Doctor Who: The Encyclopedia (New Edition)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 20 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who: The Encyclopedia (New Edition)
Written by Gary Russell
BBC Books
UK release: 13 October 2011
This big beast of a BBC book calls for a bigger than usual review. However, my A-Z responses don't have to be read in alphabetical order, so feel free to dip in and out as you like. Having said that, entries given here for 'R', 'T', and 'D' are especially worth a browse...

Author: Gary Russell should be applauded for the near-Herculean task of compiling this new, updated edition. Detailing the stories of River Song, Amy Pond and Rory Williams brings home just how complex and incident-packed their lives have become. But Russell nevertheless presents an earnest, coherent account of the Moffatverse, avoiding entries on “reboot” or “universe” for example – thorny topics which might have needed to engage with what, exactly, has unhappened and rehappened in the wake of series five. Steering clear of continuity tangles and controversies allows The Encyclopedia to represent itself as definitive, though in a sense no such thing is ever really possible with Doctor Who. There will always be matters of fan debate and/or production inconsistency, but under Gary Russell's official stewardship you won't find all these "unofficial" debates fully engaged with.

Biggles: Amy Pond's favourite cat, referred to in The Girl Who Waited, gets an entry. But “sexy Mr. Jennings the hot, hot art teacher” is absent. This dialogue is present in The Brilliant Book 2012's “magic moment” from episode 6.10, but must have been cut from the televised version. Despite being published on the same day, then, The Brilliant Book and The Encyclopedia appear to have worked from different sources: the former drawing on shooting scripts for its dialogue extracts, and the latter drawing on Doctor Who as readied for broadcast.

Cover design: The only place we're going to see the ninth, tenth and eleventh Doctors meet is probably in this composited image, echoing an infamous publicity photo for The Three Doctors. This edition of The Encyclopedia thus imagines or visualises an event which lies outside its own remit, given that it only refers to televised Doctor Who from 2005 onwards. In short, and although it's truly glorious, the cover cannot be covered here, along with all sorts of other new Who comic strips and novels. Couldn't entries for the likes of Aberdeen, or Alan [1] and Alan [2] have been cut to make way for some major information from the non-TV worlds of the three (BBC Wales') Doctors? For instance, "Terraphiles" would surely make a more interesting entry than "Terry".

Doctor, the: The entry for this character is shorter than those given for Amy Pond, Rory Williams and River Song. On this evidence, one might conclude that the Doctor is merely a secondary character in 'his' TV show, while the real narrative focus of recent series falls on Amy, Rory and River. Also, why are only three actors listed as playing the Doctor? Shouldn't flashbacks in The Next Doctor and The Eleventh Hour mean that this list ought to be a lot longer?

Eric and Ernie: Occasionally, entries following one after the other resonate in unexpected and playful ways. Whether by accident or by design, Eric and Ernie put one in mind of the recent, award-winning BBC Wales' TV drama depicting Morecambe and Wise, and overseen by Beth Willis and Piers Wenger.

Fact or Fiction?: The Encyclopedia insists that the Doctor compares himself to a fictional character, Arthur Dent, in The Christmas Invasion, using this interpretation to include an entry on Douglas Adams. This ignores the possibility, embraced in many fan reactions, that Arthur Dent is actually a real, non-fictional person in the Whoniverse rather than a character created by Adams. It seems odd that Gary Russell would cut down this ambiguity and playfulness, arguably present in Russell T. Davies's script.

Guard: There are five Guards listed, ranging from Guard [1] in Utopia through to Guard [5] in The Gunpowder Plot (and lots of spoilerific details are included for this Adventure Game, by the way). Curiously, more vicars than guards have featured in Doctor Who's cast lists (see my entry for 'Vicar' below), suggesting that ceremonies of everyday life on Earth – weddings and funerals – have been more central to this version of Who than fantastical, SF stories of imprisonment.

HP Sauce: Gets a mildly spurious entry on the basis that an HP advert is remarked upon in The Idiot's Lantern. Given the BBC's long-standing reticence in relation to real-world brands, this feels almost like product placement. The entry for Henrik's also works in the real-world Cardiff store Howells (where Henrik's was filmed), blurring factual/fictional commerce. Other table sauces and other department stores are available.

