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Speaking ill of the dead

Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography

Elisabeth Sladen the autobiography cover plus link to amazon.ca

Like many North American of a certain age, my introduction to Doctor Who was haphazard at best. The first episode I remember seeing was Robots of Death, in which Louise Jameson's Leela was the companion, not Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith.

Nevertheless, TV Ontario sooner or later broadcast at least a few of the Sarah Jane serials, and the buttoned-down young journalist joined the half-naked savage as my favourites among the Doctor's companions.

So I was very much part of the target audience when Sarah Jane returned to Doctor Who in the (revived) series' second season episode, "School Reunion". That production managed to please both old fans and new, so much so that Sladen's return spawned a spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, a children's program that often managed to be quite a bit better than its big brother.

The Sarah Jane Adventures featured Sladen as its alien-fighting principal, a woman in her seventh decade who was nevertheless forever running down corridors, hopping fences and facing down monsters, even as she played reluctant mentor and den mother to her teenage co-stars. Sarah Jane Smith was so credible as a paragon of courage and intelligence that one longed to believe those traits reflected the performer as much as they did her writers.

Fan of both Sarah Jane Smith's first and third incarnations (even Sladen quite rightly acknowledges the failure of her second, in the early 1980s), I am clearly also part of the target audience for Sladen's memoir. And so it was I impatiently waited for a Canadian release of Sladen's autobiography, completed just a few months before her surprising and terribly untimely death from cancer in 2011.

Sadly, the contents between the frankly dated and cheap-looking covers pretty accurately reflect the contents of the book itself.

Though the autobiography does not stoop to gossip or cheap score-settling, neither does it offer much insight into acting; into what it was like being a feminist icon of sorts; or into Sladen's life. Those hoping for more than some amusing anecdotes about working with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker will find in this book some tasty snacks, but nothing remotely like a full meal.

My full review is at my site, ed-rex.com.

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1.0: Finding the culture-verse in an FM radio receiver

1.1: The kids today

Driving home yesterday, I did something I almost never do: being bored with CBC Radio and the Montreal AM sports station blathering on about something not hockey, I chanced upon a commercial music station and decided to give it a listen.

94.7 FM it was, "Montreal's Hit Music Channel".

What struck me first was that this station really plays pop hits, not just hits of a particular genre. 94.7 FM ain't a rock station, nor a pop station nor even a hip-hop station. It is all of the above, if I dare to judge by that hour and some minutes of exposure. The only thing missing was country (which has really been subsumed into rock anyway; Hank Williams wouldn't recognize today's "country" if it crooned at his 24 hours straight. But I digress).

The kids today, it seems, don't limit themselves to one particular style of noise music, but are in fact one hell of a lot more catholic in their tastes that the radio of my era would have suggested.

And good on them; I guess the internet is good for something after all, eh?

1.2: Disco laughs last

That said, and though the technical merits of the music on offer were bloody slick, there was a sameness at the back of just about everything I heard, a monotonous back-beat that reminded me of the "sound" in the 80s when even really good drummers did their damnest to immitate drum machines.

Driving just about all the music I heard last night was a descendant of disco's throbbing dance-hall backbeat. I'm not saying there is nothing to distinguish between the pop songs and the rap tunes and the rock-and-roll on offer, but all three had clearly been infected by that which so many of us loudly said "sucked" way back in the day.

I guess people like to dance ...

1.3: The decline of Anglo Montréal (and the rise of a bilingual urban polity)

As you might have noticed above, 94.7 is an English-language radio station. Not so the ads. Like many of my Montréal-based passengers, the ads on 94.7 presume the audience is bilingual. At a guess, I'd say maybe a third of those I heard were in French, and French only.

Which is pretty god damned cool, when you think about it.

And which, as I alluded to above, matches my observation of the younger cohort among my Montréal-based crews. Those people, Anglo and Franco alike, are bilingual down to their genes, switching between languages while they talk without any hesitation, nor even, any apparent self-consciousness. Whatever works in the moment.

Dunno if the phenomenon will survive over the long term, but in the short one, it is a beautiful thing to witness.

* * *

2.0: Speaking ill of the dead

To completely change the subject, those of you who give a damn already know that Elisabeth Sladen — yes, Doctor Who's Sarah Jane Smith — dies nearly two years ago now.

What you might not know is that she wrote (or rather, she told her story to a hack) a memoir shortly before the cancer got her.

Fool that I am, I dared to hope that Lis Sladen might be even half as interesting as Sarah Jane was. Not quite. Elisabeth Sladen: the autobiography is really only going to be of interest to those who knew her work with the Third and Fourth Doctors, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. That's what most of the book covers, but only superficially.

