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.