Outside the Government: Sky
It’s October 3rd, 2011. Sak Noel is at number one with “Loca People,” with One Direction, Goo Goo Dolls, and Dappy also charting. There is presumably some reason why the Goo Goo Dolls are charting with “Iris,” a years old song at this point, but I certainly don’t know it off the top of my head. In news, really basically nothing has happened in the two days that have passed since The Wedding of River Song. There’s a factory fire in Surrey, and Amanda Knox’s conviction is overturned. And the day the second episode of this airs, there’s a car bombing in Mogadishu.
While on television, The Sarah Jane Adventures returns with Sky. There is, of course, something of an dilemma here in terms of how to approach this final season of The Sarah Jane Adventures. On the one hand, they are a clear memorial to Lis Sladen – a run of episodes that can only be taken in the context of her death. On the other, they were never meant to be this. They’re just the first half of Season Five, shot alongside Season Four in the expectation that everyone would be back in a few months to finish the run. It’s just that the second half never got made because Lis Sladen died of cancer not long after these filmed. This paradox hangs over the entire season in a way that can’t be ignored.
It’s something we’ve talked about before, but it’s perhaps worth stressing once more how much of a blow Sladen’s death was. For a variety of reasons. The fact that it came so close after Nicholas Courtney’s was one. I mean, fandom always takes deaths of major players in Doctor Who kind of hard. On aggregate, we take actors the worst, and fair enough, because far more people know who Lis Sladen and Nicholas Courtney are than know who Verity Lambert and Barry Letts are. But Sladen and Courtney were big even by the standards of actors. They were people who figured generationally in people’s lives. Children who grew up watching Sarah Jane and the Brigadier watched Sarah Jane and the Brigadier with their children. Parents who grew up watching them watched them with their grandchildren. That hurts in its own unique ways.
But Courtney was 81, mostly retired, and had been in ill health, while Sladen was 65 and still a television star. For those who paid attention there was a sense something might be wrong, but for the most part it felt as though one minute she was on BBC One watching David Tennant regenerate, the next she was dead. I mean, it was the first time I decided to post something other than an actual TARDIS Eruditorum post on the blog, because it hit so hard that I felt like I just had to say something about it, because it was one of those days where writing was how I grieved. I remember a friend messaging me on Facebook just saying “Oh No. :(.” And I knew it was probably Doctor Who from what friend it was, so I went to Doctor Who News, and I remember gasping. I was in my parents’ living room, and I told them, and my father, who doesn’t say a lot since his stroke, just let out a long, sad “oh,” because he’s learned to over-articulate tone and emphasis to communicate when the aphasia robs him of the words he wants.
And she was a star of a children’s show, so on top of that there was the whole very real mess of explaining to children that there were never going to be any more episodes of their favorite television show because the actress who played their favorite character was dead. Which is not easy, both in the sense of how to do it and in the sense of the emotional drain that telling awful things to people you love is. In that regard, the final three stories were a really big deal. It was Doctor Who’s version of watching Heath Ledger play the Joker, only instead of the unsettling spectacle of a performance so intense it feels like it contributed to the actor’s death you get a quiet farewell to an entertainer beloved by millions across generations.
Given all of this, Sky hits with a weird sort of perversity, because it wasn’t written to engage with any of that. It was written to deal with the fact that Tommy Knight was continuing to reduce his involvement with the series to focus on school, thus leaving a hole in the cast, both in terms of having someone to deliver certain types of exposition and in terms of having someone to fill the role of Sarah Jane’s child, since her status as a parent had become an important aspect of her character in the series, and indeed, is the major difference between her in this series and her in 1970s Doctor Who. And so it introduced a new major character, Sky Smith, who was slightly younger than Rani, Clyde, and Luke, but who had the same basic origin as Luke, in that she was created by aliens for a nefarious scheme and then ended up in Sarah Jane’s care.
Which is to say that Sky is very much concerned with the future of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but aired in a context where the focus was overwhelmingly on the fact that said future was never going to be realized. And that hangs over the episode, in the same way that the knowledge of why Hartnell is only on the TV screen and is talking so strangely hangs over The Three Doctors. This overwhelms almost everything about the story, in fact.