Internet: Reviewing the sumptuous paper-and-print version of this book brings home the difficulties of such a venture. Fans receiving it as a Christmas gift will most likely find it's out of date within 24 hours of unwrapping (since it doesn't and couldn't cover the Christmas Special 2011). By contrast, online resources and fan wikis can be updated immediately after TV broadcast, and a wealth of information is out there for free on the web. When I was a child, I treasured my copy of the Programme Guide A-Z (however unhelpful it may have been in some ways), but in a world of digital media and fan sites, I can't imagine The Encyclopedia being treasured in quite the same way by young devotees of the Doctor. I wonder whether we'll ever see a third edition in bookshops, or whether this publishing project will be wholly digital by the time of Who's fiftieth anniversary.

Jones: There are ten Joneses (characters and real people) listed: Jones the computer, Catherine Zeta, Clive, Danny, Francine, Harriet, Ianto, Leo, Tish, and Martha. Likewise there are ten different Smiths: Delia, Jackson, John, Luke, Mickey, Pauline, Ricky, Sarah Jane, Sidney and Verity, making it a Smith and Jones dead heat. For now.

Kovarian, Madame: In an unusually hesitant entry, Russell concedes that it's unclear whether Kovarian is one of the Clerics or just working with them, and that it's equally unclear whether she is dead or alive in the restored, fixed-point-at-Lake-Silencio reality. To my mind, Kovarian seemed rather under-developed as a series-long baddie, and The Encyclopedia's vagueness on the subject does little to counter that view.

Livingston, Ken: Apparently the Mayor of London in Doctor Who (p.200). The incorrect spelling of -ston rather than -stone may represent Gary Russell's revenge on all those journalists who have ever written about Christopher Ecclestone. Either that, or it's a typo that hasn't been corrected for this revised edition (see my entry for 'T'). Personally, I prefer the Ecclestone Vengeance Hypothesis.

Man in Pub: Played by Neil Clench in Turn Left. The Encyclopedia's almost manic insistence on including every credited actor ever to have ever appeared in Doctor Who ever does occasionally lead to rather dull entries. Man in Pub is marginally more interesting than Man [1] and Man [2], but all these entries suggest that there's a difference between facts and knowledge. Facts are bits of decontextualised trivia, but knowledge puts those facts to work within a frame of understanding and within a context of use. Doctor Who: The Encyclopedia fetishises facts rather than forms of knowledge: discuss. With a man in the pub.

New: An exceptionally popular prefix in new Who (if not the most popular). There are some twenty-three entries beginning with “New”, including placc names such as New York and New Zealand. Whether it's New Gallifrey, New Humans, New Skaro or New Earth, novelty has clearly been at an insistent premium since 2005.

Old: Far less popular and less frequently used than its opposite, there are a mere three entries including this prefix. Youth, novelty, and reinvention would seem to be valued implications, whereas age and the past are far less linguistically appealing in BBC Wales' Doctor Who.

Petrichor: Though The Encyclopedia makes a show of sticking to TV Who (c.f. this review's entries on Biggles and References) it does also include some bits of interpretation that were not self-evidently present in the televised episodes. One example of this is the perfume Petrichor, seen in Closing Time, which we are told here was created by Amy and Rory in order to attract the Doctor's attention. Is this Gary Russell's reading of the episode? Was it specified in the shooting script? Because this is a piece of character motivation that isn't clearly given in the story as broadcast.

Question, the: Doesn't get its own dedicated entry, and so can't be that important in the scheme of things.

References: Sticking to story facts means that many entries miss out on significant context. OK, the Anghelides Equation turns up in the fourth Adventure Game, but how about telling us who 'Anghelides' possibly refers to in real life? And, OK, Florizel Street makes an appearance in The Idiot's Lantern, but how about telling us what it refers to in real-world TV history? In-jokes are very definitely out as far as The Encyclopedia's concerned. But as an informational resource, I'd argue this volume would much be handier if it referred outwards a little bit more. Many entries miss out important real-world contexts.

Smith, Sarah Jane: Along with other characters who appear in spin-off shows, the entry for Sarah Jane covers only her BBC Wales' Who appearances, making minimal references to her earlier involvement in the show, and no references to the events of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Clearly some things have to be left out on grounds of space and word count, but when BBC Wales' production teams – Gary Russell among them – have made such an effort to co-ordinate Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures so that they cohere and reference one another, it seems a shame to exclude SJA, especially, from The Encyclopedia (Torchwood has, after all, been the subject of its own comparable reference volume, but the CBBC show never has been, and remains somewhat neglected in terms of reference works or companion volumes).

