Outside the Government: Mona Lisa’s Revenge
It’s November 12th, 2009. JLS are at number one with “Everybody in Love,” with Ke$ha, Cheryl Cole, Westlife, and Lady Gaga also charting. In news, Hugo Chavez tells Venezuela to “prepare for war” against Colombia, the US House of Representatives passes the first version of the health care law these days more commonly known as Obamacare, and, in a desperate attempt to get a third news item, Willie Bain wins the Glasgow North East by-election.
While on television, it’s Mona Lisa’s Revenge. It is difficult to get around the fact that Mona Lisa’s Revenge features the TARDIS as the Mona Lisa. That this involves certain eccentricities of chronology does not even seem like much of a problem: after all, in The Doctor’s Wife one of the major conceits is that the TARDIS does not experience time chronologically, and thus there is no particular reason why the fact that Mona Lisa’s Revenge was made two years earlier should have any bearing on the causality here.
We must also admit that Mona Lisa’s Revenge ties in conspicuously with City of Death, the previous time that Doctor Who has intersected the Mona Lisa. From that we know that the Mona Lisa that comes to life here is, if not a fake, at least not strictly speaking the original – that da Vinci in fact painted six additional versions on canvases onto which the Doctor had scrawled “this is a fake” in felt tip marker.
This latter fact is worth stressing simply because back when we dealt with City of Death, one of our primary concerns was the fact that it was a story about the nature of authenticity – what Walter Benjamin deemed “aura” in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” That is to say, City of Death is a story about the strange and quasi-mystical allure of the authentic object. The thing that has been touched by the hand of the artist, as it were. Mona Lisa’s Revenge, for all that it is an odd bedfellow to that story, is firmly in the same tradition.
After all, the key event of the story is the presence of the Mona Lisa – the fact that it is on loan from the Louvre, and in the UK. The museum is drenched with Mona Lisa merchandise, and the story thus stresses in a number of ways how many copies and imitations of the image there are. But what’s important is the fact that the Mona Lisa – the one that comes to life and turns out to be rather evil – is the one that Leonardo da Vinci painted. Indeed, the explanation for what’s going on in this story, such as it is, hinges entirely on the medial reality of the painting. The Mona Lisa comes to life because she was painted with paint that happened to have alien rocks in it, or something like that. The explanation is terribly vague, but the underlying point stands: everything that happens in this story stems from the physical object of the Mona Lisa.
And yet the nature of what makes the Mona Lisa prone to coming to life and killing people is wholly arbitrary – the presence of an entirely fictitious “monstrous” painting locked in the basement causes her to come to life. It’s key to note this detail – for all that what matters to this story is the fact that it is the authentic Mona Lisa that comes to life and threatens people, it is equally important that what brings her to life is a wholly external set of factors – a fictional painting that happened to use the same set of paints as da Vinci.
So while the story is about the aura of the Mona Lisa, it is even more about what happens when a major work of art enters the world of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Put another way, it’s not just about aura, but about what aura means in a world completely and utterly bonkers enough to have a story like this take place. The story is not about the Mona Lisa in a meaningful sense, but rather about what a work of art becomes when put in a world where all of the other events of this story are likely to take place.
In this regard it’s fitting that the Mona Lisa becomes the TARDIS. What else could she be save for the ultimate in uncanny objects? Especially in a spin-off series like The Sarah Jane Adventures, where we have not two stories earlier witnessed the uncanny power that the TARDIS has as an object – its aura, if you will. It is, in the end, the iconic shot from 1963 in which a Police Box opens up to a vast and eccentric interior from which all the multitudes of strangeness within Doctor Who emerge. The first shot of Doctor Who is a shot based on stressing the incongruity of the Police Box – a concentrated attempt to make it strange – to make it a thing, as opposed to an object, in the Heideggarian sense of that word.
But this, in an odd way, mirrors the strange relationship between Mona Lisa’s Revenge and City of Death. The Sarah Jane Adventures is defined by the way in which it is haunted by the TARDIS – by the fact that it is an uncanny object within The Sarah Jane Adventures in a way that it is not anymore within Doctor Who. In other words, The Sarah Jane Adventures draws its power by its proximity to Doctor Who’s aura. It is forced to reflect the brighter light of its parent show, and so objects that shine with the bright aura of the original become uncanny problems within The Sarah Jane Adventures.
And yet in all of this we have Clyde, a character who we learn has tremendous skill as an artist in his own right – so much so that objects he draws can be brought, fully functional, into the real world. Clyde’s art is demonstrably photorealistic. Indeed, there’s an odd ethos going through this story in general – the art that is straightforwardly animated is all realistic art, whereas non-realistic art is treated as nightmarish. Which is an odd distinction to draw in a story about the Mona Lisa packing an alien blaster and trapping people in paintings.
But more interesting than the increasingly strained metaphysics of this story is the reflection on Clyde as a character. Clyde becomes the figure within the narrative with creative power of his own – he can create works with aura. In fact, it’s his ability to do so that instigates the entire plot. There’s a real contrast here between Mona Lisa’s Revenge and City of Death. In City of Death it was not the ability to create but to imitate that mattered. That story advances through people creating increasingly elaborate fakes, and through the loss of distinction between fakes and reality. Mona Lisa’s Revenge, on the other hand, advances through people creating things defined by their authenticity.