Nevertheless, it’s worth making some observations about the lost future it indicates. For one thing, Sky manages something impressive, which is to not immediately be the most punchable character imaginable. She’s impish and funny in the way that “the younger sidekick” role, structurally, is more or less obliged to be, but clearly everybody made a conscious decision to avoid playing it too excessively. There are the expected jokes about things she doesn’t understand, but they’re underplayed. The jokes aren’t “ha ha, look at the comical situation that emerged from the mutual misunderstanding,” which tended to be how early Luke was played, but instead quieter jokes based on incongruity – Sky frequently understands a big and complicated thing, only to shortly thereafter express bewilderment over a small and seemingly obvious thing. They work pretty well, and help smooth what could have been a rough transition. It’s too early to tell based on the five episodes in which Sinead Michael appears, but she could well have worked out to be a wonderful, classic character. It’s really top notch stuff for children’s television, and is the sort of thing that makes you wish this show could run forever.
September 1, 2014 @ 12:38 am
Perhaps it was a double meaning I missed, but I never even considered the line about "spots" a veiled reference to menstruation. I took it to be – and assume it was still intended – as a reference to acne, for which "spots" is a common slang term.
(Not ruling your reading entirely however. For all it tries to introduce a younger lead character, this series seems to skew to a slightly older audience than the others between the depiction of homelessness in The Curse of Clyde Langer and the penis joke in The Man Who Never Was. Sensible considering it's primary audience would now be slightly older.)
September 1, 2014 @ 1:28 am
Yep, definitely acne. Why would you take a common term for one thing that teenagers go through, and use it as a reference to something else teenagers go through?
September 1, 2014 @ 2:27 am
urbandictionary.com suggests that spots=acne is a British English feature. I wouldn't take that as gospel, but if true it would explain the different interpretation.
September 1, 2014 @ 2:37 am
Having spots is definitely the British English for acne. Maybe American English would use 'zits' in this context?
That said, the double meaning definitely works and is a fun reading, but it certainly isn't the everyday UK meaning of teenagers getting spots.
September 1, 2014 @ 2:48 am
Yes. What I meant was that spots=acne definitely works for me a native Britlish speaker. I meant that I don't know if spots doesn't mean acne in Amlish.
September 1, 2014 @ 2:55 am
A wonderful post, Phil. I hope you've managed to get a copy of the Sarah Jane Adventures DWM Special in which Russell and co. laid out the plans for the entire series and what would've been. The Battle of Bannerman Road, the return of Ace, a very brief glimpse of the Seventh Doctor and Ace saying their farewells, potentially Tom Baker, the return of the Shopkeeper (all linking to Sky), etc.
September 1, 2014 @ 3:20 am
Great post, which lead me directly to watch the start of the episode as I hadn't seen it before. And I have to say Sarah Jane's line, "I always think babies look a bit rubbery" is gloriously cheeky.
September 1, 2014 @ 5:09 am
Yep. It does however put a new spin on all those acne remedy ads – especially that current one with the girl with the odd accent who sounds like she's saying "spaurhts"
September 1, 2014 @ 6:02 am
This is something Philip seems to do semi-regularly — not understand a British slang term and then, instead of looking it up, take a guess as to what it means.
September 1, 2014 @ 7:32 am
It struck me as bizarre because "spots" doesn't mean anything to do with menstruation in American English either.
The only thing I can think of is that the teenage tendency to acne is partially a product of shifting hormonal cycles… but it's a real stretch to say that a reference to spots is therefore a reference to menstruation. It's more a deliberate avoidance of such a reference, substituting in a different, milder source of teen distress as a stand-in for a more probable reason being a twelve-year-old girl would suddenly become notably less pleasant.