Anyway, my full review lives here and my intro to that piece is over here.

3.0 Music, music, (new) music!

Finally, for those of you who've slogged all the way through my meanderings, a reward. Gin Wigmore is a young(ish) Kiwi who has knocked my proverbial socks off like no one since Emmy the Great came to my cognizance maybe a half-year or so back.

Anyway, without further ado ... Sweet Hell with Gin Wigmore!

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The sonic lipstick's last hurrah (Part 3 of 3)

It seems churlish — and a bit pointless — to dwell on the negatives, so let's get it them of the way.

The Man Who Never Was is the weakest serial of The Sarah Jane Adventures's final half-series. The details are clunky and there is an almost unforgivable bit of idiot-plotting to get us to the cliff-hanger at the end of the first episode.

But never mind all that; it is still an entertaining episode and a fitting tribute to its late star.

The other parts of the story, the important bits, more than make up for the deficits, and Russell T Davies deserves our thanks for reigning in his tendency towards over-blown melodrama.

I'm going to miss The Sarah Jane Adventures an awful lot. In its quiet way it offered its young (and not-so-young) viewers a powerful moral vision and provided an example (instead of a lecture) of a subtly radical alternative to life as most of us know beneath its fantastic trappings.

Some spoilers behind the link. And I'll try not to get blubbery.

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The sonic lipstick's last hurrah (Part 2 of 3)

There is but a single story left to tell before The Sarah Jane Adventures is done.

Following hard on the heels of last week's solid series opener, the program has hit one out of the proverbial ball-park.

The Curse of Clyde Langer was an emotionally involving and sometimes very creepy story that only faltered — maybe, a little — in a slightly too-easy resolution.

To add to the episodes' multiple pleasures, The Curse offered strong characterizations, a hefty dose of good humour and even a little unexpected romance. As usual, some spoilers ahead but no snark whatsoever.

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The sonic lipstick's last hurrah (Part 1 of 3)

Pretentious is a dangerous word for a critic, one I try to avoid and one which (I hope) I use with judicious deliberation when I do press it into service.

The term is kissing cousin to dishonest, and which implies promises which are undelivered or, worse, betrayed.

As you might know, I have spent considerable time over the past few months looking at a couple of British science fiction series, the 2011 editions of Doctor Who and its ostensibly adult-oriented spin-off, Torchwood, both of which promised much but delivered very little indeed.

So it is that I am very happy to report that the first (of three) remaining instalments of The Sarah Jane Adventures promises only an entertaining children's adventure story yet delivers quite a lot more.

Phil Ford's eighth two-part serial is, not surprisingly, very much a typical Sarah Jane adventure, offering low-key, character-based comedy, thrills enough (I think) to keep a child on the edge of his or her seat (if not, quite, hiding behind the proverbial couch), and a subtle moral seriousness that leaves its more bombastic cousins looking like charlatans, or worse.

Not many spoilers and no snark at all (for a change), as I take a belated look at Sky and begin my last dance with Sarah Jane Smith.

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Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith (our Sarah Jane Smith)

Bloody hell. I don't usually "do" celebrities or mourn people I've never met, but somehow Elizabeth Sladen has made herself an exception. I read just a few minutes ago of her death and, as I read, found myself chanting out loud, "Oh no ... Oh no ... Oh no."

Sarah Jane Smith was one of the best of Doctor Who's many companions — brash and spunky, brave and creative — but she came into her own as a marvel, dare I say, a role-model, as a woman very nearly classified as a senior.

For those of you who don't know, Sarah Jane Smith was an alien-hunter, an action hero of sorts, who, as with the Doctor (and apologies to that talk-show host — Craig something?), made knowledge and intelligence sexy in a culture that all too often celebrates brute force and cruelty above all else.

I never met you Lis, but I'll miss you.

(The details up at the Beeb. Bloody, bloody hell. I imagine I'll have something more to say later, but for now, this will have to do.)
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Where have all the white men gone?

This week's episodes of my favourite children's adventure program might have been the best of the year so far. More interestingly, to me at least, is just how far outside of the standard adventure paradigm The Sarah Jane Adventures has ventured, without any great on-screen fuss or muss.

Somehow, a program about "fighting aliens" has dared to feature a more-than-sixty year-old woman and two non-white teenagers as the "defenders of the Earth" as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I don't know about you, but I think it's worthy of some note.

Not many plot-spoilers, but some possibly unfomfortable (I hope not offensive) thoughts at Edifice Rex Online.

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Return to story

After last week's appalling display of auctorial onanism, writer Gareth Roberts brought The Sarah Jane Adventures back down to (an empty) earth with a welcome return to story as priority one.

