Outside the Government: Warriors of Kudlak
It’s October 15th, 2007. Sugababes remain at number one, with Britney Spears, Timbaland, Sean Kingston, and the Freemasons also charting. In news, James D. Watson, the discoverer of DNA who didn’t ever advocate for using LSD, apologizes for advocating scientific racism. J.K. Rowling announces that Dumbledore is gay, and Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan to reenter politics, a decision that ends poorly for her.
While on television, we have the odd duck of the first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures: Warriors of Kudlak. Indeed, it’s the odd duck of The Sarah Jane Adventures as a whole – the only time the series ever hired a writer who wasn’t steeped in Doctor Who material (although Phil Ford basically used SJA as a way into Doctor Who, his later career makes it hard to argue that he’s not well steeped). Phil Gladwin, the writer, is instead a fairly normative television writer – he’d worked on Grange Hill, The Bill, Casualty, and Holby City. On paper this should be fine – he’s got children’s telly experience and is a basically capable writer, so he should be able to turn out a basically capable script. And he does. Warriors of Kudlak is, in point of fact, a basically capable script.
There are high points. The decision to have Kudlak not actually be an outright villain saves the entire first season’s blushes; for a show about the wondrous things in the universe, it sure does fail spectacularly to show any of them. If any Doctor Who-related show needed to do the “the monsters aren’t actually monsters” story, it’s The Sarah Jane Adventures, and yet it doesn’t, making Kudlak’s late turn towards non-villainy a significant hedge. The detail of having a black girl among the “great laser tag players” kidnapped by Kudlak is one of the most significant and substantive moments of diversity casting the show engages in. It manages to not get the relationship between kids and video games completely wrong, which is impressive in general, and doubly so in a Russell T Davies show.
But all of these crumble under much further inspection. Kudlak isn’t a non-villainous monster. All we actually get is “the monsters are actually monsters, they’re just mildly more sympathetic than they initially appeared.” Beyond that, the setup for that twist is shambolic. Gladwin makes no move to hint that Kudlak might have noble intentions in the first episode. It’s shoe-horned into the second episode, effectively making the second episode one that’s working from a subtly different premise from the first. It’s one thing – and a very good thing – to have a cliffhanger or a twist that alters what the audience thinks they know about a story. It’s another to just lazily swap premises without setup.
And this is a larger problem with the story – the human henchman, for instance, drops out of the narrative completely once he’s done providing his not-actually-all-that-essential plot function of teleporting Sarah Jane and Maria up to the spaceship. Instead the whole thing feels like two distinct episodes, one of which exists to get to the cliffhanger (which comes several minutes too late in the episode – the henchman menacing Sarah Jane with a gun is much scarier than Kudlak), and the other one of which exists to get to the ending, but which are not actually intended to link together to tell a new story. The Ultimate Foe actually holds together better than these two parts do.
Similarly, as nice as the token black girl on the spaceship is, she doesn’t erase the underlying fact that the plot splits between the boy plot (playing laser tag) and the girl plot (chasing after the boys who are playing laser tag). The single hedge just serves to underline how much the story simply assumes that laser tag is a boys activity, and that the girls in the story need to be doing something else. The degree to which the story would have been improved by having Maria be the one to take Luke to Combat 3000, leaving Clyde to investigate with Sarah Jane is absolutely massive. Add to that the spectacularly cringeworthy “can you explain girls to me” joke at the end and you have a story that everyone involved in should feel a pang of shame for, primarily because it just would not have been hard to make this better.
The story also falls afoul of a more basic principle underlying The Sarah Jane Adventures: it’s smugly moralizing. From the shoe-horned in “bullying is bad” message in the first episode to Maria falling into outright “this week the moral of the story is” mode for the late speech about the difference between violent video games and real violence, this story is didactic in a way the rest of the season avoids. Beyond that, it’s didacticism is just weird. Bullying is bad, but not actually bad when Luke does it because he thinks he’s just being funny. Violent video games are… good, apparently? That seems to be the major moral message of Warriors of Kudlak, actually. Hooray for violent video games. Which, I mean, I’m certainly willing to defend a measure of violence in video games, even those for children, but, well, first of all, The Sarah Jane Adventures is just preaching to the choir there, and second of all, it’s just a bizarre point to focus one sixth of a season of television on.
But failure is often instructive, and Warriors of Kudlak is no exception. On the surface, at least, it can appear that The Sarah Jane Adventures is something of a bland or straightforward show; it just does normal adventure stories of the sort that were popular thirty years earlier. It should be easy – this is, after all, the task that Big Finish manages to accomplish with twelve or more releases a year. It’s not that it’s a bad show – I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anyone get passionately upset about The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s just that it doesn’t really inspire passions among the (largely adult) fandom that the other two series do, largely because it’s not trying to be complex in the same ways. Perhaps Lindalee Rose has some insights (though if so, she’s not recorded them), but for most of the usual fan perspectives, it’s hard to work up more than an “awww, bless.” (Notably, I’ve lowered my minimum wordcount for Sarah Jane Adventures posts because, well, they just don’t support two thousand words the same way.)
