Outside the Government: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith
It’s November 15th, 2010. Rihanna is at number one with “Only Girl (In the World),” with Adele, Take That, and McFly also charting. In news, there’s a G-20 summit in Seoul and Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest in either Burma or Myanmar, depending on your preference in country names. And on the day the second part of this airs, the engagement of Prince William and Catherine Middleton is announced.
While on television, the fourth and final full season of The Sarah Jane Adventures concludes with Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith. There exists a sense in which this is almost unbearable to watch. It’s the last television appearance of Lis Sladen before she died, after all. And it’s an episode whose plot is largely concerned with Sarah Jane falling ill and nearly dying, with lots of talk about whether she’s too old and whether it wouldn’t be better to just hand the job of protecting the Earth to someone else. It is in no way easy to watch in the context of hindsight.
Let’s read this in light of the larger themes of the late Davies era, since we are by this point in what we might call the late for its own funeral Davies era. Specifically, let’s bring up the theme of Children of Earth, a critique, of reproductive futurism. For those just tuning in, reproductive futurism is a term coined by the queer theorist Lee Edelman to describe the ideological practice of justifying things in the name of an idealized vision of “the children” with no material investment in actual childhood, with childhood being defined specifically as the absence of any political engagement. It’s not a good thing, and generally speaking people who produce children’s media that embraces reproductive futurism should be shot in the face.
So here’s a reality of the world instead. There are children who grew up on The Sarah Jane Adventures. Children for whom the hastily assembled “My Sarah Jane” tribute was an absolutely essential piece of mourning because the star of their favorite television show unexpectedly died. Children who still went back and watched the show after she died, because they had DVD sets, and who engaged with this story in exactly the same way that we all do now: as a story that’s about death and abandonment and the fact that people grow old, centered on a character played by an actress who, at the time of transmission, was five months from death.
Surely this is a good thing. What, after all, is the point of children’s entertainment if not to help mediate learning about exactly these things. We’ve long asserted here that the value of children’s television and literature is inexorably linked to its capacity to scar children for life and thus to stick in the memory as something fascinating and impossible to quite process. This, surely, is why. Because people die and awful things happen in the world. There are crocodiles, as one children’s show put it once. And because knowing this isn’t the same as being able to deal with it. Actually, for an awful lot of people it seems to be the case that knowing this is the polar opposite of being able to deal with it. And it’s in children’s stories that we actually find some hope of dealing with this – some way of imparting the knowledge of the world’s horrors that makes them manageable. Surely a story like this, with all its pain, is a more beautiful thing.
It helps, of course, that Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith is absolutely brilliant. Of course it is – it’s by Gareth Roberts, backed by the extremely competent Clayton Hickman who finally makes a much deserved jump from editing Doctor Who comics to writing for television. It’s paced marvelously, with all the key revelations of “what’s going on here” going into the first episode so that the second one can be a rock solid wall-to-wall season finale adventure. Everyone gets fantastic moments. It’s easy to talk about Lis Sladen, who gets some magnificent material, especially towards the end of the first episode as she gets to play Sarah Jane becoming convinced that she’s too old and is going to let everyone down and should just walk away to be forgotten. This is particularly poignant to anyone who has followed behind the scenes stuff closely, and who knows that Sladen herself was at times fearful about her own talents and worth. (In this regard, it is, as we’ve previously noted, particularly wonderful that she got four seasons of an acclaimed children’s show with which to be repeatedly proven wrong.) But even on its own merits, it’s stirring and unsettling.
But the other character do quite well for themselves too. Rani gets a lovely sequence going into the attic to try to trick Ruby, and it plays out with marvelous suspense. And Luke is back with a proper appearance, slyly held back until the second episode so as to further up the stakes. But it’s Clyde who really stands out in the episode, getting some of his series-best material, between his last message as the oxygen runs out in his prison cell and his glorious confrontation with Rani after he’s told Sarah Jane has left, where all his old pain and abandonment issues just overwhelm reason and he lashes out at Rani. It’s a majestically good scene that speaks volumes about just how good the characterization in this series has steadily become.
In many ways it is Luke’s return that’s trickiest. There are ways in which the two-person dynamic of Clyde and Rani works better than the one where Luke is included. Clyde and Rani are a fantastic double act, whereas Luke is, for better or for worse, essentially a slightly less capable Sarah Jane whose plots mostly work best with her. His friendship with Clyde is marvelous, but it’s not generated much in the way of drama since Season One. Something like The Empty Planet could never have worked with Luke in the plot, simply because Luke could have figured things out too effectively. But in Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith Luke’s arrival works nicely because it’s a signifier of how big events have become. (Roberts and Hickman also slyly nail the role that K-9 was always best suited to: stuck in a dorm room and helping over the phone.) He gets a big hero moment at the end, but he gets to play the grownup arriving just in time instead of the kid, and it turns out to be a role his character works well with – having him do the Tenth Doctor-style “one warning” thing is particularly nice.
But in some ways what is most remarkable about Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith is that it’s in many ways business as usual. The only thing that betrays its status as a season finale is the return of Luke. The plot could have worked perfectly well at any point in the season. And indeed, it could have worked in any season, although Luke’s absence probably does help the story. This is a business-as-usual sort of story for The Sarah Jane Adventures. That doesn’t make it any less marvelous, or any less effective as a season finale. But it does bring the discussion back to where we started this season, which was observing that even in the best case, The Sarah Jane Adventures is probably not a show that has too many more than four seasons in it. Because while that may be true, the other thing that’s true is that this has been the strongest season of The Sarah Jane Adventures to date. And Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith is not only fantastic, it’s fantastic in an easy, calm sort of way that makes it look and feel easy. And truth be told, the only two dud episodes this season were ones by writers who have, shall we say, not previously been the highlights of their seasons.
