The Sarah Jane Adventure, series 4: The Nightmare Man
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.
"And it's all your fault!
Joseph Lidster's third story for the program is definitely his best, dishing out fear and laughter along with a healthy dose of psychological realism to make the fantastic threat matter.
The program opens "One year ago", with Luke is telling Sarah Jane that his head-master wants him to apply to Oxford, a year early.
Sarah Jane rightly wonders if now is a good time for the discussion, as both she and Luke at hand-cuffed to a fence with a bomb about to go off ...
Within three minutes of the opening, including a creepy teaser, we've had a monster, humour and some pretty disgusting-looking green goo over all four of our principal cast-members.
"The Nightmare Man" isn't terribly original in its threat — an alien from another dimension who feeds off nightmares; nevermind, we don't watch the show for its rationales. All that needs to be said is that the The Nightmare Man is suitably creepy, even if his/its bad teeth and and cackling demeanor reminded me a bit of the monster from the second series' "The Day of the Clown", but not nearly enough to make me feel I was watching a re-tread.
The adventure starts when Luke — who doesn't dream — starts having nightmares, bringing us to the relatively familiar fantasy and science fiction trope where dreams become a kind of reality. Naturally, pretty soon Clyde and Rahni are swept up in their own nightmares, and Sarah Jane can't wake any of them up.
What makes this a genuinely interesting episode is not the momentary thrills or the very well-established sense of dread we feel (hard to accomplish in an episodic show in which you know the main characters are going to come out all right) are the nightmares themselves.
As I said in my introductory post, The Sarah Jane Adventures doesn't go in for preaching or Messages, but neither does it shy away from addressing those things that scare us in the real world. In this case, it is Luke's anxiety about his differences from other people, his insecurity that going away to Oxford will ruin his friendships and, worst of all, that his mother doesn't really love him.
Who among us hasn't shared at least some of those fears? And of course, in Luke's case, there is some (but only some) truth to his anxieties. Luke is different and his friends are jealous and upset that he is leaving them. Fears of abandonment and isolation, fears of betrayal, all these are fears that most of us have experience before and will experience again — and that almost every teenager who has ever lived faces on an almost daily basis.
"The Nightmare Man" is an excellent example of how strong acting, skillful lighting and make-up, and old-fashioned camera-tricks can along with a bloody good script make for riveting television, no matter what kind of special effects budget a program has.
If there rest of Series 4 can maintain this standard, we're in for a marvellous autumn, at Oxford and back home on Bannerman Road.