And, of course, the thing that Clyde creates that ultimately resolves the plot is K-9. K-9 is interesting within this nexus of symbols. He is, of course, of the era of City of Death, but he is not actually in City of Death itself. Nor, mind you, is he in Mona Lisa’s Revenge. Instead a representation of him arrives and saves the day with a severe lack of narrative logic. He is every bit the uncanny object that the Mona Lisa is – something defined by the incongruity it presents in the landscape. He sticks out, demanding to be the visual and narrative focus. And yet there is no reason why he should be able to solve the problem. Apparently a single shot from him is enough to destroy nightmarish paintings.
But in the end, the nightmarish painting only exists because this is The Sarah Jane Adventures. And so it is wholly fitting that K-9 should be able to resolve the plot. Because there is no such thing as uncanny weirdness in a show that is about the glories of weirdness. Even the Mona Lisa, the most obvious example of something with aura in the world, cannot actually hold narrative power within the show. The strange, within The Sarah Jane Adventures, exists to make the world more fun. That’s what the ethos of hedonism is.
And so what the Mona Lisa represents – the idea that art wants to be free of its fictionality and to run rampant in the real world – is ultimately rejected. Art wants to be art, in all its lush oddity. And so Mona Lisa’s Revenge becomes, in the end, just that – one of the most stark-raving mad pieces of television ever created. The Mona Lisa comes to life and starts trapping people in paintings trying to bring back her monstrous brother. The staggering thing, in the end, is that the story is actually as weird as that description makes it sound. But that’s The Sarah Jane Adventures for you: a show that can make the completely and utterly weird even weirder.
February 28, 2014 @ 6:29 am
It's an odd one alright. Suranne Jones' performance is excellent as always and yes, this is the episode where Clyde really becomes a nuanced character who can now be trusted to carry his own story arcs. Perhaps fittingly for a story about drawing there's a stylised comic book attitude to this one which taken together with the previous episode's Scooby Doo scary mystery mise en scene is where the SJA discovers a parallel ability to its parent show to crash fictional genres. In SJA's case childrens' fiction.
February 28, 2014 @ 10:45 am
I remember really enjoying this at the time. Sadly, all I remember now is an argument online with someone who insisted that Mona Lisa should be speaking with an Italian accent, and the fact she was instead Mancunian meant the whole thing didn't make sense.
Which, I mean … okay. Let's set aside that Random British Accents is a decided Whonoverse thing. Let's even set aside that "making sense" in a story about the Mona Lisa coming to life because alien paint is, perhaps, not a goal anyone was aiming for, and therefore not one they can be blamed for not hitting.
Because, actually, there's no reason within the story why Mona Lisa would be speaking with an Italian accent. It's made very clear she's not in any sense Lisa del Giocondo, she's an alien made of paint. Who obviously comes from one of those planets that has a North.
February 28, 2014 @ 10:57 am
It felt very annoyingly to me like the production team was screaming "AREN'T WE CLEVER, HAVING GIVING MONA LISA A LOWER-CLASS-CODED ACCENT INSTEAD OF MAKING HER SOUND POSH? CLEVER! CLEVER!"
February 28, 2014 @ 1:05 pm
Just wanted to slip in here again and politely request once more that Phil revive the TARDIS Eruditorum video review thing when we get to "The Eleventh Hour", just to do a similar comparison between the aesthetic styles of that episode and the RTD era that Phil did in his "Leisure Hive" and "Time and the Rani" articles.
Would be interesting. 🙂
February 28, 2014 @ 1:12 pm
Maybe. I'd like to. But argh, deadlines argh argh splat, basically.
February 28, 2014 @ 1:58 pm
Worth comparing & contrasting with the Splatter Phoenix episodes of Darkwing Duck?
February 28, 2014 @ 2:37 pm
Surely deadlines don't factor into video-blog-making? :-S
Besides… if you wanted help, we could always provide it. 🙂
February 28, 2014 @ 5:29 pm
I just don't know how they managed to resist the temptation to have someone discover that "Mona Lisa" has "THIS IS A FAKE" tattooed on her back.
February 28, 2014 @ 6:49 pm
Indeed, there’s an odd ethos going through this story in general – the art that is straightforwardly animated is all realistic art, whereas non-realistic art is treated as nightmarish.
"This is the problem with the impressionists — not accurate enough. This would never happen with Gainsborough or one of those proper painters."
March 1, 2014 @ 12:03 am
Only if you equate northern British with working class. Which is problematic. Middle and upper middle class northerners do exist. To the nuanced British ear certain northern accents denote new money rather than underclass. Jones is using her own accent. I doubt the production team, by which I guess you mean the director, were that bothered. They might have discussed it with her but unless the script specifically called for an 'upper class' accent it would not have been an issue.
Diagetically though it's a different concern. Is there an SJA equivalent to the 'gift of the TARDIS' translation conceit for visiting aliens?
March 3, 2014 @ 4:07 pm
Actually, this episode does come up as a brick joke in Death of the Doctor–while Clyde and Rani are reminding Sarah of all their adventures, Clyde says "The Mona Lisa;" after the tension's over, the Doctor blinks at Clyde and goes "What do you mean, the Mona Lisa?"
September 7, 2014 @ 1:47 pm
The comment about K9 not being K9 because he was produced from a drawing of K9 reminded me of René Magritte's The Treachery of Images.
The natural followup would be a print of Clyde's picture with the caption "Ceci n'est pas une K9."