Outside the Government: The Mad Woman in the Attic


It’s October 22nd, 2009. Alexandra Burke and Flo Rida are at number one with “Bad Boys,” with Robbie Williams, Black Eyed Peas, and Michael Buble also charting. In news, about all I can actually find over the last week is the balloon boy hoax in Colorado. Oh, and Jenson Button wins the Formula One Drivers’ Champion. All right then.

So, television - another installment of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It is in some ways surprising that The Mad Woman in the Attic is a relatively messy and underwhelming story, not least because it’s by Joseph Lidster, who wrote the best Sarah Jane Adventures story to date with Mark of the Berserker last season. And yet it is, in fact, a mess. It’s not entirely clear what the problem is. It’s certainly possible that it’s just down to some performances that, while not bad as such, are also not quite up to the level they need to be. Neither Souad Faress as the adult Rani nor Eleanor Tomlinson as the alien Eve quite persuade. It’s not that their performances are bad in any specifically memorable way, but they are equally not particularly compelling or nuanced, which is a problem when both roles are required to carry a lot of the underlying emotional weight of the story. It could also be down to a script that, for all its pedigree, feels crowded and like it has one too many ideas, and that this excess has cost any given idea the space to be interesting. 

But the real problem is with the job the story seems to be trying to solve. This is an odd thing to say. After all, the job is one of the basic and reflexive functions of a series like this. The Mad Woman in the Attic exists to be a character focus episode on Rani. Given that she’s not really had one since her debut, which was so focused on getting her to be a business-as-usual part of the story that she barely had time to develop as a character, this makes total sense. Rani needs to be fleshed out. If this season went by without a heavily Rani-focused episode it would be anomalous to the point of opening serious allegations of sexism.

But Rani has, if not a problem as a cast member, at least a problem as a character. She’s there to fill a narrative contrivance in a manner not dissimilar to how Sarah Jane herself is. And just as Sarah Jane proved oddly unsatisfying as the center of an emotional story in The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith, so does Rani here. Rani was designed to be a plucky adventuress. She was never really given any character traits beyond that. And so a story about her emotional turmoil is unsatisfying because her character was never really meant to have that. Fault Souad Faress all you want, but it’s not clear what she could have done with this script. Old Rani is defined only by her narrative wrongness - by the fact that she’s not the correct version of the character.

But the entire title of the piece demonstrates the problem. She’s just “the mad woman of Bannerman Road.” Take Rani’s adventuring away and all you get is a character who is inexplicably unable to leave Bannerman Road. (Really, the narrative here collapses entertainingly under scrutiny. How on Earth did Rani acquire Sarah Jane’s house to live in? She’s an unemployable mad woman. If she owned her parents’ house that might make sense, but putting her in Sarah Jane’s attic is just bizarre.) The conceit that’s supposed to carry all the impact for this story - the aged and abandoned Rani - is utterly featureless. 

This spills into the “present” narrative as well. The only thing that the story can muster for what terrible calamity leads Rani to be abandoned is that she, by her own admission, overreacted at being ignored. And so she runs off to that most irksome of Sarah Jane Adventures/Torchwood bad habits - the terribly important person from a main character’s past who has never actually been referenced in the least before the episode in which they appear. And even there, all that the story can pull off for Rani’s terrible fate is her lashing out in such a way that an overly literal computer casually erases Sarah Jane, Luke, and Clyde from existence. (As a thank you present to Rani, at that. Mind you, it’s Sarah Jane and Luke who actually power up the ship, so it’s not quite clear why the computer is casually evaporating them in thanks.) 

Which is to say that if this is a story that’s supposed to focus on Rani as a character, it fails spectacularly, instead revealing the many ways in which she’s not a character - she’s just an exercise in pluck and adventurousness. Which is not a criticism in the context of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which does in fact need a character much like her. 

But all of this talks around the really strange problem: why the heck aren’t Gita and Haresh in the Rani-centric episode? Because that is the one thing that really defines Rani as a character - she’s the one who has a foot in the real world and another in Sarah Jane’s. And yet this episode goes out of its way to minimize and eliminate that. It is in hindsight downright bizarre to try to talk about Rani without involving her parents, and especially to try to deal with the course of Rani’s life sans Sarah Jane. 

