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Jan 04, 2007

Bane Of The Cosmic Phone

The Sarah Jane Adventures

Thank you, Russell. No, I mean it. You've gone and actually done this blog a great big favour in providing the perfect ammunition to whack our detractors with - because if, as they love to point out, we're just a bunch sad old Whovians clinging onto the past and paying far too much attention than is healthy in what they deem a 'children's programme', then what precisely do you call this?

Because let's face it; only in a children's programme would you get away with the least inconspicuously-disguised aliens since the Coneheads from Saturday Night Live. Imagine a world domination scheme devised by the Grebulons from Mostly Harmless after an all-night session of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. What self-respecting alien armada would advertise the crux of their entire invasion plan on a bottle of pop? Alright, so it's a paper-thin metaphor for drugs for the kids to get, but I think I'd have been insulted if Nightmare Of Eden had laid it on like this back when I was ten. So we've got the Cillit Bang of fizzy drinks with the miracle ingredient called, funnily enough, 'Bane' (snort). And like, Bane is all organic and natural so it can't possibly be bad for you, right? Ninety-eight percent of the population (check the stats) can't be wrong. Even the Blue Peter gang gets in on it in a scene that would see the BBC's license charter instantly revoked; in my day John Noakes would have had more sense, Peter Purves has battled the Daleks so he's hardly going to be taken in by some crap orange drink, and it's a proven fact that Leslie Judd never consumes anything without button sweets in. So THERE.

"In my day John Noakes would have had more sense"

Alright, simmer down. The truth is, I had to keep reminding myself while writing that this was, at heart, a children's programme. So really it's a bit churlish to have a go at the story for its quickfire pop-culture namedropping, or when it takes a left-turn into Absurd Alley, or the occasional foray into cartoon logic. Like the toilets joke; why would octopoid aliens keep a ladies' in the factory basement, much less subscribe to its unwritten code of conduct? But it's funny, and I'd much have rather have something incongrous included for the sake of real wit than for being cool.

In fact, underneath the tomfoolery and CBBC pastel colours there's quite a dark streak running through Invasion Of The Bane. Back in Liz Sladen's time on the parent show, the scripts would frequently leap through ridiculous hoops to avoid saying the dreaded 'k-word' during teatime viewing. The Barry Letts drinking game - whenever 'destroy' is said instead of 'kill', take a swig. You'll be blind drunk before episode two of The Monster Of Peladon. No such qualms for this programme where threats of nasty and violent death are spat straight out. "Find that woman and kill her properly!" The sense of danger isn't any lessened for being aimed at a younger audience; George Romero would have spat out his bourbon when the episode turned into The Empty Bottle Of Lucozade Child, but zombies don't need to eat brains to be inherently scary.

Visually, the special's a treat; slick, glossy and not inexpensive, dark when the occasion and mood calls for it, and shiny and bright otherwise. The Mill are able to pull out all the stops with the CGI Bane monsters by shrewdly saving money using existing models from the other series, the attack sequence is never less than convincing, and at least we got to see and hear the daft metal dog, however briefly. The cast give us value for money too; after School Reunion, there was never any doubt as to whether Liz Sladen would be a strong enough actress to carry her own show, and she's still the same Sarah Jane we've always had a prepubescent crush on even though there's more Aunt Lavinia about her these days. Doesn't she have mad staring eyes when she gets authoritive as well? The other adults, of course, are there mainly to prove what every twelve-year-old instinctively knows; that all parents are tossers. She's a slag and he's a wimp, but an amiable if downtrodden bloke. And while Samantha Bond could easily have hammed it up like Sarah Parish did a week ago, she keeps it down to just the right level of pantomime. Mrs Wormwood, if indeed as I hope she is a recurring villainess, will certainly be a future force to be reckoned with.

"The Barry Letts drinking game - whenever 'destroy' is said instead of 'kill', take a swig. You'll be blind drunk before episode two of The Monster Of Peladon"

The real icing on the cake though is child actors who can actually act, which is more than Who season two managed. Kelsey's a bit of a culture-shock to an unmarried BBC-educated thirtysomething with a midlife crisis; do today's preteens really talk that streetwise? Does she have to scream quite so much? And she flirts shamelessly with older men she's barely even met, including Maria's dad! Am I just showing my age here, or is this ever so slightly wrong? God, I still would with Liz Sladen, mind, so I'm probably not one to talk.

What? I thought we ALL felt like that!

The Archetype is a great creation - very Tomorrow People - but it baffles me as to why he was created at all if the Bane were able to advance their plans without him. I can only guess the Bane conquer planets like earthlings play videogames and they were after the best ending from a perfect 100% conversion score. Never mind. Kids will love the Archetype mainly because he gets to say out loud all the things they're thinking and get away with it, because he's too new and too naive yet to actually know better. Since the trailer was the only piece of advance knowledge I'd had prior to the episode, I was equally unaware of all the character names, and thus I spent the last five minutes of the programme shouting "DON'T CALL HIM ARCHIE!" at the screen, because... well, you know you couldn't it past Russel, could you?

