Friday, October 4, 2013
Outside the Government: Revenge of the Slitheen
On television, meanwhile, we get the actual start of The Sarah Jane Adventures with Gareth Roberts’s Revenge of the Slitheen, which is more or less the episode you’d expect from that description. Roberts, as ever, is a precise writer who focuses on honing existing concepts to perfection. In this case it’s the Slitheen. Aliens of London/World War III was not a classic, less because of any specific flaw than a myriad of slightly off-kilter decisions. This led to the mistaken belief that the Slitheen didn’t work, and were just dumb farting aliens. It’s true that their original two-parter put two much emphasis on the fart jokes, just as the head-unzipping happened a few too many times to remain interesting (and had a profoundly annoying sound effect to boot). In fact, as Roberts demonstrates, the Slitheen are a marvelous concept that got slightly lost underneath the episode they appeared in.
At their heart, what’s most interesting about the Slitheen is not the green bug-eyed monsters, but the scenes in which they are wearing their skinsuits, in which they’re playing authority figures that we know are wrong. They are in this regard that most basic of children’s television fodder: the authority figure that the children know is illegitimate, but that nobody else can see. It’s one of the most basic moves of children’s fiction, and one of the cleverest bits of Aliens of London/World War III was elevating this logic to the higher stakes setting of Downing Street.
Even this stays within the general margins of children’s entertainment, however. One of the cultural assumptions underlying the entire idea of childhood is the idea that children have a measure of special innocence and moral sense. And so the point isn’t just the revelation that New Labour’s march to the Iraq War was in fact carried out by alien psychopaths; it’s the fact that their villainy is so obvious that even a child can see it. (Not, to be clear, that only a child can see it - for all that Doctor Who takes children’s perspectives seriously, it never goes for that “children are magic” twaddle.)
On the surface, then, Revenge of the Slitheen seems like a step down, taking the premise from “what if aliens in disguise took over the UK” to the relatively more banal “what if aliens in disguise took over your school.” It’s notable that this isn’t even the first time in the new series that Sarah Jane has appeared in that particular plot. So all of this seems a bit safe - like the show is just doing down the line standards of children’s television, and like the real thrill here isn’t the plot or the concepts, but just the fact that we have those loveable farting aliens from Doctor Who, and, as Clyde eagerly explains, farting is funny.
That’s not quite fair; Roberts has some clever twists. The cliffhanger is quite clever, leading the audience to believe that it knows where all the dangers are in the story only to surprise them with a child Slitheen, a concept we’d never seen before and hadn’t been looking for, but that seems obvious once you know it’s there. The evil kid was just present enough to be fair, but not present enough that the episode has to tip its hand at all. It’s a cliffhanger done right - one that hinges not on putting characters in danger, but on subtly shifting what we thought the rules of the episode were. On top of that, Roberts tinkers the balance - there’s only one forehead unzip, the fart jokes are present but, as with Boom Town, scaled down. The Slitheen are, generally speaking, tightened up and focused a bit. There’s less worry about reiterating the premise over and over again, and more confidence that if you just have them act like what you want them to be the audience will get it. Some of this is not being Series One of Docto rWho anymore, but some of it is also just a matter of confidence and knowing how to do things like this better.
But there’s more depth to Revenge of the Slitheen than even that. The Slitheen, as we noted, are based on the fundamental children’s narrative trope of illegitimate authority that is only visibly illegitimate to children. But this matches up, in The Sarah Jane Adventures, with a question of legitimate authority. Thus far, at least, there are two examples within the show: Alan and Sarah Jane. Alan, for his part, fits into a standard stock role, at least thus far: he’s the well-meaning but thick parent who just doesn’t get what’s going on around him. He’s clearly a good guy and sympathetic, but, you know, he fails to recognize that the planet is being constantly invaded by aliens, so within the narrative logic of The Sarah Jane Adventures it’s impossible to take him entirely seriously. (Obviously the show gets around to subverting this fairly quickly, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Which leaves us with the title character. Again, there’s nothing too radical here. The lone magical grownup who knows the truth of the world and what’s going on is a perfectly common trope in children’s fiction. But Sarah Jane doesn’t quite fit that. The magical grownup should be eccentric, and, more to the point, sidelined for the main action, leaving the children to fend for themselves. (Think Patrick Troughton’s character in Box of Delights for a particularly purist example.) Sarah Jane, on the other hand, is thoroughly involved in the narrative here. She saves the day. In fact, what we have is surprisingly close to what everyone wrongly says Doctor Who is, with Clyde, Luke, and Maria serving as the audience identification characters while Sarah Jane serves as the primary adventurer.