Frankly, writing a 1970s-style Doctor Who story is dead easy. This is the dirty secret of the bulk of the wilderness years – all the oft-praised “trad” writers who cranked out good old-fashioned Doctor Who had it profoundly easy. Writing a Hinchcliffe-era clone of a story is fairly trivial. You find a horror movie concept Doctor Who hasn’t done before, you come up with some technobabble as to why it’s aliens, and then you just have to learn to imitate the voices of Tom Baker and Lis Sladen and you’re good to go. It’s doubly easy if you actually have Tom Baker and/or Lis Sladen working for you, because then they’ll helpfully imitate their own voices.
This isn’t to knock Robert Holmes, or any of the other Hinchcliffe-era writers. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to imitate the Hinchcliffe era than it was to come up with it. Doing it in 1977 is harder than doing it in 2007. Nevertheless, doing it in 2007 is dead easy. And the same goes for the Letts era: come up with some mundane aspect of the modern world and have aliens take it over. Instant Pertwee story. In that regard, The Sarah Jane Adventures should be able to take any halfway decent writer and let them have an episode without any difficulty. There’s just not a lot of moving parts here.
But it’s telling that of the myriad of traditionalist writers from the wilderness years, only two ever made it in the new series: Gareth Roberts and Mark Gatiss. And the reasons for this are not difficult to surmise. Roberts – the one more relevant to The Sarah Jane Adventures, after all – did a trio of Williams-era imitations along with a Dennis Spooner historical, yes. But he never slavishly imitated those styles. Instead he updated them, picking out the bits that worked best, and either replacing them or slightly fine-tuning them. Much as Roberts did not reinvent the Slitheen so much as he played down the bits that were most annoying and brought the more interesting bits to the fore.
Which is another way of saying that The Sarah Jane Adventures isn’t just a remake of thirty-year old television; it’s a love letter to said television. And this is crucial to understanding why Gladwin’s script doesn’t quite work. Gladwin writes a straightforward adventure script in the style of old Doctor Who, yes. But what he doesn’t do is write something that comes out of love for those stories and a desire to give children of 2007 stories that work for them like The Time Warrior did for them. And in not doing that, he reveals what the key ingredient of The Sarah Jane Adventures always was – the thing that elevates it above generic children’s adventure stories and makes it something special. Notably, as we said, it’s a lesson the production team seems to have taken on board.
October 9, 2013 @ 12:49 am
Dear Dr Sandifer
I love this blog, but I have one request: please stop using "myriad of" it jars horribly.
October 9, 2013 @ 1:02 am
On a more positive note, I have been using the word 'shambolic' a whole hell of a lot.
October 9, 2013 @ 2:05 am
And the same goes for the Letts era: come up with some mundane aspect of the modern world and have aliens take it over. Instant Pertwee story.
You've just reduced my favourite Doctor's era to a couple of lines! You bastard!
October 9, 2013 @ 2:19 am
Oh yeah. Dumbledore's gay. And why? Not because he ever evinces any sexual feeling for anyone in the course of any of the stories. Oh no, it's because he wears purple silk, has a florid turn of phrase and once had a crush on a future wizard-Hitler… whereupon he retired into tragic, damaged celibacy, afraid to ever love again in case it re-unleashed his single moral collapse. So, that's a story about 'tolerance' then, ain't it? Bleurgch.
Sorry, but you did bring it up. 😉
October 9, 2013 @ 3:27 am
Interesting that if a writer explicitly says a character is gay but offers no proof, our first instinct is to react as you have. Similar to certain fans' assertion that the Doctor is asexual because between 1963 and 89 he showed no sexual feeling for anyone in the course of any of the stories.
If Rowling had said Dumbledore was heterosexual but given no evidence of a prior relationship other than a crush, this would have been accepted…and the florid turn of phrase and purple silk would have been ignored.
In that sense, stating Dumbledore is gay should have no more impact than him being hetero. The clothing is a red herring, because they're all wizards, so it comes with the territory. I'm more worried about the lazy symbolism of Snape having dark greasy hair and wearing black, just because he's supposed to be evil.
October 9, 2013 @ 3:42 am
Today's post: What can we learn about SJA (and children's television as a whole) from a script that was clearly phoned in.
What interests me about your analysis of SJA is that it appears to be a model that your previous analysis of Doctor Who indicates shouldn't work: fanservice. But it's a peculiarly creative form of fanservice, where the service rendered to the fans is updating the story structures of classic Doctor Who explicitly so that they'll be just as loved by the current generation of children as they were by the ones that are now their parents. You could think of it not as the mission of the Wilderness Years, but its dream.
