The Sarah Jane Adventures, series 4: Death of The Doctor

Hurling logic out the window:

The good, the bad and the Davies

After watching the first half of the "Death of the Doctor" I wrote in a fit of giddy optimism that, "Strong on close interpersonal observation, not so good with dramatic logic, Russel T Davies' return to the Doctor Who universe is a qualified triumph."

If only it were so. Having now seen the follow-up, I need to re-write my lede and reconsider my larger thesis.

"Death of the Doctor" represents the best and the worst of Davies, but unfortunately, while the Good RTD is mostly ascendant in the first half of the diptych, the Bad RTD emerges all-too-typically triumphant in the second.

In Part One, we saw the perfectly-observed character moments, the witty asides that serve both to release dramatic tension and to ratchet it up a level, and the sort of cliff-hanger that can leave a grown man (well, this one) giggling with anticipation for the sequel.

Part One also provided the forced humour that breaks established character; the shameless emotional manipulation that often works but that leaves the sensitive viewer feeling cheap and dirty afterwards; the plot elements the experienced RTD-watcher fears will lead to nonsense when explained in Part Two and dangling plot-threads galore.

RTD needs a plot-oriented collaborator to slap down his Inner Fanboy. (Spoilers ahead; click at your own risk.)

Self-indulgence, they name is Russel T Davies

Nostalgia time: Tom Baker, still a classic Doctor.
Nostalgia now: Katy Manning and Elizabeth Sladen.

The first minute and a half of "Death of the Doctor" shows Davies at his best and his worst and pre-capitulates everything that lies ahead.

We open on a finely-observed "family" scene, Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rahni in the attic, teleconferencing with Luke away at Oxford. Luke gently teases Sarah Jane and brutally skewers Clyde's insecurities — very much like teenage boys do in real life, skating a perilous course between "fun" and "vicious" gamesmanship. (Daniel Anthony as Clyde, incidentally, seems this series to be turning into a real actor right before our admiring eyes.)

That dense, nearly-perfect scene lasts about 30 seconds before Bad RTD roars up in his UNIT army trucks, jackboots and gun-toting entourage on a quiet residential street. All to, er ... well, to knock on Sarah Jane's door and have Colonel Karim tell her The Doctor's been killed and does she want to attend the funeral?

The fake emergency is all-too-typical of Davies' disregard for internal story-logic in favour of pointless set-piece. But that's Davies in a nutshell. Brilliant character-development one moment, big-footed oaf the next.

Respect your audience, damn it!

Why "Death of the Doctor" fails as drama

It's tempting to think RTD doesn't understand science fiction, or that he holds it in contempt, but he spends too much time in the field to believe it. It's more like his fanboy enthusiasms get the better of his inner writer and so, too often, he forgets that a good story needs internal logic.

  • The Shansheeth look great; who knew I was sick of cgi? But ...
    • An entire race of "intergalactic undertakers"? Really?
    • In casual contact with UNIT (even though just last week Sarah Jane and company were mind-wiping folks to keep alien contact a secret? REALLY?

  • The Clyde/Doctor body transfer. Why? Sure, Clyde got to visit another world, but he didn't get to do anything there. The whole thing was pointless. The Doctor could have conducted his switcheroo from Piccadilly Circus for all the dramatic difference it would have made; so too with scene with The Doctor, Jo and Sarah Jane. Why not (*ahem) a school cafeteria?

  • Why does UNIT's heating system go all the way up to "Broil"?

  • Jo's grandson. Among a cast nothing to do, he really had nothing to do.

  • The ventilation shaft. We could see there was lots of room to turn around. Even if there wasn't, why didn't The Doctor hop down into the trap for a sec and turn around then? Bum jokes are fine, but don't insult our intelligence!

Typically, Good RTD is more in evidence through episode five than Bad, but the latter takes control in episode six, spoiling a pretty exciting Part One with a nonsensical and anti-climactic let-down of a Part Two.

The plot makes no more sense than UNIT's method of delivering bad news. It seems The Doctor's body was discovered "10,000 light-years away" by a race of, er, "intergalactic undertakers" called the Shansheeth (who just happen to look exactly like human-sized — *cough* — talking vultures). Sarah Jane doesn't believe it but agrees to attend, taking Clyde and Rahni with her.

Do the Shansheeth have to look exactly like vultures? (Still, the lack of cgi is a pleasant change-of-pace.)

(Good RTD re-emerges — almost for the last time — before the gang is off to UNIT headquarters. Rahni's talk with her father about death and how to help a friend in mourning is sensitive and realistic, and both evokes and advances our knowledge of a familiar character in only a few lines).

Then we're back to Bad RTD's frenetic ado about nearly-nothing, all rapid-fire violins and casual expository dialogue ("We've got a moonbase?!?") before our nostalgia guest-star makes her entrance.

Sarah Jane's immediate predecessor on Doctor Who back in the early 1970s, Jo Grant was before my time, so her appearance here provided for me only a reminder that The Sarah Jane Adventures takes place in a larger universe, one with a complex and convoluted history. Jo herself worked reasonably nicely for me, if maybe a little overplayed on the scatter-brained side by Katy Manning.

And Good RTD is once more momentarily ascendant. You don't need to have seen Jo's adventures for Manning's hurt upon learning that The Doctor visited Sarah Jane (more than once!), but not her, to be effective.

But Jo never has much to do either — and neither, really, does anyone else (not even The Doctor, come to think of it). "Death of The Doctor" is an air-filled fanboy's confection of a few layers of sugary nostalgia on a scaffolding of loud music and frenetic jump-cuts rather than story. And so quite a lot of talent and effort are wasted on a slapdash script.

The Shansheeth are never very scary, their motivations are unconvincing and the resolution is yet another variation on Bad RTD's favourite Tinkerbell routine.

Since the program is called The Sarah Jane Adventures you might think it would be Sarah Jane who'd think of that solution (or even save her own skin); or Rahni or Clyde or even daffy old Jo Grant, as the honoured guest star. You might expect that, but you'd be wrong.

It's up to The Doctor to provide the risible solution because apparently his companions are too dumb to do it one their own.

Then, the all-too-easy victory won, Davies takes us through another round of teary farewells that take way too long and try too hard to tug at our atrophied heartstrings.

Grateful as I am to Davies for having successfully resurrected the Who franchise, it's time he did himself and us a favour let some real writers have at it for a while. I'm tired of having my intelligence insulted and my emotions played like the strings of a fifty dollar guitar.

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