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Jan 11, 2007

Invasion of the Bane

First off, many thanks to Neil for giving us such a fantastic weblog. It has  so far provided a forum for many balanced (and unbalanced) analyses of Doctor Who and its related spin-offs in various media. And many thanks to Damon for taking over the baton - or the rock, depending on your point of view - from Neil.

I have spent the last almost two years pondering writing a review, and on the showing of the Sarah Jane Adventures pilot I finally decided to bite the bullet and attempt one. As BTS reviews go, this one is probably fairly pedestrian, but I hope to loosen up a bit as I become more familiar with writing (again). A doctoral thesis was almost enough to make me never want to see another printed word. Almost, but not quite...

Judging by the quality of the transmitted Sarah Jane Adventure Part I, you could say that that was where the Who production team appear to have been focusing their creativity and energy over the last 12 months or more. The story didn’t have too many glaring holes, the acting was good (especially Lis Sladen), the villains were suitably villainous, and I grew to care about at least two of the characters (Sarah Jane and Maria) in less than 60 minutes, although Sarah Jane has previous form, it must be said!

Spiky to begin with, the crabby old so-and-so next door (well, across the road, but it’s essentially the same thing) was led out of herself by an engaging child. By the end of the episode, Sarah Jane had acquired a surrogate family (I wonder what happened to her aunt Lavinia’s ward, Brendan?) and a potentially more humanly emotional anchor in a - to her - lonely and alien world. Alien in the sense that her immediately-pre-episode friends appear to be an extra-terrestrial alien of questionable provenance (a Torchwood spill-over) and two computers, one at least of which is not of this world (although K-9 Mk 1 admittedly did originate in the same solar system).

This suggests that she had lost touch with the rest of the human world, or at least that there were no important humans in her life, unless we get some gap-filling between the coven and the school. If Sarah Jane has spent the last twenty-five years or so without any real human friends, however, it’s amazing that she wasn’t totally off-the-planet and incarcerated somewhere. K-9 having unhappily fallen into a Disney/FOX "black hole" with very restricted visiting hours, and the departing alien having been an escapee from the Cardiff Rift, that really left "Mr Smith". "Mr Smith" is a yet-to-be-opened box of tricks as far as the viewer is concerned: perhaps he will be revealed to have a character like that of Orac, Avon help us.

Sarah’s eventual acceptance of the girl, Maria (and the strange alien-assembled "human"), reminded me a bit of the scene at the end of Survival when the Seventh Doctor realises where his home really is, and accepts it. Yasmin Paige’s Maria not only seems to accept who Sarah is, but offers to give her something back that she arguably hasn't had since meeting the Doctor: human warmth and friendship. You couldn’t exactly say that Sarah embraced her former sidekick Brendan with any degree of warmth or friendship, but that’s a bit unfair, seeing that the BBC rather cruelly decided to chop the series for which A Girl’s Best Friend was the pilot. In a way the posited portrayal of Sarah Jane’s "return to humanity" was, for me, as affecting as the end of School Reunion.

Co-writers Russell T Davies and Gareth Roberts carefully build on Sarah Jane's experiences with the Doctor, but at the same time allow those who had never heard of her before to accept that she has that background. This episode, and to a lesser degree Who 2006’s School Reunion, also heals the breach of faith that the BBC made when it cancelled the "original" Sarah Jane Investigates.  Some would argue that the way in which Sarah Jane Investigates was presented (especially the risible opening titles sequence) was in itself a breach of faith. This may have been one of Davies’ overt intentions with Invasion of the Bane: indeed, maybe Davies is trying to heal a breach of faith that some people have perceived that he has made with both series. In that case, he has a lot of ground still to cover.

"Luke" the "Archetype" is so far only a cipher, but given that he’s the supposed amalgam of circa 10,000 different personalities, perhaps he is going to be the audience’s "touchstone", although Maria is really the obvious character to fulfill this role. It was rather hard to judge Thomas Knight’s performance in a character that by definition is a work-in-progress.

Like the panto-villain in The Runaway Bride, the aliens played their parts sufficiently well. They stuck out a mile and a half, but given the CBBC target audience they were supposed to. The "pre-6 p.m. watershed" monsters were well realised. Since molluscs and insects are on the same "branch" of the evolutionary "tree", the mixture of features wasn’t quite as unlikely as it would seem (although I suspect that that might have been more by accident than design, any branch of Science not being Davies' forte).