Typos: It's a capacious book. There's going to be a few typographical errors. But missing a word in the second sentence of the Introduction is rather remiss, especially as the team of fact-checkers and grammar spotters hasn't even been thanked by this stage. And although it's a real nitpick, the Best Typo Award goes to the fact that Gantok plays Lice Chess with the Doctor (p.130). Steven Moffat's version was lively enough, but I bet he's kicking himself now, having read about Lice Chess. Or scratching his head and wondering why on earth he didn't think of it first. (I bet it'll turn up in the series seven finale).

Under henge: or is it underhenge, as per Character Options' action figures?

Vicar: Between Rose and The Wedding of River Song there have been six different vicars in Doctor Who. And, of course, The Encyclopedia lists Vicar [1], played by Lee Griffiths, all the way through to Vicar [6], Paul Whiston. Let's just hope there's never a Time Lord character introduced who's called The Vicar (with many different dog-collared incarnations), or things could get really messy.

Wimey, timey: There are thirteen entries prefaced with “Time”, from Time Agency to Time Windows, including Time Field to cover series five's infamous crack. But there's no entry for “timey wimey”, meaning that The Encyclopedia can't be used to track infamous bits of dialogue like this, or other examples such as “Geronimo!”, “Allons-y”, “Silence will fall”, and “He will knock four times”. Given the ongoing importance of catchphrases to showrunners Davies and Moffat, this is a rather puzzling omission.

X-Factor, The: Restricted to a mention of character Lance Bennett's dialogue, rather than tackled as a real-world competitor for Doctor Who, this is another instance of production and broadcasting contexts being neglected.

Yappy: “A brand of electronic toy dog” from Closing Time, we're told in the spirit of completism. But again it's faux completism, neglecting to mention that “yappy” is also an in-joke at K9's expense (given the Doctor's accompanying comment).

Zero Room: Zero mentions of this, because although Neil Gaiman wanted to name check it in The Doctor's Wife, it didn't make the cut. There's also seemingly zero mentions of “Sexy”, the Doctor's name for the TARDIS, though if this was deemed appropriate for the TV show then it should surely be appropriate for factual inclusion here. However, it isn't referred to in entries dealing with Idris or the TARDIS (and the latter entry also makes no sustained references to The Doctor's Wife). Presumably Gary Russell was given an editorial directive: no hanky panky in The Encyclopedia.




The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Man Who Never WasBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 18 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 5 - The Man Who Never Was
Written by Gareth Roberts
Directed by Joss Agnew
Broadcast on CBBC- 17th - 18th October 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

As might be expected, this story makes for an emotional viewing experience: the finale that never was. But with its concluding montage, and its reassuring message that Sarah Jane's adventures will go on “forever”, episode two – never meant as a last hurrah – is transformed into a fitting ending for the series. The Man Who Never Was already has the feeling of an “event” story given that it properly brings together Luke and Sky for the first time, uniting two eras of the SJA family. An appearance from K9 would have been nice too, but the character is at least referred to, as are UNIT. (And K9 does appear in the final montage, along with the tenth Doctor, and Yasmin Paige as Maria). It's also great to see Sarah Jane's status as a leading journalist reinforced, as well as her earning power being mentioned in order to explain exactly how the attic is financed.

Gareth Roberts' script is deliciously witty, whether smuggling in that “full stop” joke, acknowledging “Clani”, or satirically mocking technology launches, with the Serf Board eventually being revealed as “bobbins”. Joseph Serf might be a reference to The Prisoner and one of Patrick McGoohan's pseudonyms (that Serf was another non-existent man), but this charismatic Serf and his Serf Board also put one in mind of Apple product launches, making the story even more strange to watch. Sarah Jane and Joseph Serf; Elisabeth Sladen and Steve Jobs. It's a story permeated and almost overwhelmed by real-world loss, its fiction pixellating and glitching in the mind's eye, as reality threatens to break through the production of TV fantasy.

James Dreyfus as Harrison continues the Sarah Jane Adventures' tradition whereby comic actors play relatively straight roles, and Dreyfus convinces in moments of menace and glib corporate greed. The aliens he has subjugated appear to represent the evils of globalisation, where Asian sweatshops can be exploited for cheap labour by major corporations (and as such, it's surely no accident that the Scullions were recovered from a crash in “central Asia”).

