Outside the Government: Lost in Time

(17 comments)

Last War in Albion will run on Friday this week.

It’s November 8th, 2010. Rihanna is at number one with “Only Girl (In the World),” with Katy Perry, Nelly, Cheryl Cole, and Duck Sauce also charting. While in news… I’m at an honest loss to find anything interesting. The US Federal Reserve is apparently going to buy $600 billion in bonds, there’s a kerfuffle about a contrail in California that people think is a missile, and Nigel Farage is re-elected as the leader of UKIP. 

While on television, it’s similarly boring as The Sarah Jane Adventures airs  Lost in Time, which is, unfortunately, an absolute mess. Even more unfortunately, the reasons for this aren’t particularly interesting. Its central conceit - sending Rani, Clyde, and Sarah Jane to different time periods where they each have to recover an object made of unobtainium - turns out to be a damp squib. Instead of, as with The Empty Planet, focusing things on the quality of the dynamic among its main characters, this means that everyone spends the story with one or two guest characters. With only fifty minutes of story to deal with, this means that nothing gets fleshed out in any detail, and the whole thing feels rushed.

As with Laight’s previous story, it’s difficult to work up much of a reason to blame him, in other words. The story seems misbegotten from the start - to be fundamentally ill-suited to the series and episode structure it’s written for. It’s The Great Game done for The Sarah Jane Adventures. Only The Great Game relied, ultimately, on its sense of a countdown and inevitable reveal of Moriarty. The individual mini-adventures work precisely because they’re not the point of the exercise. Lost in Time has no such end reveal. Its climax centers around a magical black man who never really gets explained, with a final resolution that’s cribbed from Blink as blatantly as Sarah Jane’s entire plot in the episode is cribbed from the first episode of the 70s horror anthology Shadows.

The result is that the episode becomes three not particularly engaging mini-episodes. Clyde gets to fight against Nazis and tell them how racist they are, which, while certainly true, feels like a shockingly lazy attempt to give Clyde a racism plot of the sort that the series has quite sensibly avoided for the preceding twenty-one stories featuring him, and doubly so when the story is based around a racially caricatured magical black man. Sarah Jane hunts ghosts from the future in a story that mostly involves her explaining the plot repeatedly to a poorly acted guest star. And Rani meets Lady Jane Grey and convinces her of the merits of having her head lopped off in a plot that oversimplifies history to the point where it long since stops making much in the way of sense. (The event instigating Jane Grey’s fall is now Mary showing up outside the Tower of London, as opposed to the Privy Council switching sides, which has the odd effect of removing all sense that the monarch requires any sort of broad base of power to rule.)

As with The Gift, the reasons for objecting to much of this are political as much as they are aesthetic, if in fact there’s a difference. For racism to only surface as a historical phenomenon that Clyde encounters when he faces down Nazis, especially in a story with an (at best) racially dodgy Macguffin at the outset, is frustrating. So are the changes to Lady Jane Grey’s history. I’m usually not one to get particularly bent out of shape over Doctor Who fudging dates a bit for celebrity historicals, but what’s being glossed over here simply isn’t that difficult - an unseen Queen Mary supposedly at the gates of the Tower of London is not actually a heck of a lot simpler than “Mary has gained the support of the Privy Council.” There’s a vague line early on about Jane Grey losing support, but the overall story gives the sense that monarchic succession is a noble, straightforward process that is divorced from any larger power struggles - as though what made the difference was mainly that Mary’s claim to the throne was stronger. Although celebrating Jane Grey’s life as valuable because she’ll be remembered does have the unsettling implication of endorsing her as a valued Protestant martyr to Catholic oppression, because apparently The Sarah Jane Adventures is really into sectarian conflict now.

It is worth pausing to note that the Shopkeeper - the magical black MacGuffin - was apparently intended for a larger role, making a quick appearance at the start of Season Five as a prelude to what would have been a larger appearance later in the season. And there’s potential there, in particular in terms of balancing him out against the Trickster in the sort of homage to the White and Black Guardians that one assumes Gareth Roberts would have a field day with. It’s not clear that this twist would have made his rather sketchily imagined appearance here work any better, but it at least explains what they were going for and puts this episode in some sort of context. Maybe the future could have redeemed this episode.