"The Empty Planet" won't go down in history as a great Sarah Jane serial, but it should stand out as a good one, with a nice balance between adventure and character development and not too bad a let-down between the cliff-hanging end of Part One and the anti-climactic drop to the ground in Part Two.

This week's episode's set-up is given away by the title, "The Empty Earth". After Mr. Smith notes a mysterious alien energy signal the previous night, Clyde and Rani awake (alone, you 'shippers! Roberts plays with the sexual tension that's developing between Clyde and Rani, but this is still a children's adventure program (thank god!) and not a children's soap opera) to find themselves inhabiting an empty city, apparently the only people left in the entire world (well, in the Bannerman Road neighbourhood, anyway; but in context of the Whoniverse, their deduction isn't too presumptuous).

The last humans on earth ... read the full review at Edifice Rex Online.

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Hurling logic out the window:

The good, the bad and the Davies

After watching the first half of the "Death of the Doctor" I wrote in a fit of giddy optimism that, "Strong on close interpersonal observation, not so good with dramatic logic, Russel T Davies' return to the Doctor Who universe is a qualified triumph."

If only it were so. Having now seen the follow-up, I need to re-write my lede and reconsider my larger thesis.

"Death of the Doctor" represents the best and the worst of Davies, but unfortunately, while the Good RTD is mostly ascendant in the first half of the diptych, the Bad RTD emerges all-too-typically triumphant in the second.

In Part One, we saw the perfectly-observed character moments, the witty asides that serve both to release dramatic tension and to ratchet it up a level, and the sort of cliff-hanger that can leave a grown man (well, this one) giggling with anticipation for the sequel.

Part One also provided the forced humour that breaks established character; the shameless emotional manipulation that often works but that leaves the sensitive viewer feeling cheap and dirty afterwards; the plot elements the experienced RTD-watcher fears will lead to nonsense when explained in Part Two and dangling plot-threads galore.

RTD needs a plot-oriented collaborator to slap down his Inner Fanboy. (Spoilers ahead; click at your own risk.)

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'Look, it's a long story, okay, but we haven't got time now. 'Cause Androvax is after us and so are the men in black. Oh, and if we don't get a move on, the worlds' going to end." — Just another day on Bannerman Road

Second week a bit of a let-down from the series' opener, but an entertaining enough entry nevertheless. I was also struck at just how unusual it is to watch a television adventure program that doesn't include a single white male in a heroic role. Review of sorts on my web-site, but it's a short one. Click on if you will.
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A desk-pounding debut

Right. I'm talking about the 4th series' debut of The Sarah Jane Adventures. There will be (some) spoilers below and a good deal of context-less fan writing. If you don't know the program, or do and don't care about it, you should most likely give this entry a pass.

The season opener was ... (wait for it) ... very nearly perfect. Frightening, funny and fast-paced, it even boasted a climax that (almost) lived up to the threat. I laughed out loud and I yipped in startled fear; only tears were missing from the equation.

But those of you who are interested, come on inside, to talk about a children's television program whose series debut would have scared hell out of me had I been a kid this time around. Let's talk about nightmares.

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Thanksgiving 2010: In praise of an older woman:

The Sarah Jane Adventures returns!

For the past three years, the BBC has been producing what must be one of the best "children's television" adventure programs in the world. I'm tempted to call it a "family drama" or some other euphemism because — much as it pains me to admit the truth — I am a few years decades past any claim to being a child, but The Sarah Jane Adventures is broadcast on C(hildren's)BBC, and even a cursory glance at its website reveals that it is being marketed to ... kids. Full-stop.

And yet ... And yet, I am looking forward to its fourth season with what is a frankly childlike — maybe even childish — sense of excitement, despite last year's third series, even if last year's third series wasn't, quite, as much fun as were the first 24 half-hour episodes.

And fun is the operative word here. So far, The Sarah Jane Adventures have captured the feel of its progenitor, Doctor Who, arguably better than the revivified original itself.

As befits a spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures isn't saddled by an enormous and fanatical (and extremely vocal) fan-base and so, I suspect (though I'm sure Russel T Davies & Co. would hotly dispute my hypothesis), that its writers and producers are not suffering quite the same pressure to make it BIGGER and BETTER than it was last time out.

Which ironically gives them a better chance to produce more of the sort of stories that made it so bloody good the first and second (and, partially, third) times around. Instead of worrying (even if subconsciously) what fandom and the blogosphere are going to say moments after a program airs, they can, with clean hands and composure, concentrate on telling stories.

Yes, I'm going on about the importance of story again; yes, it's a recurring theme; and yes, it's bound to pop up again here, probably sooner than later.

If that's okay with you, click here to read the full article at Edifice Rex Online.

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