Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 1.5: Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre by Peter Anghelides (November 2002)

If the first thing to note about Ghost Town is how little it used its Romanian setting, the first thing to say about Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre (apart from finally encouraging me to make some effort to spell ‘manoeuvre’ correctly) is that it makes good use of conjuring up strong visuals in the imagination -- whisking its audience off to the Lakshadweep and Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, all palm trees, snorkelling and surly fishermen awaiting bribes, and then on to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu state. My father grew up in India, as did his siblings and his mother; my uncle regularly shoots documentaries there (particularly in the Western Ghats, visible from Coimbatore), and my brother’s in Rajasthan at the moment, so that part of the world has an extensive set of family connections; I’ve always wanted to see more Doctor Who stories on the Indian subcontinent and Peter Anghelides and Gary Russell do some good work in bringing this exotic location to life, with plenty of local colour and some strong tabla and sitar music. That said, it still suffers a little bit from “Brits swanning around in the tropics” syndrome, however much it’s made with an English-speaking audience in mind; you’d think an undercover investigative journalist arriving on the Chagos Islands would have been the perfect vehicle for Anghelides to explore, say, the massive injustice that the British government kicked out all the native Chagossians purely for US-UK naval military bases, and still denies them access to their homeland to this day. That’s the kind of crusade I could easily picture Sarah Jane taking up. Still, ‘tis bad form to criticise a piece of fiction for what it wasn’t rather than what it was, so I’ll desist -- and, in fairness, Anghelides does at least go halfway there in that it’s a Western megacorporation that plans to exploit the locals and indeed poison swathes of the Tamil Nadu population, which is sort of the Chagossians’ tale writ large, so the story’s heart is in the right place.

The story’s themes of paranoia, trust and friendship - as emblematised in the idea of looking in your metaphorical rear view mirror before you take an action - are bound up with a quip made quite early on: “No woman is an island.” Ultimately, Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre is about how Sarah Jane Smith needs her friends, how she is in no small measure lesser without them, and Anghelides does this well, however much I may have felt in the past that those friends are a bit lacking. In this respect, the island-hopping setting is better still: it indirectly feeds into the themes of the storyline unlike the Romanian village last time round. The pre-titles sequence sets this up, of course: Sarah is being stand-offish and enigmatic, deleting her friends’ messages rather than replying. In fact, she’s relatively unlikeable here: I was rather uncomfortable with Sarah’s rude response to this taxi driver, who was simply praising her to high heaven - threatening to use her rape alarm? Really? Then being unnecessarily grouchy about “fewer” as opposed to “less”, and her angry jibe about his driving. I suppose it shows just how grumpy she is, though putting your audience right off her as a character at the very start of the finale of her own audio drama season is a risky way to go about things. I don’t think we turn to fiction to make friends, and I’m all for problematizing Sarah’s interventions or her need to see the “bigger picture”, but making her so petty and nasty is a yet bolder step. I suppose, in the end, it’s a reminder that we never really know people truly, and anyone is capable of flipping their lid from time to time!

Elisabeth Sladen and Louise Falkner have an easy, natural chemistry (two investigative journalists against the world? That’s a stronger pitch than “Sarah Jane and Josh”, surely?) and their scenes together work well, which is why it’s genuinely rather a wrench when Wendy Jennings’ true colours are revealed (look in the rear view mirror…). Still, however much Wendy’s words may have been false, the scenes remain emotionally valid in terms of showing us a bit of Sarah’s mind-set and probing just whether she can trust people or not (“Can journalists like us have close friends, do you think? Can one get that level of trust if they know you’re an investigative journalist? … What about the people involved in your stories? Do you keep in contact? Ever wonder what happened to them? Do you try and find out what they’re up to now?”). Peter Miles is also as great as you’d expect in the role of Joseph Brandt, an aged genetic engineer whose real allegiances are similarly unmasked (though less surprisingly, given they hired the man who played Nyder). The scenes back in the UK with Josh and Nat are, predictably, less engaging, but they’re still at their strongest here, with some really quite warm and charming moments between them - I think it’s the best they’ve been written. It’s a touch convenient when Josh turns up in the middle of the Tamil Nadu jungle just in time to save Sarah, leaving the ending feeling a tad rushed, but that doesn’t unravel the whole thing for me.

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre is a cleverly-plotted story, even if on occasion it’s a looser, baggier affair than the tight simplicity of Test of Nerve. But Anghelides generally puts all the pieces in interesting orders, from the Indian taxi driver at the start of the story to the recurring “less”/“fewer” comments to the various bait-and-switch revelations. The evil organisation Scala’s attempts to sabotage the Parambikulam-Aliyar Project (which is a real thing, by the way) with Brucella bacteria is a properly Bond-film-worthy scheme, though in a way it feels a touch disproportionate that the whole thing is merely revenge against Sarah Jane. I think I slightly prefer it when Sarah stumbles into trouble off her own bat than when long-lost foes lay elaborate traps for her (despite the fact that it’s a clever and well-plotted trap). That said, Anghelides handles the “bring back Hilda Winters from Robot” brief reasonably well, even if it’s not my favourite thing about the story: Patricia Maynard performs Winters well, and she functions as quite an engaging Moriarty to Sarah’s Holmes, a bitter and distorted mirror image. And the usage of Robot’s continuity is nicely done. But at its strongest this is a good character piece that takes a hard stare at Sarah and that paradox in which both the degree to which she cannot trust people and the degree to which she must are encapsulated. A few bumps and hiccoughs out the way, this first season of Sarah Jane Smith audios finishes on a strong note, so I’m feeling positive about the second one.

Other things:
Is there any reason to cast Toby Longworth and get him to do an Indian accent rather than casting an Indian actor as Bandaru Chakravarti? Sigh. Thought not. Not really any better than The Tao Connection in that respect.
That Planet 3 voicemail system voice gets tiring pretty quickly, doesn’t it?!
There’s a lovely K9 reference early on (“there’s this pile of broken electronic equipment in a box, and I just can’t seem to let it go. It’s no earthly use: I can’t repair it, because they don’t make the parts for it yet.”/“Yet?”/“I mean, anymore”) and it seems the box containing him gets stolen by the burglars later in the story too. Chilling use of him against Sarah as well, really selling Hilda Winters as an arch-villain.
“You travelled halfway round the world, Miss Smith, I hardly think you’d have let a hotel room door stand in your way.”
“You’re looking in your rear-view mirror all the time for something that’s not there!”
“I’ve been chased by jeeps on beaches and stalked by bogus policemen and you wonder why I’m always looking in my rear-view mirror?”
“I played on her sympathy for helpless invalids.”/“You’re shameless, the way you use that wheelchair.”/“I was talking about you.”
“It’ll poison huge amounts of water! It’ll poison millions! And lay waste to unimaginable areas of land!”/“What for?”/“Oh, blackmail, terror, they didn’t actually have a mission statement in their ‘Dastardly Plan’ file!”
“Always looking over your shoulder and never seeing me peering back over it...”
"Home is where my friends are."
Nice theme remix at the end.

Next: bit of a sidestep, and not Big Finish related, though still sticking around with Sarah Jane - I’m going to listen to Exploration Earth: The Time Machine from 1976 for the simple reason that I acquired the free CD from a Daily-Telegraph-reading friend the other day. I’ll be following it up with Slipback, so help me God.

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