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Oct 01, 2007

Down with the Kids

I wrote this last week after having watched both of the episodes together, but I thought I’d leave it until now to post it so as not to risk getting moaned at for spoilers and so forth.

I have not been a viewer of Children’s BBC for quite some years now – more than a decade. I just about finished with it at the end of the Broom Cupboard era back in the mid-1990s, so it was obviously quite a while since I had sat down to watch a CBBC drama. Some things never change, though – there are still flashy graphics, loud music, and chatty presenters accompanied by strange puppets. This is still, for now, the stuff that these kids’ years of nostalgia will be made of.

This is still, for now, the stuff that these kids’ years of nostalgia will be made of.

I am sure that many of you will have been struck, as I have, by just what a bizarre thing it is that this show exists at all. Five years ago, who could ever have expected that Sarah Jane Smith, still played by Elisabeth Sladen, would be starring in her own BBC One show? It’s utterly barmy, but at the same time utterly fantastic, and it just goes to show what a strange old world we live in now. What was once not even the stuff of wild fan imaginings is here and being broadcast on the BBC.

It’s fairly well known that CBBC initially approached the Cardiff production team about doing a ‘Young Doctor’ series, an approach that was mercifully cut dead by Russell T Davies lest it take away from the mystery of the character. However, whether by accident or design, I think you can see some vestiges of the idea of a ‘Young Doctor’ approach in Luke’s character. It’s partly because the young actor playing him has such a pleasingly other-worldly aspect to him at times, partly because of his huge intelligence coupled with a somewhat naïve view of interpersonal relations, but mostly I think because of his status as an outsider.

Perhaps Kelsey went to a better school.

The Doctor isn’t like us, and wants to rebel against the system, to not fit in at all if he can possibly avoid it. Luke is also different, but is desperate to conform, so here the comparison is also a contrast. And yet, I think you can well imagine the young Doctor as a bit of a social outcast back on Gallifrey, and being as keen to try and fit in as Luke is here, simply because that’s what young people are like – rebellion in general as a principle doesn’t tend to come along until later. In any case, the comparisons are perhaps only slight, but they hold well enough to add some interest and enigma to Luke.

Unlike Luke, Maria’s other sidekick from Invasion of the Bane, Kelsey, has been completely disappeared without so much as a goodbye phone call. Allegedly – and I stress allegedly because you know what Who fandom is like for groundless rumours – this was because the young actress concerned was a bit of a pest on-set for the first episode, but whatever the case it seems that she has been erased from history, Nineteen Eighty-Four style. Perhaps she went to a better school.

I can’t say I’m all that sorry about her absence, as she was one of the more irritating aspects of that New Year special, and her absence has allowed the character of Clyde to be brought in to replace her. In some ways he is simply a male version, streetwise and self-confident, although not nearly so self-involved and with an enjoyable stroke of humour to him. Even from these first two episodes you can tell that the team of youngsters fits together much more comfortably than it did before, and they do actually seem like a group of people who might want to hang around with each other, whereas I could never picture Maria wanting to be in Kelsey’s company for all that much longer.

The problem with having such a strong central trio of teenagers means that Sarah could risk becoming a supporting character in her own programme.

Of course the problem with having such a strong central trio of teenagers means that Sarah could risk becoming a supporting character in her own programme, as some criticised the Ninth Doctor of being in the first series of the revived Doctor Who. I never fully agreed with that criticism, although I could see where those who levelled it were coming from, and I don’t think Sarah will be sidelined here, although there were some points at which you could be left to wonder ‘Whose name is it in the titles again?’ But this is a children’s show, after all – it can’t all be based around an older woman. This isn’t 1981 any more, and it’s not K9 and Company. (‘Thank God!’, come the cries from certain quarters!).

Indeed, you have to say that it’s pretty surprising – and admirable – that in a day and age when we seem to live in an ageist society so much of the time, CBBC were perfectly happy to allow a 59 year-old to carry a children’s show without panicking that it might not be in their demographic. Sladen has seen her chance and grabbed it with both hands and who can blame her – it’s so weird and wonderful that such a series exists, and nobody would have expected such a turn of good fortune would come her way. Back to the bizarreness of it all again. Sarah Jane seems older and colder in some ways, but warmer in others as she gets the hang of this whole motherhood lark, when she would have expected that such things would have passed her by. Sladen does well on the whole, although it’s probably best to gloss over her ‘acting’ alongside the children’s puppet on CBBC when guesting in the studio to answer a few questions between the two episodes. That was the first bit of her I saw that afternoon when I switched on after getting home just to make sure my recordings were up and running okay, so I was a touch worried for her, but there was no such hamming in the programme proper.

The older cast members as a whole acquitted themselves very well. Maria’s dad, Alan, is a very likeable character, although just as Kelsey never seemed like a likely friend of Maria’s, it’s hard to see what he ever saw in Maria’s mother, who seems a right pest. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons Kelsey was dropped – it would be a bit grating to have two such self-involved characters in a programme. Nonetheless, even if they seem hard to imagine as a couple, their insult-trading does make for some good scenes between Maria’s parents, and she does come across as genuinely fond of her daughter even if totally incapable of really looking after her or mothering her properly, hence her being with Alan.

It’s hard to see what he ever saw in Maria’s mother.

One element of the two-parter that really surprised me was the amount of death involved. I have not, as I said above, been a regular viewer of children’s television for quite some years now, and I would have expected that the executive producers and heads of department and so forth would have been a bit more reticent to show actual human beings having been killed, but we got this with the victims of the Slitheen seen at the beginning of the story – and of course the implication that they have killed a child, or a teenager anyway, as well.

But more than this, surely in most other children’s series, the Slitheen child at the end would at least have been spared, as he and his father begged for mercy. But no, not a bit of it – our cold-hearted new Sarah Jane and her crew left them to die. Probably the right thing, on balance, but definitely not what I was expecting, and it gives the show a nice edge.

Another nice edge comes from the mystery and enigma of ‘Mr Smith’, the supercomputer. He is a nice idea, but risks at times seeming like a bit too much of a K9 substitute. However, his scene with Clyde suggests that there is more to come from him and the secrets that he holds, which will doubtless prove an interesting backdrop to the stories.

I am in no way in the target audience for this show, but I enjoyed it immensely, and I think that the opening two-parter has given it an excellent springboard from which to go on to bigger and better things. Certainly if they maintain this quality at least, it could perhaps prove to be one of the best children’s shows of its generation.


"...our cold-hearted new Sarah Jane and her crew left them to die..."

To be fair to "cold-hearted" Sarah Jane, you did see her trying to get her Sonic Lipstick, to help them (although this was not obvious) - but she hesitated, and was too late.

"Another nice edge comes from the mystery and enigma of ‘Mr Smith’, the supercomputer. He is a nice idea, but risks at times seeming like a bit too much of a K9 substitute."

I think of Mr. Smith as Zen to K9's Orac.
(Blake's 7 reference.)

Watching it again, it seemed to me that whilst the 'father' Slitheen certainly vapourised, the young Slitheen seemed to 'beam out' in a similar way to the rest of the escapees - I don't think he died at all.

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