Outside the Government: Revenge of the Slitheen
It’s September 24th, 2007. Sean Kingston is at number one with “Beautiful Girls,” but is unseated a week later by Sugababes’s “About You Now,” a fact that only arguably counts in terms of this story. Shayne Ward, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Rihanna, and the Foo Fighters also chart. Since Last of the Time Lords, the last Harry Potter book came out. Dick Cheney is President of the United States for two-and-a-half hours, and spends the time penning a bizarrely self-serving letter about terrorism to his grandchildren. And Alberto Gonzales finally resigns, long after everyone had given up hoping. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown enjoys a momentary wave of popularity, but fails to have the good sense to hold an election, and manages to squander the lead within a few months. And the United States Episcopal Church agrees to back off on consecrating gay bishops or blessing same-sex marriages in an attempt to smooth over schisms in the Anglican Communion.
On television, meanwhile, we get the actual start of The Sarah Jane Adventures with Gareth Roberts’s Revenge of the Slitheen, which is more or less the episode you’d expect from that description. Roberts, as ever, is a precise writer who focuses on honing existing concepts to perfection. In this case it’s the Slitheen. Aliens of London/World War III was not a classic, less because of any specific flaw than a myriad of slightly off-kilter decisions. This led to the mistaken belief that the Slitheen didn’t work, and were just dumb farting aliens. It’s true that their original two-parter put two much emphasis on the fart jokes, just as the head-unzipping happened a few too many times to remain interesting (and had a profoundly annoying sound effect to boot). In fact, as Roberts demonstrates, the Slitheen are a marvelous concept that got slightly lost underneath the episode they appeared in.
At their heart, what’s most interesting about the Slitheen is not the green bug-eyed monsters, but the scenes in which they are wearing their skinsuits, in which they’re playing authority figures that we know are wrong. They are in this regard that most basic of children’s television fodder: the authority figure that the children know is illegitimate, but that nobody else can see. It’s one of the most basic moves of children’s fiction, and one of the cleverest bits of Aliens of London/World War III was elevating this logic to the higher stakes setting of Downing Street.
Even this stays within the general margins of children’s entertainment, however. One of the cultural assumptions underlying the entire idea of childhood is the idea that children have a measure of special innocence and moral sense. And so the point isn’t just the revelation that New Labour’s march to the Iraq War was in fact carried out by alien psychopaths; it’s the fact that their villainy is so obvious that even a child can see it. (Not, to be clear, that only a child can see it – for all that Doctor Who takes children’s perspectives seriously, it never goes for that “children are magic” twaddle.)
On the surface, then, Revenge of the Slitheen seems like a step down, taking the premise from “what if aliens in disguise took over the UK” to the relatively more banal “what if aliens in disguise took over your school.” It’s notable that this isn’t even the first time in the new series that Sarah Jane has appeared in that particular plot. So all of this seems a bit safe – like the show is just doing down the line standards of children’s television, and like the real thrill here isn’t the plot or the concepts, but just the fact that we have those loveable farting aliens from Doctor Who, and, as Clyde eagerly explains, farting is funny.
That’s not quite fair; Roberts has some clever twists. The cliffhanger is quite clever, leading the audience to believe that it knows where all the dangers are in the story only to surprise them with a child Slitheen, a concept we’d never seen before and hadn’t been looking for, but that seems obvious once you know it’s there. The evil kid was just present enough to be fair, but not present enough that the episode has to tip its hand at all. It’s a cliffhanger done right – one that hinges not on putting characters in danger, but on subtly shifting what we thought the rules of the episode were. On top of that, Roberts tinkers the balance – there’s only one forehead unzip, the fart jokes are present but, as with Boom Town, scaled down. The Slitheen are, generally speaking, tightened up and focused a bit. There’s less worry about reiterating the premise over and over again, and more confidence that if you just have them act like what you want them to be the audience will get it. Some of this is not being Series One of Docto rWho anymore, but some of it is also just a matter of confidence and knowing how to do things like this better.