In fact, it is the care with which Invasion of the Bane has been produced that leaves one scratching one's head even more about the shortcomings both the 2006 season of Doctor Who and the now-notorious Torchwood. No arrogant smugness (Doctor Who), no cheap-thrills cynicism (Torchwood): but in the “grounding” of Sarah Jane this supposed children's program is a lot more grown-up than either of its stable-mates. It tackles loss, loneliness, fear and despair - all ingredients of "adult" drama - but in a way that allows the characters to grow and learn something about themselves and their boundaries - and other people. It does it without hitting the younger end of the audience over the head with it, and at the same time almost avoids falling into the trap of producing tacky syrup for the older end of the spectrum to become stuck in. The exception here was the daft father, who should probably be given a one-way bus ticket to a Cardiff weevil cell, along with his horrid ex-wife. Maybe she’s going to be one of the monsters that Sarah Jane & Co. will have to face off in the coming season.

Which, I suppose, honours the grand old tradition of the Children’s Television Foundation films, in making the adults into a bunch of feckless bumbling idiots. Or feckless, bumbling Weevil-food. Maybe the growing-up of the dad will be one of the forthcoming series’ sub-plots. He needs to: he was the caricature of a caricature. And if, as someone has suggested, Sarah Jane falls for him - well, more fool her. Although that might seem improbable, I refer you to what happened in Torchwood between PC Gwen Cooper and “Dr” Owen Harper ...

Unlike the supposedly adult Torchwood, I was not left feeling nearly as embarrassed by Invasion of the Bane as I have been by many 2006 series Doctor Who and Torchwood episodes, with the slight exception of the appearance of "Mr Smith" (at least he's not a paving slab). The series will no doubt find  "him" being "fleshed-out" a bit more. But PLEASE, not a la Torchwood, or as a male version of Ursula from Love and Monsters . "Strong language", explicit (well, almost) sex and buckets of giblets’n’gore do not a good drama make, even an adult one, unless there is an underlying framework to hold it together and give it some meaning and/or purpose. Structure and purpose this Sarah Jane Adventure had, and it was a great relief to be reminded that Davies can actually do it. Then again, Everything Changes had structure and seemed to be pointing towards good drama to come; instead the  (at least for the first few episodes) unsuspecting audience was served up with mostly tripe. And not very well cooked, at that.

Invasion of the Bane gives a solid, promising basis for a good series. I don’t think Davies will dare inflict anything like the Torchwood mish-mash on The Sarah Jane Adventures’ target audience, but fingers crossed that he and the rest of the production team don't drop the ball when it comes to the full series, anyway. Good luck, kids!

Comments

Next time, I promise that the post will be shorter! I thought I'd hacked a lot out, but not as much as I should!

And I'm still learning what various buttons do, so apologies all round!

I couldn't agree with you more, although the Christmas Special had enough of the same tone and energy as SJA, so I have some hope. Perhaps the character of Rose was dragging the scriptwriters down in Series 2? That doesn't explain Torchwood, does it?

Welcome to our motley crew. Excellent review, touching all the important points. Cracking.

Actually I wonder if Aunt Lavinia is still canon? I know she was mentioned in the Audios, but that makes me wonder if we'll meet Josh and SJS's neice, Barbara "Oracle" Gordon(ie - computer expert in a wheelchair).

LVJ: yes, Rose did seem to be problematic, possibly because she was cast against Ecclestone, not Tennant. And presumably Tennant was not cast against Piper, being the main character after all. I think that the only thing that explains Torchwood was that it was an weird experiment.

James: thanks for your kind words. I hope that I can live up to them in future.

JSG: I suspect that even if she's canon, she'd probably be dead by now. Not having read any of the novels (except for a dire Ninth Doctor one last year, that my daughter made me buy, against my better judgement), I've never heard of Barbara Gordon, although she sounds like a partially incapacitated version of Brendan. Did she honk when she laughed?

One more point. The monsters in TSJA were cute. They were so cute they reminded me of Pete Fowler's rather Lovecraftian "Monsterism" designs. This was a good thing.

Salem -- do you mean *this* Barbara Gordon?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbara_Gordon

Sorry to come so late to this, and I STILL can't remember how to post as a registered blogger instead of having to post a comment, but now would seem a good time to pull an old chestnut out of the fire - as seen at several conventions - Steve Wilson's Rule of Seven. It's a bit weird and speculative, and it tends to be us weirdie pagan types who go for it, but here goes anyway:

The rule of seven was originally developed from analysing Star Trek, but until the Sarah Jane Adventures it has never applied to Dr Who because it is not a "ship" story. No, it isn't, I'll explain.