Working to animate Serf, the Scullion workforce and their areas of responsibility – smile, legs, speech – remind one somewhat of the Teselecta and its crew. But The Sarah Jane Adventures' lighter tone shines through; rarely have schemes for global market domination been so thoroughly undermined by a typographical error or two. And Serf's manipulation is played as fairly broad comedy via Mark Aiken's mugging, whereas the Teselecta's humour hailed more from the incongruity and absurdism of the anti-bodies, as well as from Steven Moffat's quickfire dialogue. Each vehicle is ultimately controlled by our protagonists, whether it's Luke and Sky running Serf behind the scenes, or the Teselecta being commandeered. Magical technology is always neutral, it would seem: easily capable of being turned against its villainous paymasters, and rapidly used for good rather than evil. Perhaps it's one of the great myths of our time – that the “little people” can fight back by readily twisting technology to suit themselves. Crush one pen, pull a few levers, and the Harrison chase is over.

Another SJA tradition is also returned to, namely that an older star TV actor will appear and pay tribute to Sarah Jane's charming nature. As Lionel Carson, Peter Bowles gets a little less to do than Nigel Havers did back in series three, but he flirts magnificently with Sladen, and the two convey great warmth and mutual respect. Characters Clyde and Rani also get to play at a relationship, taking on the role of married couple Trevor and Janet Sharp, a situation which Gareth Roberts mines for its comic potential. Like the preceding two stories making up this series, this is another accomplished production. In short, SJA bows out on a level of consistent excellence, and all involved should be proud of their work here.

This final story is as much about family as alien trafficking and capitalist exploitation. Sarah, Luke and Sky enjoy a “family outing” of sorts, and Clani refer to Clyde's picture being “a family thing”. Sarah's son and daughter make up an unconventional family unit – one that's entirely elective, and almost immediately harmonious. The old saying suggests “you can't choose your family”, but that's exactly what SJA says you can do. You can choose who to care for, and who to care about, just as Adriana does in this story (changing her own life in the process). Family in The Sarah Jane Adventures is not always fixed or inevitable. Instead, it is frequently chosen and embraced, rather like another six-letter word beginning with 'f': fandom. Sarah Jane might never have “expected to find a family”, but find one she did, just as Elisabeth Sladen perhaps unexpectedly found generations of fans. Fandom-as-family, and family-as-fandom; that's one lasting lesson of SJA. You – we – can always make the choice to care.

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith. Your story will no doubt go on, in fans' writings, memories, and new adventures yet to be imagined...




Doctor Who: The Brilliant Book 2012Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 13 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Brilliant Book 2012
Edited by Clayton Hickman
BBC Books
It might be brilliant, but is it canon? This year's Brilliant Book (or next year's, depending on how you look at it) follows on from its predecessor by including a number of features expanding series six's stories as seen on screen. Tom MacRae writes about different colours of Handbot (topaz, avocado, or classic white); Mark Gatiss pens diary entries from young George (revealing the doll's house in his cupboard belonged to his mum); and Neil Gaiman unveils eleven things about the Corsair (including how her seventh incarnation allegedly dealt with Daleks on Clarkor Nine). Stephen Thompson elaborates on Henry Avery's adventures, while Matthew Graham's take on Gangers' rights involves a rather unusual birthday party. These features are a lot of fun, although casting an eye over the list of contributors does reveal a few notable absences. Busy writing the 2011 Christmas Special as this book neared its deadline, Steven Moffat doesn't proffer any additional material based around his five episodes, with those writing duties instead falling to the likes of Rupert Laight, David Llewellyn, Jason Arnopp, and James Goss. It's Arnopp who fills in what happened to the Doctor, Amy, Rory and River in the missing three months between The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, and Goss who fleshes out Madame Vastra's story. Although these are all interesting, witty pieces, it's still a shame that Moffat's distinctive writer's voice is lost from the “extras” elaborating on his stories. Toby Whithouse is likewise absent from story extensions of his ep, though he does reveal that the Doctor's "god complex", discussed in Rita's dialogue, wasn't originally planned as a thematic development of the episode title (p.129).

