Outside the Government: The Last Sontaran
It’s September 29th, 2008. Kings of Leon are at number one with “Sex on Fire,” with Rihanna’s “Disturbia,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” and songs by Pussycat Dolls, Sugababes, and Faith Hill also charting. In the last three months the world has gone barking mad. Over the course of September what has come to be called the global financial crisis or the great recession broke out properly, with John McCain essentially torpedoing his already dubious Presidential campaign with a vacillating and erratic response. At this particular moment in time the world is an unusually scary place – a sense of unease hanging over everything in a way that has only occasionally gripped it in the past history of the program.
It is, in other words, a complex and downright interesting time into which The Sarah Jane Adventures launches its second season, and its first story, The Last Sonataran, is fittingly busy. It’s reintroducing the cast, as a second season opener should do, while simultaneously showcasing a Big Name Monster (as any monster inherited from Doctor Who is) and dealing with writing out the central character of the first season (along with two supporting characters). This is accompanied by a familiar problem of stories with a lot to do, which is that any notion of thematic unity drops out. At the end of the day, there isn’t a clear reason why the Sontarans have anything to do with Maria moving to America. There’s no way you’re going to make a solid connection there. So instead you have a big, flashy episode with lots of discrete parts that at least don’t clash.
So instead of a thematic unity we get a unity based around anticipation. The role of the Sontarans, or, rather of the Sontaran, since this is a return to the idea that they have characters instead of being a race of interchangeable monsters, is in many ways to allow the story to work from shorthand. It’s a big Doctor Who monster that doesn’t need any additional introduction or explanation. Accordingly, the story has time to focus on the added weight of writing Maria Jackson out while still getting to have a big first episode with a suitably major villain to kick off the season. And that lets the story take an easy shape – a remote radio telescope, a monster, and lots of corridors to run through. There’s little to set up here, and the expectations come almost automatically.
And the biggest expectation, which comes in almost from the start, is that the Sontaran is going to have to to be whacked in the probic vent. The weakness was stressed so heavily in The Sontaran Stratagem, and, more to the point, it’s a very children’s television weakness in the first place. Though not originally designed in that milieu, to a modern audience it’s self-evidently a piece of video game logic. The probic vent is a classic example of the little weak spot you target on the heavily armored enemy to damage them. Its only flaw is its failure to flash and to open and close according to a pre-established pattern carefully synchronized to the Sontaran’s attacks. And so to a childhood audience in 2008, it’s self-evident that the piece of information everybody is looking for is the fact that you hit the Sontaran in the probic vent. Because that’s how big villains work – you find out their weakness. (Sarah, of course, can be forgiven for forgetting this particular bit of Doctor Who trivia.)
By the end of the story, in fact, it’s turned in part into a story about getting this piece of information to the characters. Alan and Chrissie know about the weakness, and are trying to get to Sarah Jane and company in order to tell them before the world ends. This isn’t the explicit tension – that’s whether or not they’ll be able to stop Kaagh from crashing all of the satellites around Earth into nuclear power plants. But it’s still very obviously how this is all going to resolve. Eventually someone is going to thwack Kaagh in the probic vent and stop him.
In this regard the key dynamic of the story is simple: it’s the fact that it’s Chrissie who gets to. Chrissie has been lightly antagonistic for the entire run of The Sarah Jane Adventures, being portrayed both as a pretty thoroughly rotten mother and as someone who unknowingly gets in the way of the main characters. She’s the classic example of the comedically dense parent. And so in Maria’s last regular appearance of course she’s the one who gets the big hero moment at the end, because that’s what ties up Maria’s arc.
And yet in all of this there’s an unstated issue, which is the fact that Chrissie is the bad parent in the first place. Much of Maria’s character has been something to properly treasure; she’s a well-written child of divorce, and there’s a lot to be said for a positive portrayal of a single father. Equally, however, it means that Chrissie has become yet another instance in the long parade of Russell T Davies writing awful mothers. Or, as he calls them in The Writer’s Tale, “funny” mothers, but the underlying point is the same: throughout Davies’s time on the show there’s an awful lot of unpleasant mothers.
At the end of the day, much of this comes out of Davies’s love of soap operas. Davies loves putting soap opera mothers into shows where they don’t belong. And his mothers, from Jackie Tyler on, broadly fit into that tendency – they’re the sort of hard-nosed and slightly domineering female characters of which Hilda Ogden is one of the original templates, albeit often many generations back. Even Chrissie feels in many ways like she’s just on a quick holiday from a soap opera to check in on her ex-husband and daughter. All of which is to say that Davies’s mothers are fundamentally loving sorts of characters. Davies’s description of them as “funny” mothers is apt – it’s a particular character role that Davies enjoys writing.
