Friday, 23 October 2009

TV Review: Sarah Jane Adventures - Prisoner of the Judoon

Business as usual (or should that be unusual?) at Bannerman Road as kid-friendly Dr Who spin-off ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ returns for its third full series on CBBC, airing this year twice-weekly on Thursday and Fridays. The format remains as it has been for the past two years – former Dr Who companion Sarah Jane Smith (the ageless Elisabeth Sladen) and her alien construct son Luke (Thomas Knight) and his schoolfriends Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and Rani (Anji Mohindra) battle alien threats to Earth (well, mainly Ealing where Sarah Jane and co live it which seems extraordinarily prone to alien and/or supernatural incursions) with the help of the super-computer in Sarah Jane’s attic and, from time to time,robot dog K9. After a cracking and surprisingly-sophisticated first series in 2007last year’s second run saw a bit of a dip in quality. The show looked cheaper, the stories were derivative and too many characters and costumes were reused either from the show itself or from Dr Who, as the Sontarans from the then-recent Dr Who season reappeared in much the same way as the Slitheen from the first series of Dr Who appears in SJ’s first outing. The quality slide was disappointing because ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ has so much potential and, when it’s on form, can tell intelligent and mature stories for its juvenile audience which don’t patronise or talk down to them and still have enough meat and drama to appeal to those…ahem…older viewers who are watching because of its obvious connection to the parent show. But when the show goes off-mission – or at least sails too close to the panto winds of traditional contemporary children’s drama – it resorts to running around, shouting, prat-falling and over-acting. Which brings me, sadly, to series three opener ‘Prisoner of the Judoon’. Oh dear…

There’s actually some good stuff dotted throughout these two episodes. There’s no denying the energy and commitment on display here as everyone gives their all to make sure this is a pacey, rattling yarn with loads of incident and some pretty good special FX – the rampaging nanobots, the reconstructed spaceship, the prosthetic make-up for renegede alien Androvax.. But the problem lies both with Phil Ford’s script and some rather iffy acting – astonishingly from the otherwise-reliable Lis Sladen herself. Here’s a story which really throws away the show’s sometimes-tentative foothold in the real world, often resembling a better-financed episode of 1970s ITV kid’s adventure ‘The Tomorrow People’. ‘Prisoner of the Judoon’ is a story which aims itself too squarely at its children’s audience and, in doing so, seems to be assuming, alarmingly, that its children’s audience isn’t quite as bright as it once thought. For this is pretty simple stuff indeed as an alien ship crashes in London and a planet-destroying reptile escapes, its Judoon captor (the integalactic space police rhinos introduced in Dr Who series three opener ‘Smith and Jones’) on its case. Sarah Jane and co arrive on the scene, team up with the slightly-bewildered but official Judoon Captain Tybo (cue much comic misunderstanding as the Judoon confronts human officiousness) and spend two episodes being boggle-eyed, running around and shouting, getting locked up and escaping and ultimately returning home in time for tea with another of Sladen’s now slightly-overplayed “the Universe is wonderful tra la la” homilies.

Dr Who has, to be fair, set up the precedent that series openers should be relatively straight-forward, great big romps which reintroduce the concept and characters of the series before challenging the audience with meatier fare. ‘Prisoner of the Judoon’, though, takes this to an extreme. Ford’s script is witty enough but the one-note gags and general lack of real tension or sense of danger in the story gets a bit wearisome after a while. Similarly an extraneous and farcical subplot which sees Rani’s mother (a florist) and father (a school headmaster) ingratiate their way into a Top Secret research institute – on a Sunday! – to persuade them to display some flowers on the premises! When they get there they indulge in repeated and increasingly-laboured comedy set-pieces as they boggle at aliens, confront witless security guard anbd joiun in the general running around and hiding. Where Rani's predecessor Maria had a dysfunctional family who worked as real people struggling with real emotions, Rani's folks have, at a stroke, become bumbling comedy oafs gurning and, having survived an encounter with big gun-wielding rhinos from outer space, decide to forget all about it and wander home at the end of it all as if it';s all in a day's work..

If this doesn't leave you shaking your head in despair and wodnering where the quality cvontrol's gone for this series, your jaw will be on the floor as the villainous Androvax, a creature who hides himself in human bodies, decide to yake over Sarah Jane. Now I'm quite a fan of Elisabeth Sladen, a fine and monstrously-underrated actress who, after her initial stint on 'Dr Who' in the 1970s really should have goine on to become a major TV star. She's a great, instinctive actress and over the years she's turned Sarah Jane from a running and screaming cypher into a fully-rounded, well-observed and rather melancholy older woman. But what the Hell was she thinking when she decided to play the possessed Sarah Jane as if she was auditioning for (and failing to get) a role in some shoddy provinical Pantomime? Playing the baddy may have been a lovely opportunity for Sladen and at our most generous we can probably say that she certainly threw herself into the performance. I can't really be sure though because I watched much of it from behind the hands flung over my eyes in embarrassment. This was over-acting at its most astonishing. Initially coming over as rather sexy; her confrontation with the super-computer Mr Smith - "Mr Smith, I need you" was pretty smouldering. but it all goes horribly wrong in part two when she prowls around hissing and growling like Christian Bale with tonsilitis (imagine that!), her eyeballs rolling in her sockets as she not only chews up the scenery but pretty much spits it all out in our faces. I blame the director; Joss Agnew should have had a quiet word and got her to reign it in a bit. But then in a fairly light and farcical story, maybe something darker and subtler would have flown in the face of the knockabout style of the story and left the whole thing a bit unbalanced.

It's always nice to see 'The Sarah Jane Adventures' back on screen because it's generally such a confident and competent series and, with the other Who family of series on reduced duties this year, it's good to be back in one of Russell T Davies's worlds again. But 'Prisoner of the Judoon' is really a pretty clumsy and dim-witted affair, exposing the show's inherent weaknesses rather than playing to its strength. It's a kid's show, of course, and that's the audience it needs to be aimed at no matter how much grizzly old fans like me think it belongs to us because we knew Sarah Jane when she was a fresh-faced young twenty-something. But with so little kid's drama on TV these days it's hard not to think that 'Prisoner of the Judoon' sells them short a bit with its rehashed old monsters and lazy hackneyed storyline and trite comedy stylings. 'The Sarah Jane Adventures' has done much better than this so let's hope that the best is yet to come in this third series. Don't be too down-hearted by 'Prisoner of the Judoon'; it's not a disaster by any means but it's just a bit of a misfire from a series which, when it's on top form, can scintillate almost as much as the show which spawned it. 'The Sarah Jane Adventures' works best when its stories are about its characters and how they react and inter-act with the astonishing things which happen to them, woven into clever, thoughtful adventure stories. Stuff is glad to report that the just-screened first episode of the second story, 'The Mad Woman In The Attic' is a marked improvement, playing as if it's from an entirely different series altogther. And then, of course, a certain Time Lord pitches up to join the fun next week...

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