Whether we notice or not (goes my theory) all of our expectations of good drama derives from English Language TV and Cinema, which is ultimately derived from stage drama, which is unltimately derived from the English Renaissance, the foremost writer of whom was Shakespeare. As has been demonstrated, the plays written in that period were created according to rules derived from Greek dramatic theory, translations of which had only just been made available in English, more than a hundred years after Italy (first) got their mitts on the material, which had been unavailable for ages - after the Eastern Church split from Rome, the West lost the knowledge of the Greek langauge. This was necessary to combine with the Arabic translations of Plato, Aristotle etc to rediscover the Greek classics, which were previously only known by (Latin) reputation. This is what the Renaissance was, and ours was late.

Greek drama posited four "humours" in the human character, as is well known, but also 7 character types. These corresponded to the seven planets - those objects seen in the sky moving regularly against the background of the fixed stars - The Sun, Moon and five inner planets apart from Earth. Of course, we no longer see the sun and moon as planets, but that is because we have redefined the word, not because the Greeks (or their renaissance disciples) were stupid.
Anyway, the seven planets, which also correspond to the days of the week, especially in France, Italy etc, were seen roughly as follows:

Sun - bright and heroic
Mercury - quick witted and tricky
Venus - loving and passionate
Moon - cool but healing
Mars - warlike
Jupiter - fun loving
Saturn - distant - a different type of god entirely.

From these ideas we get the words sunny, mercurial, venerial, loony, martial, jovial (Jupiter was the title of the god Jove) and Saturnine.

Now, to accept the rule of seven we do not have to BELIEVE in these planets/gods or their influence, it is enough that the Greeks and early English playwrights did, and thus our entire expectations of drama that takes on the characteristic of myth - such as sci-fi and fantasy - are shaped by the rule whether we know it or not.

We expect a "crew" of characters - the original being the archetypes - and we expect them to interact in a particular way.

To give the classic Star Trek attributes:

Original Series:

Kirk is the solar hero
Scotty is Mercurial
Uhuru (and occasionally a nurse) is Venus
Doctor McCoy was Lunar (like the moon eclipsing the sun, only he can overrule the Captain)
Spock was saturnine.
The martial and jovial role was originally kind of Sulu, but when Chekov joined they kind of shared it.

Next Gen worked much better:

Solar was Picard, who strayed far less into Jovial territory than Kirk, especially with regards the ladies. He actually had a large number of love affairs, but hardly anyone notices.
Mercury was Jordie
Venus was Troy
The moon was both blonde doctors - ideally McCoy should have been female too, but that was the 60s for you.
Mars was Worf. Originally Tasha Yarr was the Mars character, but two didn't work so they got rid of her.
Jove was Riker.
Saturn was Data. His distance from humanity was different than Spock but equally effective.
Other characters either remained minor or disappeared - whatever happened to that Vulcan woman?

With DS9 they screwed around a bit, the doctor was Jove, the 2 females kind of played Venus and Moon but various actor-issues (such as a pregnancy) intervened, Odo was clearly the Saturn character, Worf was brought back to add Mars, poor old Colin should have been Mercury, but one of the other characteristics of Mercury is that he can be a thief (Quaak)and Sisko made a good tragic hero.

Voyager was a mess. Characters strayed way outside their remit - Vulcans are good at Saturn but ultimately Seven of Nine played the role, the doctor was too irritating, Tom was the Jupiter character
but that left Kim out of the picture, etc etc.

Anyway, friends have rule-of-sevened Babylon 5, Blakes 7 is easy, the only major rule breaker was Buffy, where Joss Whedon managed up to 10 characters, but still moved them out of the way, removing Angel, Riley, Joyce, Oz....

So now the Sarah Jane Adventures finally has a crew. We have the barely human Archetype as Saturn, Sarah Jane herself as the tragic solar hero, two young females, a bolshy male, parents, a computer (Zen was the Saturn on Blake's 7) and a martial villainess - I understand Miss Wormwood is to be a regular. This could allow a more character-based drama than Dr Who, which follows a hero-and-sidekick formula found in folk tales. This is also usually cheaper.

I have great hopes.

Steve W

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