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.