Saturday, 9 January 2016

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith written by Clayton Hickman & Gareth Roberts and directed by Joss Agnew

This story in a nutshell: Sarah Jane grows ill and a new replacement arrives…

Until Next Time…Miss Smith: This is probably the most bitter pill for fans of the character and the show to swallow. A story that features the slow deterioration and near death of our beloved Sarah Jane, mirroring the events that would happen to Elisabeth Sladen in less than a year. Enough time has passed now for me to be able to put my emotions aside and watch this as a piece of escapism in its own right (and a damn good one it is too) and regardless it was an extremely brave move (bravery was something this show was never short of) to destabilise the children watching the show by forcing them to endure the increasing obsolescence and infirmity of their heroine. It gives Elisabeth Sladen the chance to get her teeth into some proper acting and it ends the strongest season of the show on a bittersweet, elegiac note. At the time (before Sladen’s demise) I thought it was a very bold piece of work and since her death I think it stands as a terrific example of the new areas they explored with the character and the actress.

Hickman and Roberts prove what an effective unit they have become to the point that Sarah barely needs to tell them what to do when the latest extraterrestrial crisis hits. Writing out Luke has had the pleasing side effect that Sarah Jane is basically the female Doctor we have always been promised with two hip, likable companions of her own. Its great to note that Sarah Jane isn’t so perfect that she can’t help but feel a pang of jealousy when somebody turns up who can do her job as good as she does. Its these little prickly imperfections that keep her real. She’s also not above admitting when she is wrong and holds out a hand of friendship when she realises that together they would be quite a team. I love how the story subtly hints at Sarah’s growing senility – leaving the handbrake on, getting forgetful, losing herself in her thoughts – things that anybody could do but they soon stack up until you realise something is wrong. Suddenly she’s behaving in a very irrational way, enjoying alien incursions a little too much and handing out guns to repel them. The most gutting moment comes when Sarah cannot even remember the Doctor’s name, the most important man ever to walk into her life. When she admits that her life has made her ill it is clear that she needs to step down or at least have a rest – this is not the same woman that we share adventures with week in, week out. I have never felt more for the character than when she begs Ruby to let her speak to her son one last time. Its nice to see that she hasn’t lost her bite when things return to normal, condemning Ruby to a life of solitude in her prison cell in space.

Journalist in Training: Rani and Sarah share a close bond now and she’s not going to be put off when her mentor tries to shrug off the idea that anything is wrong with her and Sarah knows it. All that CBBC acting is tossed out of the window as Mina Anwar aces the scene where she tries to comfort Rani after Sarah has ‘run away.’ Its astonishing that a children’s series is capable of moments of choking depth like this and Gita admitting that she is envious of her daughters relationship with Sarah Jane but it makes her happy that she is happy. Its Gita’s shining moment in the series.

Graphic Artist: Clyde’s anger towards Rani when Sarah Jane has left feels very real because its another example of a parental figure in his life walking away from him without a thought to his feelings and you always wind up lashing out at those closest to you. The message that he leaves on his phone when he thinks he is going to die is very touching and its superbly played by Daniel Anthony. I especially love the fact that he is so selfless about his impending death, insisting that Sarah Jane doesn’t blame herself for it. And we all know he was going to admit how he feels about Rani with his dying breath.

Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby: A star turn from Julie Graham who has to step into the series and out Sarah Jane Elisabeth Sladen. To her credit she is confident, stylish, resourceful and winning and it’s a long way into the story before you even suspect that Ruby is up to no good. Had things not transpired the way they did there was certainly enough space in the show to accommodate such an engaging new character, an ally for Sarah Jane. There are lots of lovely touches that reminded me of the remote Sarah Jane from Invasion of the Bane – criticising the choice of working with children and there is a direct steal as Gita calls out to Ruby as she heads to her car just as Maria and Alan did to Sarah in the pilot. Watching this story for a second time is very rewarding because the way Ruby twists her dialogue so that her nom de plume is parody of Sarah Jane whilst she is slow sucking them life out of the real article is very cruel. Mocking and devouring. Scenes of Ruby striking up a great relationship with Clyde and Rani with Sarah Jane watching on wistfully should be agonising but they judged perfectly, given the right edge of acceptance on her part. Watch how Graham’s performance twists uncomfortably from naturalistic (when Sarah Jane insists that she takes over from her) to pure villainous (revealing that she was responsible). There are very few top notch villains in Doctor Who these days but the way Ruby enjoys torturing Sarah Jane both physically and emotionally puts her up on a pedestal. The idea of Ruby taking Sarah Jane’s place but aiding the alien invaders rather than fighting them is so delicious I wish we had the time to watch that in action. She’s so malicious its not enough to tell Sarah Jane she is going to break Clyde and Rani’s heart…she makes her watch it as well. ‘I almost upsetted myself…’ she says as she gleefully chokes back a sob, soaking up the angst she is causing. What a great villain. She loves playing with the kids too, not even bothering with the pretence that she is anything other than a baddie with Clyde. The cat and mouse game between her and Rani where both pretends that everything is normal had me howling with laughter.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I can’t put a sign on the dark side of the moon saying ‘DON’T INVADE THIS WEEK BECAUSE OL’ SMITH IS ON HER HOLS.’
‘They want all the water? Go ahead – drink up! Mineral wealth that way! Colonise? Pick a continent!’
‘With a team like this I think I can go on forever…’ and you will.

The Good: They call it the Ealing Triangle because so many unusual and otherworldly events have transpired here. Its great to see SJA has built up enough mythology to be able to reference previous adventures with such conviction. Joss Agnew’s direction always stretches way beyond that of a kids TV show but his handling of the Dark Horde approach is something else. I especially liked the dramatic crane shot across the scrapyard and how their scare tactic bolts reach out of the TV to hit the audience. Qetesh is basically the most insidious villain that Sarah Jane has ever confronted because it drains away all the things that make her such a delightful character – excitement and a lust for life. She is basically the anti-Russell T Davies, trying eliminate all that desire for adventure (‘a trip of a lifetime’) that he injected back into the public consciousness. A giant stomach pulsating in a cellar should be pure b-movie but it works but the effects work is just grotesque enough to make it work. Tossed out into space in a prison no larger than the average toilet and forced to float about for all eternity – no wonder Ruby was vengeful. It allows the story to stretch beyond the Earth and affords some simple but effective visuals of the ship hanging in space with Clyde running out of oxygen. Luke’s return to the show, far more mature than when he left it, is a moment of pure triumph. The only story ever where a meteor attack on the Earth is the way that they defeat the bad guy. It shits all over the ‘angelic Doctor fed by positive vibes’ ending of Last of the Time Lords and then goes back for seconds.

The Bad: Kids are very perceptive and don’t need things spelt out to them so Clyde’s ‘she’s exactly like you’ with regards to Ruby really wasn’t necessary. Regardless of its ambitious storytelling, I’m very pleased that this did not wind up being the final Sarah Jane Adventure. It would have been a little too realistic to end the series on such an melancholic note.

Result: ‘My story is finished…’ A strong end to a near peerless season of SJA, Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith might be hard to watch in the wake of Elisabeth Sladen’s death but it stands up as a superior slice of children’s drama and one that isn’t afraid to take real risks. The first half is beautifully paced to give Sarah Jane’s senility a chance to spread with conviction and only twists into a dangerous situation when we realise just how much Ruby has been responsible for. We’ve seen iniquitous harpies (the delightful Mrs Wormwood), duplicitous UNIT operatives and even Sarah Jane herself take the mantle of villainy but this is still the closest the show ever got to producing a anti-heroine worthy of the titular character. Ruby is insidious, has an appetite for cruelty and is played with relish and conviction by Julie Graham. Had the series continued she would have been a dead cert for a return appearance. The script is remarkably efficient; leaving room for character drama, development, the triumphant return of an old character, new aliens, a trip into space and even time to subvert the standard splurging gag. If this sounds incredibly packed then marvel at how Joss Agnew so stylishly holds it all together, delivering a polished final result that will convince you this show commands a much larger budget than in reality. The strongest finale since The Lost Boy and proof that this show was delivering the goods right up to the end. And for those of you who hated the end of Last of the Time Lords you should definitely give this a watch – the climax is its antithesis as Luke scares the population of the Earth into gorging Ruby to death: 9/10

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