But there’s more depth to Revenge of the Slitheen than even that. The Slitheen, as we noted, are based on the fundamental children’s narrative trope of illegitimate authority that is only visibly illegitimate to children. But this matches up, in The Sarah Jane Adventures, with a question of legitimate authority. Thus far, at least, there are two examples within the show: Alan and Sarah Jane. Alan, for his part, fits into a standard stock role, at least thus far: he’s the well-meaning but thick parent who just doesn’t get what’s going on around him. He’s clearly a good guy and sympathetic, but, you know, he fails to recognize that the planet is being constantly invaded by aliens, so within the narrative logic of The Sarah Jane Adventures it’s impossible to take him entirely seriously. (Obviously the show gets around to subverting this fairly quickly, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Which leaves us with the title character. Again, there’s nothing too radical here. The lone magical grownup who knows the truth of the world and what’s going on is a perfectly common trope in children’s fiction. But Sarah Jane doesn’t quite fit that. The magical grownup should be eccentric, and, more to the point, sidelined for the main action, leaving the children to fend for themselves. (Think Patrick Troughton’s character in Box of Delights for a particularly purist example.) Sarah Jane, on the other hand, is thoroughly involved in the narrative here. She saves the day. In fact, what we have is surprisingly close to what everyone wrongly says Doctor Who is, with Clyde, Luke, and Maria serving as the audience identification characters while Sarah Jane serves as the primary adventurer.
Except that doesn’t work either. The Sarah Jane Adventures assumes an audience that’s already familiar with Doctor Who. Given that, Sarah Jane’s perspective is more closely allied with what’s familiar to viewers than any of the children possibly could be. The audience knows how this sort of story works – to the point of being ahead of Sarah Jane et al as they’re trying to work out that vinegar will kill the Slitheen. Tellingly, the show continues to include little references to Doctor Who – Sarah Jane working out what Rose meant by “Slitheen in Downing Street,” for instance.
Which really is more in line with the magical grownup model. Except that Sarah Jane isn’t magical – she’s ordinary. That’s the point of her, in Doctor Who and here. The best parts of Revenge of the Slitheen hinge on her learning to be a mother paralleled with Luke learning to be a kid. Sarah Jane isn’t magic – she’s just someone who’s seen extraordinary things in her life, and knows how to look for them now.
So what we have isn’t so much a story where the kids are helped by a magical outsider as a story that reflects on the differences between legitimate and illegitimate authority – one that’s both about how the Slitheen running the school are self-evidently bad guys and about how Sarah Jane and Alan are not bad guys. There’s not a ton of subtlety to this – it’s not as though Gareth Roberts has come up with some brilliant new way of telling good from evil. The good guys listen to their kids and take seriously their needs and the bad guys try to destroy the planet. It manages the rare feat of being an even less nuanced distinction than “the bad guys are the green bug-eyed monsters.”
What’s interesting isn’t, in other words, the lesson in telling good grownups from bad ones, but the fact that it’s put in this particular context, adjacent to Doctor Who on one side and the comparative groundedness of Sarah Jane as a person on the other. It’s very standard children’s television in structure and execution, yes, but it’s putting the bits together in a way we’ve never quite seen before. But perhaps what’s most interesting is the way that it differs from the other Doctor Who spinoff. Where Torchwood is about the unsettling terror of eccentric spaces wedged near ours, The Sarah Jane Adventures is about the way in which eccentric spaces clarify mundane ones. Luke and Maria learn what good parents Sarah Jane and Alan are because of how evil the Slitheen are.
And so what we have is, basically, a show about remaining open-minded and broadening your horizons, but one that still takes seriously the prospect that there are dangerous and even evil things out there. It’s a good balance of themes for children’s television, and the result is effective children’s television.
Which leaves us with the other audience. For the most part, in dealing with The Sarah Jane Adventures, I’m going to be a sensible human being and observe that this is flat-out a children’s show. Yes, Doctor Who is for children, but there’s a clear difference between a show that airs in a plum slot on BBC One and one that airs on CBBC. Children’s television is one of many lenses that get into Doctor Who, but it’s never the only one, and often it’s not even the best or primary one. But The Sarah Jane Adventures is explicitly, from the start, flagged as primarily for children. Any and all other audiences it may pick up are secondary.
Except that the show equally blatantly trades on nostalgia. And not just in terms of Sarah Jane; later on, of course, we get rampant 70s nostalgia, and Davies has said that had the series not come to an untimely and tragic end he’d have brought back Ace eventually as a treat for children of the 80s. And more to the point, the familiarity of Sarah Jane Smith isn’t just coming from her one-episode stint in School Reunion. It’s coming from the fact that she’s the iconic Doctor Who companion for older fans.
