Friday, 6 January 2017

Sarah Jane Smith 2.4: Dreamland by David Bishop (April 2006)

We pick up directly where Fatal Consequences left off, with Josh Townsend having yet again committed murder to save Sarah’s life - this time twice over, with both Will Sullivan and the Keeper lying dead. It’s a grim opening, though for the rest of the hour-long runtime, this story is less high-octane and downbeat than its predecessor, and more eerily calm and quiet. Especially towards the end, it has a kind of space opera grandeur to it - and inevitably so, given this is Sarah Jane’s first trip into space since bidding the Doctor farewell in The Hand of Fear. The “previously unrecorded comet”, a new plotline Bishop introduces at the last minute: where might he have taken this in a third season? It seems to be something to do with the Mandragora Helix stuff (that whole ‘500 years since this particular comet passed near our solar system’ thing) but the link remains unconfirmed even by the story’s end. That’s no complaint, mind; it’s better that way - just another of the unresolved bits of flotsam and jetsam in Sarah’s long, amazing life, and there’s an extraordinary beauty to the image on which this series closes, shortly before Sarah returns to TV: drifting in space with her dying friend, watching blinding light come ever closer to her capsule…

Lis Sladen is at her best here in the entire SJS series, no question: in turn granted some sombre, quieter and more introspective material as she looks back on the people she’s lost, then a new-found passion as she gets the chance for one more exciting space adventure, and eventually a terrible, bleak solitude as she orbits the Earth in a burned-out shuttle, alone. I agree with Jo Ford over at Doc Oho Reviews that you can quite easily see the through-line from the Sarah of Dreamland to the pricklier, stand-offish woman who moves into 13 Bannerman Road. This series has seen plenty of people lie to her and betray her - quite the fall to Earth after the literal one when she left the TARDIS - and as a journalist the one thing Sarah cannot abide is being lied to. Her monologue to Nat about the Doctor, roughly a third of the way into the episode, is a thing of beauty.

Nat is back too, and though I’ve been ambiguous on Sadie Miller in previous instalments, she works well here - in part due to the hectic frenzy of double-crossing we got last time round, it’s a relief for both Sarah and us to spend some time in a normal person’s company again! Not that all is well between the three main characters, of course; despite my issues with them over the preceding eight releases, it’s really rather sad to hear them breaking up and these friendships cracking in this manner. A second massive revelation about Josh in as many episodes (that he’s Sir Donald’s son) is almost pushing it, though this one is also handled well, and both Jeremy James and Stephen Greif are great in this, so a thumbs up from me; James’ devil-may-care cheekiness becomes very poignant here as he faces his dying moments looking at Outer Space. If you’d asked me shortly after I listened to Comeback whether I expected that one day I’d well up at Sarah Jane asking Josh not to call her “SJ”, I’d have thought you were mad - yet here we are. That alone speaks volumes as to how the quality of these releases has been turned around.

As to the rest of the story, some typically detailed space travel research from Bishop anchors the series in a realistic feel, even with all its talk of the Crimson Chapter. I’m not sure how I feel about the last-minute reveal of Ben Kimmel as a Crimson Chapter acolyte, which depending on how you look at it is either a natural extension of the cult’s reach over Sarah or a forced bit of drama to pad out the story. I’d lean towards the latter, but am open to being persuaded of the former; and to give the decision its due it does heighten the stakes considerably and allow us into position for that mesmerising ending. Fortunately it doesn’t take up a big chunk of the story and the sequences that follow the Kimmel reveal are excellent, so we’ll let it pass.

Dreamland is a well-written, elegiac release which, inevitably, has the sense of an ending about it - it’s something of a last hurrah for Sarah Jane. Moments like listening to Sadie Miller describing her (in-story) mother passing away are extra poignant now that Sladen herself is no longer with us. The story could end here, and that would be fitting; we know, naturally, that it does not, that Sarah somehow ends back at Deffry Vale High School and eventually Bannerman Road and the rest becomes history. But I’m glad that, one last time before the end, Sarah got to go into space again (“this is it. This is what I’ve been searching for”). My head-canon is that the Doctor - I don’t know which incarnation I picture doing this - arrives and saves Sarah just after the end of Dreamland, shortly after she’s passed out from lack of oxygen, and he drops her off back home without waiting for her to wake up. It’s better with the previous eight releases to lend it more background, but anybody who loves Sarah Jane should hear this.

Other things:
Dreamland is lifted by some beautiful music and sound production from Steve Foxon that really does convince the listener of the space programme and the experiences Sarah and Josh go through (the score strongly resembles the one for Time Works, which would’ve been composed at about the same time I imagine).
“When did you change and find it so easy to kill?” Sarah asks, still unaware of Josh’s secret identity.
I haven’t praised him once during these stories, but Shaun Ley does make a very convincing newsreader, which is harder than it sounds - good job from him. And Bishop has used the news broadcasts particularly well throughout the series but particularly so here - “we interrupt your normal programming to bring you this breaking news story” is marvellously cheeky.
“I never thought I’d have so much blood on my hands.”
“I’m sorry!”/“You can only say that so many times before it becomes meaningless.”
“We make our own choices about what we do with our time on this Earth.”/“You don’t believe in a higher power? Some intelligence that shapes our lives?”/“No. I wish I did. It might make the random cruelties of life easier to bear. But that’s what they are - random. There’s no great plan, no pre-determined force, no alien intelligence influencing the course of my life!”
“My crusading days are over.”
“I can see it in your eyes, Sarah. The quiet terror you keep buried. Deep down you suspect you’ve been chosen for something special, that you still have a destiny to fulfil, and that terrifies you!”
I really like the detail of Josh’s card-playing dream. A pleasing bit of weirdness.
It’s hard to believe Sarah would even remember mentioning to Giuliano that the comet might return in about 500 years’ time - I even had to go check the transcript of Mandragora myself to find out that Sarah and not the Doctor had said it, and this wasn’t many years ago in my past like it was for Sarah!
Sarah’s mid-story monologue: “Before we met… I used to travel with this extraordinary friend. I saw things with him I could never share with anybody else. Not even you. They just wouldn’t believe. I suddenly realised how lonely I’ve been, how much I’ve missed him. One day he had to leave - I tried to put a brave face on it, but … I walked out of his life and he vanished from mine. For years afterwards, I kept expecting him to reappear out of thin air, kept hoping to see him round the next corner. Eventually I stopped looking, stopped hoping. The world had moved on but I hadn’t. I was out of sync with everything and everyone around me. Deep down I’ve always wondered if he left me here for a reason, and maybe this is it. I don’t know if this is destiny or coincidence. I need to have something to hope for again, something to believe in.”
Dreamland: an interesting call sign for Area 51. It’s very, er, American dream, isn’t it?
A launch aircraft called the Valiant? Bzzzz! Unintended continuity tie-in alert!
“Everything comes to an end,” Sarah says here, just as she says “everything has its time and everything dies” in School Reunion. Though I understand that Bishop didn’t know much about how Sarah Jane’s TV return would pan out when he wrote this audio.

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