Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sky written by Phil Ford and directed by Ashley Way

This story in a nutshell: What would Sarah Jane do if a baby was dropped on her doorstep?

Until Next Time...Miss Smith: This is the first time since Luke's departure where we have seen how lonely Sarah Jane is when the day comes to an end and Clyde and Rani have gone home. With Luke in university she is rattling around in that big old house on her own again. Obviously they are paving the way for the introduction of Sky, filling a gap in Sarah's life that she has come to get a great deal of pleasure from. She always thought that babies looked a bit rubbery. Sarah has been an excellent role model for mothers over the past five years and I really sat up and took notice when she declared Miss Myers an unfit parent - it shows how far she has come from those early days of Revenge of the Slitheen where she wasn't sure how to communicate with Luke. How crabby is Sarah Jane with Mr Smith in this story? I like the cold edge to her, it stops her getting too mumsy. Never break in the same place a reporter she never breaks that superstition.

Sarah's Gang: This is the second time that Luke has mentioned Sanjay (The Death of the Doctor was the first instance) and Russell T. Davies has since admitted that this was paving the way to Luke coming out and having a boyfriend after CBBC asked for a strong role model for children who were struggling with their sexuality. It would have been great for this to have come to fruition but as least they managed to achieve their goal with Benny on Wizards vs. Aliens and I thought it was handled very adroitly. Luke was a strong character and would have made a wonderful role model for gay teens. Comparing Rani to Sky is a useful experience because she was only a handful of years older than her when she joined the series in Day of the Clown but now she has matured into a striking young woman. Can you imagine Gita's reaction if Rani started asking for advice about baby's? Rani sees a natural father in Clyde...which would have led to The Thirteenth Floor later in the season, a story where they would have been trapped in another dimension where time ran at a different rate and they would have grown old and had children together. How interesting to see the seeds being sown in these early episodes.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'She cried earlier and every bulb in the house blew...'
'I'm in the middle of a nuclear power station and I'm carrying baby bang-bang!'
'You remember when you were a baby?' 'Well it was only about half an hour ago.'
'There are other ways to end a war. You just have to want peace more than death.'

All Change: There is a deliberate shift in tone from the latter half of series four to the debut of series five that had me worried at the time but in hindsight was precisely the right thing to do. Series four saw this show grow up exponentially. Luke had gone off to university (but not before a final stunning coming of age story) which left Clyde and Rani (played by two older actors) and Sarah Jane to front the show. It felt remarkably sophisticated, especially given the standard of the writing and themes that were being explored (nostalgia, romance, fate, dementia). The one thing that was missing with Luke absent was a character who was going on a learning curve, a character that was growing up just like the children who would be watching this show to relate to (as fantastic as Clyde and Rani are as characters they are probably just a little too old for the younger ones to identify with). Enter Sky, the latest addition to Sarah Jane's family and somebody who isn't even from Earth to experience everything fresh during their adventures. They avoid any comparisons with Luke by casting a girl and I'm sure if the series had continued we would have seen a very different emotional journey than the one that Luke went on. Looking back I saw the inclusion of Sky as a regressive step since the show had grown up so much but I was wrong - the kids need an identification figure and in only three adventures Sky proves her worth on the series. Had it continued to the end of the season we would have been spoilt with a surprise twist that Sky is the progeny of the Trickster who inserted her into Sarah Jane's life to bring her down for good. In my head that story took place and it was bloody marvellous (as I'm sure it would have been). Any doubts I might have had about the series dumbing down were soon addressed in the next story (bizarrely another Phil Ford script and his most assured and mature entry in the series) and any series that can spend its final three adventures examining parenthood, homelessness and slavery poignantly without talking down to its core audience is doing something very right in my book.

