Friday, 8 May 2015

The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Graeme Harper

This story in a nutshell: A time fissure leads Sarah Jane to make a terrible mistake with terrible consequences for the planet…

Lovely Lis: There was some lovely foreshadowing for this story in The Day of the Clown (where she tells Luke that her parents died when she was very young) and The Mark of the Berserker (she doesn’t chastise Clyde for exposing his dad to their secret because that’s exactly what she would like to have done given half the chance) and when Sarah Jane realises where the time portal has led her – to a point when her mum and dad were still alive – she has to physically stop herself from trotting off and seeing them no matter how irresistible the urge. Luke is right, Sarah Jane is not good at hiding how she feels but that is one of things I love about Lis Sladen’s performance, there is no pretence and what you see is what you get. Isn’t it great that rather than just making up new adventures for my favourite companion the writers are taking the opportunity to deepen her character and give her some background. This character that we all thought we knew so well is still full of surprises. Sarah Jane was born in the village of Foxgrove and one afternoon in August 1951 her parents got into their car and drove off leaving their baby behind. There was an accident with a tractor and they both died…and now we are going to find out why. As a result her Aunt Lavinia brought her up (The Time Warrior) who was her dads sister and the family genius but she was never one place long enough to lick a stamp (K.9 and Company). Lavinia always said that they were the best parents in the world but Sarah Jane couldn’t help wondering if she was covering up for them because that day they just upped and left their baby alone. Brought up by her aunt you can see how Sarah grew up so smart and determined to be a career woman, this all dovetails beautifully with the portrayal in her early Doctor Who stories. She has never told anybody about her childhood before, not even the Doctor. Sarah Jane knows that stepping back into your past is so dangerous (thank you, exactly the sort of common sense that was missing in Father’s Day – ‘Oh I know we’ll go back and see your dads death. Oh I know lets go back and do it again so you can save him!’) and that this is all too convenient – oh she’s a clever lass alright. She has to give herself a good rational reason to go but the lure of meeting her parents is strong enough. We learn how her parents met – Barbara was working in a tea shop and Eddie used to come in every day for milky tea and a teacake and leave her love notes. Lis Sladen will break your heart as she watches her parents enthusing over her daughter, the emotion is so overwhelming that she has to part company with them. She knows she has saved the lives of so many people (citing miners on Peladon and all those people that drank Bubbleshock) and doesn’t understand why life is so cruel that the two people she wants to save more than anything are destined to die. Sarah wonders if this is her reward for doing so much good, the something for her at the end of all the struggles. To Elisabeth’s credit Sarah sounds completely justified in sabotaging the car that should kill her mum and dad despite the fact that we know this is all going to go horribly wrong. I loved her comment that if she thinks about this properly (as Luke suggests) she will change her mind. She gets to tell her mum that she is more than she ever hoped she would be. She admits that she could never have sent them off to die but the one they nobody counted on was how brilliant they would be by choosing to forfeit their lives. That’s another great thing about this story – it doesn’t have to have Sarah Jane change her mind about asking her parents to sacrifice themselves, she vehemently refuses to make that choice for them right until the end.

Boy Genius: As though she needs any more temptation to see her parents Luke is constantly whispering in her ear to do it because she may never get another chance.

Graphic Artist: Clyde makes me howl with laughter as he references other shows/movies and his sudden cry of ‘Jumanji!’ when they are trying to open the time fissure is brilliant. He has always felt like saving the world were all in a days work but seeing the Earth a blasted heath really affect him and drives home the consequences of their adventures. When he gets a kiss from Rani he makes a note to be heroic more often.

Journalist in Training: Rani really wants to step back in time just to see what it was like but Sarah insists that it is too dangerous. Rani comments that she used to travel in time all the time but her mentor stresses that was with the Doctor who knew what he was doing…most of the time. When Clyde says they should make a list of all of Sarah Jane’s enemies Rani suggests it shouldn’t take them any more than fifteen years!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘That’s time travel. Jet lag you wouldn’t believe.’
‘The Trickster walked through the Abbots Gateway and sucked the life out of the world.’ 
‘Yes, hi, ethnic person in the fifties – hello!’
‘That was my mum and dad saving the world. Something we Smith’s can’t help doing.’

