Monday, 26 December 2016
Sarah Jane Smith 1.4: Ghost Town by Rupert Laight (October 2002)
This is the first Sarah Jane Smith story to take place abroad - namely a small Romanian village nestled in the Carpathian Mountains. It doesn’t particularly broaden the scope of storytelling, mind, or alter what kind of adventures Sarah can go on. This could easily have been a village on a Scottish island (and, indeed, it reminded me of Night Thoughts at points, which is set on a Scottish island). Nothing about this story needed to be set in Romania. I’ve just seen Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu in the last few weeks, and that boasts terrific use of Romanian landscape and folklore: you can’t really set Dracula anywhere else! But this is much more Scooby-Doo than serious horror drama, and it’s got fewer twists and turns than the average Scooby-Doo plot as well (and no, a character saying "it's like a flaming Scooby-Doo plot" doesn't excuse this)! The villain - Christian Ian Abbotly, played by Elisabeth Sladen’s real-life husband Brian Miller - is just about the most transparent bad guy in the history of ever, and as such there is zero tension in terms of “who’s behind all this?” The contrast between the tense plotting of Test of Nerve couldn’t be greater, leaving Ghost Town feeling very lightweight and insubstantial.
Jeremy James as Josh continues to irk me; I don’t remotely buy his friendship with Sarah. Who is this twenty-four-year-old man who runs off to Romania with a woman twice his age, content merely to carry the bags and with no apparent other goals or friends in life? If his parents were dead and Sarah was his legal guardian because of a quirk of fate, or if she was his aunt and had to look after him, or something like that, there would at least be a relatable, believable dynamic. We might sympathise with him more, understand where he’s coming from. But as it is, he doesn’t feel real, and this lack of realism in the supposed arena of the realistic - which generally seems to be the tone this audio series is going for, rather than boasting aliens landing on Earth all the time - is really harming its chances of getting off the ground. As for the rest of the cast, Robert Jezek is always good fun, though he’s certainly had better parts than the fairly bland American diplomat who appears here. Miller is fun enough opposite Sladen, and the two are clearly having fun recording the squaring-off scenes between Abbotly and Sarah Jane, but the generally thin nature of the characters as written here means you quickly find yourself looking at the clock. Also: the International Summit for Peaceful World Collaboration takes place in a tiny village in Romania? Riiiiiight. None of the stuff in this story is how anything in the real world works - and no, I know that this is the Doctor Who universe, not the real world, and carping on about believability in Doctor Who is a fool’s errand, but I don’t think this is an unfair criticism in this case, not when the SJS stories are aiming at such a real-world, realistic tone. In fact, the script actively requires you to be stupid and naïve to accept how it works, implying that the only thing in the way of sincere, well-meaning peace talks going swimmingly well is a silly man with silly initials doing silly electromagnetic projections to make silly ghosts. It’s just silly, and not good silly like the average Doctor Who Christmas specials, but dumb silly.
Rupert Laight is the only contributor to this Sarah Jane Smith range of audio stories who then goes on to write for Sarah Jane on television, as opposed to those like Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts who have written for her in the past. Even before hearing this, I rated him as one of the weakest Sarah Jane Adventures writers, unfortunately, with one of his stories proving almost toxically xenophobic (The Gift) and the other taking a great premise and making it uninteresting (Lost in Time). In comparison, Ghost Town isn’t truly dreadful - and the mystery at the heart of the story has some decent potential and atmosphere at times - but it’s got practically nothing interesting to say, and in that respect it resembles Laight’s later work. Not recommended.
Oh God, the Darlington riff is back, and it totally kills any ghostly mood he otherwise builds up with the otherwise excellent post-production work on the rain, thunder, creepy ticking clocks and moody choral work.
Nice follow-up to Test of Nerve in that Sarah and Josh are here taking the holiday they said they needed at the end of the last story.
“Have you ever considered a career on the stage?”/“Actually… no.”/“Don’t.”
Oh dear, the Christian Ian Abbotly/C.I.A. revelation made me groan loud enough to wake my granny from her Boxing Day slumber!
"Let's just hope there's somebody there who can help us, otherwise this trip will be in vain." You don't say!
Next: Sarah Jane Smith 1.5: Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre by Peter Anghelides (November 2002)