Friday, 24 April 2015

Secrets of the Stars written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Michael Kerrigan

This story in a nutshell: 'The Ancient Lights will destroy you!'

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: There's a double whammy of a reason for Sarah Jane to be visiting Trueman's local appearance on stage; for one thing it is nice to spend some time with some adults for a change and she can sniff out a good story (and a suspect villain) a mile away. Like her time with the Doctor, Sarah doesn't believe in everything but she is always willing to be convinced. Astrology falls under that bracket for her. Sarah spends the show sniffing out all the parlour tricks and plants but is genuinely shocked that Trueman should have intimate knowledge of her time with the Doctor (she should have made the link to the Mandragora Helix). For anybody who gets upset by the portrayal of Sarah agonising over the fact that her 'boyfriend' dumped her on Earth and forgot about her then breathe easy, Trueman emphatically states in this story that the relationship between the Doctor and Sarah was not a romantic one. Does Trueman have a point about Sarah's irresponsibility for letting children into her dangerous world? She's willing to fight this thing and even destroy it if she has to.

Sarah's Gang: Luke not having a star sign is another way in which he differs from his friends and makes him feel even more like an outsider. It is worth pointing out once again that this show pulled off the impossible...a boy genius that you don't want to castrated and hang from the nearest tree by his underwear but one who is genuinely engaging and likable. Sympathetic writing and a gentle performance from Tommy Knight go a long way to making this a reality. We've come a long way since Adric and Wesley Crusher. Check out Nathan Goss in The Lost Boy to see how agonising this character could have been. Very often when actors are asked to play possession they go for the lobotomy act (and it's often hilarious when for plot purposes nobody seems to notice). Occasionally it has been done very effectively (like Elizabeth Sladen's schoolgirl innocence in The Hand of Fear). You would imagine possession in a children's show to be dreadfully overdone but Daniel Anthony defies expectations by approaching it in a very unusual way. Not over doing it or acting like he has had his brains scraped away but being gripped by a serene sense of calm and oneness with the universe. A polite murder is far chilling than a violent one. Clyde feels enough for Sarah Jane that even when he is ordered to kill her he cannot go through with the task. He's wiling to walk into the lions den once he has come to his senses, despite the danger. Luke gets to take some comfort from the fact that because of his differences, he was able to resist Trueman's influence and save the day. A boy genius who saves the day and isn't as irritating as pubic lice? Huh? Clyde asks what is so special about him to which Sarah Jane replies so many things, whilst gently stroking his arm. Their relationship is getting stronger and stronger.

Schoolgirl Journalist & The Folks: Surprisingly it feels as though Rani, Gita and Haresh have been a regular feature on the show for some time now despite this only being their second story. Such is the effortless way they have managed to fill the gap left by the Jackson's (Roberts' confident writing helps). Trueman accurately diagnoses that Rani has suddenly started seeing the world in a new light and she loves it. It's suggested that Rani is Sarah's protégé in exactly that same way Sarah was the Doctor's companion. Allowing Rani to come along and witness an interview is the first step in her education. Gita gets a nice role in the second episode, hypnotised by Trueman and scaring Haresh half to death (mind you this type of scene would be done even more effectively in The Mark of the Berserker with Rani and her father).

Sparkling Dialogue: 'He must be using a bio dampner!' 'What's that, washing powder?'
'It's only The Psychic Channel. When we switched on we probably doubled their ratings.'
'Believe me, I know what it's like to be taken over...' -Sarah could be referencing Planet of the Spiders of The Hand of Fear...and Prisoner of the Judoon is just around the corner.
'People used to say to me "Martin, you are not the centre of the universe" but it turns out I am!' - Trueman's ego is so out of control you can only bask in its magnificence.