It’s also worth noting that in almost every case Davies goes to lengths to redeem his funny mothers. Chrissie’s eventual role in defeating Kaagh puts her in the same context as Jackie and, ultimately, Francine. Only Sylvia fails to ever get this sort of redemption, instead becoming, as Series Four wound on, an increasingly unlikable and, ultimately, staying that way. The funny mother may be an initially off-putting character, but she’s not a malevolent or malicious one. Given that all of Davies’s Doctor Who-related work is metafictional and about its own success, the funny mother becomes a figure to be won over. She starts as hostile to Doctor Who and from outside the frame of reference of the series, and is steadily won over. And Chrissie is in many ways the best example of this, in that she becomes a proper “team member” by the end. Indeed, it’s perfectly plausible that she could have stuck around as a recurring character – the ending she gets leaves open the possibility.
Meanwhile, The Sarah Jane Adventures finds itself having to reinvent itself. This isn’t the story for that, of course – this story had to be about giving Maria a proper send-off. But Maria has been at the heart of the show. Lis Sladen is the nominal star, but Maria has been the character who gets the world explained to them – the show’s equivalent to Gwen Cooper. And just as John Barrowman is the star of Torchwood while Eve Myles is the main character, Maria has been the main character of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Her removal is a problem in a way that the removal of other characters wouldn’t be. Clyde, for instance, is wholly interchangeable – indeed, he was basically a second attempt at the sort of character Kelsey provided for Invasion of the Bane. And while Luke isn’t as easily replaced (it gets odd to give Sarah Jane a second adopted child, although to be fair, that’s exactly what they end up doing), his plot function is. Luke’s status as the genius character can easily be handed off to Sarah Jane and, in a pinch, Mr. Smith. (Indeed, in Season Four the show goes several episodes without Luke or an equivalent character.) But Maria is more fundamentally irreplaceable. The show cannot simply create a second character who we discover its world alongside. Any replacement character is going to have to fill a fundamentally different plot role.
And so it is worth pausing and reflecting on just how much of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ early success is down to Yasmin Paige. Paige was tasked initially with holding together the entire emotional resonance of the series. Maria was the only character with a set of relationships separate from Sarah Jane Smith, and thus the only one who could readily be a real, ordinary person responding to the world. Her role in getting the overall plot of The Sarah Jane Adventures going meant that she had a particularly close relationship with Sarah Jane, who, with Chrissie being Chrissie, served as an almost foster mother to her. And so she was the only character with lots of emotional stuff to play instead of plot stuff. Sure, Luke had lots of misunderstandings and awkwardness in his plot, but nobody ever asked Tommy Knight to anchor an episode the way Yasmin Paige had to anchor Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane. She’s alone among the initial set of child actresses in that, watching her, you expect a future career – she’s strong in many of the same ways Julia Sawalha was in Press Gang.
And now the show has to replace her, which is, to say the least, a considerable bother.
January 6, 2014 @ 12:45 am
I think Kaagh deserves some props here as a somewhat interesting Sontaran, which we hadn't seen for a while.
January 6, 2014 @ 1:09 am
Only Sylvia fails to ever get this sort of redemption, instead becoming, as Series Four wound on, an increasingly unlikable and, ultimately, staying that way.
Sylvia isn't likeable in The End of Time? Obviously I'm watching it wrong.
January 6, 2014 @ 3:13 am
She's not really. The only times she's ever nice to the Doctor is when it involves asking him to save her daughter (which he wouldn't hesitate to anyway). At the end, when Donna has been returned to her, saved from brain obliteration, and basically reset to Donna default, Sylvia all but kicks the Doctor out the door without a word of thanks.
She gets a couple of seconds of possible redemption right at the end when the Doctor mentions he got the pound coin from her dead husband and she finally seems to realise what the Doctor is all about, but quite frankly it's too little, too late.
Which is fine. Sylvia's ok as she is – one of RTD's "funny" (read "damaged") mothers.
January 6, 2014 @ 3:16 am
The probic vent is a classic example of the little weak spot you target on the heavily armored enemy to damage them. Its only flaw is its failure to flash and to open and close according to a pre-established pattern carefully synchronized to the Sontaran’s attacks.
One of the many lovable things about the Metal Gear series is that when Otacon, a massive geek, explains that Metal Gear Rex can only be destroyed by shooting the big flashing red bit, it instantly becomes clear that Otacon can't even conceptualize why you wouldn't have a big flashing red weak spot on your otherwise unstoppable megaweapon. It's literally there because Otacon is a geek and everything he knows about giant unstoppable megaweapon design comes from anime and video games.
January 6, 2014 @ 5:06 am
A fatal flaw in an otherwise unstoppable foe is a very old trope (Achilles' heel being the oldest example I can think of). What makes them groaners is not their existence but the lack of a reasonable explanation for why they exist in the first place (again, Achilles' heel works because it is where is mother had to hold him while she gave him his dip in the river Styx.)
