many adults took this show to their hearts too. As well as commenting on divorce and dementia and providing a rollicking great yarn with some real chills, The Eye of the Gorgon also educates on the myths and legends surrounding the Gorgon. I remember when The Sarah Jane Adventures was first touted that my husband was unconvinced that he would want to watch a children's TV show. I sat him in front of this story and he judged it 'pretty special, for children's telly' and from this point on he watched every episode, becoming quite the enthusiast come seasons three, four and five (and to his undying shame he had to turn off The Eternity Trap because it was freaking him out too much when I wasn't home). The character drama is beautifully judged and there is an impressive cast of older actresses bringing the script to life. It is a female-centric cast, six of the main characters are women and the story is all the better for it. Most of all though I respect that Phil Ford uses his characterful script to remind children that everybody gets old eventually and that perhaps they should give their own elderly relatives their time whilst they can. What a fine statement to make. As a result it is a story that is ageing very well because its themes get more potent the older you get. Another powerhouse adventure in the near-peerless season one: 9/10

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