Outside the Government: Eye of the Gorgon

(17 comments)

It’s October 1st, 2007. The fact that Sugababes are at number one is definitely relevant now, and they remain there all story. Feist, Kanye West, Mark Ronson and Amy Wimehouse, and Shayne Ward also chart. In news, Gordon Brown decides against calling an early election, and Larry Craig is not allowed to withdraw his guilty plea for soliciting sex in a Minnesota bathroom, but declines to resign from the Senate anyway. One of my favorite things about Wikipedia is that someone has posted a photo of the bathroom in question, so that if you’re ever in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, you can visit. It’s the one between Royal Zero Shoe Shine and Talie.

On television, meanwhile, Eye of the Gorgon. In many ways Eye of the Gorgon is puzzling. Certainly it does not fit into anything one would on the surface expect from The Sarah Jane Adventures. After two stories that are at their heart based around the day-to-day lives of people who are ostensibly like the audience, we get one that is grounded almost entirely in other sorts of narrative. In the broad strokes, this is not particularly unusual. The Sarah Jane Adventures’s parent show, after all, regularly reaches for genres that are in no way intrinsic to what might be called normative British childhood experience. Nobody has ever fretted about whether or not a spaceship that’s going to fall into the sun in forty-two minutes is too far removed from the experiences of British children. Sure, there’s Davies’s Fear of a Zog Planet, but the fear there is a lack of connection to any human experience. Typically, for Davies, an obvious connection to an existing popular genre is sufficient to solve the problem of having a way into the premise of a story.

And there is an existing genre here. Evil nuns on a quiet country estate (which is what Lavender Lawns looks like, even if it is in practice a nursing home) is a standard enough horror trope. It’s not hard to imagine the basic setup of a bunch of nuns worshipping a Gorgon in secret serving as the premise of an episode of Ace of Wands or The Tomorrow People. Or, for that matter, as the premise of some Season Thirteen story of 70s Doctor Who. Indeed, coming so soon on the heels of Blink, it’s hard not to see the use of the Gorgon as an expansion on that idea of making the act of watching a source of fear. Eye of the Gorgon is ultimately not just a story in which a 70s-style threat recurs, but one where the threat feels as though it comes out of the deeper fabric of what Doctor Who is. It’s not a recurring monster so much as a monster that just makes sense in Doctor Who: of course there are things that just looking at is fatal.

So it’s not the setting or premise that’s unusual as such. What’s unusual is simply that this isn’t the sort of show The Sarah Jane Adventures initially appeared to be. It’s not another bunch of aliens trying to do awful things to children. It’s not a story where the threat comes out of some aspect of children’s day-to-day lives. It’s a story where the children come to the monster instead of the other way around. And there is something slightly odd about that.

Part of this is an illusion; the existence of Invasion of the Bane means that The Sarah Jane Adventures has two very similar debuts, and so unlike Torchwood or Doctor Who takes until its third story to flex the format significantly. But another part of it is that the format, at first glance, looks narrower than Doctor Who, and even than Torchwood. Torchwood, at least, looks like it’s a show about investigating strange goings on in Cardiff. The Sarah Jane Adventures, on the other hand, seems like a straightforward monster-of-the-week show based around some schoolkids. Which is a perfectly flexible format, at least in the general case - no shortage of shows have made it several lengthy seasons with that setup.

Eye of the Gorgon doesn’t completely challenge that - it is, after all, a monster-of-the-week script. Instead what it challenges is the the idea that The Sarah Jane Adventures is going to be primarily about threats that emerge from the kids’ lives. Instead we have a threat that emerges from the world of the grownups and strays into the lives of the kids, putting them in danger as bystanders. This is true not just inasmuch as the Gorgon emerges out of the sort of 70s children’s television that The Sarah Jane Adventures is a modern day homage to, but inasmuch as it emerges from a nursing home, which is by definition a part of the adult world as opposed to the day-to-day world of children.

On one level we have the basic Buffy the Vampire Slayer trick in play here. The Gorgon is an exterior threat, and is paralleled, thematically, by the consideration of Maria’s parents’ divorce. In this regard, at least, the key scene of the episode is when Alan scolds Maria’s mother for dropping in unannounced, and for the chaos and disruption this act brought. Aside from being an interesting and nuanced take on divorce that finds a perspective at once grounded in the experience of it and unlike anything usually portrayed on television, this reinforces the larger theme of this story: the way in which adult concerns hurt children caught up in them.

But in all of this it’s the sad tale of Bea that is most interesting. The best moments of Eye of the Gorgon are the ones that focus on her, and her suffering with Alzheimer’s. It’s not putting Alan in danger that makes the story work - the audience knows the rules of stories like this, and that Alan will be somehow restored. No amount of anguished acting from Yasmin Paige can change that, although we should note that, as sixteen-year-old actresses go, she’s very good. No, what works is putting Yasmin Paige opposite Phyllida Law and having Maria be unable to get through to her and to get the piece of plot information she needs. It’s the cruel implacability of dementia and dying that does it. Aliens can be fought and beaten, and even the cruelty of Alan and Chrissie’s divorce is something that the two of them can work through in terms of its impact on Maria. But there’s no way that Maria can get through to Bea - or, at least, nothing specific that Maria can do.