I've yet to see a classic episode with the Sontarans so I don't know if any reasonable explanation for this weakness has ever been given.
January 6, 2014 @ 5:25 am
Isn't that where Sontarans feed on energy?
January 6, 2014 @ 5:59 am
Doesn't some Sontaaran or other claim that it's so none of them would flee from the field of battle?
January 6, 2014 @ 6:04 am
In context, the "so no one will flee" bit is presented less as "That's why they have it" and more as "That's why it never occurred to us to just put a steel plate over it"
January 6, 2014 @ 7:55 am
(Sarah, of course, can be forgiven for forgetting this particular bit of Doctor Who trivia.)
Did she ever have the chance to learn that? IIRC, she wasn't present when Pertwee originally gave the plot exposition about the vent, and it wasn't used against Styre in Sontaran Experiment.
January 6, 2014 @ 8:37 am
Thetis should have given him a second dunk, holding him by the other foot.
January 6, 2014 @ 8:42 am
The probic vent is a classic example of the little weak spot you target on the heavily armored enemy to damage them.
On this point see here.
January 6, 2014 @ 8:48 am
If Davies ever has his "Scandal in Belgravia" moment, I would expect his Bad Mothers thing to be a major part of the thrashing. While Moffat got grief for turning every female character into a mother, at least they were still dynamic characters in their own right (and filled the same sort of niche as the fathers), while Davies had a very bad habit of marginalizing them and making them little more than obstacles from their daughters to overcome.
January 6, 2014 @ 9:09 am
I agree. I'd put Kaagh up there with Linx and Styre.
January 6, 2014 @ 9:18 am
I think jane has it, yes. For a while I scoffed at the probic vent, but then humans have the throat, and male humans have the testicles, so the mere fact of having a vulnerable part of one's anatomy is not as overly convenient as it seems. And Ross has the other part: they don't just put the equivalent of a gorget or codpiece over it because in the Sontaran culture that makes you a coward.
It makes at least as much sense as gold in the chestplate or mud on the eyestalk….
January 6, 2014 @ 9:21 am
See, I don't equate "likes the Doctor" with "likeable character" – particularly during this time in the show's history.
But like I said, I'm probably watching it wrong.
January 6, 2014 @ 9:26 am
I adore Jackie. Certainly by "Aliens of London," if not "Rose" itself, she was one of my favorite characters in the series. I don't know how much of that is down to Camille Coduri, though. I also like Francine, though probably not quite as much, and what I do like is probably Adjoa Andoh selling me on Francine's point of view.
Sylvia, though…yeah. And I finally had a chance to read Damaged Goods recently and there are two gratuitously, outrageously awful mothers in that one. Largely absent fathers, though — I'm not sure it gets more marginalized than "not even around."
January 6, 2014 @ 9:28 am
To be fair, Wilf was originally written as Geoffrey Noble, but the actor who played him in The Runaway Bride was too ill to reprise the part, so they hit on the idea of bringing Cribbins back.
January 6, 2014 @ 9:36 am
Funny doesn't seem quite the right word for betraying your daughter to the Master.
January 6, 2014 @ 9:37 am
And he's Sylvia's dad, so he'd count either way, I suppose. And there's a sense in which are both "sainted" dads, even though one's a bit of a ne'er-do-well and the other kind of kills the Doctor.
January 6, 2014 @ 11:20 am
Just to clarify, I don't think Davies should take grief over it, since I think he (as well as Moffat) genuinely likes women and wants to include really interesting female characters in his works… but like Moffat should get some criticism for his tendency toward Male Gaze, Davies should get a bit more criticism for resorting to the Bad Mom stereotype.
It doesn't invalidate the good things he's accomplished, but we do need to shine more awareness on how using a trope can make your narrative say unintentional things. With this Sarah Jane episode, you can see how big of a blast it could have been if a mother had become an active participant in her daughter's life, with a proper mother/daughter team fighting aliens side-by-side instead of putting the mother in the role of stick in the mud.
January 6, 2014 @ 11:30 am
It's funny to Davies… don't know why; perhaps the man has an odd sense of humour?
January 6, 2014 @ 12:25 pm
I love it, absolutely love it, when the Doctor is in a situation where not everyone falls to the floor instantly to kiss his feet. I feel the same way about that new Muppets movie; the Muppets are far more interesting and appealing to me when they actually have to win over the people they meet, many of whom are looking around wondering who let in the zoo.
So I really appreciate the RTD era's mainstay of a mom who doesn't trust the Doctor any farther than she can throw him. It makes a nice and even necessary contrast to the feet-kissing attitude so many of his other characters take. And it makes sense that it should be someone as close to the companion as possible. (Amy's got Rory, at least for a while, playing both the Mickey and the Jackie role but with a lot less authority than either.)