So we have a story that seems on a fundamental level misconceived. Still, there are some interesting elements. Though not entirely satisfying, Eve finally provides The Sarah Jane Adventures and all its “look at all the wonders here on Earth” ethos with, you know, an alien that isn’t doing anything evil. We haven’t actually had one of those since The Warriors of Kudlak. This has been a genuine and problematic hole in The Sarah Jane Adventures to date, and Eve, at least conceptually, redresses the balance well. She manages to be dangerous without being evil, and her alien nature ends up feeling pleasantly central to the plot. Things only happen because she doesn’t quite understand people, and yet she herself remains firmly sympathetic. It’s a very nice little depiction.

And, of course, there’s the return of K-9. His absence had always been something of a visible hole in The Sarah Jane Adventures, not least because the show had to contrive an elaborate explanation for why he was limited to only cameo appearances. School Reunion made his being left to Sarah Jane a fundamental part of the Doctor’s revised farewell to her, but Bob Baker’s desire to create a competing show meant that he couldn’t actually be used in The Sarah Jane Adventures for a while. And so he was put to work closing up a black hole indefinitely. So here we get a wonderfully mad contrivance to bring him back, because the alien ship is powered by black holes and so instead of closing it K-9 gives it to the aliens and returns to Bannerman Road. But even this is just a strange bit of gravy on the episode. (Indeed, it leads to the utterly bizarre sequence of events where K-9 is restored and then presumably destroyed again so we can do the resolution of the Old Rani plot.) 

These interesting elements, however, only add to the sense that this story is overburdened. Now we’ve got Eve the Friendly Alien, Rani’s forgotten best friend, old Rani, Rani’s emotional turmoil, an evil amusement park, and K-9 to boot, all milling about trying to do something. But nothing actually gets done. Prisoner of the Judoon served as a stirring reminder of what The Sarah Jane Adventures was capable of doing and being. This, however, is just a drab case of doing what is expected, and not going any further. It’s lazy filler.

Which brings us back around to where we started. The underlying problem, as we noted, is that Rani doesn’t actually work as a character to add depth to. But there’s no inherent reason that should be so. Yes, there is complexity in her relationship to Maria (another plot strand needlessly haunting this story), whose narrative role she simultaneously has to fill and not fill, but there’s no  inherent reason why her character should be so flat. She’s adventurous without content. She wants to be a journalist, but we’ve never once seen her express interest in an issue beyond wanting to see if there were aliens involved. Her only visible desires seem to be to get into adventures. Given this, it’s hardly a surprise that there should be nothing to build out from.

And so we get the real problem. We said that if there weren’t a Rani-centric episode in this season it would stick out, in particular as it would suggest that the one female character among the kids isn’t worth exploring. But we didn’t get one. We got a vague, abstracted form of one that was frankly more interested in bringing K-9 back and teasing David Tennant’s guest appearance than in the character it was supposed to build. 


BerserkRL 7 years ago

This episode reminds me of the Teen Titans episode "How Long Is Forever?"

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gatchamandave 7 years ago

I have a question I'd be interested in hearing your answer to, Dr Sandifer, as well as anyone else disposed to address it.

In your musings on Eye of The Berserker you suggested that one of the lessons abuse victims should take from that story is that we owe our abusers nothing. Now I agree with that entirely but I wonder - do we owe them the truth ?

You see, I was, over a period of years a victim of sustained and often vicious workplace bullying by one particular manager. Eventually this led to a complete breakdown on my part and a quite spectacular example of career suicide.

Lest anyone worry too much this has resulted in a complete change of work, one that is much more enjoyable and rewarding, albeit not financially perhaps, but still better than having my day ruined all the time.

Every so often, though, I bump into someone I haven't seen for a time and naturally I have to come up with some explanation as to why a once promising Chartered Surveyor now drives a taxi. Being only human, I find myself telling a version of events that favours me-as-victim, downplaying or eliminating those matters that reflect poorly on me. And thus there is that nagging awareness that I'm not really discharging my responsibility to The Truth.

So, does the panel think that abusers deserve the truth ?

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Marionette 7 years ago

Ultimately the central conceit of the story - old Rani - becomes superfluous. It really has nothing to do with the rest of the story and raises far too many problems; why does 2059 look the same as 2009? Why has it taken them forty years to fix the mistake? What has Rani been doing in the meantime? Why is space-travelling future boy wearing a t-shirt and jeans?

The script editor should have taken a hard look at it and dropped the future mystery, even if that was the starting point for the story. It's like those Julius Schwartz comic covers that promise something weird and exciting but have almost no bearing on the content of the actual story.