The biggest absence, though, is that there are no teasers/spoilers included, unlike last year's infamous Dream Lord featurette. Presumably the fact that series seven's filming is later than usual has meant that scripts are not sufficiently locked-down to allow for such things. Or perhaps the production team doesn't want to license fans' spoiler speculation this year? Whatever the reason, this gap is a real pity: last year's mixture of real and fake spoilers generated much online debate. Indeed, this Brilliant Book is extremely proud of 2011's spoilers, repeatedly telling readers that it featured the first appearance of “the only water in the forest is the river”. This is mentioned in the section for The Doctor's Wife (p.59), and referred to again in relation to A Good Man Goes To War (p.86). Wouldn't one mention have been enough? (Or does this count as editorial lobbying for the return of a teaser/spoiler feature next time?). We also learn that one of the Dream Lord's teasers actually inspired The Wedding of River Song, with “502 but never 503” being a fake spoiler from Gareth Roberts... until Steven Moffat read it, liked it, and worked it into his ep 13 script (see p.148). That's genuine dedication for you: a showrunner who deliberately deconstructs the line between true and false spoilers in an official tie-in publication.

Each story from The Christmas Carol to The Wedding of River Song is covered here via a number of regular features. Lee Johnson's full-page illustrations are simply stunning, with the contrast between his Rebel Flesh and Almost People pages being especially striking, whilst his compositions for The Doctor's Wife and The Wedding of River Song are also stand-out artworks. Through no fault of his own, though, David Bailey's story synopses feel like fourteen pages of filler. They are always elegantly written, but are nevertheless slightly coy about revealing episode endings – will anyone reading this book not have seen the relevant TV episodes? – and they don't really “add value” in the way that most other contents do. The “Where Have I Seen?” sidebars about guest stars also won't be of much worth to dedicated fans. And the feature has to be valiantly stretched to cover The Girl Who Waited, where we 'learn' about guest star Karen Gillan. Perhaps dropping this for one story would have been reasonable, but editor Clayton Hickman opts for consistency and (comedic) completism over common sense. That's genuine fandom for you: an editor who deliberately deconstructs the line between regulars and guest stars in an official tie-in publication.

A few features are written from the Doctor's perspective, including a hilarious job application to Sanderson & Grainger penned by Roberts and Hickman. This plays with next year's story possibilities by stressing that the Doctor is now officially and historically “dead”, meaning that his presence (in this very title) shouldn't be publicised. And another highlight is Mark Gatiss's return to writing for Simon Callow's Charles Dickens, as we discover how Dickens makes use of Twitter when time freezes at 5:02pm. These, along with Gaiman's "Planet of the Rain Gods" comic strip, are fixed points of greatness in this fine tome.

There's also a smattering of behind-the-scenes material, much of which focuses on monster-making or on interviewing the series regulars. The non-fiction side of things sometimes feels like a mash-up of Doctor Who Magazine and Doctor Who Confidential. Perhaps if the latter isn't restored to BBC Three then its brand could be continued in hardback annual form? But a wider mix of non-fiction material would also be welcome; Jason Arnopp's interview with director Toby Haynes strikes an unusual note by diverging from writer/actor/Neill Gorton quotes. There's very little Executive Producer presence here, for instance: couldn't the Brilliant Book have tracked down Beth Willis or Piers Wenger for a 'Brilliant Look Back at their Brilliant Memories of the Show'? Instead, silence falls somewhat when the question of exec-production is asked.

And given that I've already seen this title mercilessly strip-mined for news “exclusives” on the Interweb, here's one of my favourite Moffat soundbites (p.149):
Brilliant Book 2012: And finally: Doctor who? Care to give us any clues?
Steven Moffat: No. [The interview sidebar ends].
You can almost imagine the Digital Spy headline now: “Showrunner Says No Clue on Who”. In fact, Digital Spy is itself gently lampooned across the pages following Moffat's terse negative, where James Goss entertains by creating some Ceefax-style “Analogue Spy” stories. This feature, in particular, blends great design with sparkling content, but it should be said that one of the consistent strengths of the Brilliant Book 2012 – as last year – lies in its beautiful design, layout, and illustrations.

Although the range of non-fiction doesn't quite satisfy, and in an ideal world it'd be good to have all the TV writers contributing new fiction (as well as a proper section of series seven spoilers), this volume remains a highlight of the Doctor Who publishing calendar, despite only being in its second year. Whether or not its fiction is strictly canonical, The Brilliant Book 2012 is often informative, sometimes educational, and always entertaining.

Purchase from our Amazon store.




