The Kickstarter may have made enough to get through The Sarah Jane Adventures thrice weekly, but there’s still a ways to go before Torchwood: Miracle Day gets the same treatment. And we’re just $1200 away from securing Volume Four of The Last War in Albion, covering Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Plus, I’ve just posted the second chapter of the secret Doctor Who thing, which is, if I may say so myself, quite fantastic and worth throwing a few bucks at. Just fifteen days before the window to see it serialized as I write it closes forever. All of which is to say that if you’ve not pledged yet, now’s a lovely time to.
It’s October 18th, 2010. Cee Lo Green continues to be at number one with the charmingly euphemistic “Forget You,” while Bruno Mars, Labrinth, and Duck Sauce also chart. In news, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, completes a takeover of Liverpool FC. There’s a bunch of back and forth over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in which it’s overturned and then returned a couple times in court cases, including, notably, a day in which President Obama simultaneously appeals a ruling declaring it unconstitutional and declares that the policy will end during his presidency. And Mary MacKillop becomes the first Australian saint.
While on television, it’s The Vault of Secrets. In any other season, this would have been the season premiere. There’s a formula, after all – every season kicks off with a story featuring a monster borrowed from Doctor Who. Sure, this, depending on your perspective, either breaks the formula by hinging on the return of a monster from The Sarah Jane Adventures instead or stretches it to its breaking point by grabbing the android men in black from Dreamland, but it’s still recognizably filling that slot: the story focused on drawing from The Sarah Jane Adventures’ mythology – both its own and what it borrows from its parent series.
But by shedding both the premiere status and the easily promoted monster The Vault of Secrets changes the formula slightly. In terms of the arc of Season Four, this is unambiguously a good thing. The Nightmare Man was the outright perfect story for Luke to depart with, and focusing on making sure that departure works instead of opening with something that’s easy to make trailers about is both brave and smart. Even if The Vault of Secrets had featured Sarah Jane, Rani, and Clyde encountering a Silurian, it still would be, on the whole, the better decision to open with The Nightmare Man.
But that does raise something of a question: why isn’t this story a Silurians story? Or something else from the Doctor Who vaults – your choice, really. It’s obviously not that this season is lacking in references to Doctor Who – heck, this story opens with a wonderfully cheeky nod to The Pyramids of Mars. But equally, there is a real shift in the nature of things when The Sarah Jane Adventures starts drawing on its own past instead of leaning on Doctor Who. If it weren’t for the next story this could be chalked up to the idea that the series is drifting away from Doctor Who to an extent – a desire, in effect, to let the Moffat era stand on its own without these spinoffs hanging off it. But with that not as a sane theory, surely The Sarah Jane Adventures is exactly the series where introducing a single Silurian who actually proves good and gets to have lots of human interactions makes sense. Instead it seems oddly paralyzed, still wanting to play up its connection with Doctor Who but unwilling to touch it directly unless the one writer who can just brazenly get away with it with nobody questioning him is the one to do it.
So instead we have a program that’s relying on its own history. This is not the first time, nor is it a bad thing. The Sarah Jane Adventures started developing an in-house recurring villain back in the first season. But the fact that instead of bringing back a Doctor Who monster, this season The Sarah Jane Adventures brought back the Androvax from Prisoner of the Judoon. There’s logic here – the Androvax is a pretty good monster. Bodily possession is always a good hook, and more to the point, Vault of Secrets uses it marvelously. The decision to give Mina Anwar some scenes of villainy is absolutely solid.
And yet there are also issues. Mina Anwar as a villain deserves far more than the handful of scenes she gets, most of them with her falling over and nearly dying. And the decision to just memory wipe her borders on the unforgivable. There are loads of options for the character besides having her decide she wants to become world famous and be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman, most obviously actually taking her seriously as an absurd but fundamentally interesting character. Instead she becomes a grotesque parody of the standard Russell T Davies character and has her memory forcibly erased without a moment’s pause to suggest that maybe this is sketchy as all fuck. Similarly odd is why the script didn’t find a way to get Mr. Dread and Mr. Smith to interact so that the two computer aliens could have some moments of glory. There’s a startling lack of commitment to figuring out what the best ideas in the story are and exploring them.
Which gets at a larger issue. Last post, we talked about how most shows would be reinventing their premise around now. But The Sarah Jane Adventures seems oddly resistant to rocking the boat. It’s telling that Luke’s been dropped without a replacement. Just like it’s telling that the series resists any temptation it might have had to do something new with Gita. The Vault of Secrets is in many ways a strangely stubborn story – one that insists on being exactly what The Sarah Jane Adventures has always been, even in the face of a bevy of ways it could slightly reinvent itself and get another few seasons of ideas out of its premise.
It’s not that it’s a bad story, although like essentially all of Phil Ford’s Sarah Jane Adventures scripts it’s also not really a great one. Ford has by this point proven himself as something of a blandly competent writer, and while he occasionally manages something quite good, his best scripts have that irksome quality of not feeling like the writer recognizes that he’s onto something, and thus of not quite committing to just turning up the volume and being imperious and swaggering. Stories like The Lost Boy or Mona Lisa’s Revenge are quite solid, but there’s no sense that anyone involved actually realizes that they’re much better than Eye of the Gorgon or Day of the Clown. In a slightly out of order comparison, part of what makes the next story so good isn’t just its guest star, but the fact that everyone involved knows they’re making the marquee episode of the season and gives it a bit of extra oomph. In four seasons of scripts, Phil Ford has never quite demonstrated that he has any idea how that works.
Which is the problem. It’s not a bad story, but it’s not one that has any ambitions of being anything more than yet another Sarah Jane Adventures story. In a moment when The Sarah Jane Adventures could most use some flawed ambition we instead get basically flawless lack of ambition – another sign of a show for which the sun has begun to wander downwards. Which is a pity, because everyone on screen clearly wants to be doing more. Daniel Anthony has blossomed into a rock solid actor – his scene of volunteering for alien possession because Sarah Jane is too important to risk is absolutely phenomenal. Lis Sladen puts a surprising amount of horror into her description of how awful being possessed back in Prisoner of the Judoon was. And Anjli Mohindra is starting to come into her own as the plucky girl adventurer, learning to sell Rani as a character in her own right as opposed to a piece of support for a larger picture.
But for all that everyone involved is clearly game for making a better and braver program than this, The Vault of Secrets is still an episode of television that’s perfectly and infuriatingly willing to coast on past glories. It’s an episode of inertia, suggesting that the only reason in mind for keeping The Sarah Jane Adventures around after the end of the Russell T Davies era is that there’s not actually a compelling reason not to do The Sarah Jane Adventures. And fair enough, there isn’t. But that still leaves this as a frustrating hour of television that’s only worth talking about because of its distant connection to other things. And when combined with the hindsight of knowing that the period in which Sarah Jane can still have televised adventures is drawing to a premature and tragic close, it’s hard not to feel a bit bitter about the waste.