It’s November 17th, 2008. The X-Factor finalists remain at number one, but are unseated by Beyonce for the second week of this story. Killers, Girls Aloud, Britney Spears, and Leona Lewis also chart. In news, the financial crisis rumbles on with another bailout of AIG, an IMF bailout of Iceland, and a request for a bailout for the US auto industry. President-elect Obama announces a Treasury team including Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, and Gordon Brown reveals plans to increase the income tax.
While on television, it’s The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith. Not surprisingly for a Gareth Roberts script, there’s a lot to like here. For one thing, he manages to make the frequently frustrating “morality of changing history” plot work. This is a tricky thing to do well – as we’ve previously observed, the “changing history is wrong” plot runs into significant trouble due to the fact that all morality surrounding it is necessarily invented wholesale for the plot, as the actual nature of changing history is unknown to us. The result is that it usually turns into either a story about the experienced time traveller and the newbie one and how the newbie one needs to stop rocking the boat and accept the rules (yuck) or one about arrogance and hubris.
The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith fits firmly into the latter category. Indeed, so firm is its fit that it proceeds through the arrogance plot with a calm meticulousness. The story really is one about temptation, with Sarah Jane not so much making a foolish decision to change the past but rather making a series of small decisions, each time edging a little bit closer to the big one, but never without a rationalization and a sensible justification. It’s a quite nuanced portrayal of how a good person can make a supremely, stunningly bad decision – another case of The Sarah Jane Adventures being made with a sort of meticulous care and precision.
It also manages to avoid any sort of ontological ethics of time travel. Sarah Jane saving her parents is a bad idea because the Trickster has set up a trap that destroys the world if she does that. Absent the Trickster, she probably could have gotten away with it and had it be fine. The problem isn’t that Sarah Jane does something that “violates the Laws of Time” or some similar nonsense. It’s that she does something risky when she knows it’s probably a trap, and it blows up in her face. That keeps the time travel ethics in the realm of the concrete.
Yes, there are complaints. The time travel actually doesn’t quite make sense – the initial setup of infant Sarah Jane being abandoned by her parents is a result of Sarah Jane’s actions in the story, which ties it up in a neat loop of the sort that time travel stories often go for. But if the ending situation is what always happened, where does the alternate timeline in which the Trickster reigns supreme come from? Similarly bothersome is the Police Box gag. While a cheeky and well-done tease, it only serves to highlight the fact that a massive change to history such that the Earth is scourged by the Trickster for fifty years is the sort of thing that the Doctor should probably show up for. All of this is refrigerator logic, to be sure, but it niggles, as does the fact that this is little more than a remake of Father’s Day. And all of this gestures at a larger problem.
Back in The Day of the Clown we noted that the decision to try to amp up Odd Bob’s scariness by introducing Sarah Jane’s long-standing and never-before-mentioned fear of clowns was not necessarily its most effective moment. Here, however, we get this approach taken past its breaking point. Save for a mention at the end of The Mark of the Berserker, we have never heard anything about Sarah Jane’s parents or her angst at her upbringing. An entire huge backstory for the character is introduced at the last moment, just so that it can fuel this particular story. There’s something unsatisfying here as a result – the drama feels staged instead of genuinely emotional.
Some of this is the presence of the Trickster, who now becomes The Sarah Jane Adventures’ great recurring villain. He’s a puzzling choice for this – his modus operandi of creating elaborate scenarios to entrap Sarah Jane is interesting, but it makes any given Trickster story necessarily a bit overwrought. The Trickster offers only narrative collapse – premise breaking stories in which all the toys are clearly going to go back in their box at the end. This is fine for what it is, but it flags the stories as disposable. The moral dilemmas within them are clearly there to be resolved at the end of the story. And kids are more than intelligent enough to realize this.
Which means that the introduction of Sarah Jane’s dead parents, instead of having considerable emotional weight, becomes a problem to solve, with a solution taken straightforwardly from Doctor Who three years ago. The entire story becomes an openly constructed moral dilemma. However many points it may win for its technical execution of this dilemma, there’s still a staged, artificial quality to the entire thing that cuts against the emotional content of the story. There’s a case to be made that perhaps a story about the death of one’s parents should not be done with too much vividness on a children’s show, but whatever the merits of that case, it’s not equivalent to a case that half-assing it is a good idea.
But there’s a larger problem lurking under this, and it goes back to the basic premise of the story – the idea of tempting Sarah Jane. Lis Sladen grapples heroically with the material, and gets some good stuff out of it, but there’s a real sense in which Sarah Jane is just fundamentally ill-suited to this sort of story. She was never, after all, designed for emotional content. She hails from an era of Doctor Who where the high point of emotional content is one shot at the end of The Green Death in which the Doctor drives off alone in his car, a shot that serves as the extent of the emotional commentary on Jo’s departure from the series. The difference between that and David Tennant standing in the rain is stark, to say the least.
Which is to say that Sarah Jane was never really meant to have anguished emotions about her dead parents. The inappropriateness of this sort of thing was, in fact, where much of the power of School Reunion came from – her choked “you were my life” is powerful precisely because it’s not the sort of line we expect to get from Sarah Jane. But it’s not sustainable. The character, under the hood, still isn’t made for emotion. She’s a Doctor Who companion through and through. Decades after The Hand of Fear, she has no living family, no romantic attachments, no friends, a job that exists only to justify starting a plot (I believe the last time we saw Sarah Jane actually write an article was in the opening credits to K-9 and Company). The Sarah Jane Adventures has given her a family, but they’re a family that exists to fight aliens, which is to say, to let her continue functioning as a 70s Doctor Who companion. For all that she talks about the wonders to be found on Earth, she never actually goes so far as to demonstrate a hint of interest in any of them.
This isn’t a problem as such – we just saw The Mark of the Berserker, where Sarah Jane’s slightly austere removal made the entire story work. But it makes her spectacularly ill-suited to being an emotional lead. It’s honestly never worked – not in the strangely muted “Luke is taken away by his seemingly real parents” story in The Lost Boy, not in Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane, and not here. Whatever her virtues as a character, they’re not holding down the emotional center of a story. As with many characters, Sarah Jane sparkles when removed slightly from her comfort zone, but a little goes a long way. Not to look too far ahead, but the one moment that unequivocally justifies the entire “Doctor’s reward” section of The End of Time is that scene where Sarah Jane and the Doctor exchange a wordless look from across Bannerman Road, and it’s clear that Sarah Jane understands what’s happening. But that moment’s power depends entirely on the fact that this is not what Sarah Jane is usually like.
Does this constitute a problem for The Sarah Jane Adventures? Only in the most limited of senses – it makes it less than apt at being the sort of show Russell T Davies seems to favor. This is no more a criticism of Davies than it is of The Sarah Jane Adventures or indeed of Lis Sladen. One of his great innovations in Doctor Who was the injection of more emotional content. But The Sarah Jane Adventures is the show that his usual tricks work worst in. And not even all the time – The Mark of the Berserker works precisely because of its emotional content. But The Sarah Jane Adventures, as The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith demonstrates, is an odd duck – a show that works best if its lead character doesn’t take any of the emotional lead roles in the story.