Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Gift written by Rupert Laight and directed by Alice Troughton

This story in a nutshell: Never look a gift horse in the mouth...especially when it is from the Blathereen.

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: Like The Curse of Peladon where the Doctor was mistrustful of the Ice Warriors because he had only encountered their aggressive side before, Sarah Jane is initially mistrustful of the Blathereen and their apparent good intentions. When aliens from a particular planet have tried to murder over and over again it is perfectly natural to build up a prejudice against them.  Sarah is suspicious until the Rakweed is produced and she is seduced by the idea of curing the world of poverty and doing some lasting good for the planet. She isn't too bothered about the fame this gift would bring her but the good she could do for the world. She is a genuinely altruistic individual, a rarity in science fiction. Mind you she learnt from the best. I'm pleased that her paranoia keeps her cautious though, wondering if she has been tainted by alien attacks into think that every charitable act has a darker meaning. If she had simply accepted the Rakweed without comment I would start questioning whether she was fit to protect the planet. She's been a reporter creating the news for so long that Sarah is a little afraid of making the Rakweed public and becoming front page news herself. When she realises that the Rakweed is dangerous she has a few cutting words for Mr Smith. For Sarah Jane this is two pronged attack; the possibility of losing her son and the planet she has sworn to protect. When her sons life is in danger, Sarah Jane means business and she takes up arms against the Blathereen (okay it is only loaded with vinegar but it would have the same effect on the creatures as a bullet would on a human). As is often the case Sarah tries to give her foes a chance to redeem themselves but true to their nature they press on and have to be dealt with. And this story has a particularly messy solution. And yet she still apologises and thinks there should have been a better way to end this. The final grinning shot of Elizabeth Sladen made me blink away tears...she looks absolutely beautiful.

Sarah's Gang: Rani is the one who soothes Sarah Jane's concerns and convinces her that the Blathereen coming to dinner might be fun. Clyde, as ever, displays hidden talents. Let's get him signed up to Masterchef if he can lay on a banquet that satisfies an alien delegation. What isn't surprising is Clyde trying to sneak K.9 into school to help him with his exam, against the dogs will. There is a real effort to give Luke some development before he takes a sabbatical from the series. In his last three stories before his presence on the show is reduced we experience his first proper argument with Sarah Jane (Mona Lisa's Revenge), his first illness (the Gift) and his first nightmares (The Nightmare Man). Note the gorgeous chemistry between Anjili Mohindra and Daniel Anthony. That is just going to get more potent next year. Kudos to Tommy Knight too, who truly convinces that he is on the brink of death as the infected Luke.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We absolutely adore foreign food!'
'Shepherds are a delicacy on this world?'
'We might not be able to use text books but nobody said anything about a super intelligent robot from the year 5000.'
'Small as Earth is it is still a useful plot of land.'
'Disintegration successful' 'You don't say.'

