Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Earth Dies Softly Murmuring

The Sarah Jane Adventures Season 4
Episodes 7 & 8: The Empty Planet
Airdate: November 1st and 2nd 2010. UK. BBC1

Ok. That was pretty good. Just seen what was the best Series 4 story so far... which is kind of odd considering that the actress/character who is the main reason I watch the show, Elisabeth Sladen’s timeless portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith, was hardly in either episode with just a few minutes of screen time in each.

The first episode starts off less strongly than it could have with a very linear set up to arm the viewer with enough information to help get them through the story proper (I would have been tempted to start the show off with Rani waking up and running through empty streets and then going into flashback, but what do I know) but then the episode gets all The Earth Dies Screaming and we are given an almost identical premise as that wonderful 60s British sci-fi/horror b-movie in that the population of the entire world has been eradicated (killed in the 60s movie but only “snatched” here) with only a few people left to wander the deserted streets and wonder what the heck is going on.

In the case of this particular variation on a theme, the sole survivors are the two characters Clyde and Rani who are, to be fair, very strong characters in the show. On their travels trying to come to terms with their new status as the last two humans on earth they come across a third survivor, Gavin and by this point it’s pretty obvious that Gavin must be the key to the whole thing... it’s just that he doesn’t know it yet. At the end of the first episode we are left with a great cliffhanger as two large robots chase after our two heroes and strike threatening poses with hand-gun thingies which you just know are going to turn out to be scanners but, hey, they needed some way to leave the episode on a cliffhanger (of sorts).

And yes, you guessed it, the robots in question are very much reminiscent in general tone to the ones in The Earth Dies Screaming. Which is a good thing because that particular Terence Fisher movie is very atmospheric and this story does capture this to some extent, bearing in mind that this is a children’s programme.

It’s also a neat reveal that the reason that Rani and Clyde have not been removed from the earth along with the rest of our species harkens back to a previous episode of the show concerning an alien species which have been an established part of recent Doctor Who continuity. By which I mean that in a previous Sarah Jane story, the inter-galactic police race known as the Judoon (remember them from the first Martha Jones story in Doctor Who?) had grounded Rani and Clyde on planet earth under penalty of... well death I imagine. Of course, if they’d been kidnapped from earth and moved elsewhere the alien race pulling the strings in this story would have been in trouble with the Judoon and so I’m pleased that the writers have managed to tap into old plot points and make use of them in fresh stories. Very impressive.

What’s less impressive is the fact that it is revealed that the only species absent from our planet is the human race and that all other animal life is left to run amok. Alas, only a token dog and a pigeon are our witness to said signs of amokness but I would also be interested in knowing why, if when the rest of the species of the planet earth are all fine and dandy, is there no birdsong as Clyde and Rani search the streets for clues and people? Probably because it wouldn’t have sounded half as eerie enough is my best guess on that one.

And of course, unlike the Fisher film, you can’t leave the majority of the human race dead at the end of the story... so humanity is restored thanks to Rani and Clyde’s new friend Gavin.

Still, all in all a real good story that proves that the show can operate at a fair crack on it’s own terms even when the main protagonist (and principal reason for watching it in my case) are absent for the majority of proceedings. And not only that but, for the first time ever in an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, I found myself really drawn to the musical score of this show on it’s own terms. Usually this only happens when it’s a reference to a Doctor Who score (such as last weeks riffs on Murray Gold’s U.N.I.T music) but in this case Sam Watts has done a really terrific and hauntingly appropriate score for the show and I hope that this sees some kind of CD release some day.

A real corker of a story if this show is your kind of thing. Miss this one at your peril.

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