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heroesandrivals 7 years ago

In terms of characters designed only to be plucky and adventuresses and given no character traits beyond that, I far prefer Rani over Clara Oswald.

I had a long discussion with a friend about character construction for lead characters vs. supporting characters. (Admittedly we were talking about 1970's Avengers comics....) It's my belief that characters conceived as "team members" almost never function well as solo heroes because the way they're 'built', from their personality, issues, backstory, character ties, habits and powers (since we were talking about superheroes) was geared towards functioning on a team. You can take the Scarlet Witch out of the Avengers -- but only by putting her in a different 'team' context. She doesn't function as a solo character. (Something I can attest to, having read the Scarlet Witch miniseries.)
To a degree this is true of Sarah Jane. She /can/ cut it as a solo character by dint of her original introduction and re-introdyuction in School Reunion where she was already in the progress of investigating a story. She can and does work alone on these events -- but there's a real sense that watching her tackle her adventures solo would be really, really boring. Sarah Jane Adventures solves this by inverting the power-dynamic and making her the headline character -- but also giving her a gang to work with.
It makes me wonder how much better Force Works might have been if Iron Man hadn't been part of the team to overshadow Wanda. (Eh, it would still probably would have sucked. It's Force Works.)

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jane 7 years ago

With a title like this, the story should have been rocking some Charlotte Brontë. Instead it's more like, well, LOST. Just look at all those mirrors! Mirrors which are used as match cuts between different time periods, mirrors used as portals to an alternative consciousness -- one that's depicted as a red face, very alchemical in the rubedo sense. There's the reading of memory, a FlashBack structure laced with FlashForwards, and the implication of Eternal Return given the amusement park rides and the repeating action.

But, as with much of the Mystery Box conceit, the story becomes too invested in its game of hooks and reveals, to the detriment of character-based drama. Even Rani's predicament, while on the surface motivated by her interpersonal relationships, isn't really rooted in a deep abiding conflict with these other people, or internally conflicting needs, or a true flaw of character. It's just a mistake, a computer error, which rather cuts against the grain of the alchemical imagery.

The main problem with Rani's "wish" is that it's actually an inversion of her need to be seen and recognized as valuable. It may reflect how she "feels" -- so it's a bit of a metaphor -- but there isn't a "choice" as such, no conflicting need that would make it compelling drama.

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jane 7 years ago

Clara's much better written than Rani. Clara actually has conflicting inner needs. On the one hand, she absolutely needs to have control, to exercise boundaries and authority, which stems from her childhood experience of being "lost" and the eventual loss of her mother, who'd mitigated that awful experience. This, in fact, is the root of her sense of responsibility.

On the other hand she needs to travel, to explore, which often takes actually getting "lost" and letting go to really fully appreciate. She gets that opportunity with the Doctor, of course, but for the most part she's been able to maintain more control over her adventures than just about any Companion before her -- in part because she's willing to let the Doctor take the lead when it's obvious he knows better than she does; Clara doesn't wander off, takes the responsibilities he gives her seriously.

She's been able to balance (and indeed synthesize) these needs because she's very intelligent -- not just in terms of cleverness, but from having a philosophical attentiveness, the ability to see "deeper" than most. She understands how to navigate different social milieus. She understands how to invert her cognitive framework, from seeing that TARDIS is "smaller on the outside" to making Daleks "forget" to pulling a chair outside when the man she wants to talk to won't come on in.

I would never think of Amy Pond ruminating on how everyone is a "ghost" from the Doctor's perspective, on the eidos of a soufflé, or the soulfulness of an old woman's remembrance of falling in love. Clara's the one who recognizes that just because the Doctor's learned to forgive himself doesn't mean that the act committed was ever right, or fated.

So, um, sorry, but the charge that Clara has no "character traits" just comes out of nowhere. It's an empty claim.

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Galadriel 7 years ago

While the "friendly alien" element may have contributed to the mess of this story, I definitely was glad to see one. They're altogether too rare in Doctor Who. Okay, there's the occasional creature (Hide), and the Paternoster Gang and Dorium have made multiple appearances, but the most recent episode with a non-evil alien antagonist was Night Terrors, and we could really use some more

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Julia David 7 years ago

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jane 7 years ago

I dunno exactly how rare they are, if you actually don't dismiss certain ones out of hand:

-- In Time of the Doctor, the Silence become allies.
-- In Day of the Doctor, the Zygons become allies.
-- In Name of the Doctor, Strax and Vastra are allies.
-- In Crimson Horror, Strax and Vastra are allies.
-- In Hide, the Tree Creatures were misunderstood.
-- In Cold War, the Ice Warrior is redeemed.
-- In Rings of Akhaten, we get a whole world of friendly aliens.