This creates an interesting balance. The Sarah Jane Adventures is manifestly not for adult fans, and yet it caters to them. The underlying dynamic of this is clear enough – it’s the same dynamic that means that you can get Sesame Street t-shirts aimed at adults. The idea is in part to create something for kids that can be experienced alongside adults – the age-old idea of “for kids, but actually tolerable to adults” that is the main reason why Pixar movies make a killing at the box office. (Or, for that matter, Harry Potter.) But there’s more to it than just that. The Sarah Jane Adventures becomes a tool for passing Doctor Who on from one generation to another. Not just in the obvious way of trying to get viewers turned on to Lis Sladen’s earlier Doctor Who work, but in terms of making a shared experience that consciously bridges the gap between the two generations. In this regard, Revenge of the Slitheen’s focus on legitimate grown-up authority is the point. The real reason that Sarah Jane Smith is the good grown-up isn’t just because she’s moral and clever and kind. It’s that she’s seen Doctor Who, and shows it to her kids. More than anything else, that’s what the show is about.
October 4, 2013 @ 12:18 am
Yeah, I've often thought that SJA fits the line "the children's own show that adults adore" much better than Doctor Who itself.
The kid-Slitheen actually had me wondering if this was suitable for kids since a) he died horribly after the show had made clear that he might be an evil bug-eyed monster but he was also a kid. And b) Another child must have been killed to provide the skinsuit. Deaths of pre-teens rarely happen in the parent series, in accordance with the Infant Immortality trope, so it was a shock to see it here. Not that it seemed to bother my niece any.
(Incidentally, I've just realised that you've overtaken DWM's Time Team, which was covering Utopia last month. So there's a milestone.)
October 4, 2013 @ 12:44 am
Thanks Phil. I have a lot of time and love for the SJA. Likely based as you suggest on my own nostalgia of Doctor Who. Watching Elizabeth in her show with the kids was comparable to remembering my own childhood moments of falling in love with Doctor Who.
So the SJA gives me that kind of warm glow.
October 4, 2013 @ 1:55 am
I wouldn't say Pixar films are necessarily tolerable for adults. Could any adult sit through the first few scenes of Up more than once?
Seriously, I don't think one can distinguish Pixar from Doctor Who: Pixar films work on the basis that if you have a solid enough story it can be the basis for both children's and adults' storytelling at the same time.
October 4, 2013 @ 3:29 am
To a fan of Doctor Who it's almost impossible to view SJA through anything but Who-influenced glasses and see it on it's own merits. In fact this is a problem for everyone, as I'm not sure there's any part of it's young audience who have never seen Doctor Who (since Who-viewing can start as early as 5).
However it would have been perfectly possible for this to have been a show with absolutely no connection to Doctor Who at all (in the same way as RTD's original idea for Torchwood was). After all the only real influences are Sarah Jane herself and recurring Who aliens. At the end of the day it's a kids' show about an adult who investigates weird alien happenings with a little gang of scoobies in tow.
Would it have been a sucess though? Well up until a year ago it would have been difficult to speculate, but now you only have to look at RTD's "Monsters Vs Aliens" to see how SJA might have been if you subtracted Who (and added a dash of Harry Potter).
October 4, 2013 @ 3:38 am
I agree. That last paragraph sums up this show in a very lovely way, Phil, and once again fills me with wonder at how thoroughly RTD understood what he was doing, how carefully he thought about what Doctor Who really meant and how it worked, in bringing it back.
October 4, 2013 @ 3:40 am
Gawd, true enough David. That scene, and the cowgirl's song in Toy Story II, just made me bawl.
October 4, 2013 @ 3:45 am
You know, those Slitheen were damn creepy. Those rotten-looking baby faces with the giant eyes, it's like something from Geiger, really unsettling! I loved those guys, even if they weren't used to the best of their advantage.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
October 4, 2013 @ 4:30 am
This comment has been removed by the author.
October 4, 2013 @ 4:57 am
Slightly off-topic, I know, but I have seen the first few minutes of "Up" reduce a four-year old boy to tears. Not infantile tears of frustration or fear, but awed, silent tears of "that's sad". And he still watched the rest of the film.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
October 4, 2013 @ 5:12 am
I've never heard that bit about Ace before. Excuse me, I have to go weep.
