Thursday, October 28, 2010

Review of The Sarah Jane Adventures Series 4, Episodes 5 and 6: “Death of the Doctor” Parts 1 and 2

I don’t usually review episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures on the blog, not because I don’t like the show (I think it’s perfectly alright for a program squarely aimed at children), but just because I am focused on Doctor Who, not its spinoffs. I don’t review episodes of Torchwood, either. This week’s two-parter demands an exception, however. Why? I should think the title (“Death of the Doctor”) would be explanation enough! Yes, Matt Smith turns up as the Eleventh Doctor. Yay! These episodes also mark the first time that our old friend Russell T Davies (RTD, the man who returned Doctor Who to our TV screens back in 2005) has written for Matt’s Doctor. How did RTD do? Read on!

Plotwise, the story is fairly simple. UNIT contacts Sarah Jane and tells her that the Doctor has been killed. They plan to hold a funeral for him, which will be presided over by the Shansheeth, a race of intergalactic undertakers/professional mourners. Sarah Jane, in a state of denial regarding the Doctor’s death, agrees to attend the memorial service with Clyde and Rani. (Luke is apparently too busy with his studies at Oxford to take a day off to pay his respects to the man that he knows has saved all of reality numerous times. Ingrate.) At the funeral, Sarah Jane finally meets Jo Grant (or Jo Jones as she’s been called since marrying Professor Clifford Jones at the end of The Green Death), another of the Doctor’s former companions. Jo also doubts the Doctor’s demise. Their skepticism is rewarded when the Eleventh Doctor suddenly trades places with Clyde from the other end of the universe, meeting his old friends for the first time in his present incarnation. Of course the Shansheeth turn out to be bad (or at least misguided) and the Doctor and his pals foil their plans.

These two episodes are a feast of nostalgia for old-time viewers. Jo makes a fun return, still as ditzy and lovable as ever. She basically serves as the co-lead with Sarah Jane in the story, turning it into a double-act. Even though this is the first time the two characters have met, they have an easy rapport, reminiscing about their Doctors and their adventures (especially Peladon), running up and down corridors together holding hands, and verbally tag-teaming the new Doctor. The two ladies complement each other nicely, Jo’s devil-may-care, free-thinking attitude contrasting with Sarah Jane’s slightly more conservative point of view. Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing Jo take on a more permanent role in the series. Those kids are all going to have to go to college some time, right? Maybe Jo could move in to 13 Bannerman Road after Sarah’s high school pals have moved on and the two older ladies can go on wacky adventures together as a team. Aside from the co-lead role for Jo, we also get shout-outs to many other companions and monsters from the program’s past, including Daleks, Ogrons, Tegan, Ben, Polly, Harry, and Ace (at least, I assume that’s the “Dorothy” that Sarah Jane mentions). Oh, and I always knew that Ian and Barbara would end up together! Although I never suspected that they’d stop aging…. Even more impressive than these mentions, we actually get to see many of the classic monsters in flashback, not to mention the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Tenth Doctors. Seeing Tom Baker appear in the middle of The Sarah Jane Adventures certainly made me smile.

The rest of the serial was top-notch as well. The CBBC budget was apparent in a few places, most notably the exterior to UNIT’s Mount Snowdon base and the rock quarry/alien planet on which the Doctor was trapped. And, okay, the Shansheeth did look a little like giant Muppets (or perhaps the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal). Still, I actually liked the design for the aliens as giant, lumbering buzzards. Maybe it was a bit too literal for a race of professional ambulance-chasers, but it worked. They didn’t look “real,” but they looked creepy and otherworldly. And I found it really disturbing, for some reason, when one of them played the harp.

When they finally stop switching places and get a chance to meet, Clyde and the Eleventh Doctor have a fun moment together where Clyde instructs the Doctor on how to travel through the air duct. “You have to shuffle backwards,” he explains as if it’s rocket science. And then comes the “controversial” part. Clyde asks how many times the Doctor can regenerate, and the Doctor says “507.” The classic series answer was 12. Quite a big difference there! But does it really matter? I know that some überfans are upset about this possible change, but, come on; we always knew the BBC would find some way around this “rule.” And the way the Doctor says the line (not to mention that he’s speaking to a kid that he hardly knows) made it seem like he could have been joking anyway. Speaking of the kids, I’m not quite sure why Jo’s grandson Santiago was introduced in the story. He didn’t do anything of consequence (aside from giving RTD a chance to mention that Santiago’s father was hiking across Antarctica with his gay dad’s club, anyway). I was afraid that he was being introduced as a regular to replace the now away-at-university Luke. Thankfully, RTD didn’t go that route, letting the hippy kid leave with his grandma at the end of the story. I wonder if the plan was to see how he worked with the cast and then make the call about whether to keep him or not at the end of filming. Probably not since I assume they already had all the subsequent stories written for this season in advance without his character in them, but it’s still fun to speculate. Maybe they’ve set him up to come back next season, though, if there’s a positive response to his character. Personally, I hope we’ve seen the last of him.

Although the story was good overall, there were still a few RTD-isms that grated. First off, why were there Grosks involved at all? It seemed like they were thrown in just so RTD could reuse that Grask costume the producers had lying around. I can hear his thoughts now, “We’ll paint the costume blue, I’ll change a vowel in the creature’s name, and then it’ll be totally different alien! And for added cleverness, I’ll call out what I’ve done in the script!” The funny thing is, RTD’s pretty much done this same trick before with the Zocci/Vinvocci. There were also a couple of lines that just seemed, well, off. First, it seemed a tad out of character for the Doctor to make fun of Jo’s visible aging. I believe he said something like, “You look like you’ve been baked in an oven.” Bad Doctor! Then, at the end, when all of the Shansheeth and at least one human UNIT soldier have been burnt to a crisp, the Grosk says, “Smells like roast chicken.” I admit, I laughed. But then I felt bad for laughing. Also, the end was a bit “magic-y,” as is usual for RTD. To recap, the Shansheeth need a key to the TARDIS so they hook up Sarah Jane and Jo to some kind of glowy machine thing called a Memory Weave that will create a new key from their memories but then the gals think too hard, overload the machine, and blow up the bad guys. Or something. Yeah, RTD always has problems with endings. Oh, one more thing. “Scarlet Monstrosity.” 'Nuff said.

Aside from those few niggles, though, these two episodes made for quite an enjoyable hour of TV for this old Doctor Who fan. In fact, I’d say it was the best storyline of The Sarah Jane Adventures yet. Certainly better than David Tennant’s two-part appearance as the Tenth Doctor last season, anyway. Matt Smith really is an excellent Doctor. Bring on this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special!

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