So the writers have to imitate not only the form of the old stories, but the effects they had on the audience. Gladwin seems to be the only writer for this season who doesn't understand that, and he doesn't understand it because he never experienced those effects watching Doctor Who in the first place. Really SJA is the ultimate show for insiders insofar as it explicitly seeks to capture people at a young enough age to forge them into new insiders. And the producers actually understand the subjective phenomenon of becoming a fan, so can craft their stories to produce that phenomenon.
October 9, 2013 @ 4:00 am
It’s just that it doesn’t really inspire passions among the (largely adult) fandom that the other two series do, largely because it’s not trying to be complex in the same ways.
Well, sometimes it does; there are some more ambitious episodes in the mix.
October 9, 2013 @ 4:01 am
I'm more worried about the lazy symbolism of Snape having dark greasy hair and wearing black, just because he's supposed to be evil.
Though part of the point is that he's less evil than we are led to think.
October 9, 2013 @ 4:16 am
Can't remember if you mentioned this before, but are you watching these all for the first time?
October 9, 2013 @ 4:30 am
I was annoyed by the "Dumbledore is gay" revelation because it struck me as an unearned claim of diversity. If she'd wanted to present one of her most beloved characters as a gay role-model, she had seven books and more than one million words in which to do it. Making the declaration several months after the publication of the final volume seemed cheap and, frankly, a bit cowardly.
October 9, 2013 @ 4:36 am
I feel slightly ashamed, having not watched this for a while and just assumed it was a Phil Ford story because it wasn't very memorable…! While Mr Ford's first script is for me much more interesting on at least one level, and reminds me of School Reunion: the A-story is very clichéd and off the shelf (Image of the Fendahl did a far more original take on the Gorgon three decades earlier), but the story of the characters is much more thoughtful and emotionally resonant. There you go – I hope that makes up for not having had enough comments on that post…
Anyway, back to this one: like School Reunion, perhaps it's because it was written by someone less steeped in Doctor Who that the writer came up with such an obviously Who-ish plot it had already been done several times before and no-one had the heart to tell him. In this case, the novels Toy Soldiers and, very recently, Winner Takes All aimed at much the same audience as The Sarah Jane Adventures. And unlike an awful lot of other modern Who inspired by the novels, neither of those were very inspired to begin with, which might be why it's the only one of that first SJA season I've not watched again in the last few years.
October 9, 2013 @ 4:38 am
Merriam-Webster recognise that "myriad" can be used in both noun and adjective forms. To my eyes, it is quite comfortably read as a noun, and I support its future appearance as such within the TARDIS Eruditorum.
(Yep, you're right…it's difficult finding something to say about The Sarah Jane Adventures…)
October 9, 2013 @ 6:21 am
Now I love Letts…but he's right. And he's right about Hinchcliffe as well. It doesn't make them any less or more satisfying.
October 9, 2013 @ 6:40 am
No, he’s gay because he likes men. He sprouts overwrought turns of phrase and wear’s purple silk because he’s a wizard. His sexuality is a component of the character but not the defining part. He’s not “the Gay Wizard”, he’s not cast as some damaged and repressed coward. He’s cast as a mentor, a figure of great power, and frankly any positive depiction of any marginalized group is welcome in mainstream media.
October 9, 2013 @ 7:28 am
Indeed, a myriad of uses.
October 9, 2013 @ 7:34 am
I was annoyed by the "Dumbledore is gay" revelation because it struck me as an unearned claim of diversity.
But Rowling didn't put it forward as a claim of diversity. Someone asked her about his love life and she answered something like, "Oh, to be honest I always thought of Dumbledore as gay." It wasn't some big announcement.
October 9, 2013 @ 9:00 am
now you've hit upon the important aspect of the show: using SJA as a gateway drug to getting new, young fans to love the Doctor Who universe. I hooked both of my girls on SJA as well as Doctor Who 2005 going forward. Getting them into new Who took a bit longer, but they loved SJA, and it provided them a window into classic Who, specifically, Baker/Sladen adventures like Ark in Space, that they were suddennly intersted in. I don't think that it can be understated the need to add to the adudience and get those younger viewers that will reinvent Doctor Who twenty years from now. Its really, really important.
October 9, 2013 @ 9:28 am
Or you could just show them regular Doctor Who and start them very young.
I say this mostly as an excuse to brag about my kid, who will sometimes demand "More Docta Woo", ("No Doctor Who until you clean up your toys" is one of the most fun sentences I have ever said in my life), and will flail around with my Sonic Screwdriver Projector Pen shouting "TARDIS FLYING!" as it casts the image of a police box on the wall (Sometimes, in his excitement, he'll elide "TARDIS" and "Doctor Who" and call it "Tattoo"). He's almost two.