The Good: Trust this show to attempt to re-stage the opening of Terminator and not even blink. An invisible robot screaming down to Earth in a fireball, striking a used car scrap yard with an almighty explosion and marching from the wreckage. There's a great theme for the Metal kind too, Sam Watts' music continuing to give the series real scope. A clever design too, partly a costume (the visor, the armour) and partly make up (the mouth painted silver) to give the impression of something part machine and part person. The idea of dumping a baby on Sarah Jane's doorstep was obviously too good an opportunity to miss. Her reaction is a scream. And then Rani's. And then Clyde's. Giving the baby such an influence over her surroundings depending on her mood is great fun, bringing Clyde's sense of whimsy to the fore to keep her amused and stop her reducing Bannerman Road to a pile of rubble. Another nuclear power station for Sarah Jane to play in? It's an impressive location and looks vast on screen. Christine Stephen-Daly is giving an operatic turn as Miss Myers, decked out in outrageous finery as though she has just stepped out of Dynasty but even with some ripe dialogue she manages to contain her performance to a degree so it doesn't trip over into panto. She another in a long line of impressive female villains in the series (Mrs Wormwood, Sister Helena, Mona Lisa, Colonel Karim, Ruby White), the writers enjoying having Sarah squaring up to her own sex. She's pure CBBC but I just love every appearance of Floella Benjamin as Professor Rivers ('Wait for me! I'm in wellingtons!'). For once an invisible creature is a creative decision rather than a budgetary requirement...after all they have already spent the money bringing the imposing Metalkind robot to life. There is a phenomenal physical effect that sees Sky tossing the Metalkind across the room and leaving a robot sized dent in the wall. How cruel is the idea of creating a biological weapon through a child, an innocent harbinger of doom for the Metalkind. What sort of parent could conceive a child and turn it into a genocidal device? I'm pleased that somebody pointed out that Sky's curiosity about the world is familiar and it is best coming from Clyde who took Luke under his wing in the early seasons. A species that has evolved from metal...I don't think I have ever seen that idea explored before and yet it is such an obvious and exciting notion. You can see how Sky's abilities could come in very handy on these adventures...what is interesting is that in the next two stories it isn't her supernatural ability that it is utilised but her empathy as a child. Interestingly we learn that the flesh kind (possibly humanity?) in the future raped the planet of the Metalkind to create weapons - the war started because they decided to protect themselves. Phil Ford has obviously been taking lessons from Terrance Dicks, the grand master of stacking up threats that need to be overcome at the climax of a story. A nuclear reactor that has gone critical, an invasion of the world by revenge seeking robots and the possible death of a child who has been created as a weapon. Whoever the Shopkeeper and the Captain were, they were a brilliant addition to the series. This story ends on a real high with their appearance.

The Bad: In a story that has characters as broad as Professor Rivers and Miss Myers, it may have been a mistake for the tramp to be played quite this ravingly. It feels like beyond the regular everybody is being characterised to an extreme. 'The end is nigh!' The opening half of episode one feels like this might be a deeper piece than it turns out to be. Once the action moves to the power station we are in pure action adventure territory.

The Shallow Bit: Doesn't Elizabeth Sladen look radiant dashing down her drive in her robe?

Result: Returning to its roots as a children's TV show after a year of sophisticated storytelling, Sky is the most kiddie friendly Sarah Jane Adventure since...well since the last Phil Ford script. Don't mistake that for a lack of quality though, there is absolutely nothing wrong with pitching a story at the target audience as long as it is done with some consideration, which Sky clearly has been. Any story featuring the fallout of a genocidal war and a commentary on bad parenting isn't exactly simplifying things but it does so be tethering its adult themes to a story featuring an invisible robot, a ruthless harpy from a another world, a nuclear power plant threatening to meltdown, war on Earth and an ex Playschool presenter camping it up in wellies. That's quite a lot to pack in and my one serious complaint is that every character that isn't a regular on this show (excluding Sky) is written in such an extreme fashion that it is hard to take them seriously...even when the situation calls on us to do so. Sky herself is a marvellous creation, well written and cast and you can already see lots of potential with the character and a chance to rekindle that audience identification with the core audience of this show. Phil Ford is a reliable writer and always brings something interesting to the table, this might not be one of his strongest efforts but Sky shows that five years on even a middling Sarah Jane Adventure is good cut above average. Highlights include the phenomenal realisation of the Metalkind (including a great theme, physical effects and a striking costume/make up), strong support from Clyde and Rani (as ever), some stunning location work at a power station, the sense of whimsy surrounding Sky, both as a baby and a grown up child and the surprise appearance of the Shopkeeper and the Captain at the climax. A fun start to a new year: 7/10

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