söndag 3 mars 2013

The Sarah Jane Adventures - Doctor Who surrogate™

It's time for objectifying again. While watching a singer in one of Sweden's many Eurovision Song Contest heats (the Swedish final is next week - let's hope we don't send the joker with the diaper), I caught myself murmuring appreciatingly "what a complete muffin". Sadly, he didn't qualify for the final. Never mind - the view was nice while it lasted, and the song was quite catchy too.

The expression "complete muffin" for good-looking male is one I've learned from the Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. After having waited for months for the DVD release of the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas special (for pity's sake, we're in March now!), I finally gave up, overcame my shame in trying on something that has been so clearly labelled as a kids' programme, and ordered the first series of Sarah Jane. I needn't have waited so long. Yes, the storylines are simpler, the setting is earthbound - no leaps in time or space - and the aliens somewhat naffer than in the original, plus Sarah Jane has kid sidekicks rather than adult companions like the Doctor. But the writing is still good, and the spirit is the same as in the original series. No need for a Doctor fan to be ashamed of watching this.

That the spirit of the original is preserved is especially important. This is where the "adult" Torchwood, with its pessimism (even the exuberant Captain Jack seemed down in the mouth), misanthropy and bickering characters failed so miserably. Yes, true, I only saw half a season of Torchwood, but what I've read about it since seems to confirm that this is a series for doom-mongers. Now, Sarah Jane, like Doctor Who, touches on serious issues occasionally, but never lets them spoil your evening. The total impression is life-, earth- and human-affirming. The kid sidekicks are good and bring different skills to the team. Sarah Jane, the ex-companion turned investigative journalist, is an endearing heroine. On the whole, what's not to like?

I've always had a soft spot for the "meet the companion" Doctor Who episodes, and Sarah Jane exploits the same mechanisms in highlighting everyday phenomena that, somewhere in our unconscious, we find a bit weird, if not downright scary. In the first episode - still the best I've seen after the first three adventures - the aliens du jour try to bring humankind down by way of a soft drink, "Bubble Shock". From the first time we see one of the kid sidekicks watching a bright and cheerful commercial for the drink, we get an eerie sense that something isn't right. It pinpoints just how, well, spacey soft-drink commercials can be. All those bouncing, wide-awake youngsters. In the right context, definitely scary, as is the special "Bubble Shock" bus. It's free but requires its passengers to a tour of the soft-drink factory, where they are enticed into drinking free samples by a teenage-heartthrob guide (that's where the "muffin" comes in). Yep, it's a kids' adventure - a bit "Five defeat the aliens" - but a well-thought-out one with shades of the Pied Piper and Hansel and Gretel. I wondered if the bus was an over-the-top detail - would no-one really question a bus that's for free? - but then I read about the Google bus, so, well, I guess it happens.

The other two adventures I've seen so far don't quite measure up to the first one, but are enjoyable just the same, though one contained my least favourite Doctor Who aliens of all time, the Slitheen. The third adventure gave me a slight déjà-vu feeling as it reminded me of the Doctor Who episode "Tooth and Claw", which isn't one of my favourites anyway. Substitute scary monks with scary nuns, werewolf alien for Gorgon alien, Victorian Scotland for modern-day England, and there you are. As a Protestant, I do see how nuns and monks can be perceived as scary - even, sometimes, by Catholics - but one thing I would not accuse them of is switching their allegiances easily. Even in a sci-fi context, it's a bit of a big ask to see them as protecters of a hostile alien entity once, never mind twice. However, Phyllida Law is watchable as the confused old woman in an old people's home who holds the key to the mystery, and let's face it: an old people's home is another vaguely unsettling everyday phenomenon. Think By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie.

The next episode promises to involve laser domes. Again, something just a bit anxiety-inducing - great fun, I'm sure, but I wouldn't be that surprised if aliens were involved in them somehow.