The episode takes a momentarily unnerving swerve towards undermining this with a brief suggestion that the amulet can cure Alzheimer’s, but ultimately comes down on the aesthetically correct side of having that be something that’s simply outside of what our heroes can do. It’s an important line to draw in a story like this; there need to be things that are simply outside the world of the characters. If there aren’t then the entire reason why the external threats are scary vanishes in a puff of smoke.

It is worth reiterating, in case it is somehow unclear, that this is not some crass “the moral of this story” sort of children’s television. What we have here is akin to 70s Doctor Who in structure as well as iconography. There are thematic concerns, but they’re the backdrop for a story that is, in practice, a straightforward monster romp. Nowhere is there some broad moral lecture about respecting the elderly or anything like that. This is an exciting adventure for children that, almost incidentally, takes place in a milieu defined by a bunch of thematic concerns. It’s a productive and valuable approach: get the moral foundations right, and then make rolicking good adventure stories from those moral foundations. Nobody is going to watch The Sarah Jane Adventures and not see, for instance, it’s admirable commitment to racial and gender diversity in casting, or its willingness to condemn things like bullying. It’s not as though the show is hiding its morality beneath some layer of complex allegory or anything. It’s just that the moral argument isn’t the point of the exercise.

That said, there is a detail that continues to develop the show’s odd relationship with the older generation. It’s telling that Sarah Jane and Bea reminisce over the Sontarans - monsters that, at the time this aired, hadn’t appeared in decades. Similarly, it’s telling that the ultimate solution, both to Bea’s pain and to the whole evil monsters thing, is an act of storytelling: Bea explains the plot of a Doctor Who story to Maria - one that, in this case, Sarah Jane hasn’t seen and thus can’t simply solve on her own. This becomes the mechanism by which the dangers of the adult world and the world of children can be mediated: by telling stories across the gap. Doctor Who stories, in particular, of course.

This isn’t a detail that is likely to jump out at children. For the intended primary audience, this is a story about sensitivity towards the elderly and the pains of dementia. Which are perfectly worthwhile things to write about, and it folds them into a very nice adventure plot. But what’s really interesting is the sense of a larger vision. This ties well to the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who that The Sarah Jane Adventures is ultimately a response and sequel to. There the legacy of the show was its ability to be remembered and to recur in later imagination. That was the thing Mary Whitehouse couldn’t kill - the millions of intrigued, traumatized, and ultimately fascinated children for whom Doctor Who was now something that went on, perpetually, in their heads. With The Sarah Jane Adventures the show begins mediating that, creating something designed to linger and influence the future. The Sarah Jane Adventures is Doctor Who freed of the obligation to directly address anybody but kids. Its value isn’t that it says anything different, so much as the joy it takes in saying it in the first place.

Comments

Carey 3 years, 5 months ago

Possibly because you're not British you may not have noticed it, but the casting of Phyllida Law underpins the entire theme of the calcification of memory, and especially in relation to nostalgia and tales of fantasy represented by 1970's children's tv programmes that adults adore. For while she is now mainly known, beyond her own acting career, as the mother of the actress Emma Thompson, for my generation (born in the late 60's) she will always be remembered as the partner of Eric Thompson, adapter and producer of The Magic Roundabout.

The Magic Roundabout began life in 1964 as Le Manège Enchanté, a French stop motion animation children's show set in an enchanted forest, featuring a mix of characters that include a human girl, a dog, a snail, a cow and a jack-in-the box. The BBC decided to buy the programme in 1965, and asked actor and producer Eric Thompson to dub a new English soundtrack over the original but based solely on the visuals. Reasons for this are unclear: some versions state the original scripts weren't available, others that it was cheaper to buy the show without paying for the scripts, but the end result was British Psychedelic Whimsey at it's best, a children's entertainment that rivalled Alice In Wonderland and Doctor Who ath their best.

It was initially scheduled nightly during weekdays just before the early evening news and directly after children's broadcasting, such as Blue Peter, and appealed to a surprisingly large adult audience who actually complained when The Magic Roundabout was moved earlier in 1972.

Thematically the Magic Roundabout is linked to the Sarah Jane Adventures because, unlike Doctor Who, both revolve around their "star" to such an extent that they cannot exist without them: there have been several attempts to relaunch The Magic Roundabout, but much of its charm came from Eric Thompson's scripts and voices. Without them, the show cannot exist, and The Magic Roundabout, rather like Bea's memories, has faded over time. And so the same will happen with The Sarah Jane Adventures, which cannot last without Elisabeth Sladen.

So ther's a quite nice theme in the story about how Bea's fate is Sarah Jane's, and that eventually all that Sarah Jane experienced will be forgotten. Although in her case she is lucky enough to have Luke, Maria and Clyde to continue her legacy, in the same way that Bea has Sarah Jane.

