Part 1 / BBC1 - 20th October 2008 - 4.35pm
Part 2 / CBBC - 20th October 2008 - 5.15pm
Ensuring we don't forget the 'destiny in the stars' theme that seems to be dominating the series this year, the first part opens with an atmospheric pan down from the stars in the heavens to the shadowy, moonlit house of Martin Trueman. It's a really strong opening, visually accomplished, setting out the themes of the story, with Trueman (the clue is in the surname, folks) becoming not the true man but a poor con-artist possessed by astral forces. Gareth Roberts' scripts postulate that the signs of the zodiac are in fact the remnants of of some pre-Big Bang force out to conquer our universe. It's about belief in something that can't be defined. But for those of us who are familiar with Russ Abbot's light entertainment career (that can't be defined either) it has a bizarre subtext about loss of celebrity and celebrity obsession with the occult and fame. Think Sally Morgan, Star Psychic meets The Christmas Invasion and you'll perfectly get the measure of this.
...when I was a teenager you wouldn't find me dead at anything remotely to do with star signs, psychic readings and Russell Grant.Abbot is actually very effective as Trueman in the pre-titles sequence. He starts out as a slightly downtrodden nobody and once irradiated by an astral fireball he's transformed into a scenery chewing, fame grabbing monster as he plonks a hand on customer Cheryl's shoulder and turns her into his henchwoman. All one can say is that Russ certainly believes in method acting. A great opening but it's later undermined by his rather, shall we say, enthusiastic approach to acting in the rest of the episode. Now, I don't know about the kids of today but when I was a teenager you wouldn't find me dead at anything remotely to do with star signs, psychic readings and Russell Grant. So, I find it puzzling that three intelligent people like Clyde, Rani and Luke had nothing better to do than go and see a psychic show starring Russ Abbot. Er, don't they go to Slipknot gigs like the others in their peer group? Gareth Roberts is asking us to believe these three characters would go to something as naff as this. Next, he'll be telling me the star signs and zodiac shit is, like, real. It's a horribly contrived set up, and you know the whole business with Luke not having a birthday will be the lynch-pin to the story's resolution but it does give us some nice interplay between Knight, Mohindra and Anthony as they enter the theatre. All three are engaging as ever. May I also just say that a lot of this is bigged up by Sam Watts' lovely music score too and it manages to give the episode a little bit of edge where it's really needed.
Cheryl's husband Stuart turns up and his worries about what's happened to her help to build up the mystery. I half expected him to turn up again but he just flounces off to call the police and we never see him again. Did he call the cops? Anyway, in the theatre, our Russ makes his entrance in a dazzling white suit and slips perfectly into the role of cheesy host (or is that milky? Certainly got the right colour suit on for it) and he's coming over as the perfect piece of casting for this, so it seems. It may be somewhat implausible that our teenage gang would spend their Friday night at such an event but all the stuff with Russ...sorry...Trueman (so hard to tell them apart) talking to Rani and her family is quite charming. And when he gets to Sarah Jane we even get a flashback to School Reunion into the bargain. Sarah smells a rat, of course, and Team SJA start their investigation into this too good to be true-man. (See what I did there...oh, please yourselves)
World domination through television broadcasts. Now, where have we seen that before.Oh, dear. The Celestial Deirdre has had an accident and Trueman gets an offer of ITV3 proportions, or would Psychic Planet be on Living, do you think? I do hope we get to see Deirdre in some kind of sequel, because it sounds like she's had enough of Ken Barlow and divides her time between Weatherfield and Acton in a side career as a celebrity psychic. And then Gareth Roberts uses that rotten joke about people falling downstairs in bungalows. Do they even have bungalows in Coronation Street? Where were we...oh, yes. World domination through television broadcasts. Now, where have we seen that before. Whilst Russ Abbot commences his plan to devour the entire scenery, there is time for that very sweet little scene where Luke frets about not having a birthday, not enjoying a childhood. Tommy Knight is just heartbreaking in the way he handles that scene and he's always superb playing against Lis Slden too. A nicely wriiten and performed scene that makes a bit of a mockery of the rather overblown stuff that follows and keeps the development of the Luke character at the forefront.
The problem at this point is that we're getting slightly too much info dump and not enough actual drama. All the stuff about the zodiac and stars as Luke natters away to Mr. Smith is hardly compelling stuff. And Abbot goes and carves himself a massive slice of ham when he locks horns with Lis Sladen. 'Oooooh, scan away', he says with an overt flourish of theatrics. I know he's supposed to be this hyper light entertainment figure but this scene is the key moment when 'hyper' becomes the style of his performance and, for me, the exaggerated and mannered acting destroys any belief we had in the character and the way ordinary old Martin has been transformed. He was doing so well but from here Abbot keeps the stage persona going even when he's off stage and in scenes when you'd expect him to perform the role with far more subtlety. It's a big performance but it's not a particularly good one. 'And, pooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr liddddddddddddddlllllllllllllllllllle Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaani...' gets loads of twitching eyes and a very restless jaw just for emphasis. It makes Richard Briers performance in Paradise Towers look like a fucking Robert De Niro masterclass.