The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Curse of Clyde LangerBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 11 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 5 - The Curse of Clyde Langer
Written by Phil Ford
Directed by Ashley Way
Broadcast on CBBC- 10th - 11th October 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

Given Sky's recent introduction, you might be forgiven for pondering whether Clyde's role in The Sarah Jane Adventures is quite what it once was; he no longer has Luke around as a buddy, and Rani seems more likely to act as a mentor to Sky. Clyde's place in this new incarnation of The Sarah Jane Adventures seems more tenuous than ever before... making it pretty much the perfect time for this sort of story. Because here we get the chance to affirm Clyde Langer's importance to Sarah Jane and Rani, as well as Sky herself cleverly being written as Clyde's main supporter. In essence, these two episodes work extremely well to cement the new team.

We open with Clyde appearing to speak directly to camera, immediately linking us more strongly than usual to the character, and drawing us into identifying with his eventual plight. We begin with a fairly light tone, however, with gags about the fictional character of Suzy June Jones, Alien Slayer, and what must surely be a deliberate homage to The Unearthly Child/Remembrance of the Daleks in the form of Clyde's textbook on the French Revolution. Starting with in-jokes and the poisson sky also provides a counterpoint to later, darker events, giving this story a real sense of light and shade.

But it's Clyde's rapid descent into homelessness that forms the crux of Phil Ford's script. Setting up two puzzles – the totem pole curse and the Night Dragon disappearances – allows these to be effectively contrasted. Whilst one is fantastical, the other is simply a misunderstanding of ordinary life on the streets. Ellie Faber's world may seem like a case for Sarah Jane and the gang, but its mysteries ultimately belong to a different genre: another world where names are taken from posters and pizza boxes, and where identities can shift and change and get worn down without any need for curses or aliens. 

Lily Loveless is excellent as Ellie, although Clyde does seem to build a new life for himself rather rapidly, something which slightly takes the edge off episode two's representations of loss. And of course Ellie suffers the curse of the non-regular character, unable to be integrated into Clyde's usual life of family and friends.

The magical power of naming is referenced by this story's title – poor, unfortunate Clyde Langer – but culture is just as important here as naming. Children's television drama might not often focus directly on questions of culture, but that's what Phil Ford aims for. It's London's "Museum of Culture" which houses the creepily dangerous totem pole (itself a sort of “storybook” according to Sarah Jane), while Clyde's interest in the artefact is explained by his love of art. The fragility of culture is later emphasized when Clyde has to use one of his comic book sketches to get a fire going. And the strength of culture as a connection between people is finally restored by Clyde's portrait of Ellie – a work of art that links him to his memories and feelings. Art even offers a possible way off the streets for 'Ellie' and 'Enrico Box', with Clyde suggesting that he can draw for tourists at Covent Garden. References to art and culture are threaded through both episodes: culture is both threat and comfort, a storehouse of ancient powers and a source of present-day hopes. Homelessness might be the story's obvious central topic, but woven through this are quickfire sketches of culture's importance, and of how art and stories and names and belonging can all make life worth living.

There's another vital ingredient, though: reason. Sky continues to ask questions and pick at Clyde's absence because no-one can give her a good enough reason for their sudden new patterns of behaviour. “Psychophonic programming” means that Sarah Jane, Rani, and Clyde's mother have all started to act irrationally, and so Sky keeps on looking for a reason and a proper explanation, like an inquisitive child who can't ever stop asking “why?”

This is a very strong story, made up of striking images such as the fish storm and the animated totem pole, while Daniel Anthony puts in yet another outstanding, charismatic performance, and insistent incidental music helps build a feeling of exotic danger. The Curse of Clyde Langer suggests that there are real limits to what Sarah Jane's gang can achieve – they can defeat aliens but not London's alien domain of homelessness. But it also reinforces values of culture and reason, showing The Sarah Jane Adventures at its most enlightening. Phil Ford hits a definite high point with this tale, and I hope it won't be long until we see his work again in the many worlds of Doctor Who(assuming his name hasn't mysteriously blazed with a special effects' glow and vanished from all credits). 
 




The Sarah Jane Adventures: SkyBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 5 - Sky
Written by Phil Ford
Directed by Ashley Way
Broadcast on CBBC- 3rd October 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

Watching this story is an odd experience, because it's a re-launch of sorts that can't help but play out in the shadow of Elisabeth Sladen's untimely passing. As a result, there's a sense that although new story possibilities and new character dynamics are set up, we already know that these won't – in fact can't – really be developed or explored beyond the next few episodes. Sky is concerned with establishing a future for the series, but it is one which will never properly come to pass.

