Friday, 23 December 2016

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

Despite his poor form when it comes to audio stories (I’ve heard The Ghosts of N-Space and The Paradise of Death; never again), Barry Letts seems to have a better grasp on things than his erstwhile 70s colleague - the story is faster-paced and more involved, for one thing. Sladen continues to be the best thing about her own series (thankfully) for the second story in a row (with a particularly interesting look at how her time with the Doctor has moulded her; kudos to Letts for that). That said, an unexpected cameo from Maggie Stables as a Yorkshire B&B owner almost steals Sarah’s thunder. Apart from his weird penchant for dropping into strange voices, Jeremy James is perfectly fine as Josh Townsend, though I still find his entire character a bit implausible; I can’t quite get a handle on who he is, what makes him tick. There’s none of the elegance about his introduction and relationship to Sarah Jane that you get with Maria, Clyde and Luke in the first few Sarah Jane Adventures stories. Still, if one of the main duo is worth following that’s not too bad a percentage.

The villain here is Will Butley, a millionaire philanthropist - the kind of villain we all like to see taken down a peg or two - in a Yorkshire hall now named the Huang Ti Clinic. Moray Treadwell plays Butley well as a demented, dirty old man having lived well beyond his normal lifespan, but his abusive relationship with Ron Sharpe and indeed other young men through the centuries is an ugly and really rather distasteful element to the story that I’m not sure Letts handles too well; it’s too cartoonish to be sincere or moving but too disturbing to be mere throwaway pulp (see Burns & Smithers from The Simpsons for how to do this properly). Similarly, the decision to cast Toby Longworth as Taoist mystic Wong Chu is a dreadful one, and I hope Big Finish would be above such misfires now. There are plenty of excellent Chinese actors in the United Kingdom; cast one rather than keeping it in-house, please. I don’t expect the same mistakes made in 1977 to crop up twenty-five years later. Do better.

Because it’s Barry Letts, there’s plenty of Eastern mysticism, although he shakes things up a little in that this story is concerned with Taoism rather than Buddhism, specifically Huang Ti the Yellow Emperor, who (allegedly) lived about 4,500 years ago. It’s slightly disconcerting to hear Sarah Jane defend it rather than agreeing with Josh that it’s all a load of baloney (if anything, you’d have thought her travels with the Doctor would have broadened her mind to the point that she doesn’t lend much credence to religious beliefs); on the other hand, the Taoist backdrop is not exactly one that Doctor Who has done so often that it could practically do it in its sleep, as with the sleepy old village last time round, so it doesn’t feel quite as tired as Comeback. Two stories in a row that revolve around people artificially aging and the draining of one’s life-force, or chi, seems either terrible planning or, more promisingly, part of some bigger scheme. We’ll see, though the fact that the characters never say "this is a bit like that weird thing down the well we met last week" doesn't fill me with confidence; you'd expect them to draw the parallels, at least.

In any case, The Tao Connection is a tad more developed and less rushed than the first Sarah Jane Smith story at least, and the tone is more like a Holmes & Watson case or even a Scooby-Doo adventure, which feels much more in keeping with Sarah Jane. It’s still all rather low-rent and unengaging though, and feels far more dated than it should do, even for something that’s 14 years old now. Not great by any means, but an improvement.

Other things:
The “current cloning” concerns that were raised in both Comeback and this one very much dates this to 2002 as well, doesn’t it? Dolly the Sheep and so on.
The curse of “characters implausibly bumping into each other” that popped up in Comeback occurs here as well, as Josh bumps into Ellie while she’s flogging the Big Issue… in London. Because bumping into people you know in the whole of London happens all the time.
Nice, atmospheric opening, meaning this story borrows the ‘discover the body in the Thames’ scene from The Talons of Weng-Chiang as well as casting Caucasian actors in Chinese roles.
“It was all over HELLO, or OK, or Look At Me, I’m Stinking Rich, or one of those.”
The curse of clichéd dialogue rears its head again as well: “there’s nowt so queer as folk”.
I got tired of David Darlington’s 70s bass riff about halfway through Comeback, so by this stage it’s driving me absolutely mad.
“Soft as a brush,” Mrs Lythe says of her son, “and not half as useful!”
“I probably picked up [the ability to be so detached] from somebody I once knew - and if you’d seen half the things I’d seen…”
“Mary Had a Little Lamb” the secret incantation? Very like The Daemons
Eurgh: “Best you asked Mr Sharpe.”/“In that case, I’ll never get a straight (ho ho) answer.”
Fun use of Venusian aikido, if not exactly unexpected (“just a trick I picked up from an old friend. Bit showy though”). I think I also detected Sarah instinctively calling Josh “Harry”, as well.
“It’s times like these that I wished I believed in hell.”

Next: Sarah Jane Smith 1.3: Test of Nerve by David Bishop (September 2002)

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