The Good: Talk about hitting the ground running... The Pharos Institute is a staple of this series at this point, first appearing in the season one finale and being utilised right up until the season five debut. Isn't it wonderful how this episode initially convinces you that this is going to be another Slitheen pantomime? Cue audible groans from a certain portion of the audience that can't stomach an alien with problems with their gaseous odours. It quickly evolves into something quite different that just happens to involve characters in the Slitheen costumes, Laight subverting your expectations by having the Blathereen turn up and save Sarah Jane and her friends. How nice for this show to continue to take elements of Doctor Who and give them extra layers of back story. I realise that most of the time the reason for this is because the costumes are available from Doctor Who and it is an economical way of ensuring an alien presence in the show but it has the brilliant side effect of inducing excitement from Doctor Who fans who enjoy the appearances of the Sontarans, Judoon and Slitheen. The Sarah Jane Adventures has managed to take all of these races and given them additional depth. Especially the Slitheen/Blathereen, a race that is built for a child friendly programme and that have appeared in more episodes of this series than in the parent show they sprung from. I really enjoyed them in Aliens of London/World War Three and Boom Town but I have to say the race has been utilised far more successfully in this series where they can run with the more juvenile aspects without apology. Their method of trying to turn the planet into cash is catchy and it is rare to come across such a cheeky race (most of them are played for scares) that just happen to murder people in their wake. The long shot of the baby Slitheen running an entire length of corridor is gorgeous, brilliantly unapologetic. This is how this species should have been treated all along, not packaged as the latest big bad but as characters in their own right. It is amazing how much more palatable they are as a result. Mind you thanks to some rehearsal, the costumes have been perfected at this point and look striking and convincing on screen. Not only that but the series has managed to attract names as impressive as Simon Callow and Miriam Margoyles to play Tree and Leaf, outstanding actors of a calibre that you would not expect to find doing voiceover work for a programme on CBBC. It is their vocal talents that make the perfect finishing touches on these characters and what allows us to be fooled into a false sense of security as to their intentions. The idea of Slitheen bounty hunters from Raxicoribophalibatorious is an engaging one, and I would have enjoyed subsequent appearances had this turned out to be a genuine offer of help from Tree and Leaf.  The first episode of The Gift is a complete change of pace for an SJA story, focussing on comedy and character drama and leaving the scares for the last five minutes. It is hard to tell how much of what they tell Sarah and her friends about their planet is true but there is some intriguing back story about Raxacoricofallapatorious. Apparently the planet had quite the reputation before the Slitheen bribed their way into power and spoilt things. What the Blathereen are offering is an end to poverty with a plant that can grow in the harshest of conditions. It's a world shaping gift that would fundamentally change things on Earth forever. Would it cause the planet to be even more overpopulated? Would current societies in the grip of hunger become a powerful presence? Would our perception of the Third World change forever? How wonderful that this show can get me thinking in such a a story about big baby faced aliens offering a present of a flower. Between them, Rupert Laight and Alice Troughton manage to turn the Rakweed (on screen little more than an inoffensive flower) into a frightening prospect, foreign pollen spitting into the atmosphere and causing mass multiplication and infecting the human race with a poison. Watch out for the glorious POV shots of pollen heading off to do their dirty work, we ride on the back of the spores as they exit the attic and soar out into the world. The swelling music, the spread of flowers, Luke's hideous rash...the story takes a turn on the dark side. Isn't it bizarre how this show takes hold of the more childish aspects of Doctor Who (the Slitheen, K.9) and makes them work? I love Rani's assertion that K.9 makes a 'right racket!' Have you heard him on those outtakes of old 70s Doctor Who stories? You might think that the make up for an alien plague on a children's programme might err on the side of caution but SJA goes all out to show how unpleasant it is. Luke is sweaty, pale and covered nasty swellings and blotches. For once Mr Smith's fanfare is appreciated and I clapped when his screen slid away to reveal his air conditioning unit to deal with the Rakweed spores. Very nicely done. Listen to the screaming sounds of the flowers as they begin seeding on Earth, like fingers running up your spine. Using the Earth as a fertile ground for their harvest of Rakweed is a brand new kind of threat to the planet and I thought I had heard them all by now. Sarah's parting shot, to exacerbate the Rakweed in the Slitheen-Blathereen's stomach and cause them to explode, is both well thought through and enjoyably messy. The reaction to the glooping has to be seen to be believed. I bet that was incredible fun to shoot.

The Bad: Was it my imagination or did Darren Mullet play his part as though he had just wandered on the set by mistake? Clyde's sneaky tactics to pass his test with K.9 amuses but I felt that it ate a little too much screen time in the second episode. I had some pretty abrasive teachers at school but Miss Jerome is in a league of her own. Mind you she does get her comeuppance as the Rakweed leaves its blotchy marks on her (a great shock moment). The news report that shows the infection has spread to other parts of London and I could have done with more of that sort of thing because this plague really feels at times as though it is restricted to one school and one attic. Luke's infection clears up in seconds...hmm.

The Shallow Bit: How Tommy Knight has matured. From archetype in a smock to a stylish teen in the latest gear, he has come a long way in three short seasons.

Result: 'We are sure our Rakweed will change your planet forever...' Guess who's coming to dinner? A delightful season finale that manages to successfully hoodwink the audience into thinking it isn't going to be the usual end of the world escapade...before pulling the Rakweed out of the bag. The first episode is my favourite, jettisoning the tension and concentrating on some lovely comedy and character work as the Blathereen come to tea. Alice Troughton deserves a great deal of kudos for managing to realise both the playful and the serious aspects of Laight's script, pulling off everything from a farcical dinner sequence to a mini plague in London. Troughton's direction is somewhat overlooked and it is worth noting her contribution to The Sarah Jane Adventures, bringing to life some of the most atmospheric stories (Eye of the Gorgon, The Mad Woman in the Attic, The Eternity Trap) and never once letting the show descend into a pantomime. A shame that this would be her last contribution to the show but it is a nice adventure to go out on, one that allows her to show how versatile a director she is. In comparison to the unique tone of the episode one, the conclusion plays along similar lines to any other contagion story (albeit toned down a little for the target audience) but I have to give the actors credit for convincing about the severity of the epidemic. Another example of the high standard of this show, The Gift is not the best SJA series finale (The Lost Boy & Goodbye, Sarah Jan Smith take those honours) but it is filled to bursting with memorable scenes, great dialogue, fantastic character interaction and some well achieved scares. All told it is rather wonderful: 8/10

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