The Sarah Jane Adventures, series 4: The Empty Planet
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After last week's appalling display of auctorial onanism, writer Gareth Roberts brought The Sarah Jane Adventures back down to (an empty) earth with a welcome return to story as priority one.
"The Empty Planet" won't go down in history as a great Sarah Jane serial, but it should stand out as a good one, with a nice balance between adventure and character development and not too bad a let-down between the cliff-hanging end of Part One and the anti-climactic drop to the ground in Part Two.
This week's episode's set-up is given away by the title, "The Empty Earth". After Mr. Smith notes a mysterious alien energy signal the previous night, Clyde and Rani awake (alone, you 'shippers! Roberts plays with the sexual tension that's developing between Clyde and Rani, but this is still a children's adventure program (thank god!) and not a children's soap opera) to find themselves inhabiting an empty city, apparently the only people left in the entire world (well, in the Bannerman Road neighbourhood, anyway; but in context of the Whoniverse, their deduction isn't too presumptuous).
Nobody home on Bannerman Road
"Last man on earth" is an old science fiction trope, and an even older everychild's fantasy, but it is developed very nicely here. The opening 10 and a half minutes in particular make for a minor masterpiece of effective story-telling, quickly taking the viewer from comfortable familiarity to the eeriness of the familiar made strange.
No monsters or CGI, just subtle sound effects — an eerie wind, subtly foreboding background music — and the "special effect" of clearing a street of people are all it takes to make the viewer share in Clyde and Rani's growing dread. And so also, to admire their ability to master their fears and sit down to figure out what happened, why they alone seem to remain on the planet, and how to bring everyone back.
|'Everybody's gone.' Rani and Clyde look down upon an emptied city.|
That question, "Why us?" lies at the heart of the mystery — and "The Empty Earth" is a mystery more than an adventure story. Even more, it is a character-study of Rani and Clyde themselves. Part One especially is heavy on talk and very light on action, giving centre stage to the thespian talents of Daniel Anthony and Anjli Mohindra.
As has been at hinted before, and much like most of the program's presumed target audience of children and adolescents, for different reasons Clyde and Rani both feel out-of-their-depths when in company of super computers, boy geniuses, robot dogs from the 55th century and (of course) the time-travelling lady from across the road.
Now finding themselves alone with (as it inevitably turns out) the fate of the world in their young hands, they must rely on their own resources, rather than provide support from the sidelines.
And work it out they do (just as inevitably) and, in so doing, we see them learn what we, as viewers, have known for quite a while: Clyde and Rani are both pretty awesome, more than worthy of being Sarah Jane's accomplices in saving the world week after week.
|Yes, it's an actor in a bright yellow suit. So what? It's one of the best television robots I've seen in a while! SJA keeps proving there's a little too much CGI in our world.|
The plot itself is not so good as its character-driven parts, especially in its resolution. Coincidences abound in Tintin-like profusion and the solution itself comes too easily and with a revelation whose subject accepts its implications with far too little doubt for psychological credibility, both all-too-common tropes in the Whoniverse.
This week, we must accept that there is a third person left behind on the earth, who just happens to live within bicycle distance of Bannerman Road; who just happens to come into town when Clyde and Rani do; and who just happens to be too clumsy to escape their notice. And also: advanced robots whose sensors seem to extend only to the visual range. But let it go, let it go. If we can accept that three unarmed teenagers and a middle-aged woman can save the world from alien menaces bristling with advanced weaponry and much malice week after week, we'd better be willing to accept a few other coincidences as well.
This week's story was about character anyway, and in that department Roberts didn't disappoint. Along with Rani and Clyde holding centre stage, we were given a healthy soupçon of Rani/Haresh and Clyde/Carla interaction to remind us the kids have normal lives alongside their extraordinary ones.
So. An excellent and tension filled cliff-hanger followed by a too-easy climax. Par for the SJA course, but performed at a better-than-average level. I don't think too highly of giving stars or letter grades, but somehow B-minus seems appropriate this time out.
Finally, I've seen this episode mentioned as being Sarah Jane lite, but frankly, the whole series thus far has been lacking in Lis Sladen's strangely arch affect, and I miss it — and her — more with each passing episode.