Clyde falls under Trueman's spell and is sent off, possessed, to kill Sarah. Get the mad eyes on Russ Abbot as he gifts the ancient lights to poor old Clyde. Even his optic nerves are munching their way through Upper Boat. Meanwhile, that clever Rani reckons the ancient lights are from another universe with different laws of physics. Or is that a universe with different psychics? Maybe, that's where Doris Stokes went. Physics, psychics...all starting to sound the same to me. Lots and lots of info dump again that isn't particularly dramatic. Never mind, we get the Psychic Channel, Trueman throwing energy bolts and a direct challenge to Sarah. And then Clyde turns up to carry out Trueman's instructions. Director Michael Kerrigan puts together a fantastic cliffhanger, rapidly intercutting between Trueman on the telly, Clyde going all messianic, Mr. Smith doing a number from Silence In The Library and Team SJA caught in a force ten gale. Phew. Hats off to the cast and Kerrigan for making such a lumpen script workable and could someone now give Russ Abbot his tranquilisers and get him to calm down in time for Part Two.
Over to CBBC for Part Two. Now, I don't mind a bit of sympathetic magic in stories like this. Gareth Roberts' idea of using the signs of the zodiac and the alignment of stars as symbols to directly affect environment and people is a tried and tested fantasy device. Look at the blood control idea in The Christmas Invasion. Go even further back and you'll see a similar set up in that classic childrens' drama Children Of The Stones. They are all essentially about the same thing - that one can influence something based on its relationship to another thing without any apparent causal link between the two. So the stone circles and black holes in Children Of The Stones are like the zodiac symbols and stellar alignment in this.
All this story can do is position itself within the new religions of celebrity pop culture and 24 hour rolling news.The star signs and zodiac stuff is all about 'participation mystique' - they are today's version of ritualistic cave paintings. Roberts, however, feels the need to explain why sympathetic magic 'works' in this universe because otherwise it is still the mumbo-jumbo that we associate with pre-rationalist, primitive modes of thinking. He doesn't quite achieve that and perhaps shouldn't have attempted to rationalise it. The notion that a star-sign can be used to hypnotise the populace of Ealing and Acton doesn't quite work because Roberts put in all that alternate universe, pre-Big Bang alien energy/science explanation. It's charming but it's about as effective as trying to rationalise karma, good luck or doing a rain dance. The Masque Of Mandragora has a much better handle on the scientific rationale versus primitive magic discussion because it positioned its debate within the flux of the Renaissance. All this story can do is position itself within the new religions of celebrity pop culture and 24 hour rolling news. It's a nice touch that Trinity Wells of the ubiquitous AMNN service gets possessed. Mind you, it's a wonder the poor love hasn't checked herself into a hospital by now.
I like the ideas but the trouble with Part Two is that there are interminably, lengthy scenes of threat and counter threat between Sarah Jane and Martin Trueman that, quite frankly, commit the cardinal sin of being boring. Abbot's twitchy and arch performance and Sladen's trembly, throat wobbling of the week spends nearly ten minutes of the running time taking place via a television screen in her attic. It is resolved in that quite effective confrontation between Sarah and Clyde but it's static and confined to one set. The pace seriously flags. It only starts to pick up again when the story actually moves to the theatre and the lead characters all split up within the narrative. The scene where Clyde convinces the circle of hypnotised chosen ones to allow him into the theatre again decides the idea that all the zodiac and stars stuff is bunkum (the chocolate bar jokes) and yet suggests a power beyond the rational.
The threat from Trueman is framed like the false-jeopardy of a run down quiz show. Something slighty tricky, slighty tatty that you'd find on Challenge TV, complete with revolving game board, rather than it actually being about the fate of the universe. It's as underwhelming as the low-rent performance from Russ Abbot. The ending, Trueman and Clyde facing off to Sarah, Rani and Luke rushing to turn off the power supply, should work. But it just ends up as a bunch of people talking to each other in a theatre. The dialogue between Sarah and Trueman, where he basically explains the whole plot and she puts across a counter argument lasts for nearly two minutes. It's two minutes of director Kerrigan cutting between Abbot and Sladen and no matter how charismatic you may think they both are this is dull, dull, dull. It's about as threatening and exciting as a lettuce.
Despite a fairly awful performance from Russ Abbot, when it comes to the crunch, it is still very sad when Martin realises that he's been defeated by the virgin Luke.
It finally gets going again when the astral energy arrives on earth and plunges into the theatre, Rani and Luke literally pull the plug and surprise, surprise (the unexpected doesn't hit you between the eyes) Luke realises that he's special because he doesn't have a star sign. And because he wasn't born in the house of Virgo with Uranus rising it means he can defeat the, by now, totally irritating Martin Trueman. However, something strange happens with Trueman too. Despite a fairly awful performance from Russ Abbot, when it comes to the crunch, it is still very sad when Martin realises that he's been defeated by the virgin Luke. It still elicits some sympathy which I find miraculous after Abbot's mangled performance.
There is that sweet coda where Luke does get a birthday date and once again Sladen and Knight show just how natural and effective they are given the opportunity. But in the end, I didn't particularly like this. Definitely the weakest of the stories so far.
Cathode Ray Tube Sarah Jane Adventures Series 2