Friday, 6 January 2017
Sarah Jane Smith 2.3: Fatal Consequences by David Bishop (March 2006)
The third audio in the second Sarah Jane Smith series sees the showdown between Sarah and her latest enemies, the Crimson Chapter of the Orbus Pastramo, in a strong instalment that sees David Bishop returning to the theme of biological warfare he first wrote about in Test of Nerve. It reminds me of one of the (few) smart moves made by the Sherlock episode The Hounds of Baskerville - what we fear now is not so much haunted houses on desolate moors, but off-limits government scientific research facilities. The scene in this story where Will Sullivan first comes across the experiments on human beings - a very bleak joke about “guinea pigs” - being conducted at Pangbourne Research Laboratory is appropriately chilling and upsetting, feeling almost like something out of Children of Earth, and it sets the tone for much of what follows. Emily’s death-wish to reconcile with her mother because of the blazing row they’d had the night before is simply, but effectively, played by Katherina Olsson (Shan in the I, Davros series); releasing the virus-infected test cases back out into the real world is similarly no massive plot twist, but good direction and performances sell it well.
But I should address the elephant in the room: that unexpected link to The Masque of Mandragora. I should have seen it coming the moment everything started being about cults in Italy hundreds of years in the past that somehow know of Sarah Jane Smith. The company in this story being called ‘Mandrake’ finally tipped me off, however. As to this particular tie-in to larger Who continuity, it is in one sense even more ludicrous than the return of Hilda Winters, in that if twenty years seemed a long time for one woman to hold a grudge against another, a grudge big enough to make her want to poison an entire region of India, 514 years of an apocalyptic cult sworn to destroy said woman seems even more of a stretch (similarly, why the heck doesn’t the White Chapter get in touch with Sarah earlier if they’re so worried about their Crimson counterparts?!). Still, “ludicrous” and “a stretch” have never stopped me enjoying things before, religions have probably been based on less, and Bishop is in any case sure to get the general tone and threat across with panache. Even if the zealotry of the Crimson Chapter of the Orbus Pastramo seems an odd fit alongside genocidal bioterrorism, he somehow makes it work - and there is something awfully biblical about the idea of a mutated virus, a plague if you will, that will wipe out billions of people as if it were God’s judgement; Albert Camus explored the connection between religious apocalypse and modern disease in his 1947 novel La Peste, and it pops up again here (take Sir Donald’s phrasing “inherit the Earth” for instance).
It’s not just an old Doctor Who serial that Fatal Consequences draws on, mind; we also return to Cloots Combe favourite Maude Fletcher from Comeback - this time in Berkshire instead of Wiltshire - and the story also boasts a performance from former Davros actor David Gooderson. With Terry Molloy the in-house Davros (as it were), it makes sense and, indeed, is a professional courtesy, to cast Gooderson in another role, and luckily he’s rather good as scientific researcher Dr Gavin Dexter; I think he suits this more human part much better than he did the ranting Davros. Dexter is both sinister and yet plausibly sympathetic, and as with the motive of James Carver in Test of Nerve, the fact that he is motivated by the need to pay for the expensive therapy for his severely autistic daughter makes him more interesting than would otherwise be the case.
Sladen is on good form, too, with her renewed determination to battle the Crimson Chapter arising plausibly out of the danger she has placed her friends in up to this point and the burden this has lain on her shoulders, climaxing in the moment she realises she’s in a sequel to her own actions in Italy in 1492 and that “it’s all my fault!”. Following on from the trust/betrayal issues raised in Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre, Sarah is here confronted with the awful truth that her new friend Will Sullivan is actually out to kill her: it’s a story that really puts her through the wringer. Will, of course, isn’t quite as straightforward as all that - he really is out to kill her but is unsure whether he can go through with it, which provides an ever-present tension throughout this story; he has developed in some very interesting directions right from his first scene, and Tom Chadbon has been a series highlight. Again, his feelings of inadequacy as set against his older brother’s involvement in the spying community are convincing in explaining why he went from being a medical student to joining the Crimson Chapter. Potentially even better is the big twist about Josh, namely that he’s a double agent as well but in this instance representing the White Chapter: finally, a sense of momentum and purpose is lent to his character, and I can understand why he’s been so eager to hang around with Sarah and keep an eye on her all this time (even if the idea that almost everyone Sarah is surrounded by is in it up to their neck is a bit much). Jeremy James’ performance suddenly steps up a gear, and in retrospect all his previous “try-hard” moments feel earned, because they really were him putting on an act (it makes that bit in Ghost Town where Sarah tells him he’d be a terrible act even better, too). Whether this was intentional during Series 1 or not (I suspect not, myself, but the way Bishop does it you can’t be sure), it’s a damn fine twist that makes all the weaknesses that came before look much improved in light of the new revelations.
Apart from a scene set in Nevada to establish Sir Donald before Dreamland, there’s less globe-trotting here and as such the feel is a little more akin to some of the earlier stories in the first season, though considerably better done. The fact that for a chunk of the runtime Sarah and Josh are slowly dying from the Marberg virus really raises the stakes, and, together with an almighty cliff-hanger, ensures that this penultimate Sarah Jane Smith audio ranks as one of the best.
“When I started out in the City, they told me you needed a degree to be a success - and I proved ‘em wrong. When I took on big business, they told me it’d never work - and I proved ‘em wrong again!” Oh my God, how much does Stephen Greif’s performance sound like Nigel Farage? And playing a boorish multi-billionaire called Sir Donald? Creepy! Still, it’s nice to see Bishop weaving the White Chapter into the overarching storyline.
They sound like a pretty weedy bunch of protesters to me, but maybe that’s the point…
“I’m sorry, Miss Smith. Once you know how limited your time on this Earth is, you’ll want to savour every moment. Every detail.”/“All our lives are finite.”
Why it pays to have an elite billionaire on your side: “I’ll contact the government. Downing Street owes me a few favours.”
“Have you ever seen someone infected with Marberg dying? Their eyes weep blood as their internal organs liquefy…”
“Before you die, I want to say something to your face: thank you.”
No Ellie Martin here - and I have to agree with Steve Mollmann who says over at UnrealitySF.net, “one suspects the role of Maude’s daughter was initially intended to be her.” I think it works out for the best, though, as I’m no great fan of Ellie whereas Olsson is superb as Emily Fletcher.