Big Finish Productions
Sarah Jane Smith:
Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre
|Written by||Peter Anghelides|
|Starring Elisabeth Sladen|
|Also featuring Jeremy James, Sadie Miller, Robin Bowerman, Louise Falkner, Peter Miles, Toby Longworth, Mark Donovan|
|Synopsis: A bio-warfare scandal from the 1940s takes Sarah to a remote island in the Indian Ocean. She pursues the scoop with a fellow journalist from her former company, Planet 3. But why won't she contact her friends back in the UK?|
Not Quite a Big Finish by J. Paul Halt 27/1/03
After the disappointment of Ghost Town, the Sarah Jane Smith series manages to finish off its run in somewhat better form, even if the finale isn't quite all that I had hoped for.
Mirror, Signal, Manouevre opens with the story already in play. This is both the story's strength, and its greatest weakness. By beginning in media res, the story is allowed to run at a breakneck pace. There is very little down time in this story, to a point where listeners may reach for the "pause" button just to catch their breath between scenes.
On the down side, the story has to slip all the exposition in dialogue hints throughout the first fifteen minutes or so of the play. The script is well-written, so this exposition is more or less painless; nevertheless, some listeners may find it a bit frustrating to spend the first part of the story playing catch-up with the characters, waiting for hints and clues as to what it is that's occurring.
The story itself is more than a little nonsensical, as Sarah travels to India to investigate a bio-warfare scandal from the 1940's and ends up uncovering an even more sinister, modern-day terrorist plot. Not as relevant or grounded as the suspense story in Test of Nerve (the third and best entry in the series), this is more the kind of tale you'd expect from a James Bond movie. It's all very exciting; but lacking a real-world connection, the story never develops real tension or a sense of dread in the way Test of Nerve did.
The most successful element was the characterization of an increasingly paranoid Sarah Jane. Throughout the audio, she is so determined to avoid being traced by unseen enemies, that she makes it nearly impossible for her friends to contact her -- let alone help her. At the same time, she is so preoccupied with her own paranoia that she fails to see the trap she is blithely walking into. Most listeners will spot this trap long before Sarah does.
All 3 of the regulars are back on form in this outing. Sladen is at her best, playing Sarah at her most flawed and, consequently, most interesting. Sadie Miller, sorely missed in Ghost Town, returns as Natalie, and gets a good share of the action. Jeremy James' Josh is a bit underused in this entry, though he plays a significant role in the story's climax and does a good job with a fairly difficult scene at the end.
The most frustrating element of the audio is that it is more of a Season Finale than a Series Finale. The villains are unmasked; but their agenda remains unresolved, along with Sarah's current situation. As a Season cliffhanger, it's good enough. But I must admit, I was hoping for more of an ending. It's doubly frustrating given that Ghost Town was: (1) unconnected the larger plot; and (2) substandard. Why couldn't they have just thrown that one out and used the extra audio to properly wrap up the series?
Still, I enjoyed Season 1 of Big Finish's Sarah Jane Smith series. Despite its occasional flaws, and one or two weak entries, the series had a lot of promise, and delivered on that promise often enough to satisfy me. Assuming Big Finish opts to do a second season (as the open-ended conclusion hints they will), I will definitely subscribe again.
Rating for Mirror, Signal, Manouevre: 8/10
Rating for Sarah Jane Smith: 7/10
An interesting experiment... by Joe Ford 8/2/03
I am extremely discomforted to think this series has come to an end. I'm also quite glad. You see for the past five months I have been an avid listener to the Sarah Jane Smith audios and have discovered some very interesting things about them. The major output from the series has been a bit of a mixed bag to be honest, Comeback and The TAO Connection were shite and Ghost Town was pretty unmemorable too. Test of Nerve was excellent and Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre also hit a lot of excellent notes.
However there are compensations. Following a series monthly and a set of regular characters is an extremely enjoyable experience and it is clear there is still much more to be told about Sarah, Josh and Nat. There are too many things I love about this combination of characters and I would be upset indeed to think that some of stuff played out in these audios isn't followed up.