Just in the last ten episodes, we've had plenty of non-evil aliens. What about antagonists being evil? That's the bigger one -- but even here, we've got several stories where the antagonists aren't motivated by evil. Some of them are certain complicated, though.

Time of the Doctor, for example, has evil Daleks and Cybermen and Angels, but we've got comical Sontarans, allied Silence, and even the Church takes on a protective role. The real source of conflict is actually the fear of Gallifrey returning. But as we've seen in Day of the Doctor, we can't consider all of Gallifrey to be evil.

Speaking of Day of the Doctor, it's interesting how the Zygons are turned away from "evil" -- it's actually a very positive message in the end, that the "other" can be seen as being every bit as human as anyone else. This is rather much in line with how Zygons have been presented in audio adventures.

Now certainly we can say that The Great Intelligence is simply evil, and given this foe occupied three of the past eleven stories, it's not easy to get past that. But again, it's not the "alien" part of the GI that makes it evil -- the GI is in part "evil" due to Victorian repression, and possibly in part by being a metaphor for "God" given that it's a disembodied intelligence.

Which is even more interesting given the kinds of "evil" present elsewhere in the past season -- the "evil parasite god" of Akhaten, the puritanical zealots empowered by the Repulsive Red Leech, the Judgment Day of the Shakri, and of course the religious iconography that the Angels represent. Even Solomon shares the name of a religious figure. The only other "purely" evil creatures are Daleks and Cybermen, both of whom are depicted as "converting" others.

So what do we have left? There's the Gunslinger, who isn't evil and is in fact redeemed. There's the Ice Warrior, who the Doctor regards highly, despite his violent acts. There's the Ghost and Tree Creatures of Hide, both misunderstood antagonists. In Journey there's the salvage crew (not evil) and the TARDIS (not evil) and even the Lava Zombies are simply our heroes deformed by the future and presumably motivated to stop that future from happening, even though it means killing themselves before the horror befalls.

Before that, The Wardrobe hardly features any antagonists at all!

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ferret 7 years ago

My perspective: if person A abuses person B, and person B acts/reacts in a negative way (the 'matters that reflect poorly') - those negative actions are still caused by the abuse of person A.

It may even have been person A's intention to cause a negative reaction, much like Internet Trolls enjoy their victims angry responses, as such negative reactions give them both pleasure and further avenues to bully.

So in my opinion 'no': abusers do not deserve the truth if the truth humiliates you further and occurred in response to their abuse. It would give them pleasure if they knew they were still having a negative effect on you.

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Froborr 7 years ago

I don't think you have a responsibility to The Truth in this case. You are telling a story to a mostly-stranger; there is a general cultural understanding that you are leaving out bits you're not comfortable with sharing. Besides, the function of such a story is not to convey information about the events that occurred, but rather to convey information about yourself, using those events as a medium; it is therefore better to tell a less-than-complete version of the events that correctly conveys who you are than to tell a complete version of events that might be misleading as regards who you are.

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mengu 7 years ago

I've been searching for these words for at least half a year. Thank you.

She understands how to invert her cognitive framework, from it's people not technology, to the future not the past, to going after the Cybermen when her preferences and the Doctor's instructions say to stay defensive.

"I would never think of Amy Pond ruminating on how everyone is a "ghost" from the Doctor's perspective, on the eidos of a soufflé, or the soulfulness of an old woman's remembrance of falling in love." This this this this this. Unlived days and tomorrows come early. She's grounded but comfortable with abstraction. (Amy was such a dreamer but in concrete terms)

"On the one hand, she absolutely needs to have control, to exercise boundaries and authority" Exactly.

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Galadriel 7 years ago

I haven't sat down and hammered out a definition of "non-evil aliens," as such--more like thinking out loud. But even if you count species (or individuals of said species) that end up aligned with the Doctor at some point, it feels like all the big episodes and well-known species are enemies. I think I left Rings off--though it was gorgeous, the first properly alien planet in ages--because apart from the facial markings, which might have been tattoos-they could have passed for human.

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gatchamandave 7 years ago

Thank you very much to both of you for your thoughtful, wise replies. I am much obliged.

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