The story begins and closes with a voice-over from Sarah – “we're a part of the universe too, and we really aren't alone... life here can be an adventure too” – bringing to mind the structure and sentiments of Invasion of the Bane. Likewise, the eventual reveal of just who introduced baby Sky to Miss Smith also draws on the programme's history, while successfully leaving a greater mystery hanging in the air. Plus we get the added bonus of a return appearance from Floella Benjamin as Professor Celeste Rivers, suggesting that The Sarah Jane Adventures has fully and definitively grown into its own continuity: a Sarahverse intertwined with the Doctor's own Whoniverse.

Phil Ford makes excellent use of Rani's parents as a comic counterpoint to the more dramatic proceedings, though we never do get the punchline to “how many comedy headmasters does it take to change a lightbulb?” Episode one in particular contains many light-hearted moments; Clyde's turn as a children's entertainer is inspired, with his rustle/Russell joke surely being a sly shout-out to creator Russell T. Davies. And Professor Rivers' “wait for me, I'm in wellingtons!” is also a well-judged twist on what could otherwise have been a generic chase sequence. Despite her own scientific knowledge and professional standing, Celeste isn't above pretending to be a Sarah Jane-style adventurer; the glee of her “zap, zap” play-acting shows how inspiring Sarah's adventures can be. It's a tiny detail of Benjamin's performance, but it captures in microcosm the zest for life's adventures that has always been at the heart of this series.

Leaving Sinead Michael's first appearance as Sky until the episode one cliffhanger gives the story a strong kick into its second half, although the child-as-weapon idea seems very similar to A Good Man Goes To War. The parallel suggests that Sarah Jane and Who production teams may have become less cohesively engaged with one another by this point, but nonetheless Michael turns in a creditable performance. Sky is understandably a little limited in character terms, with much of her dialogue involving not understanding things, but presumably the next few stories will build on what is a promising debut.

One missed opportunity is the fact that there's never any doubt over Miss Myers' villainy thanks to her almost cartoonish costuming and depiction. I would have welcomed slightly more ambivalence; the script could have created greater mystery over whether or not Sky was actually being protected from an alien war by her mother. Instead, Miss Myers is little more than a caricatured maniac; the sort of anti-Sarah that we've seen before in the guise of various lady villains. Episode two illustrates how giving Sarah Jane a daughter in Luke's place has the potential to make the show far more directly and obviously female-focused, with Rani realising that she needs to become a source of fashion tips (“Ranipedia!”), whilst the story's resolution involves Sky having to choose between her different 'mothers'.

Prefigured by Professor Rivers' “zap, zap”, it's game-play which becomes crucial to saving the day when Clyde (a tad implausibly) shuts down a nuclear reactor in a sort of “big arcade game.” Playing Mario becomes a rehearsal for the story's heroics, although Clyde's skill has to be augmented by Rani's knowledge of the light spectrum. So it's ROYGBIV to the rescue, as textbook learning and gaming are equally called upon.

“There's always something more amazing to come”, Sarah Jane Smith tells us as the 'next time...' trailer starts up. That makes a good mission statement for a series opener, but as a viewer it's hard not to reflect on the loss and the pain of endings as well as the hope and pleasure of new beginnings. A recent Radio Times interview with Elisabeth Sladen's daughter Sadie Miller called this a “tribute series”, and it is partly that. But as the first new story screened after Lis's death, Sky also becomes something more than the sum of its parts. It's a tale of optimism coloured by fans' and audiences' real world sadness; a struggle between fiction and fact as much as between fleshkind and metalkind.

Reminding audiences of the value of child's play and playfulness, The Sarah Jane Adventures has been, and continues to be, a testament to the BBC's public service remit as well as to the popularity and charm of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah. Although Doctor Who is sometimes referred to as “the mothership” or “parent” show, perhaps SJA's focus on stories of maternal care make it the true 'mothership' of the franchise. Welcome back, Sarah Jane; you're as sparky and as wonderful as ever.




Doctor Who: The Wedding of River Song (Review 2)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 2 October 2011 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who: Series Six - The Wedding of River Song
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Jeremy Webb
Broadcast on BBC One - 1 October 2011
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode.

