SARAH JANE ADVENTURES - The Mark Of The Berserker Parts 1 & 2

Part 1 / BBC1 - 10th November 2008 - 4.35pm
Part 2 / CBBC - 10th November 2008 - 5.15pm

As soon as Sarah Jane fesses up she's off to investigate some dirty dealings in the NHS and leaves the kids to twiddle their thumbs you know this is going to be a break for Lis Sladen (an urgent appointment to check on that portrait she has hidden in her own attic) and there is the dawning realisation that the younger actors are going to have to carry this on their own. Whilst I don't think the result initially makes for compelling viewing, I do think that both Daniel Anthony and Anjii Mohindra gave it all they've got to keep it working. It does suffer from the reductionist principle of having no Sarah Jane and, whilst she's away, no Mr.Smith too. Laudable as it is to let the series be carried by the younger members of the cast, Part 1 doesn't really succeed as a story. Where we get a Doctor-lite episode of the parent series we do usually get a very strong script to support it and to date I would argue that Love And Monsters, Blink and Turn Left are very strong stories that operate purely because of the Doctor's absence within them and not in spite of it. gets mired by over sincerity and suffers as consequence of a straining budget
Joseph Lidster quite rightly focuses in on Clyde Langer. We haven't seen his family or explored his home background yet and it's perfectly logical to do so. I love that we get to meet his mum and are given a goodly amount of background detail. Maria, Luke and Rani have had their moments in the sun, now it's time for Clyde. I just wish the story that teases out these details in Part 1 wasn't such crushingly, annoyingly 'worthy children's television'. The beauty of The Sarah Jane Adventures is that it is capable of telling engaging narratives for both children and adults and as much as this tries to be honest about the consequences of absentee fathers it gets mired by over sincerity and suffers as consequence of a straining budget. No threat to the universe this week, can't afford one. Just Clyde understanding why his father is such an obnoxious git. Match this with a subtext about drug addiction, the overweening use of power and a strong opening about peer pressure in school and you'd think this was onto a winner.

Lidster introduces us to Clyde's famly via Luke having to sleep over whilst SJ goes on a bug-hunt in Tarminster. It's done very naturally and I did like Jocelyn Jee Esien as Clyde's mum and the interplay between her and Daniel is well done and she's actually a bit of a revelation. The sweet friendship between Luke and Clyde is also brought to the fore here and pointedly in the scene where Clyde offers to teach Luke how to draw, demonstrating a father-son relationship which is all about mentoring that's in contrast to what becomes Paul Langer's destructive effect on Clyde. The first episode basically uses a number of characters to establish what the alien pendant does, first with Jacob, then Rani, and how it affects the user. This then narrows down to the reappearance of Clyde's absent father, Paul. The pendant then becomes the MacGuffin - the way the story will expose Paul as a weak father and reveal to Clyde why he shirked his responsibilities to his new born son. Good on paper but the actual first episode is more or less a soap opera rather than a fantasy adventure story. It's little more than a CBBC version of Eastenders and the alien pendant is the only fantastical element in the story.

Don't get me wrong, I think Daniel Anthony steals the show with his performance and Gary Beadle is rather good as the shifty Paul. Clyde's hostility is well placed as Paul comes across as selfish and uncaring and yet we don't exactly get a hint as to why he's suddenly popped up in Clyde's life after five years. But this also shows up the problem with Series 2 where we've had large scale adventure stories that have mainly ignored any character development for Sarah and her young friends and now we have the series going in the opposite direction - lots of character development but to the detriment of telling a very exciting story. Much as I love Clyde I don't want the entire narrative weighed down by the anger he feels towards his father. Even good soaps won't allow huge character arcs to dominate over outlandish plotting.

And then you do ask yourself why Clyde would tell his long absent father about his exploits with Sarah Jane? Of course, he's trying to show off to his father as any boy would but I found it a little incredible that he would expose the gang in such a short space of time and so easily. It's a stretch and it's clear that Lidster had to get Clyde and his dad into Sarah's house and in contact with the pendant. Clunky and not very convincing. Mind you, I did chuckle at Paul's line , 'OK, is this some kind of trading card thing?' when Clyde reveals that he's saved the Earth on numerous occasions. Of course the big clue about Paul is his reaction to all the artefacts in Sarah's attic. He just wants to acquire it or flog it and it signposts how he exploits the alien pendant too. The build up to the cliffhanger, centring around Rani's father doing push-ups, Rani's suspicion that Paul has the pendant and Luke getting cross because Clyde has given him access to the attic is hardly the stuff of scary, fantasy adventure is it? However, it is saved by the horrible realisation that Paul has used the pendant to make Clyde forget who Rani and Luke are. A very uncomfortable moment in the plot - tense because we witness a father remodelling his son in his own image and bewildering that Clyde would actually go so far as to defend and then side with a parent who has had little positive influence on his life. It does make Clyde out as rather gullible and, to be blunt, stupid.