September 1, 2014 @ 8:25 am
There's something to be said about the fact that we've reached a point close enough to the present that I can not only remember where I was when I read that Elisabeth Sladen had died, but also remember what I was doing on the date this episode aired. Which makes an interesting bookend, because they both involved my aunt's house and vacations and the beginning and end of Series 6. There may have been six months in between, but for me I read about Lis Sladen on the laptop in the kitchen, and watched Wedding Of River Song in the bedroom down the hall.
September 1, 2014 @ 9:08 am
Less "guess" in this case and more "only manage to see one possibility in an odd line, and thus not even realize I'm looking at a slang term in the first place."
My leap to menstruation having come from the description of light flow as "spotting."
September 1, 2014 @ 9:09 am
Reworking the last paragraph, in any case.
September 1, 2014 @ 5:42 pm
Fair enough, although my confidence in my knowledge of British vernacular is low enough that I'd generally assume that an "odd line" is probably a result of me missing something that would make perfect sense to British people. It's apparently only an odd line to us – the British people all immediately understood the line to be about acne.
September 1, 2014 @ 11:54 pm
Lovely essay Phil, thanks. I remember when my partner and I heard about Elisabeth Sladen's death and just how utterly surprised we both were, as neither of us had noticed any signs.
And Lewis – yes that DWM special is pretty wonderful at outlining what the rest of the series could have been – a really good read and worth looking at.
September 2, 2014 @ 2:47 am
I don't know where to post this but I just heard the most wonderful Eruditorum-related podcast – Toby Hadoke's 'Who's Round' number 68 with Rob Goodman who played a Mandrel in Nightmare of Eden. What makes it wonderful is his talking about psychogeography and his working relationship with Alan Moore. It's well worth a listen, especially as call-outs for this blog seem to be on the increase!
September 2, 2014 @ 6:36 am
Acording to Paul O'Brien's chart posts on House to Astonish, "Iris" was performed in the X-Factor auditions. Which is sadly the most likely explanation for any chart oddities in the 2010s.
September 2, 2014 @ 9:00 am
Did anyone else notice the parallels between Melody Pond and Sky? Both were children created to be weapons and 'deprogrammed' by love. Even the visual effect for Sky's aging was very similar to Melody's regeneration.
September 2, 2014 @ 9:03 am
Also, according to the DWM issue about season five, they were originally going to have the Doctor drop Sky off with Sarah, but for scheduling reasons they had the Shopkeeper do it instead.
September 2, 2014 @ 12:07 pm
And it's kind of hilarious that Phil the Anglophile, with British parents, doesn't know English slang.
To be fair, I only know what "spots" are (after first being confused by the term) after looking it up after Daniel Craig said to Ben Whishaw's young Q, "You've still got spots!" in the James Bond film Skyfall.
September 2, 2014 @ 1:07 pm
lets take a look back and realize that for all the Doctor Who characters that we talk about still, Sarah Jane became the one, the ONLY one, to get a special, and then, 30 years later, her own series.
Thats huge. It is a true testament to her as an actress and to the stature of the Tom Baker/Sladen teaming under Hinchcliffe that she had a show. And the effect that pairing had on RTD. while I like sophie aldred, its hard for me to see the ACE show working quite as well.
My two daughters were gutted when i told them that lis sladen had died. Doctor Who fans, they were the right age for the sarah jane adventures when they came out.
hadn't thought about the Sky and Amy Pond parallels, but that is interesting. I actually think that the wedding of sarah jane is my favorite Doctor Who during the speicals year.
September 2, 2014 @ 1:08 pm
OK, i missed that special. can anyone direct me to which issue to hunt down on ebay please?
September 4, 2014 @ 7:08 am
Hi there – the Special issue is: DWM Special: The Sarah Jane Companion – Vol.3 (August 2012). A guide to the production of the fifth and final series, including outlines of the unmade stories, contributions from Russell T Davies, and a previously unpublished interview with Elisabeth Sladen.
September 4, 2014 @ 12:56 pm
ah! thanks Daru, i will go look for it.
September 5, 2014 @ 12:27 am
No probs it is a great issue and I found it a superb epilogue to the Sarah Jane Adventures story.
February 4, 2019 @ 11:03 am
…is some of this post missing?