Except that doesn’t work either. The Sarah Jane Adventures assumes an audience that’s already familiar with Doctor Who. Given that, Sarah Jane’s perspective is more closely allied with what’s familiar to viewers than any of the children possibly could be. The audience knows how this sort of story works - to the point of being ahead of Sarah Jane et al as they’re trying to work out that vinegar will kill the Slitheen. Tellingly, the show continues to include little references to Doctor Who - Sarah Jane working out what Rose meant by “Slitheen in Downing Street,” for instance.
Which really is more in line with the magical grownup model. Except that Sarah Jane isn’t magical - she’s ordinary. That’s the point of her, in Doctor Who and here. The best parts of Revenge of the Slitheen hinge on her learning to be a mother paralleled with Luke learning to be a kid. Sarah Jane isn’t magic - she’s just someone who’s seen extraordinary things in her life, and knows how to look for them now.
So what we have isn’t so much a story where the kids are helped by a magical outsider as a story that reflects on the differences between legitimate and illegitimate authority - one that’s both about how the Slitheen running the school are self-evidently bad guys and about how Sarah Jane and Alan are not bad guys. There’s not a ton of subtlety to this - it’s not as though Gareth Roberts has come up with some brilliant new way of telling good from evil. The good guys listen to their kids and take seriously their needs and the bad guys try to destroy the planet. It manages the rare feat of being an even less nuanced distinction than “the bad guys are the green bug-eyed monsters.”
What’s interesting isn’t, in other words, the lesson in telling good grownups from bad ones, but the fact that it’s put in this particular context, adjacent to Doctor Who on one side and the comparative groundedness of Sarah Jane as a person on the other. It’s very standard children’s television in structure and execution, yes, but it’s putting the bits together in a way we’ve never quite seen before. But perhaps what’s most interesting is the way that it differs from the other Doctor Who spinoff. Where Torchwood is about the unsettling terror of eccentric spaces wedged near ours, The Sarah Jane Adventures is about the way in which eccentric spaces clarify mundane ones. Luke and Maria learn what good parents Sarah Jane and Alan are because of how evil the Slitheen are.
And so what we have is, basically, a show about remaining open-minded and broadening your horizons, but one that still takes seriously the prospect that there are dangerous and even evil things out there. It’s a good balance of themes for children’s television, and the result is effective children’s television.
Which leaves us with the other audience. For the most part, in dealing with The Sarah Jane Adventures, I’m going to be a sensible human being and observe that this is flat-out a children’s show. Yes, Doctor Who is for children, but there’s a clear difference between a show that airs in a plum slot on BBC One and one that airs on CBBC. Children’s television is one of many lenses that get into Doctor Who, but it’s never the only one, and often it’s not even the best or primary one. But The Sarah Jane Adventures is explicitly, from the start, flagged as primarily for children. Any and all other audiences it may pick up are secondary.
Except that the show equally blatantly trades on nostalgia. And not just in terms of Sarah Jane; later on, of course, we get rampant 70s nostalgia, and Davies has said that had the series not come to an untimely and tragic end he’d have brought back Ace eventually as a treat for children of the 80s. And more to the point, the familiarity of Sarah Jane Smith isn’t just coming from her one-episode stint in School Reunion. It’s coming from the fact that she’s the iconic Doctor Who companion for older fans.
This creates an interesting balance. The Sarah Jane Adventures is manifestly not for adult fans, and yet it caters to them. The underlying dynamic of this is clear enough - it’s the same dynamic that means that you can get Sesame Street t-shirts aimed at adults. The idea is in part to create something for kids that can be experienced alongside adults - the age-old idea of “for kids, but actually tolerable to adults” that is the main reason why Pixar movies make a killing at the box office. (Or, for that matter, Harry Potter.) But there’s more to it than just that. The Sarah Jane Adventures becomes a tool for passing Doctor Who on from one generation to another. Not just in the obvious way of trying to get viewers turned on to Lis Sladen’s earlier Doctor Who work, but in terms of making a shared experience that consciously bridges the gap between the two generations. In this regard, Revenge of the Slitheen’s focus on legitimate grown-up authority is the point. The real reason that Sarah Jane Smith is the good grown-up isn’t just because she’s moral and clever and kind. It’s that she’s seen Doctor Who, and shows it to her kids. More than anything else, that’s what the show is about.