I tried very hard to like this first episode and there is much to admire about it. The performances are uniformly good, particularly Daniel Anthony, but, for me, it doesn't sit comfortably as good storytelling within the format of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Many might argue that this is the sort of drama that kids should be watching in the context of a science fiction series. For me, it's too domestic, too much mired within soap conventions. The second episode might very well change that but it looks like it already has a particular course mapped out - knocking Paul Langer off his pedestal.
...choosing a 'logical' family over a 'biological' family and often that choice can be cruelest to your parents and siblings
Off we go to CBBC to continue the story. I have to say that this second part improves on the first instalment. Clyde and Paul, under the influence of the alien pendant, go off on a day of wish fulfillment around town, persuading car dealers to part with expensive cars, shops to give them clothes (and possibly whores to give them sex if we were in Torchwood). Meanwhile, Rani's dad threatens to die from exhaustion (as if we care) but at least he'll be in the Guinness Book Of Records for his push-ups. Rani and Luke only have one resort - to call Sarah Jane. Which is of course the way this episode opens up the theme of relying on your surrogate family. It reminds me of Armistead Maupin's notion of choosing a 'logical' family over a 'biological' family and often that the choice can be cruelest to your parents and siblings. Mind you, Sarah's a bit busy chasing a rather ineffectual CGI bug (the comedy eyes are like something out of Looney Tunes) in a hospital in a sly bit of commentary about MRSA no doubt. So it's down to a surprise cameo from Maria and her dad, Alan, to show, in one short sub-plot, how much they've been missed from the series and how Rani's family need developing, particularly Rani's dad, Haresh who, so far, does seem to be coming across as a right plonker.

Maria and Alan's appearance also helps build up the story proper and they give us the information about the pendant that we need, cutting back and forth in an effective structure which was something that in Part 1 was lacking. The scene in which Paul brainwashes the car dealer into giving them the sports car underlines a couple of rather uncomfortable associations to the character, which although we read as partly due to the influence of the pendant, suggest he's a criminal and that these actions are somehow also coded as part of his black identity. It's somewhat insensitive of the programme that it makes these associations, even if unconsciously. Yes, you could argue that the pendant leaves Paul with no choice but the story has already established him as an absentee father who walked out on his family so he's already codified as a negative stereotype.
It's an interesting comment on the 21st Century obsession with the celebration of consumerism...

With the the help of Alan and the UNIT database the pendant is identified as belonging to the Berserkers, who were bad tempered Norse warriors, but not quite for the purposes of this story. Here they're just super bad alien soldiers who recruit warriors through the pendants. Maria does come over as Mrs. Exposition here but it's still good to see her and Alan in a substantial sub-plot. And fortunately we've got the UNIT tracking system to find Clyde. Meanwhile, Clyde and Paul are engulfed in a 'shopping spree' during a well edited sequence that's intercut with Luke and Rani dashing off for help. This seems to suggest the Berserkers wanted nothing more than to go mad with consumer frenzy and fill their materialist boots to overflowing. It's an interesting comment on the 21st Century obsession with the celebration of consumerism that, among other things, drive families into tremendous debt. What the episode is saying is this frenetic pursuit of things and power is not simply about the incitement of a passion for power and possessions, its sheer emptiness and waste, but also the fragmentation and dispersion of the mind in its focus on these numerous, ultimately unimportant acquisitions. In such a state, there can be no spiritual health and no proper sanity, much less a real flourishing of an individual or a family.

So, Carla to the rescue and a final showdown at the marina. Crucially, Clyde is still questioning Paul as they hurtle to this last scene and hasn't had any nagging doubts satisfied by their consumerist frenzy or dampened by the power of the pendant. The scene where Clyde confronts Paul with his disappointment in his father is superbly written and played. And Paul again shirks his responsibilities to Clyde and would rather that complex emotions and feelings be forgotten, urging Clyde to reject the very self-doubt, anger and rejection that makes him what he is. Ultimately, it leads to Paul demanding that Clyde forget about Carla, his mum. This works very powerfully here because the escapist plot, with its car chase, sat navs, Maria and Alan is all pulling together with the emotional core of the story. It's ceased being Neighbours and is firmly back in Sarah Jane territory. The marina location also helps push up the scale of the story in Part 2, whereas in Part 1 we were more or less confined to Clyde and Sarah's houses.

Sarah is the one female figure that Clyde hasn't been forced to reject so naturally she's the Earth mother who resolves the situation...
Paul demands, 'We just need a boat' and it looks like consumerism is killing him when in fact it turns out that he's just running away from his responsibilities as a father again. Cue Sarah Jane in her little mack, finally coming to the rescue. Interesting that this has also been about gender domination too with Paul making Clyde reject the major female figures in the story and yet all of them, Carla, Maria, Rani and Sarah logically reassert this principle in the story. And Sarah is the one female figure that Clyde hasn't been forced to reject so naturally she's the Earth mother who resolves the situation with a bit of one-to-one therapy. The whole sequence at the marina is a satisfactory ending to the story with Clyde instilling the sense of fatherhood, somewhat idealised for sure, back into Paul. But even Paul knows his own nature and that's revealed when he confesses to Clyde about running away from his pregnant girlfriend. It seems he can't change his nature but Clyde, in rejecting his father, does suggest to Paul that there is a second chance at being a father open to him.

Part 1 only just about works when you've seen Part 2. It suggests a bit of structural shifting about might have made that first episode narratively more exciting and less confined to the 'soap' locations of bedrooms, kitchens, driveways and schools. Part 2 is significantly the better episode, much more exciting, very powerful emotionally and the story as a whole has a stunning performance at its centre from Daniel Anthony.

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2 Responses to “SARAH JANE ADVENTURES - The Mark Of The Berserker Parts 1 & 2”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I have no need to watch SJA when you post such excellent reviews.


  2. Faceofboe says:

    Very interesting review Frank. I agree with you about the excellence of Daniel Anthony, also the ludicrousness of Clyde just telling his dad about the attic etc,especially as his dad had already revealed himself to be a Nasty. Piece. Of. Work.

    However, we did think that both episode 1 and 2 were superb, in this house. The children were properly disconcerted by Clyde's dad, they really were. And by the sad ending. I thought this was a much stronger story than the previous one, to be honest. And the set up for next week's story (matching up with little hints that were dropped in the first story of the season) was well done too. I can't wait for next week!

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