Including series six's punctuation this is the third finale from Steven Moffat, and strong patterns can be seen to emerge. Firstly, the showrunner revels in misdirection – setting up loyal, fan audiences to interpret details in a particular way, e.g. expecting that the Doctor will tell River his name as part of a Time Lord wedding ceremony, only to find we've been well and truly hoodwinked. Advance rumours and spoilers also indicated that the Daleks would turn up, and they do. Sort of. But rather than the ultimate evil (or even the ultimate wedding party gatecrasher), this Dalek is just a stepping stone to information about the Silence, again misdirecting audiences. Dorium Maldovar's involvement offers yet more sleight of hand; how on earth can a previously beheaded character return? Easily enough, of course, if it's accepted that talking heads can make for fun rather than dull TV.

An undoubted master in misdirection, Moffat also delights in opposing audience expectations. Having set up crucial puzzles and questions he immediately undercuts them. Last year we were all wondering how the Doctor could escape from the perfect prison, only to find he'd managed it before the episode 13 title sequence rolled. This year, we're primed to expect mysteries over how the Doctor can avoid a fixed point in time... and what we get instead looks like the opposite; a tale in which that very fixed point has to be safely restored.

Some fan knowledge is rewarded rather than opposed, though; it's hard not to view all the eyepatches as part of a Nicholas Courtney tribute, with one of Doctor Who's most infamous behind-the-scenes anecdotes finally getting in front of the camera. Such a feeling is reinforced by the Doctor's forlorn phone call to the Brig; even time travellers are sometimes too late. Moffat allows his fandom to shine through, creating a moment of media-pro fan fiction. This is a brand of fan fiction aimed at professionally commemorating the programme's long history, its own fixed points of reference, and its own markers of painful loss. In an episode where time is frozen, its real world passing is most certainly not forgotten.

The ultimate enemy here isn't the Doctor's death, though, or even the Brigadier's heartbreaking absence; it's the end of storytelling itself. Cheating a fixed point means all of time happening at once, stuck in the same day and time, over and over. It's a world which sustains surreal special effects and wonderful juxtapositions, making for some eyecatching, unusual TV drama. But it's also a world in which no more stories can be lived out: cause and effect, sequences of events – what we usually call plots and narratives – no longer seem possible. In part, this is a story-arc finale threatening a finale to all storytelling.

Only the Soothsayer can bring back the pleasures of a tale properly told. Fittingly enough, given that this is the culmination of an arc, The Wedding of River Song is fixated on acts of storytelling and stories. While the Doctor battles against history's cancellation, Steven Moffat plays games with the audience by exploiting our desire to find out all the answers: the Doctor begins to tell Emperor Winston Churchill his tale, while Dorium also promises an account of great import. These yarn-spinners, and their insistent delays and deferrals, deliberately tease the audience. And the false ending before River visits Amy does more of the same, playing a further game with our desire to find out what really happened.

Despite its focus on acts of storytelling, I'd argue that The Wedding of River Song isn't really that interested in answers. It gives some, sure, but almost resentfully, and because it has to. The Teselecta's use is somewhat anticlimactic, if not eminently guessable as soon as it appears. It's not really the point – the point is how we get there, and what new questions can be posed, because as a showrunner Steven Moffat seems far more interested in the transformation of Doctor Who's possibilities. Series five's finale combined the Doctor's opponents in a monster mash; series six part one concluded by combining characters and races in the Doctor's army, and now six part two combines all of Earth's history. Or rather, Earth history largely as depicted in the Moffat era. It's Victory of the Daleks meets Cold Blood meets The Impossible Astronaut; a demented mash-up of episodes previously overseen by this production team, with just a (Dickensian) dash of the old regime. Each of Moffat's finales has sought to mix up and transform usual ways of thinking about Doctor Who – what if all the monsters decided to team up? What if the Doctor brought together a team of fighters? And this time, what if different episodes teamed up? Like a fan remixing Who, Moffat performs transformative work on the show, but by doing so, he transforms his own prior labours as showrunner. This is Doctor Who as a full-on game of self-referencing and self-sampling.

Truth be told, though, The Wedding of River Song is pretty useless as a whodunnit. It's really an anti-whodunnit, a skilled exercise in suspense when we know all along who dies and who the killer is. It's pure storytelling: constant interruptions and colourful incidents that happen to get in the way of an ending for 45 minutes or so. And as with The Big Bang and A Good Man Goes To War, this finale again offers a breakneck blend of misdirection, opposition, fan fiction, and transformation. To coin a playful acronym, these things are a finale's m.o.f.f.a.t. quotient.







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