Thursday, 29 December 2016

Sarah Jane Smith 2.1: Buried Secrets by David Bishop (February 2006)

Buried Secrets - the opening story of Sarah Jane Smith’s second season - manages the tricky process of feeling both like the stories that have gone before (certainly, it doesn’t feel like a complete break from the past, and indeed the theme of the past haunting you is arguably the crux of the story) and yet almost like the relaunch of a new programme and a new style. For one thing, there’s a new theme - much more appropriate to the investigative Sarah, but with a jaunty lightness of touch that seems to pre-empt The Sarah Jane Adventures. With the new theme comes new incidental music and sound design in general, here provided by Steve Foxon, and in my view a step-up in quality from David Darlington’s efforts. For another, David Bishop relies once more heavily on news broadcasts, something which previously only his own Season 1 story, Test of Nerve, had bothered to do; here it works even better than last time, in no small measure due to the way Bishop has already started setting up plots for later stories in the season (the world’s first tourist flight into space; animal rights activists; and a mission to Antarctica which I already know is going to pop up in the next story, Snow Blind) - but also as a way to sweep the past under the carpet (the newsreader reporting on the deaths of Hilda Winters and Philip Harris, for instance, or Maude Fletcher from Comeback popping up again on the radio).

It’s not just surface aesthetics, though. Bishop’s script and Sladen’s performance also serve Sarah Jane better than she was in Season 1, and a lot of this has to do with the way Buried Secrets treats the relationship between the past and the present. As Big Finish go through the ritualistic act of putting the trial-and-error first season behind them, but still trying to retain its essence and its characters, so too do Sarah and her friends put Winters and Harris out of mind (“The past is the past. I’ve moved on, Josh, and so has Sarah”; “What’s done is done”) whilst trying to establish a new foothold in the world. This is, of course, clearly but nonetheless effectively mirrored in the story-of-the-week, about exhumations of the Medici family under the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence (all of which seems fairly well-researched). Archaeology is the precise opposite of what Sarah and co are attempting - a literal re-digging up of the past, inching away at wounds in the earth to bring “what’s done” to light in the present.

Impressively, however, Bishop muddies the past-present-relationship waters further by bringing in Sarah’s anniversary dinners with Harry Sullivan - and the subsequent introduction of Harry’s younger stepbrother Will. In these dinner dates with an old friend, which she attends whether or not Harry keeps them, Sarah is scratching the itch of the past much as the archaeologists are doing, and forgetting her own advice about leaving the past behind and moving on. Our relationship with the past is far too complicated to be boiled down to platitudes about “putting things behind us” or the like. I’m reminded of an iconic scene from The Wire Season 2, in which a reforming gangster, D’Angelo Barksdale, reads The Great Gatsby in a book club in prison and asserts that from it he’s learned that no one can escape their past; as he puts it, “it don’t matter if some fool say he different”. This proves tragically true in D’Angelo’s case. Not such dark material for Sarah, perhaps, but in the form of Will Sullivan we get another instance of Bishop giving us ‘more of the same, but remodelled’: Tom Chadbon (the marvellous Duggan! Genius casting) performs him as Harry-like and yet not Harry, more relaxed and at ease though also, one imagines, with somewhat more nous and slyness than his older step-brother. Sarah and Will’s dinner date may not be the crux of Buried Secrets’ plot, but it boasts most of the story’s true heart. Sarah’s soliloquy to the missing Harry - which may as well be Sladen’s to the missing Ian Marter - is heartbreaking stuff, and Sarah’s voice cracking as she sees a photo from Terror of the Zygons or reminiscing about Harry’s blazer or Will’s Antarctica stories paralleling her own experiences in The Seeds of Doom are much better uses of past Who continuity than bringing Hilda Winters back. A fascinating oddity, then, that this story - like all the second season - was produced and released between Sladen filming School Reunion and that episode’s broadcast: the last gasp of Sarah’s own continuity before her new meeting with the Doctor. I love how complete and rich her life feels.

In short, while it doesn’t have the heart-in-mouth quality of Test of Nerve, it’s aiming for something with greater reach to it, and Buried Secrets is by turns spooky, intriguing and moving. The characters feel much more real and likeable, the consequences matter, the scope is big but manageable, and Bishop smartly ties up the Season 1 arc - Winters’ revenge plots on Sarah - with his own bigger story for Season 2, in the revelation that the Crimson Chapter of the Orbus Pastramo funded Winters’ activities. This feels remarkably like The Da Vinci Code and was probably influenced by the book, if not the film which was released after this story was recorded; the secret cult prophesying Sarah Jane Smith as herald feels a bit hokey, but in a way that’s entirely appropriate to rollicking adventures of the kind Sarah is used to, and much more so than the multinational organisation of the first season. It’s a stylish way indeed of kicking off Sarah Jane Smith Season 2. More like this!

Other things:
“The stazione? I don’t know, two months in Italy and you’re talking like Donatella Versace!”
Nice progress to see Italian actor Daniel Barzotti cast as Nat’s boyfriend Luca Parenti; another improvement for Season 2. It was fairly obvious that he’d be outed as a bad’n, mind.
A propos of absolutely nothing, I’ve decided that Nat Redfern is a distant descendant of the Farringham Redferns from Human Nature.
“Good journalists stop at nothing for a story, SJ.”/“Unfortunately, bad journalists are just as ruthless but have fewer scruples.”
“Well, here we are again. Hard to believe another year has gone by. Sometimes those days with UNIT - they feel like they were only yesterday. All of us risking our lives to save the world from threats nobody else even new existed. I thought it would go on forever. Other days it feels more like a lifetime ago, as if it happened to somebody else. Sometimes, I even find myself wondering if I imagined it all, everything we saw and did. Yes, I suppose I could try discussing it with Nat or Josh, but I don’t think they’d believe me. Even if they did, they couldn’t understand how I feel. We saw things no person on Earth has ever witnessed. Oh, I can imagine what you’d say to all of this. Chin up, old girl, worse things happen at sea, you know. And you’d be right. But that doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Well, here’s to you, Harry, wherever you are.”
“[Harry] once told me he liked to call young women ‘old girl’ just to see their nostrils flare.”
It’s not a massive shock but nonetheless an effective grisly moment when Professor Edmons, Luca and Nat find Edmons’ predecessor Gian-Carlo Brunetti forced into a four-year-old child’s coffin…
“Creamed lamb’s brains.”/“Did I mention I was vegetarian?”
“They have a saying on the ice: the first time you go for the adventure, the second time for the money, and the third time because you can’t function anywhere else anymore.”
Jacqueline Pearce! As the lead villainess of a murderous apocalyptic cult! So. Much. Yes.
“That’s the second time you’ve killed somebody to protect me. You know I don’t approve of taking life - I never will - but you’re always there when I need you, Josh, even when I don’t want you around… I guess what I’m trying to say is: thanks.”

Next: Sarah Jane Smith 2.2: Snow Blind by David Bishop (February 2006)

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