After last week's story expressed the emotional heart of the series, you can forgive Phil Ford for not quite matching its success with The Eternity Trap. It was a hard act to follow. He certainly understands here the importance of striking out with a different tone. And what better way to help him do that than a particularly savvy commando raid on the horror genre toy box. He, and director Alice Troughton, put all their efforts into providing a rich brew of horror and suspense tropes, evoking a sense of pure nostalgia in us silver haired viewers but likely to act as a refresher course in the genre's narrative and visual hooks for the youngsters out there. There's no better way to plant seeds in the minds of the curious and introduce them to the required texts.
Based on this I hope that teens everywhere are Googling The Stone Tape and getting their first introduction to the master of the genre, Nigel Kneale, or their parents are scaring the heck out of them with a first screening of The Shining or The Innocents, or both. A scientific investigation into paranormal phenomena might well be something they've only seen recently on Most Haunted but hopefully the younger audience will get past that dubious association and unearth the genre's own rather prolific stone tape of influences.
The trail is there, from the echoing snatch of Al Bowly singing 'Midnight, The Stars And You' (thanks to The Shining) as Clyde and Rani explore the pavilion and get creeped out by a fountain that starts up of its own accord, the almost subliminal shots of the Marchwood children standing in the corridors (The Shining again), to the wet footprints and ghostly laughter that reminds you of that story of the uncanny par excellence The Innocents and its Henry James source, to Floella Benjamin's blatant nod to the 'stone tape theory' as she explains why the Pharos Institute are investigating Ashen Hill Manor. Yes, a haunted house story that even nicks a few bits from The Haunting too with invisible creatures stalking the characters and Benjamin's opening narration. As Rani sums it up, 'Some of us are a bit new to this kind of thing. You might need to explain.' Clyde however invokes plenty of modern examples of the genre including Harry Potter and Tim Burton to comfortably mark out the territory for the uninitiated.
Troughton works very hard to generate genuine tension and chills and she achieves this admirably. There's a very feverish atmosphere about Episode One as Sarah, Clyde and Rani explore the various rooms of the Manor accompanied by Troughton's continually prowling and tracking camera. She's not afraid to use it as a character's point of view either and to also keep the threats out of the frame, using suggestion as a way to build the atmosphere. A tried and tested methodology that can't be beaten. Throw in composer Sam Watts insistence on using that oh-so-familiar musical motif from Krzysztof Penderecki's 'The Awakening Of Jacob' as showcased so effectively by Kubrick in The Shining and the visual and aural delights are complete.
So the stage is set, paying off very handsomely in Episode One, but as is often the case with Sarah Jane Adventures, the concluding denouement comes over as rushed, slightly incoherent and offers a villain who barely has time to get his motivation across and do his nefarious deeds before Sarah Jane and company put the mockers on him. The story in itself is engaging up to a point and one of the more interesting side tracks that The Eternity Trap makes is its exploration of the effects of modernity and rationalisation upon unexplained phenomena, where Professor Rivers, Sarah Jane, Clyde, Rani and Toby all strive to secularise, intellectualise and systematise their reactions to the uncanny and paranormal phenomena.
Rivers wants to study it and apply scientific rationalisation to it, Sarah Jane and her companions simply want to categorise it as alien because that is the perfect way for them to expertly deal with the cause of the phenomena. The overlaying of a technological, scientific solution onto the manifestations at Ashen Hill Manor key into similar science=magic discussions that have cropped up in Doctor Who itself, everything from The Daemons through to The Image Of The Fendahl. Toby Silverman is a pivotal character here - he's a scientist who wants to prove the existence of paranormal phenomena because it's a personal matter in that he also has to prove it to a disenchanted father figure. By the end of Episode One, even Rani's convinced that all they have seen is real, whilst Sarah Jane remains thoroughly sceptical. However, as soon as Clyde and Rani open the cupboard in Erasmus' underground chamber and we see the flashing lights of machinery, the genie is out of the bottle and Phil Ford's carefully built hysteria fizzles away. It's then clear Episode Two will be spent putting two fingers up to the notion of haunted houses, ghosts and things that go bump in the night.
One of the problems with Episode Two is Donald Sumpter's ripe performance. I suspect it's his way of overcompensating for the lack of decent motivation and development for the Erasmus Darkening character. By playing it up he's helping cover up the underlying weakness of the threat. The best parts of Episode Two are the more emotionally affecting moments with Lord Marchwood and his search for his lost children Joseph and Elisabeth. By eventually reuniting them the story does partly achieve some decent closure. Again, the splitting up of families is a consistent theme and is echoed again by the crowd of people who have have been trapped in the house and cut off from their loved ones. It also dovetails rather nicely with Toby's story, providing us with some further explanation for his belief in the supernatural after Sarah Jane denounces it as 'nonsense'. His claims about something 'grey, with no face' haunting his six year old self fit well into his obvious parent - child anxieties. It's more about the cruelty of a parent not recognising the trauma of a frightened child than definite evidence of the existence of paranormal beings. Whatever it was has driven Toby on to try and prove his fear, and by extension his belief, to his father.
Knowing more or less that Erasmus is some extra-dimensional creature using technology to trap people rather undermines the efforts to keep the concluding episode scary. Clyde and Rani running round the Manor as all manner of things spring into life around them tends to lack the creepiness of similar scenes in Episode One even if the sequence of them being pursued by an invisible creature is still reasonably effective. It unfortunately becomes more like Ghostbusters rather than the visceral thrills of an M.R. James story. However, overall it's certainly better than Ford's rather limp season opener and without Luke, K9 and Mr. Smith the script gets to spend some time beefing up the relationship between Rani and Clyde. This is helped by engaging performances from Daniel Anthony and Anjli Mohindra. Adam Gillen makes Toby geeky and odd but also rather sympathetic. Floella Benjamin's a complete law unto herself as Celeste Rivers.
In the end Episode Two treads water to the inevitable conclusion where Sarah Jane will put a spanner in Erasmus' works and send him flying back to where he came from. Even though we see Rivers return to our dimension what's not entirely clear is whether the rest of the trapped souls return to their own places in time and space. The Marchwoods, it would seem, have actually become ghosts which does rather confuse the rationalisation of the paranormal that the story strives to hammer home. The final scene shows Toby, now set back on the path of scientific rationalism, leaving and Clyde announcing 'No such things as ghosts then, Sarah Jane?' as she gets an eyeful of the spooks watching her from the windows of the Manor. Having your cake and eating it seems to be Ford's desire at the end of that episode.
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