2.7-8 The Empty Planet
After the more expansive action of Death Of The Doctor , and the seemingly equally ambitious adventure to come in episodes 9 & 10, it’s clearly time for this particular series of The Sarah Jane Adventures to take stock, narrow its focus and, more practically,save a few quid on a cheaper episode.
Written by series stalwart Gareth Roberts, The Empty Planet is a story that was originally meant to fill the slot in the Doctor Who specials year that The Waters Of Mars would ultimately occupy. That version, by Phil Ford, got as far as the treatment stage before being replaced, quite wisely, as it turned out, by the award-winning Mars story.
But some ideas persist and eventually find their natural home and clearly the production team felt that this particular story was best served on Bannerman Road. You can see the attraction: the familiar world becoming unfamiliar, children waking up to find their friends and family gone. It should be a home run of a story. Sadly, it isn’t.
The episode opens at night with the Earth being subjected to a strange alien transmission and finds Sarah Jane (Lis Sladen) and super-computer Mr Smith (voiced by Alexander Armstrong) monitoring this bizarre frequency from her attic in Ealing. When Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and Rani (Anjli Mohindra) want to become involved in the investigation, Sarah Jane puts her foot down and bundles her two sidekicks home. It’s a school night, after all, and they have a test on Great Expectations in the morning.
Sending the two kids home allows the story to take its time and lets us explore the home lives of both Clyde and Rani in a little more detail. This is an approach that was used to good effect in the first story of this series, The Nightmare Man, and it works again here. These scenes are some of the strongest of the episode and allow Roberts to write some enjoyable exchanges between both Rani and her dad (Ace Bhatti) and Clyde and his mum (the returning Jocelyn Jee Esien).
This focus on the domestic life of the inhabitants of Bannerman Road is a canny choice as it cleverly helps set up the shock of that domestic world being turned upside down when Rani and Clyde wake up to discover that they’re the only people left on the face of planet Earth!
Now, the notion of trying to achieve an ‘empty’ world on a CBBC budget must be a scary one for any director, but Ashley Way (off the back of his sterling work on Death Of The Doctor) manages to pull it off with aplomb, thanks to a good choice of locations and some intelligent camera work. The scene where Rani explores her deserted family home is particularly effective and the direction by Way throughout is strong and unfussy, yet highly effective.
This episode also offers a chance for the show to build upon the clear ‘will they/won’t they’ undercurrent that’s been brewing between Clyde and Rani throughout this season. It’s certainly not in the Moonlighting league of on-screen flirtations, but things are ratcheted up a few notches in this episode, while still landing on the side of the ambiguous, playful and awkward, which works out nicely.
However, despite the various positive elements, The Empty Planet isn’t a wholly successful story. While on paper it probably seemed like a good idea to give the characters of Clyde and Rani a chance to shine, on-screen that decision turns out to be something of a double-edged sword.
Coming after Russell T Davies’ superb Death Of The Doctor, the quality of Matt Smith, Katy Manning and (of course!) Lis Sladen’s acting is sorely missed here, and their absence merely shows up the callowness of the two leads.
One key area where Sladen, Smith et al all excel is in the delivery of complex exposition. It’s a real skill and they manage to imbue that very artificial explanatory material with a certain reality and dramatic energy. Sadly, neither Mohindra nor Anthony seem to have the requisite technique to carry it off and the result is a lot of stiff, flat and dull exposition that diminishes Clyde and Rani when they should be shining.
Of the two performers it’s Anjli Mohindra who fares slightly better, as she has a more natural and easy style on camera and because of that (though also due to her height advantage), she generally ends up dominating every scene she shares solo with Daniel Anthony.
Though by no means turning in a bad performance, Anthony is forced to act against type here and it doesn’t really work. Usually he’s very good at playing the comic foil to a more solid lead or straight man, but here he’s marooned somewhere between supporting role and lead actor and it’s not a gap that he seems able to comfortably bridge.
If anything, this story also highlights just how much Clyde’s character relies on Luke Smith for context. Since Luke’s departure from the show, Clyde has struggled to assert himself as normal, as he’s had no regular straight man to spark with. In the recent Death Of The Doctor this wasn’t a problem, as the incident level was ramped up and Santiago Jones was an effective Luke replacement, but here, as in The VaultOf Secrets, the ‘lack of Luke’ is noticeable.
Replacing Luke in this episode is Gavin, the mysterious other inhabitant of the empty planet. Unfortunately, Gavin is both incredibly boring as written and even more boring as performed. Actor Joe Mason brings very little to the role and he turns in one of the weakest guest performances in the show’s history. Gavin’s so unmemorable (with a backstory cribbed from the titular Wasp from The Unicorn And The Wasp) that, when his alien lineage and ultimate destiny is finally revealed, the overwhelming feeling experienced by the audience is more than likely one of relief at his impending departure.
On a more positive note, the two robot characters, played by regular ‘monster men’ Ruari Mears and Paul Kasey, are a real success. Nicely designed and executed, they have real weight and personality and the Terminator-style POV shots employed are particularly well done. Here’s hoping they come back for a return appearance in a slightly more engaging story sometime in the future.
Aside from the acting issues and the general low stakes feel of the episode, the biggest problem with The Empty Planet lies, surprisingly, in the script from Gareth Roberts.
Roberts usually delivers work that fizzes and pops with wit and energy and his SJA work has generally been of a higher standard than his work on the parent show. However, this year the reverse has been true with his Doctor Who contribution, The Lodger, one of the past season’s definite highlights.
In comparison to that script, The Empty Planet feels both oddly impersonal and perfunctory and one can’t help but feel that the underlying problem emanates from the brief that he’s been handed here. Roberts is clearly a better writer when he’s writing an idea of his own and the strain to generate incident and stakes within this hollow story environment seems to have robbed his work, on this occasion, of its usual wit and sparkle. It’s a shame, but I’m sure that the upcoming season finale (which Roberts has co-written) will re-discover some of that fun.
All of which leaves this current series of SJA in something of a no man’s land. Four stories in and any fair assessment of the season so far would have to say it’s been something of a mixed bag, with two real hits and two misses. With only two more stories left to run, it’s unclear as to whether the season will deliver on the promise of its highs or be defined by its lows.
Read our review of the episodes 5 & 6, Death Of The Doctor, here.