The Sarah Jane Adventures, series 4: Lost In Time
Where have all the white men gone?
This week's episodes of my favourite children's adventure program might have been the best of the year so far. More interestingly, to me at least, is just how far outside of the standard adventure paradigm The Sarah Jane Adventures has ventured, without any great on-screen fuss or muss.
Somehow, a program about "fighting aliens" has dared to feature a more-than-sixty year-old woman and two non-white teenagers as the "defenders of the Earth as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
I don't know about you, but I think it's worthy of some note.
Not many plot-spoilers, but some possibly uncomfortable (I hope not offensive) thoughts inside. Click for more..
Great big elephant, really tight corner:
The Sarah Jane Adventures dances with diversity or, Where have all the white men gone?
"People like you disgust me. You hate and you fear anyone who isn't the same as you. But we're British, and we will fight you every step of the way. And in the end, though it will cost lives — lots of lives — we'll crush you lot." — Clyde Langer gives some Nazis what for.
"Lost in Time" easily rivals "The Nightmare Man" as this season's best episode (so far). "Nightmare" was more frightening, but "Lost in Time" suffered almost no Part Two let-down and — but for some uniformed villains of notably sub-obtimum intelligence — the plot-line(s) were resolved with a minimum of hand-waving or logic-lapses.
This week, our heroes investigate a report of alien activity that leads them to the enigmatic "Mr. Smalley" (played by the black actor Cyril Nri — yes, I refer to Nri's skin-colour; bear with me, there's a method in my crassness), who tells them that "Time itself is under threat," from, er, "chronostene, a metal forged within the time vortex with the power to re-shape destiny," three molded pieces of which have been "lodged at key points in the Earth's history" and — nat'ch! — only Sarah Jane and company can travel back to retrieve them and save the day!
Less than four minutes in, with a few whirling gestures and snaps of his fingers, Mr. Smalley opens a time window and hurls our triumvirate into three separate eras, one where Sarah Jane must solve a haunting with the help of a (female — as with the skin-colour, bear with me) ghost-hunter in late Victorian England; another where Clyde must foil a Nazi invasion of England in 1941; and one in which Rani must save Lady (Queen) Jane Grey in 1553. All three, of course, must also locate and retrieve the mysterious artifacts.
It's not giving away much to tell you that the artifacts are recovered and that the Earth is saved. The pleasures come from the journey, not the destination, and this week's have plenty of unexpected twists and turns, including a surprising definition of "success" in two of the three threads. (And be ready to stand up and cheer when Clyde gives the Nazis what-for.)
Let's start with Clyde's story: 21st century black kid, tossed back to 1941. His almost matter-of-fact acceptance by young George maybe stretches credulity a bit, but not too much; George was dealing with Nazi invaders — and besides, not everyone in the past is an out-and-out bigot. Still, George certainly notices Clyde's race and, more to the point, the Nazi commander refers to him, with no small degree of contempt, as a "Negro".
One commentator said it was "brave" for a children's show to directly confront the fact of Clyde's skin colour, and maybe it was. Even that mild epithet was a bit of shock and certainly gets across the message that — to some people at least — colour matters.
The other two stories are less overt in their subversion of adventure story tropes, but subversive they still are.
|"Quite a statement — for a Negro."|
Before anyone accuses me of being a "self-hating white nice guy" (or SHWiNGTM), let me explain that some of my favourite movies and television shows feature white guys in heroic roles and I am by no means advocating their complete elimination from popular culture. Okay?
So no comments about the evils of quotas or the plight of the poor, hard-done by white male actor; maybe we can discuss that when they near "only" half the leading roles of your average Hollywood blockbuster. Until then, take your passive-aggressive whinging elsewhere.
Sarah Jane's ghost and ghost-hunter are both female and there isn't a grown male involved in her thread at all. Rani finds herself ensconced in the Tower of London, a lady in waiting to "The Nine Days' Queen". Her tale includes, unless I missed something, one male guard who might have had a single line of dialogue.
Think about The Sarah Jane Adventures in general, about this fourth series in particular, and about "Lost in Time" specifically.
To whit: where have all the (white) men gone?
Without preaching and without any apparent signal to the audience that it is doing anything but telling Doctor Who-style adventure stories for kids, The Sarah Jane Adventures has become that rare program, that not only passes the Bechdel Test just about every time out, but that aces it.
Further, The Sarah Jane Adventures features "people of colour" as two-thirds of its main cast, with non-white actors playing guest roles as heroes or villains at least as often as not. With Luke now relegated to brief and infrequent video-conferences, our heroes — in a mainstream adventure program! — are a 62 year-old (white) woman, and one brown and one black teenager.
One would like to think we've gotten to the point where such casting isn't worthy of note, but of course it's only 2010 — and that's not the world in which any of us live. One doesn't have to see a lot of movies or watch much television to realize that women and "minorities" almost always play secondary roles in those fictional worlds — that aren't soap operas, at least. The Bechdel Test has been around a quarter of a century but the vast majority of films still fail it and I have no doubt an analogous test for non-white characters would have a similar failure rate.
|The mysteriious Shopkeeper apparently picked up some props from the estate of the Wicked Witch of the West.|
Briefly, to pass the Bechdel Test, a film or television program must include,
You might be surprised by how few films or television programs manage to pass it.
So there is something remarkable about the casting decisions made for The Sarah Jane Adventures, and, maybe, for its continued popularity despite them. ("Remarkable" doesn't necessarily mean "important" or "game-changing"; if memory serves, The Cosby Show was not only the number one program in the United States, but in South Africa as well.) It would be interesting to learn whether the current make-up was something that just kind of happened through genuine colour-blind casting, or if Russell T Davies and company achieved it deliberately. Either way the result is the proverbial breath of fresh air to these jaded, 45 year-old white guy's eyes of mine.
I hope to hell other producers take note of The Sarah Jane Adventures' success and note that the white male paradigm isn't the only road to commercial success. And further note that stories staring women and/or people of colour needn't always be about the fact of sex or race. Though I am a white guy, I feel quite sure that women and people of colour don't spend all their time contemplating their melanin content or estrogen levels.
Clidey's Henry V speech to the Nazis in this episode aside, The Sarah Jane Adventures mostly does just that, ignoring the sex and race of its characters, but never (I think) denying them, instead treating them as essentially superficial characteristics, like eye-colour or height. And concentrating instead on scaring hell out of its younger audience while delighting its older one in slightly more subtle ways.
I think this is largely a good thing, but I'm open to argument. Does setting your story in a naively post-racial society — when the real world is quite a ways from that happy condition — provide a positive step towards that post-bigotry world, or does it just sweep all the ugly stuff under the rug?