The Good: Its nice to see that this is a completely new kind of threat with a time fissure opening in a London railway station and a little boy dashing into our world from the 50s in the breathlessly frantic opening. Sarah Jane says it has happened before with missing people lost in time and she would experience it herself in the knockout season four episode Lost in Time (appropriately enough). Graeme Harper is the perfect director for the Sarah Jane Adventures because he has a way with the lens that makes the show look as though it has a hundred times the budget it really has and his location work in the first episode is warm, colourful and gorgeous to look at. Like they had really stepped back into a perfect 50s summer, his crane shots as Sarah Jane and Luke enter the village and the tracking shot along the river to the fete are truly impressive. The return of the Trickster is something that we had all been anticipating because he was such a marvellous, chilling villain the first time round and his raison d’etre to manipulate the timelines led to some very emotive storytelling. Fortunately Gareth Roberts has cottoned on to an even more tragic concept this time round and fully justifies his return. Sarah’s parents are perfectly cast and Rosanna Lavelle and Christopher Pizzey give incredibly naturalistic, heart-warming performances. You believe that these are real people with a life outside of this story (or not as the case may be) and they have the right mixture of kindness, scepticism and London swagger to be the ill fated parents of one of TVs finest. Also impressive is Georgie Glen who screams 1950s as the prim and proper (but surprisingly chipper) Mrs King. I cannot believe this is a show going out on CBBC commenting on rationing, sexual politics, racism and the Cold War. You realise with a sinking feeling that this is the day that they die and Sarah Jane is present – who wouldn’t want to save their mum and dad if they had the chance? This show always chooses to spend its money in the right places and the first episode ends with the jaw dropping sight of London as a blasted wilderness with Big Ben a shattered ruin jutting out of the ground and dwarfing Sarah Jane and Luke. Sarah Jane saving her parents was only a tiny thing and it would have been ridiculous to suggest that their survival would cause the devastation of the whole world and that is addressed – Foxgrove is on one of the universal fault lines and Sarah’s interference gave the Trickster a path from the limbo dimensions to the Earth where he could ravage the planet. Roberts even puts in a little line about when time going wrong it puts people in the same place as much as possible – I love how well thought through these sci-fi clichés are explained and its about time Meena Anwar had a juicier role than usual. Even the Graske who is the most comical character on this show is re-invented as a tragic victim of the Trickster, saved from death at the last minute and trapped in a life of slavery. Turns out that religious sites or hallowed ground is where the Web of Time is at its weakest and as the Trickster materialises in the Gateway it feels genuinely as though the end of the world is nigh. Brilliantly the show gives its guest characters some real astuteness and Barbara figures out that there isn’t something wrong with the world, there is something wrong with them as everything they touch turns rotten. Rather than take the easy route of having Sarah Jane fix the problem herself her parents realise from the snippets that they have gathered that they are the reason things have turned apocalyptic and they choose to sacrifice themselves to ensure that their daughter gets a proper chance in life. The heartbreaking truth is that they didn’t abandon her, they saved her. As her parents say goodbye to Sarah Jane as a child and as an adult it is one of the powerhouse moments of this series, head spinning and tear jerking. The final shot of the writing on the back of the photo of her parents is absolutely perfect; Mr Smith, I need you. A staple of the series given real complexity and emotional weight. Bravo.

The Bad: The TARDIS gag feels completely out of place in the fatalistic second episode and probably should have been cut.

The Shallow Bit: When Sarah says she must be out of her mind Im not sure if she is talking about travelling backwards in time or the outrageous pink outfit she has chosen to wear. Fortunately she has the gumption to pull it off but it was touch and go for a second. ‘You used to wear that?’ says Luke, ‘Seriously?’ The nom de plume of Victoria and David Beckham…that made me choke the first time I heard it! Doesn’t the human guise of the Graske look like a young Harry Potter?

Result: Every year the Sarah Jane Adventures knocks stories out of the park which connects with me emotionally (its usually written by Gareth Roberts but all the Joe Lidster scripts qualify too) and The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith achieves that beautifully whilst also playing about with some weighty science fiction concepts, creating a convincing period environment and breaking your heart with its characterisation of Sarah Jane. Considering this is supposed to be a kids show the approach to the material is extremely mature and as a result these stories are tremendously re-watchable, full of integrity and extremely enjoyable. The plot keeps twisting and evolving; it builds Sarah’s dilemma in the first episode and suddenly becomes a race against time to stop the consequences of her actions in the second. Elisabeth Sladen deserves real kudos for continuing to show new sides to her character and it looks like she is really enjoying the chance to take Sarah Jane to new depths. This is smart, emotional storytelling that really packs a punch and SJA at its absolute best: 10/10

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