But it’s tough to see how an episode that concludes with, in effect, three separate final shots that treat the core cast as entirely separate characters with no overlap was ever going to be a winner. Not that any other resolution really presented itself - an episode in which none of the characters interact and all the episode-sized plot consists of hunting unobtainium on the command of a mysterious and undefined magic character there’s not exactly any way to bring everyone together for the end. This isn’t really an episode about anything except burning off three ideas that weren’t good enough for full episodes, in the misguided and ultimately doomed belief that somehow they’d add up to something worthwhile. I’m not entirely certain this is the worst Sarah Jane Adventures yet (although it is a contender), but it’s certainly the one you’d most want to point to if you wanted to make an argument that the series had completely and terminally run out of ideas. 

Comments

IG 2 years, 10 months ago

Not much here I'd argue with, except that I'm struggling to see why the mysterious shopkeeper is automatically a racist stereotype, just because the actor happens to be black. Looked to me more like the sort of colour-blind casting that British TV does attempt from time to time (to its credit).

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elvwood 2 years, 10 months ago

Agreed. Still, I thought this was worthwhile mainly because it canonised Mister Benn as part of the DW universe. Seriously, the shopkeeper has regenerated (like Mels, changing colour as he did so), but he's still the same humanoid plot device. As if by magic...

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Anton B 2 years, 10 months ago

And agreed. Phil, I need you to be a little more specific about the perceived racist stereotyping here. Yes the shopkeeper was a magical black man but portrayed in a way that (I felt) avoided any stereotypical 'mystical ethnic' or 'noble savage' tropes. Surely the only stereotyping here is, as Elvwood suggests, the children's fiction favourite mysterious shopkeeper trope which is in in fact subverted by having him played by a person of colour. Unless you think showing a black man running a shop is inherently racist. From a British cultural perspective if he'd been Asian then I could see it but here, particularly as the three leads are carefully ethnically and, in Sara Jane's case, age diverse I think you may be seeing something here that is totally unintended. I do think the 'Clyde fights the Nazis' sequence was clumsy though. In a similar way that 'River fights the Nazis' was uncomfortable in LKH. Tarantino pulls off the anachronistic 'let's diss the Nazis' routine in Inglorious Basterds but only by first graphically depicting their atrocities. This cannot be done in the context of Doctor Who or TheSJA (maybe Torchwood could have handled it) because it's tea-time entertainment so ends up just about hitting an Indiana Jones 'Nazis...I hate those guys!' tone.

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IG 2 years, 10 months ago

@elvwood Ha! David McKee should have got royalties :)

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Aylwin 2 years, 10 months ago

Speaking from a position of ignorance (not having seen this), I suspect this may be one of those transatlantic things. Both as an actual feature of cultural production and as a subject of critical discussion, the "magic negro" is such a distinctively American phenomenon (not exclusively*, but distinctively) that I imagine the very fact of casting a black actor as a character of unexplained uncanniness would sound alarm bells in an American viewer in ways that just wouldn't occur to a British one.

It probably also ties into more general questions that have cropped up on this blog before, regarding whether an intrinsically unobjectionable story element becomes objectionable because the demographic categorisation of the characters involved gives it a putative resemblance to common features of other, more objectionable stories, thus arguably tainting it by association. Which is one of those questions that different people are simply going to see differently, in a way not very amenable to persuasion.

But again, I haven't actually seen this, so have no way of knowing that the character portrayal in question is not actually just screamingly racist.

*In the British context for that sort of thing, a Jamaican accent increases the "hmmm" quotient by several thousand per cent. Actually, I can't think of any character portrayal I've seen in British culture that seemed to be swimming in those particular dubious waters without such an accent attached.

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Aylwin 2 years, 10 months ago

Also, thinking about it, in those very occasional British cases the association with the supernatural tends to be a sinister one, whereas in the classic American pattern it's benign, involving connecting white characters to the spiritual, solving their personal problems and what have you.

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Lewis Christian 2 years, 10 months ago

In the intended series 5 finale The Battle for Bannerman Road, the Shopkeeper would have returned, revealing that he had been manipulated by the Trickster into leaving Sky on Sarah Jane's doorstep. (The Sarah Jane Companion Volume Three)

The Shopkeeper was added to Sky because the original plan for Matt Smith to appear as the Doctor fell through. (The Sarah Jane Companion Volume Three)

According to The Brilliant Book 2012, and a blog post from Neil Gaiman, Gaiman and Russell T Davies were both of the personal opinion that the Shopkeeper was in fact the Corsair, a swashbuckling Time Lord friend of the Doctor's mentioned in TV: The Doctor's Wife.