There's a tragic lack in Doctor Who merch oriented toward the under-three crowd. We've got a Star Trek board book that my son loves, and I'm sure if someone put out something similar for Doctor Who, we could start grooming future fans before they could walk. (And if there was ever a thing that was screaming to be made into a toddler activity table, it's the TARDIS console)
October 9, 2013 @ 10:45 am
The myriad myrmidons rise in defense!
Merriam-Webster devotes a lengthy usage note to the word, citing recent criticism of "myriads" and "a myriad of" as reflecting a mistaken belief that it's only an adjective. Ironically, the myriad was originally a noun, and such usage predates the adjectival form by over two hundred years. Milton and Thoreau both used it as a noun, and "it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it."
That doesn't mean, however, that its overuse wouldn't jar.
October 9, 2013 @ 11:05 am
As I understood it, she'd vetoed a line in one of the films that would have implied Dumbledore was straight. (Normally authors can't veto lines in films, but presumably being J.K.Rowling gives additional clout.)
October 9, 2013 @ 11:23 am
Agreed. I quite like SJA, I find it charming and loveable and, well, "aw, bless!" but not, somehow, entirely essential. However, several episodes are quite touching and sad (including the one coming Friday if I'm not mistaken), lots of it is more ambitious and "adult" than anyone could have expected it to be, and it's full of hilarious moments like the Judoon stubbornly obeying traffic laws. I am very glad to have Sarah and her Scooby gang in the Doctor Who universe.
October 9, 2013 @ 3:13 pm
'And if there was ever a thing that was screaming to be made into a toddler activity table, it's the TARDIS console'
My God you're right! In fact in Eleven's Tardis it IS a toddler activity table. I've often suspected his console doesn't actually do anything, the TARDIS just made it to keep the Doctor busy while she takes him where he needs to be.
October 9, 2013 @ 4:31 pm
Since I started spending time near playground equipment (Boy doesn't that sound sketchy?) it's occurred to me that the perfect TARDIS Interior for Eleven would have been one made out of a big piece of playground equipment.
I can even hear the exchange:
Companion: This is a space ship that can travel all over time and space? And you operate it from a jungle gym? Why?
Doctor: If you had a space ship that could travel all over time and space, and you could operate it from a jungle gym, why wouldn't you?
October 9, 2013 @ 6:13 pm
And the temporary TARDIS in The Doctor's Wife was actually designed by children (a Blue Peter contest, I think)
October 9, 2013 @ 6:17 pm
As for moralizing, I felt that Wizards vs Aliens was worse–especially "Rebel Magic", which boiled down to "Stealing is bad and don't hang out with cool kids"–but I really didn't notice any blatant morals in this episode.
October 9, 2013 @ 9:16 pm
"writing a 1970s-style Doctor Who story is dead easy"
To be honest, in so far as this is true I don't think it's particularly meaningful. You can pick many genres where there are a lot of popular examples (sword & sorcery, say, as opposed to the kind of story Italo Calvino wrote) and it's easy to do. What's hard is making something like that sparkle – in fact, it can sometimes be harder because of the "been there, done that" factor. You pick up on this with your bit about Gareth Roberts; in the only Mark Gatiss book I've read set in the 1970s era of the show, Last of the Gaderene, he takes the opposite tack and makes it so perfectly of its time that it tickles my nostalgia bone. And that's what makes them special: that they can do something that is fairly easy to write in a hacky way and turn it into something worthwhile.
I think the fact that it's not easy to do well is, unfortunately, shown by the Big Finish 4th Doctor adventures. They've got Tom Baker and Louise Jameson, but of the three I've heard only one (Wrath of the Iceni) has that sparkle – which is a pretty low hit rate for someone like me who tends to lap up the BF audios.
October 9, 2013 @ 11:15 pm
Theonlyspiral: nowhere in the books is he presented as liking anyone romantically or sexually, unless you read the account of his relationship with Grindelwald with slash goggles to begin with. His "just because I'm dead doesn't mean I can't spend an entire chapter delivering convoluted exposition" scene might have been interesting if he'd said "I was in love with Grindelwald", but even then Rowling didn't give us anything to go on. (And as to whether he's cast as a damaged and repressed coward,he has no other romantic relationship that we know of; he spends years behind his desk while Grindelwald runs around being Wizard Hitler because he's scared Grindelwald might make some unprovable claim about who killed Ariana; he refuses to let anyone but his most loyal servant know how he covered up for Tom Riddle's psychopathy; and he grooms a child to commit suicide by dark wizard because destiny says so, rather than do the right thing and not send a child to fight the second-most powerful wizard in the world. YMMV, but I don't see anything admirable in Albus Dumbledore, and that's not touching his exploitation of Snape's psychological issues or his godawful running of Hogwarts.)