The only real letdown to Invasion Of The Bane - and this would be true regardless of audience age - was poor pacing. Put it next to The Runaway Bride and there's no comparison in this area, and that one had a new 'temp' companion in it who was the primary focus of the episode. So what went wrong here? Rose started off at a story midpoint, while it focused on the budding relationship between the new Doctor and companion, and its forty-five minutes were still barely enough to hold it all, even with the slight plot. But without a Radio Times listing at hand, I was convinced after fifteen minutes of mad dash that Invasion Of The Bane was going to be a twenty-five minute introductory show, a lead-in into the series proper that would take the form of an episodic serial a-la old Who. But it turned into a hour which positively dragged after the halfway mark while they went through each new character introduction and individual alien thingy in turn like an itemised phone bill, for the benefit of the entranced young-'uns. It spent long enough on this that the episode had to fall back on Russell's stock-in-trade rushed ending in the last ten minutes using the most heavily-signposted object in the story; when after you've said to yourself out loud around at the twenty-minute mark, "Don't tell me they're going to destroy the place with a mobile phone", they go and destroy the place with an intergalactic mobile phone. Ho hum.

And surprisingly, there's no incidental Murray for this particular show. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, Sam Watts is more restrained but also more nondescript; there were few places where I honestly noticed any incidental music at all. Murray however does get to be his usual bombastic self with the title theme; it's lively, it's jaunty, it's a perfect understanding of the CBBC brief, and it's also COMPLETELY WASTED because the bloody continuity announcer talked right over the middle of it. As a forthcoming CBBC series, you also know full-well that the woodentops on crack will do the same every week as well as squeezing the end credits into a tiny window, making them totally unreadable. WHY MUST THEY DO THIS! GODDAMMIT THAT SHIT IS ANNOYING!

"'They tend to go in with guns blazing.' Yes, at each other, normally"

The bottom line however is, Sarah Jane Adventures is by far a better kids' programme than Torchwood is an adult one. There's more alien gubbins in Sarah Jane's attic than in the whole of Torchwood for a start, and she makes them look like the incompetent nitwits they are. With the pilot episode, shown on New Year's Day at teatime - you don't get a much more traditional 'family viewing' slot than that - it would have been hopelessly naive of Russell to assume that none of its viewers had seen anything of its sister spinoff (did I say 'sister'? More like 'inbred cousin'), but he wisely keeps such continuity to a minimum. If anything, SJA comes across as an apology, though certainly not a fob-off, to the kids for not being able to watch Jack in his own show. Just as School Reunion did earlier, Invasion Of The Bane cross-references old Who for the sake of adult nostalgia with all sorts of spoddy 'artron energy' recollections for the fangeek parents, but aside from one oblique line about 'other secret organisations', there's no direct refrerence to Torchwood at all; in fact Sarah Jane says the line specifically to distance herself from them. "They tend to go in with guns blazing." Yes, at each other, normally. Could Mister Smith hack into the Torchwood hub computer? That would be a crossover worth watching.

I'm also hoping that SJA is a sign that Doctor Who season three will be venturing further into more offworld territory, since there's no reason to have three concurrent series that all more or less earthbound. Doctor Who will need to start moving away from the contemporary housing estates, so that it retains that distinctive flavour that kept it fresh in the past for so long. Whether that means more alien planets or more historical adventures, any such change is bound to be for the better. Meanwhile, with its own down-to-earth philosophy - that excitement and adventure can be found in the most ordinary of places, essentially an analogy for childhood itself - SJA also works hard to evoke a sense of wonder that Torchwood has, by and large, been reluctant to, and is thusly the most well-suited of the three shows to the surburbia locale by a very wide margin. Dark Seasons was no fluke; this is Russell showing his real calling with what could turn out to be one of most promising, captivating and magical slices of childrens' entertainment since The Box Of Delights some twenty years ago.

Here's to the ordinary, then.

The Doctor Who Adventures Sarah Jane Smith Pullout Section has this to say about Invasion Of The Bane: "KENNY BLEW UP THE FACTORY! LOLZ!"

Comments

I watched "Invasion of the Bane" giggling gleefully to myself about how I would have loved a show when I was a kid about a mysterious older woman with a house full of weird and wonderful things, except instead of your standard witchy-stuff, it's all alien. However, it should be mentioned that I was on my fourth whiskey and cola of the evening.

In fact, I only had one real problem with the show, (and any other Yanks who downloaded the thing will know what I'm talking about): all that orange in the factory kept reminding me that I was watching, essentially, the Nickelodeon version of Doctor Who. Had the little brainwashed kid found himself covered in green slime, I would not have been surprised.

Yes, I KNEW there was something all the dayglow orange was reminding me of, but couldn't quite place - it was the Nickelodeon channel.

I was thinking Irn Bru actually...

Mind you, that is pretty spot-on, the nickelodeon bit..

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