It’s October 22nd, 2009. Alexandra Burke and Flo Rida are at number one with “Bad Boys,” with Robbie Williams, Black Eyed Peas, and Michael Buble also charting. In news, about all I can actually find over the last week is the balloon boy hoax in Colorado. Oh, and Jenson Button wins the Formula One Drivers’ Champion. All right then.
So, television – another installment of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It is in some ways surprising that The Mad Woman in the Attic is a relatively messy and underwhelming story, not least because it’s by Joseph Lidster, who wrote the best Sarah Jane Adventures story to date with Mark of the Berserker last season. And yet it is, in fact, a mess. It’s not entirely clear what the problem is. It’s certainly possible that it’s just down to some performances that, while not bad as such, are also not quite up to the level they need to be. Neither Souad Faress as the adult Rani nor Eleanor Tomlinson as the alien Eve quite persuade. It’s not that their performances are bad in any specifically memorable way, but they are equally not particularly compelling or nuanced, which is a problem when both roles are required to carry a lot of the underlying emotional weight of the story. It could also be down to a script that, for all its pedigree, feels crowded and like it has one too many ideas, and that this excess has cost any given idea the space to be interesting.
But the real problem is with the job the story seems to be trying to solve. This is an odd thing to say. After all, the job is one of the basic and reflexive functions of a series like this. The Mad Woman in the Attic exists to be a character focus episode on Rani. Given that she’s not really had one since her debut, which was so focused on getting her to be a business-as-usual part of the story that she barely had time to develop as a character, this makes total sense. Rani needs to be fleshed out. If this season went by without a heavily Rani-focused episode it would be anomalous to the point of opening serious allegations of sexism.
But Rani has, if not a problem as a cast member, at least a problem as a character. She’s there to fill a narrative contrivance in a manner not dissimilar to how Sarah Jane herself is. And just as Sarah Jane proved oddly unsatisfying as the center of an emotional story in The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith, so does Rani here. Rani was designed to be a plucky adventuress. She was never really given any character traits beyond that. And so a story about her emotional turmoil is unsatisfying because her character was never really meant to have that. Fault Souad Faress all you want, but it’s not clear what she could have done with this script. Old Rani is defined only by her narrative wrongness – by the fact that she’s not the correct version of the character.
But the entire title of the piece demonstrates the problem. She’s just “the mad woman of Bannerman Road.” Take Rani’s adventuring away and all you get is a character who is inexplicably unable to leave Bannerman Road. (Really, the narrative here collapses entertainingly under scrutiny. How on Earth did Rani acquire Sarah Jane’s house to live in? She’s an unemployable mad woman. If she owned her parents’ house that might make sense, but putting her in Sarah Jane’s attic is just bizarre.) The conceit that’s supposed to carry all the impact for this story – the aged and abandoned Rani – is utterly featureless.
This spills into the “present” narrative as well. The only thing that the story can muster for what terrible calamity leads Rani to be abandoned is that she, by her own admission, overreacted at being ignored. And so she runs off to that most irksome of Sarah Jane Adventures/Torchwood bad habits – the terribly important person from a main character’s past who has never actually been referenced in the least before the episode in which they appear. And even there, all that the story can pull off for Rani’s terrible fate is her lashing out in such a way that an overly literal computer casually erases Sarah Jane, Luke, and Clyde from existence. (As a thank you present to Rani, at that. Mind you, it’s Sarah Jane and Luke who actually power up the ship, so it’s not quite clear why the computer is casually evaporating them in thanks.)
Which is to say that if this is a story that’s supposed to focus on Rani as a character, it fails spectacularly, instead revealing the many ways in which she’s not a character – she’s just an exercise in pluck and adventurousness. Which is not a criticism in the context of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which does in fact need a character much like her.
But all of this talks around the really strange problem: why the heck aren’t Gita and Haresh in the Rani-centric episode? Because that is the one thing that really defines Rani as a character – she’s the one who has a foot in the real world and another in Sarah Jane’s. And yet this episode goes out of its way to minimize and eliminate that. It is in hindsight downright bizarre to try to talk about Rani without involving her parents, and especially to try to deal with the course of Rani’s life sans Sarah Jane.
So we have a story that seems on a fundamental level misconceived. Still, there are some interesting elements. Though not entirely satisfying, Eve finally provides The Sarah Jane Adventures and all its “look at all the wonders here on Earth” ethos with, you know, an alien that isn’t doing anything evil. We haven’t actually had one of those since The Warriors of Kudlak. This has been a genuine and problematic hole in The Sarah Jane Adventures to date, and Eve, at least conceptually, redresses the balance well. She manages to be dangerous without being evil, and her alien nature ends up feeling pleasantly central to the plot. Things only happen because she doesn’t quite understand people, and yet she herself remains firmly sympathetic. It’s a very nice little depiction.
And, of course, there’s the return of K-9. His absence had always been something of a visible hole in The Sarah Jane Adventures, not least because the show had to contrive an elaborate explanation for why he was limited to only cameo appearances. School Reunion made his being left to Sarah Jane a fundamental part of the Doctor’s revised farewell to her, but Bob Baker’s desire to create a competing show meant that he couldn’t actually be used in The Sarah Jane Adventures for a while. And so he was put to work closing up a black hole indefinitely. So here we get a wonderfully mad contrivance to bring him back, because the alien ship is powered by black holes and so instead of closing it K-9 gives it to the aliens and returns to Bannerman Road. But even this is just a strange bit of gravy on the episode. (Indeed, it leads to the utterly bizarre sequence of events where K-9 is restored and then presumably destroyed again so we can do the resolution of the Old Rani plot.)
These interesting elements, however, only add to the sense that this story is overburdened. Now we’ve got Eve the Friendly Alien, Rani’s forgotten best friend, old Rani, Rani’s emotional turmoil, an evil amusement park, and K-9 to boot, all milling about trying to do something. But nothing actually gets done. Prisoner of the Judoon served as a stirring reminder of what The Sarah Jane Adventures was capable of doing and being. This, however, is just a drab case of doing what is expected, and not going any further. It’s lazy filler.
Which brings us back around to where we started. The underlying problem, as we noted, is that Rani doesn’t actually work as a character to add depth to. But there’s no inherent reason that should be so. Yes, there is complexity in her relationship to Maria (another plot strand needlessly haunting this story), whose narrative role she simultaneously has to fill and not fill, but there’s no inherent reason why her character should be so flat. She’s adventurous without content. She wants to be a journalist, but we’ve never once seen her express interest in an issue beyond wanting to see if there were aliens involved. Her only visible desires seem to be to get into adventures. Given this, it’s hardly a surprise that there should be nothing to build out from.
And so we get the real problem. We said that if there weren’t a Rani-centric episode in this season it would stick out, in particular as it would suggest that the one female character among the kids isn’t worth exploring. But we didn’t get one. We got a vague, abstracted form of one that was frankly more interested in bringing K-9 back and teasing David Tennant’s guest appearance than in the character it was supposed to build.