October 4, 2013 @ 5:23 am
Absolutely. I am so glad that RTD was involved in bringing back the show in the way he did and when did.
October 4, 2013 @ 5:30 am
When I first saw them after their first two episodes I was pretty down on their design and they did not totally work for me. Somehow though I got to enjoying them more in their appearances in the SJA.
You are right they do have a weird sort of Giger style to them, but in a childish way. I actually like them a bit more now and think of them now as being the more childlike elements of SJA intruding into the TV show of Doctor Who.
October 4, 2013 @ 5:30 am
I'd heard about it before – so yes me too.
October 4, 2013 @ 6:52 am
I watched the first season of Wizards vs Aliens purely because of its "spiritual successor" status to Sarah Jane Adventures; perhaps not the best way to view a new show, but I think it really has some potential, if it can work out what kind of stories it wants to tell.
The main problem it had was trying to establish the ground rules without anything larger to fall back on. Even if one watched SJA without knowledge of Doctor Who, the producers knew the "rules" of alien life well enough to maintain consistency, even play with it a little, as shown by the ending of the Eternity Trap. Wizards vs Aliens had to build from square one, and it showed.
October 4, 2013 @ 6:56 am
Yeah. I was able to appreciate that Wizards v. Aliens was a well-made kids show, but it just never "did it for me" the way SJA did, so I didn't keep going.
Possibly if I were in a phase where I was more open to picking up new shows
October 4, 2013 @ 6:57 am
The best parts of Revenge of the Slitheen hinge on her learning to be a mother paralleled with Luke learning to be a kid. Sarah Jane isn’t magic – she’s just someone who’s seen extraordinary things in her life, and knows how to look for them now.
Exactly. The best way to summarize the series is in Sarah Jane's own line from Invasion of the Bane: Life on Earth can be an adventure too. You just need to know where to look. Sometimes that's meeting aliens, sometimes it's making (and losing) a friend, but both can be adventures.
October 4, 2013 @ 4:46 pm
Submitted for your approval: the Slitheen are the Ferengi of new "Doctor Who", whereas the Weeping Angels are the Borg. Discuss.
October 4, 2013 @ 11:39 pm
Good article, but for some reason I really missed having a caption to the picture! Weird brain.
October 5, 2013 @ 6:11 am
I see them more as being influenced by Sam Lowry's nightmares in 'Brazil'.
Also, interestingly, the corrupt bureaucrats in 'Brazil' wore the baby face masks to hide behind, whereas in Doctor Who and SJA…
October 5, 2013 @ 6:17 am
'And so what we have is, basically, a show about remaining open-minded and broadening your horizons, but one that still takes seriously the prospect that there are dangerous and even evil things out there.'
Plus, most of the time it also demonstrates that you need to delve beneath surface appearances to see who or what the dangerous and evil things actually are, which is also a great thing for any viewer to absorb, regardless of their age…
October 5, 2013 @ 7:23 am
The plan was to bring back Ace and, within the story, there'd be a flashback showing Seven and Ace from afar, saying their goodbyes. Oh how I wish it'd happened. Because I have a suspicion RTD would've decided, sod that, and instead brought the Seventh Doctor in for a mini adventure fully with Ace.
Also, I'm sure I read in the SJA Companion (Vol 3) [which is, by the way, an astounding read and gives juicy details into lost scripts and what the future of SJA would've been!] Tom Baker could've/would've appeared somewhere too.
October 5, 2013 @ 7:25 am
What's also interesting is the direct spin-off sequel that SJA partakes in a couple of times.
The Slitheen here are out for revenge after their adventures in Doctor Who. And, later on, the Sontaran appears after falling out of his Doctor Who (S4) adventure.
The Lord of Ábrocen Landmearca
October 5, 2013 @ 7:44 am
So the 13th Doctor is going to have a Weeping Angel companion wearing a skintight leotard who has to learn to be looked at?
October 7, 2013 @ 1:59 pm
Revenge Of The Slitheen Part 1 contains one of my all-time favorite scenes in the entire mythology of WHO: Luke, investigating, has been putting up with Clyde's jibes about being weird and uncool for the entire episode, with grace and patience. When Luke decides that something dangerous is going on, he turns to him and says, quietly: 'You should go home.' With no pomposity, anger, or derision, the entire premise of 'cool' and 'uncool' is turned on it's head. And, to Clyde's credit, he both understands and accepts that immediately.