All of which is to say that there’s a fair argument to be made that this show could have run for ages more, and been a real bit of fun as well. And that the entire narrative of the appropriateness of endings is little more than a story we tell ourselves to make that knowledge bearable.
Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.
May 26, 2014 @ 3:03 am
As a relatively new parent, I love the wealth of children's literature and entertainment that's out there. If all we had was bland, boring junk designed to "teach a lesson," I think I would have to write everything for my son myself. It's so disrespectful towards kids to think that they can't process anything that's "scary" or "dangerous." As you say, it's the "scary" and "dangerous" things in kids' literature that make it possible to process the actually scary and dangerous things in the real world. I think that's what makes it so appealing to adults as well. While entertainment like The Wire is brilliant, sometimes I want to know that there is some hope of beating the monsters in the world.
May 26, 2014 @ 3:39 am
One thing I also like about this one is the title; by this point, we'd come to expect the Trickster – I mean, Gareth Roberts and Sarah Jane's name in the title was a big clue. So I watched, and loved it of course, but I watched expecting to see the Trickster. I was then slightly sad … and excited because of his non-appearance: I liked that this show could still wrong-foot its audience (a lot of people were expecting the Trickster, from what I gather) and it could still tease us with "aha, you think you've worked us out?" – I also like that his absence means he's now retroactively left with a trilogy. The Trickster trilogy, and it's great.
As for the story being 'business as usual', I wish the parent series would learn from this. I like the scale here, and whilst it has 'finale-esque' moments, it's still just a regular story and it works a treat. You don't always need OTT bombast.
May 26, 2014 @ 12:07 pm
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May 26, 2014 @ 1:23 pm
Who says this is bearable?
May 26, 2014 @ 3:27 pm
“generally speaking people who produce children’s media that embraces reproductive futurism should be shot in the face.”
Wow. I find this hyperbole extremely distasteful.
May 26, 2014 @ 7:18 pm
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May 26, 2014 @ 10:15 pm
Yes to all of this.
The other thing that struck me reading Philip's fine post was that the sense of appropriateness here matched my feelings concerning Caroline John's final work being The Last Post.
Oh, and thanks to Philip for explaining reproductive futurism here. I had a much vaguer (and more defensible) idea of what it meant which turns out to be completely wrong.
One minor point re Clayton Hickman: he actually makes the jump from editing comics and writing audios, including one of my favourite early Big Finish stories, so it's not like he hasn't done Doctor Who scripts with Gareth Roberts before.
May 26, 2014 @ 11:45 pm
And, of course, a younger version of Sarah Jane takes over and the real one is manipulated into feeling she should quit is a very Trickster plot.
Another nice touch was making Ruby more antagonistic at the outset, and gradually warmed up to the gang. If she'd been friendly from the start it would have made the audience very suspicious, but instead Gareth leads us to believe he's dealt with "What is her problem?" and moved on.
(And these two ideas mesh quite nicely, with the audience thinking maybe Ruby is a nice person – or at least not an outright evil one – and just being manipulated by the Trickster.)
May 27, 2014 @ 2:03 am
"The people in power are usually the first against the wall when the revolution comes."
But not the last.
Not by a long chalk.
May 27, 2014 @ 2:29 am
Case in point: Alan Garner's Elidor scared the fuck out of me as a child. And I will remember it forever because of that. It was scary and beautiful and became part of my mental landscape, to the extent that after not thinking about it for years, I picked up the book fairly recently and remembered it all.
May 27, 2014 @ 2:44 am
I'm not sure I understand the issue about reproductive futurism. Apart from the scoundrel's defence of regressive politics (the UK's Clause 28, Russia's law against 'gay propaganda'), I can't see that equating 'danger to children' with 'ultimate, scary threat' is problematic (provided it's not also reductive). Edelman's examples, the threat to Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol and the menacing of children in The Birds, don't remotely suggest championing 'the absence of political engagement'. The pram hit by a car in Torchwood and Jack's killing of his grandson at the end of Children of Earth aren't political engagement, unless you dress them up as such by reference to Edelman's paper tiger. For me, the message of The Sarah Jane Adventures is that in the real world, the Doctor's alchemy isn't achieved by regeneration, nor is it necessarily achieved by having children (Lis Sladen did, but Sarah didn't), but by the material social progress of sharing and passing on your stories to others (particularly children), you make ensure they outlast you and so live on forever.
May 27, 2014 @ 2:48 am
Daibhid C: "Another nice touch was making Ruby more antagonistic at the outset, and gradually warmed up to the gang. If she'd been friendly from the start it would have made the audience very suspicious…"
It is a nice touch, but I think it goes beyond being a red herring. I always took it as strengthening the many parallels between Sarah Jane and Ruby (even the name "Ruby White" has shades of Andy Pandy). Remember that back in Invasion of the Bane, Sarah Jane herself began as a more aloof and distant figure (one of her first lines was "Er, I hope you're not going to make much too noise. It's just I work from home, and I don't like to be disturbed.").
I wouldn't put it past either Roberts or Hickman to be consciously aware of this plot point's double-duty.
May 27, 2014 @ 10:31 pm
At the time I did find something interesting going on in the undercurrents of the show – and the is not added retrospectively, I did think this at the time – where in TDotD Sarah Jane saves herself from death by using a coffin, the symbol of death and in this story she is diagnosed with an incurable illness. It just felt like death was hanging around and the show was really exploring its own ending, despite it being produced with such a verve that spoke of it simply continuing on and on.
I am not suggesting that this was a presentiment of Elizabeth's own death, but maybe the team producing the show were dancing on that ledge of ending because they were looking at taking the show into some entirely new places in the next series?