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Anton B 2 years, 10 months ago

As I recall though I haven't re-watched it, Cyril Nri plays the Shopkeeper using a fairly neutral 'recieved pronunciation', i.e classic British drama school, accent.

I must ask seriously, would the character of the Doctor himself be open to accusations of 'Magical Black Man' tropeism if, for example Patterson Joseph took the role?

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Anton B 2 years, 10 months ago

@Elvwood
Didn't the shopkeeper in Mr Benn wear a fez? I think we may be onto something here.

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elvwood 2 years, 10 months ago

Anton B, exactly! And his powers were to create portals to other times or worlds, and to appear and disappear "as if by magic". He didn't have a parrot, but maybe he picked it up from the pirate world.

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David Anderson 2 years, 10 months ago

As I understand it - I may not - Joseph or Lester as the Doctor would only be open to accusations of magical black man if there was simultaneously a major shift towards making the white companion the protagonist.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 10 months ago

For me, it's the combination of Nri's ethnicity and the fact that the character is dressed and presented as an exotic magical foreigner that made the part cringeworthy

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Galadriel 2 years, 10 months ago

Can I just say, whatever else this episode did or failed to do, it did give us the SJA gang experiencing time travel and as they'll probably never appear on DW proper, and they did chose some pretty cool times.

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Kit 2 years, 10 months ago

As with Laight’s previous story

Not related to this entry alone; do you intend to include credits in the book version? There have been a bunch of posts of late that refer in passing to a writer’s surname as though it’s already been established for the reader. Obviously here we can somethingsearch “laight” + “sarah jane” if we care enough, but if someone’s reading their kindle or paper book in the sun...

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Spacewarp 2 years, 10 months ago

But surely sometimes an exotic magical foreigner is just that. An exotic foreign person who is magical. Why is that racist or cringeworthy? The character could equally have been played by an exotic white person (think Bilis Manger) but that would then be one less part on British Television for a non-white actor.

As Alwyn points out, the addition of a Jamaican accent would definitely cause a blip on peoples' "RaceDar", but the question there is why should it? For a black character to have an ethnic accent just indicates where that character originates, not that they are a glaring racial stereotype.

How does the panel feel about Nelson the barkeeper from "Life on Mars"?

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IG 2 years, 10 months ago

I'll be honest, I wasn't really familiar with the idea of the 'magic negro' trope until now, but having read up on it, and read the comments of Spike Lee and others about it... I agree with Aylwin, I think this is one of those transatlantic things that get lost in translation. It's pretty much a specific US/Hollywood thing that we don't really have an equivalent of in the UK, so I think accusing the programme makers of using a supposed racial stereotype is misdirected.

It reminds me a little of the complaints some US fans made about Martha's portrayal in Human Nature/Family of Blood - that by having her pose as a maid, the programme makers were forcing the character into a racist stereotype. Which, OK, maybe in US terms... but that ignores the fact that for all our faults, we really don't have the historical/cultural baggage here that associates black women with slaves/servants/maids. If anything we get our ideas of 'servants of the upper classes' from TV dramas like 'Upstairs, Downstairs' (or these days, 'Downton Abbey')... not from 'Gone with the Wind' or the black maid character in Tom & Jerry*. The striking thing about a woman of colour working as a maid in Britain in 1914 isn't that it's a stereotype, it's how unusual it would actually have been.

So I think this one of those things that Americans pick up on as a racist stereotype, and UK viewers just don't, because... it just isn't a stereotype here.

*Tom & Jerry is the one example that young British viewers - at least of my generation - might have been familiar with. But as a kid I just assumed she was Tom's owner/the householder.

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Triturus 2 years, 10 months ago

I tend to agree that the 'magic negro' is more of an American thing than a UK one. Both in that people in the US are more sensitive to it, but also because it crops up more often in American fiction.

Stephen King has them in a fair few of his books, for example. And once you've had them pointed out to you, it is noticeable that he uses this type of character as a shortcut to highlighting that "ooh, strange things are afoot". Which I suppose, as a white author, is an easy trap to fall into if you're just thinking about things from the POV of your white protagonists. King isn't meaning to be racist, but it is a bit lazy.

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