That said, in the end an ass-kicking mom is at least as much fun as a shit-giving one, and I'd agree it's satisfying when the same character gets to grow from one role to the other.
January 6, 2014 @ 1:34 pm
The problem is Who really can't do much with a nay-sayer character. If you look at Francine, she's 100% right. Her ambitious daughter is throwing away her career to chase after a very dangerous man who quite clearly doesn't love her… and the show can't spin that around into a narrative positive like they did with Jackie, Mickey, and Rory.
So the show mostly vilifies her, who sells out her daughter to a villain out of misguided love… while never seriously dealing with her concerns, which are just sort of swept under the rug in one of the periodic "but the Doctor is wonderful" moments where all his sins are washed away with minimal consequences.
At which point, you sort of have to question the wisdom of raising these points if you can't follow through with them. Either there's something seriously dodgy about the Doctor spiriting away young women and we seriously deal with that… or it's a fantasy where such concerns are hand-waved away if anyone attempts to bring them up. The middle path just ends up being schizophrenic and not terribly satisfying.
January 6, 2014 @ 1:54 pm
Also, if Sontarans developed codpieces for their probic vents, I assume they would end up winning every time they're introduced. Not because they'd be invulnerable; because the humans would all die from hypoxia while incapacitated with laughter at the concept of a neck-codpiece.
January 6, 2014 @ 2:55 pm
the show can't spin that around into a narrative positive
I would say "didn't spin," but otherwise I'd agree with you. There are reasonable answers to the challenge — such as (in Rose's case) "she can stay here and work in a shop or she can come with me and help save entire worlds, including this one, and oh by the way see the universe for free and stop back by to have Christmas dinner with you seventeen nights in a row if she wants" — but as you say we'd have to "seriously deal with that."
One of the many things I miss from the classic series is that every once in a while someone would stow away, or need a lift off a planet where they had no future, or otherwise not be just a young beautiful woman on Earth with a regular job who becomes his not-girlfriend. I wonder which showrunner is going to be the one to really, genuinely buck that pattern?
January 6, 2014 @ 3:36 pm
I did like how Davies played with the issues in the first couple of series, where he kind of lightly broached the subject then turned it into something mildly comic. Such as the Doctor essentially kidnapping young women, which leads to the serious-tinged joke of Rose being missing for one year.
It's not played so seriously that it can't be laughed off, but does cast a shadow over the Doctor's actions, where his actions are having unintended consequences. But the whole thing requires a very deft touch which Davies messed up as often as he succeeded. Martha's mother is one of the best examples as it helped undermine quite a lot of series three as very serious questions about the Doctor's character are being raised which the show is ill-prepared to deal with. Then again in the Donna's finale where both she and Davros point out another Davies cliche, which is everyone's character arc is to be transformed into a gun-toting defender of Earth… and you can see the show awkwardly shuffle around a bit until the audience gets distracted by something else.
January 6, 2014 @ 5:11 pm
BerserkRL, in some versions of the myth, Thetis fully intends to fully immerse Achilles, but is prevented from doing so by Peleus.
January 6, 2014 @ 9:54 pm
Yeah it was great the way Yasmin Paige held that early series together. I have to say I got a lot out of the way Chrissie's character was played, the way she threatened to upset the narrative at times and then saved the day at the end of this story. I do get the general points about the 'difficult mothers' thing with RTD, but I also simply really enjoyed Juliet Cowan's performance.
January 7, 2014 @ 1:42 pm
I noticed the Maria-Rose parallels while we were covering seasons 1 and 2, but I hadn't considered Chrissie's role. When we finally get to seeing Clyde's mother, she's a fairly respectable figure, though Gita is annoying.
Overall, I prefer Maria to Rani, though both are well-written characters. And part of that is that Rani is "the future journalist," just as Luke is "the genius" and Clyde is "the funny one." Maria is just Maria, who happened to kick-start the whole thing and really cares about people.
January 7, 2014 @ 3:40 pm
I'll bite here. I thought the critical thing with Silvia was when she gets told, rather bluntly by the Doctor, that she doesn't show any appreciation for her daughter at the end of 'Journeys End'.
Come the End of Time we see Mother and Daughter having a jolly good laugh together over a rude Christmas card, which stuck me as a sigh things were allot more open and friendlier between them now. Also Silvia prays to the Doctor when Gallifrey appears in the sky. The Script even specifies it. So she's one of the faithful now.
January 8, 2014 @ 2:54 pm
It's called a probic VENT, so maybe they need it open even when not feeding for some reason? ('vent' makes no sense for an intake port.)
January 8, 2014 @ 2:59 pm
I thought Maria was a detective?
January 9, 2014 @ 1:00 pm
But we never see anyone hurting a Sontaran by plugging it. They hurt them by whacking it. They could put a steel cage around it and it'd still function as a vent and be un-whackable.