Sarah was always a popular character but let's face it, apart from being major league sexy and a right laugh to watch she was just any old Joe. She was fortunate to be played by the exceptionally talented Elisabeth Sladen who imbued her character with a lot of charm and charisma. That was the Sarah Jane of the TV series. The Sarah Jane of the audios is a far more interesting, and sometimes compelling, character. Oh it's still Lis Sladen but now she's playing a nervous, edgy Sarah who has pissed off one too many people in her jornalistic career and has to spend her life in hiding always looking over her shoulder. She is crabby and sometimes horribly snappy and Lis plays it to the hilt, not trying to make her likable or bland but a genuinely interesting character in her own right and well worth her own series. The better scripts have highlighted her prickly side and the results are fascinating.
Josh and Nat are also well done. We love Josh from the word go for his undying devotion to Sarah and his rougish charm. Jeremy James was a little amateurish at the start of the 'season' but matured nicely into the role so that by Mirror Signal Manoeuvre we trust him implicitly and really care when he is being attacked and beaten. Nat was just fab from the begining, a computer hacker with a real chip on her shoulder (I just have a thing for unlikable characters!). Her shock decision at the end of Test of Nerve raised her to classic companion status.
With clear affection for each other and each of them adding something new to the mix they are highly engaging. Excellent work there.
I also love the idea of ripping this series as far from its Doctor Who roots as it can. To be honest there is such an extensive amount of Doctor Who released each year so it is nice to get something a little different. The scary world of modern London is laid open for us. Technology is used as a weapon. Terrorist attacks. Bio-warfare. Prostitutes are killed. It's a grim, grisly world out there and fortunately we have Sarah and her pals to save us from the worst of it. Unfortunately whilst the series was set up to deal with 'real life' issues three of its five scripts escape the modern nightmare we live in today, two for remote spots in the 'country' and one for Romania. Oh and the last is in India. Great to give this an international feel (and I agree to get away from London where every invasion/attack was aimed at during the series) but at times (and especially during the first two atrocious stories) it feels as though the producers have forgotten what they promised us.
Fortunately the threat of gas attacks on the underground and bio-warfare leaks in rivers in India are enough to sustain my interest admirably. Let's hope next time we can have more threat and less daft country accents!
Also of merit is the wonderful 'arc' that has ran through the five stories. Someone is after Sarah, someone from her past and they will go to any lengths to get her. All the answers are revealed in Mirror Signal Manoeuvre. The unveiling of the villain of the piece isn't such a surprise (as they saved for the end of Test of Nerve, quite a wonderful climax it was too) but Sarah's astonished and bitter reaction is well worth the wait. Indeed once the cat is out of the bag and the threat is exposed the last ten minutes of MSM are utterly gripping. The plan to bring Sarah down is quite ingenious and her apparant helplessness leaves you gasping for a happy ending.
But the set up is also very worthy stuff. Who can we trust? Is Sarah getting too paranoid for her own good? Why is she ignoring Josh and Nat's calls? Why is she is in India, undercover? Lots of lovely bluffs and red herrings fill the sixty minutes and for once Gary Russell directs events with a genuine sense of urgency. I've said in the past I feel Gary merely uses the audios to feed his ego, picking out the best scripts because he's in charge and making a hack job of them (The Sandman was good but it could have been better) but here he seems to have a real affection for the material and gives it the correct edge it needs.
There are three terrific action scenes that you would think would come across as confusing but they are just gripping. The final car sequence was one of the best set pieces Big Finish have achieved. And as for the totally ambiguous ending, well it was a bit abrupt but it gives us something to look forward to when (sorry if) the series comes back.
Lis, Sadie and Jeremy have their rapport down pat and all give highly charged performances. Lis is spectacular throughout, I loved seeing just how desperate Sarah was getting. She's going to have to re-think her lifestyle after events here.
I suppose it would be easier if this audio series had just been crap. It wasn't although there were some problems. But then I can't think of a show or audio series that didn't have problems in its first year. The Sarah Jane Smith audios were a success, easy to follow, well structured and highly entertaining. Just no more Terrance or Barry.