Friday, 23 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 1.1: Comeback by Terrance Dicks (July 2002)

I hope I am not doing Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts a disservice when I state that the success and popularity of Sarah Jane Smith, from the 1973-76 era of the programme, lies almost entirely at the door of Elisabeth Sladen. Whether or not she was given naff material to work with (and regardless of the attempt to make her more of a feminist icon than Jo Grant, such material seems today now rather subpar), Sladen always rose above it, and her general gumption, gusto and good cheer shines on screen, as does an excellent rapport with both her “original” Doctors. It is thus no surprise that the one thing about Comeback that works, and works supremely well, is that it has Elisabeth Sladen playing Sarah Jane Smith in it. Years after her appearances on Doctor Who and her own abortive spinoff, and years before her return, she played the part for nine audio dramas for Big Finish, and as far as this first instalment goes she does it with the warmth and brio you would expect (frustrating authority figures is something she remains excellent at; witness the scene where she corrects the squire on his use of the quotation "a little learning is a dangerous thing", for instance). For this reason alone - that we have nine more instances of Elisabeth Sladen playing Sarah Jane Smith - I am glad that these audios exist.

Sadly, nearly everything else about them (on the basis of Comeback, at least) is woefully ill-conceived. The central problem is that this story - to my mind - misunderstands Sarah Jane Smith. A bold statement to make about the work of Terrance Dicks, perhaps, but I’ll stand by it. What Dicks has done is place Sarah Jane in a gritty, urban environment: she’s an investigative journalist with a shady past; always needing to move address, hide her car and change her name; caught up in bank robberies and shoot-outs; called “smug bitch” to her face, etc., etc. None of this - as a milieu - is what works for Sarah Jane. The success of the character who travelled with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker’s Doctors was not that she was an investigative journalist, however much Dicks might like to credit the original character outline and his own work with the character. The success of the character was that she was a phenomenally likeable children’s TV hero you always wanted to root for, whose departure from the series made front-page news as though the Doctor was leaving and not the companion. Sarah Jane was a kids’ hero, not a cult protagonist; reviving her for a gritty UNIT-like series - bits of this reminded me of the Lytton segments of Attack of the Cybermen; the theme and David Darlington’s incidental music are just bizarrely wrong - is just the fundamentally wrong way to go about telling a Sarah Jane Smith story. I know I write this with the hindsight of having seen The Sarah Jane Adventures, but it is striking how much more accurate the TV series gets how her character works. The first couple of episodes aren’t perfect (I don’t think there’s a real classic until Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?) but they work: they show the gang coming together, establish the territory and the tone and the level of threats, make us fall in love with Sarah again. Here, I have no idea who Ellie Martin and Natalie Redfern and Josh Townsend are, why Sarah trusts them or how they’re connected, what the continuity nods to K9 and Company are all about, or why I should care. It’s an unengaging muddle: the protester out in the countryside with her friend in the city… whom they happen to bump into whilst in the forest… the internal world here just doesn’t feel real.

Terrance Dicks is normally a dab hand at a good page-turner, but here he betrays both his long history as the writer of novelisations rather than any actual scripts since 1983 (bad dialogue like “you look like the cat who found the cream was sour”, or Sarah’s lengthy descriptions of Cloots Combe, apparently only for the audience's benefit; who says “the Christian church” instead of just “the Church”?), and as - politely put - a gentleman of an earlier generation (a man in his twenties in 2002 dismissing an Internet café as a “nerd bar”; phrases like “I’ve put it on vibrate rather than ring” or “poor reception for the mobile”). It is not even as though Comeback is structurally sound, or as though its content is at least mildly diverting: there’s a dodgy organisation connected to a bank, a sleepy English village complete with squire and reverend (cue hilarious scenes in which they address each other as “squire” and “vicar” about 3,000 times apiece), and an unnamed entity down a well named after the devil whose background we never really discover because it’s very much only there as the Act III threat that’s quickly disposed of. And it’s every bit as paper-thin and deathly dull as that sounds. Not only has Dicks conceived the project badly from the off by placing her in an urban thriller, but he hasn’t even placed her in a good urban thriller. The performances are all rather good, but the script is terribly lacking. It’s not funny, it’s not quick-witted, and it’s not scary (Josh references The Wicker Man, but Terrance Dicks is on a hiding to nothing by drawing those comparisons). Joe Ford at Doc Oho Reviews suggests that it is Sarah’s experience of how the world is out to get her here that make her a colder, more paranoid figure and explains why she seems so private at the start of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but I remain unconvinced that this phase of Sarah’s life entirely works. Marginally more promising is the hint of a long-running story arc revolving around Harris, Réchauffé and the mysterious employers pulling the strings, but this is not an auspicious start.

Other things:
There are small things that work: Sladen’s opening monologue to her Aunt Lavinia (a continuity nod I can understand, at least) is very good. There’s a few mildly fun characters in the village (Patricia Leventon as Maude Fletcher is a highlight), but it’s all very ho-hum.
The irritable Mr Venables needing to prove who he is in a bank: “do you need my finger-prints as well, or do I have to take a blood-test?”
Sweet that Nat is played by Sarah’s real daughter, Sadie Miller.
“You were a hippy, weren’t you? Peace, love and crap transport!”
“How’s [Josh] shaping up? Any use?”/“You make me sound like an employment agency for underachievers!”
“No need to be cold and hungry just because you’re anti-establishment!”
The attempt at political undertones just reminds me of UNIT unfortunately, and with all the weaknesses that series had too.

Next: Sarah Jane Smith 1.2: The Tao Connection by Barry Letts (August 2002)

No comments:

Post a Comment