The Good: I still think that The Sarah Jane Adventures got the formula just about perfect where Doctor Who has struggled with its format for the past seven years, trying to squeezed everything in to 45 minutes. SJA has hour long adventures (those extra fifteen minutes allow for extra atmosphere, elucidation of the plot and moments of character) with a cliff-hanger in the middle. Practically perfect. It is so rare for an actor/actress in this show to behave as though they are acting in children's TV show that it genuinely shocks me when they do. More often than not the villains of the piece could make the jump to Doctor Who without too any alterations. Russ Abbott is a comedian that I had a lot of time for in my childhood and me and my dad used to watch his show every week together (it is one of the few very nice memories I have of my pops). I remember when I first caught this story on transmission and I had a real problem with the arch way that Abbott played Martin Trueman, feeling as though he had stepped out of a pantomime and straight into this show but looking back on it now I can see little that is objectionable (especially when compared with other OTT villains such as Zaroff, The War Chief, Lady Adastra and Davros, all of which I love). When he is taken over by the Stars it is clear that Abbott shifts his performance somewhere into the stratosphere but watch him during the first scene, Trueman is a man down on his luck who quietly dispels a client he is hoodwinking that astrology is a load of cobblers. He's giving a really poignant portrayal of a man who has cheated his way through life. And how can you fail to make your performance theatrical when the majority of your scenes are either on the stage or acting as a TV presenter cum oracle of doom. Trueman's introduction goes to show just how well Gareth Roberts (or anybody under Russell T. Davies' tutorage) use vivid shorthand characterisation to tell us everything you need to know about a character so they live and. Trueman thought he was meant for great things but is working out of his basement as a con artist, tired and alone, and the Mandragora energy embracing him is his reward for a lifetime of giving up. Maybe Trueman got Kylie's stage team in to design his act because the glowing constellations of the various star signs and the astrology wheel offer an imaginative and striking backdrop to his show. Subtle signs show that members of the audience are nervous to get up and have their secrets spilled, Sarah is here to debunk and Haresh is deeply embarrassed by the whole affair, a man in authority being dragged to a magic show by his wife. It's these moments that give the situation more depth, rather than everybody being seduced by Trueman's charisma and trickery. His backdoor into the world of television (and thus enabling him to hypnotise the world) is through a trashy cable channel paranormal show, another little touch of reality. Roberts gets to teach his audience a little about the zodiac and its origins before having some outer space fun with the idea. The idea of another universe before ours where astrology worked as a binding force that could be harnessed is very well conceptualised and presented. This might be one of the more chilling forms of invasion by possession because it is all done so politely, asking you to take the hand of your neighbour as your mind is invaded and join a circle of contentment. A euphoric invasion of your mind, playing out in stages through the signs of the zodiac. It is a laughable thing to witness until somebody you love is taken and then it becomes very serious as it does for Haresh. Trinity Wells has become fantastic shorthand for a worldwide invasion and as soon as she appears you know that the current crisis has gone global (although the lovely effects shots of people gathering in circles around the world are well done too). Trueman admits that he was something of a nobody before the Ancient Lights chose him, selling vacuum cleaners, cleaning toilets and push trolleys. Nothing wrong with any of those jobs if you want to earn an honest crust. Trueman has a choice to go back to his old life or to be taken away by the Ancient Lights to goodness only knows what punishment. He chooses the latter so he must have really had a low opinion of his life before he was touched by the stars.

The Bad: A powerful astrological force that inhabits people with a glowing orange aura that has attacked Earth at exactly the point where the fourth Doctor claimed it would in the first story of his third year...this is without a doubt the Mandragora Helix whether it was supposed to be so or not. Wasn't it some kind of legal or financial consideration that prevented it from being name? It is frustrating that Sarah Jane cannot make the connection because it would be a lovely nod to the past but I take it as written that the 'Ancient Lights' is simply another name for the Mandragora Helix. It's very interesting that Gary Russell's novel Beautiful Chaos was released just a few months after Secrets of the Stars was broadcast and features a similarly astrological threat to the Earth that the Doctor and Donna face that is specifically referenced as the Mandragora Helix. Perhaps that is why they were denied the name in this story? Russell also script edits The Sarah Jane Adventures and so it is nice to see him tying up the two shows with a similar theme/monster. Stuart is so deeply uncharismatic that I could understand precisely why Cheryl has been seduced by Trueman's showbiz lifestyle, possession aside.

Result: Maybe I'm getting soft as I get older or maybe tastes change because I had something of an allergic reaction to this story when it was first broadcast but I find with each subsequent viewing I enjoy it more and more. Now my opinion has taken a 180 and I find it a lot of fun, packed full of great dialogue, some surprisingly mature details and a great role for all the regulars. An old friend introduced me to all manner of fascinating children's television from the sixties, seventies and eighties and one of the reasons that this was so enjoyable was because it had the rollicking atmosphere of adventure and fun that those shows also employed. There's a definite The Tomorrow People/BUGS/Tripods feel of not trying to venture too deep beneath the surface but provide an hour of top class entertainment. Fraudulent astrologist turns galactic representative and tries to seduce the world with the power of the stars. That premise could be picked up by practically any show that is willing to give it a go. With the Sarah Jane Adventures you get the bonus of robust characterisation, top notch acting and a production that will convince you that this allurement has consequences for the entire world. If there was any fault I would say that the second episode plays along familiar lines (possession by aliens was the tagline of both The Christmas Invasion and SJA's own Invasion of the Bane) and Russ Abbot, although giving 100%, does (understandably given Trueman's monumental ego) occasionally trips over into hammery. I do also think that Michael Kerrigan's direction is a step down from the rest of the series, although it is nowhere near as apparent as it was with his work on season 26 of Doctor Who. All told one of the few stories where my opinion has radically changed and whilst not top flight SJA it maintains the quality of the series: 8/10

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