Oh, and if you can, check out the 1970's Magic Roundabout movie, Dougal and the Blue Cat. I'm sure someone of distinction (I can't remember whether it was Mark Kermode or Charlie Brooker) has called it one of the most disturbing films ever made. It is a thing of genius, containing The Blue Voice, it's minion the Blue Cat that wants to turn the world Blue, the apotheosis of the love affair between Florence and Dougal; and Dougal's greatest challenge: can he survive undercover whle locked in a room full of his favourite drug, sugar? Genius.

Check some out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2xYscT4XRs

Eric Thompson and Elisabeth Sladen will both be missed.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

Well this comment section is making a compelling case for doing more Sarah Jane Adventures...

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Josiah Rowe 3 years, 5 months ago

I'm still enjoying the posts, even if I don't have anything to say about them. In other news, looks like you won't have any trouble finding a subject for this Tuesday's post... unless you feel you've already said it all in your "Doctor in Distress" piece.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

Oh, lord, I'm not touching that topic again.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 5 months ago

I...don't have anything to say. I like the SJAs more than Torchwood. They let me sit down and take joy in the world. That doesn't really provide much food for conversation.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

I mean, I understand; notably, my minimum word count for SJA posts is 1500 words, not 2k, for exactly this reason.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 5 months ago

I try not to post unless I actually have something to say. Which is why I'm so quiet on Albion posts. Did this post get fewer page views?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

Yeah. I mean, it's not a big deal. I'll post regardless, and even a slow post does what, for many a blogger, would be marvelous numbers. I was just surprised, as nothing has generated quite this few comments in a while.

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jane 3 years, 5 months ago

My nerd cred will take a hit from this, but... I've not seen most of the Sarah Jane Adventures. I'll have plenty to add when we get to "Whatever Happened..." as that has plenty of esoteric value.

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Ununnilium 3 years, 5 months ago

I quite liked this story when I saw it and thought you made good points up there!

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Galadriel 3 years, 5 months ago

This becomes the mechanism by which the dangers of the adult world and the world of children can be mediated: by telling stories across the gap. Doctor Who stories, in particular, of course.
On a lesser level, I've seen that happen with my younger brother. With a nine-year-age-gap (and another brother in between). Doctor Who is one of the things that brings us together. We may enjoy it in different ways, but we can still sit down and enjoy it together.
But yes, please keep making these posts. I really appreciate having a chance to discuss SJA with people. Do you think there's a thematic echo between this episode and season four's "Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith?"

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elvwood 3 years, 5 months ago

OK, just for Philip I'll chip in. (Like others here, the lack of comments doesn't mean I'm not interested.)

This was the first Who-related episode to scare my son. My daughter was got by The Idiot's Lantern (and refused to watch TV for a while), but Isaac was fine with everything until this one.

It's really impossible to predict what will get to people - the first thing that freaked my daughter was The Land Before Time, which took me completely by surprise.

Regarding the blog post, it's very insightful stuff but I will have to think about it more before I can say anything other than "keep 'em coming!"

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

Only just got round to reading this but may I reiterate others' comments, just because we're silent on a particular post doesn't mean you should stop writing on that subject, merely that we have nothing constructive to add. perhaps we should just comment with 'applause' or 'bravo'. Also...I agree with Carey above re the casting of Phyllida Law and would suggest a post on The Magic Roundabout. It's interesting more for the urban myth of 'they must be on drugs/there's an adult subtext' which childrens entertainments are prone to be accused of. So there's a hook into Doctor Who right there which could possibly also a lead in to discussing other tea time stop frame animation shorts which seem to be unique to British TV. May I suggest Captain Pugwash ( itself the victim of a particularly...interesting...form of urban mythologising) and the Clangers (as enjoyed, infamously, by the Master).

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Alan 3 years, 5 months ago

I would point out that Bea's Alzheimer's subplot has more relevance to a children's show than one might thing. When an older person begins to show signs of dementia, often his grandchildren will be emotionally affected more than his children. For the grown children of an Alzheimer's patient, the patient's descent is painful to be sure. But for the grandchildren, it's also deeply frightening and traumatizing because children are less likely to understand what dementia is and less likely to get a proper explanation of the illness from grown-ups who "don't want to upset the child" or who are having their own issues with the declining elder which they don't wish to confront. Add to this the problem of someone who had previously been a comforting and reassuring figure suddenly not knowing who you are or even exhibiting violent tendencies in your presence, and suddenly dementia is more frightening than any Gorgon. I applaud SJA for even trying to introduce the concept of Alzheimers in a children's show in such a mature way.

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ferret 3 years, 5 months ago

It may be a bit late to suggest this, but maybe we need a schedule similar to the ones put out for the New Adventures and Eight Doctor material. Will you be covering the K-9 series as well?

I've suddenly realised how little I've seen of SJA, whereas up until now I've consumed everything in some form or another (be it original or novelisation). I've got some catching up to do if I want to be able to relate to your forthcoming posts!

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cmattg 3 years, 5 months ago

I don't really have much to say, besides being certain they set this at a convent so they could make the "problem like Maria" joke.

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