Sarah Jane, Comedy or Tragedy (Contains SJA spoilers)

I came across a wonderful quote from Northrop Frye a few days ago – in the reading guide to a novel by Salley Vickers called Mr Golightly’s Holiday. It’s basically about the difference between comedy and tragedy:

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“I owe to the critic Northrop Frye the brilliant observation that, temperamentally, we tend to favour the tragic or the comic outlook. It was his contention that Dante, Shakespeare and the authors behind the New Testament were, in essence, finally comedians – hence The Divine Comedy by which he meant not that they were a fund of belly laughs but that ultimately they saw life as more powerful than the forces which conspire against it: that the canon of their works – for all their equivocation and deep ambiguity – evolves towards “happy” ends. Happy ends are not fashionable nowadays, but a happy end does not necessarily imply Pollyanna or Panglossism, that an author believes all of life is agreeable, or that everything is moving inevitably towards the best possible conclusion. It merely implies a particular slant of vision, one which sees the potential, deep in the core of human affairs, for misfortune’s alternative – a view which may in fact encourage and replicate just that possibility. For, while art can never replicate life itself, it does affect and influence it. It is arguable, therefore, that there is a responsibility at least not to overlook the comic as a component of the real.”


As a student of Shakespeare, I think a lot about genre. What makes comedy comedy and tragedy tragedy? When you read the first act of Othello you realise how easily it could have been a comedy – all the tropes are there – rebellious daughter, furious father, runaway bride, and so forth. Shakespeare offers us several studies of sexual jealousy – some comic, one incredibly tragic and a strange one that switches gear completely halfway through (The Winter’s Tale).

Comedy does not necessarily end happily. I write this straight after seeing a performance of Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the last images were of the left-over people who didn’t do well out of the game of love – Malvolio, Maria and Sir Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek. All to the tune of a rather wistful litle song  about how the rain it raineth every day. But the point is the tone. Feste, the clown, sings the song, and there’s a wry acceptance of human life in all its fulfilment and frustration, its silliness and occasional glory. You don’t come away feeling gutted and depressed, though you might well argue about whether the gulling of Malvolio is cruel or funny, or whether it’s a good idea to marry a chap who threatened to kill you a few minutes ago out of sheer spite when he found out his lady-love had married someone else. It’s not a case of everyone living happily ever after – but it is hopeful.

Even tragedy isn’t necessarily hopeless. Hamlet learns about himself before he dies, Lear discovers Cordelia’s love was the real thing, Emilia finds the strength to defy her husband and defend Desdemona, and she dies for it but is believed. There’s courage and heroism and hope even in the darkest places.

Comedy is actually very difficult to write. It’s much easier to be cynical and keep banging the same old anvil. And I think old Northrop is right – some people just think the world sucks, basically. They can’t reach that point of acceptance – which is not necessarily the same thing as stoicism.

In the middle of my weekend on Shakespeare, I watched Ten in Sarah Jane. It left me with little enthusiasm for the Specials. I know this was just a kids’ show but it was hollow and depressing. Marriage, we learned, prevents you from being your true self. Why does Sarah Jane have to sacrifice so much to defend the Earth? Why isn’t the Doctor helping her – not by saving the day when it suits him but by nurturing mentoring relationships with the others who could help her on Earth? If he hadn’t been a douche after Journey’s End, there’d be people who could hold the fort while she went on her honeymoon. And don’t get me started, please, on why Sarah Jane deserves to have her wedding crashed when Jack got dumped on Satellite Five.

I hate what Ten has become. I hate the way he says kids are briliant and then watches stony-faced while they’re in the TARDIS. Where has his sense of wonder gone? Why does he have to be so paranoid about getting hurt that he couldn’t even have a cup of tea with Sarah Jane and these kids he says are brilliant (including one that got badly hurt saving the day?) What did Ten actually do, compared to Clyde who put his life on the line to face the Trickster? I can’t respect him any more. I hate what RTD has made him into – someone pathologically afraid of any kind of human contact. No wonder Tennant left – he must be bored to tears with such a static character. He certainly looks it. Every gesture, look and soundbite is familiar.

I don’t want to spend Christmas watching the Trickster torture Ten all over again by showing him he could have been happy with Rose. That’s easy to write. It’s called angst and anyone can wallow fashionably in it. I can only really see one way out now – that Ten flips, goes bad and grabs the happiness he’s denied himself for so long. Then at least we’ll see the terrible consequences of him not being noble, and we’ll feel there’s some kind of point.

I read Moffatt the other day saying that in S5 there’ll be some joyful moments among the heartbreak. I’m not great fan of Moff and I’m lukewarm about Eleven, but I did wonder if he was making a bit of a comment on what the show’s turned into there.

Anybody can make me cry like a bitch, particularly if David Tennant’s acting and Murray Gold’s writing the music. On Christmas Night, I want someone that can challenge me and make me feel the human race is infinitely interesting and marvellous, that people can embrace their destiny, do the right thing, change and grow and become bigger, not smaller in the process. I think Hamlet may be a better bet..

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4 thoughts on “Sarah Jane, Comedy or Tragedy (Contains SJA spoilers)

  1. Marriage, we learned, prevents you from being your true self
    I confess, I didn’t see it as that. I saw that particular marriage as doomed. There was a man alive that shouldn’t have been, and he was being manipulated by a bad guy so his evil plans weren’t thwarted in the future. In the episode, Sarah-Jane discusses with her son that she thought she’d closed that avenue off in her life because of the fantastic things she’d seen with the Doctor. Her fiancee pointed out that she fell in love and kissed him before things went into Bad Guy Plans territory. And yet, the Doctor’s influence saves her. Because of the Doctor, she doesn’t walk blindly into the life everyone expects of conforming humans… Find partner, get married, have kids, don’t think of anything beyond that which would help other people. I’m impressed that a kids show tells its audience to be yourself rather than do what is expected of you. This particular marriage was doomed. The Doctor’s influence was a positive thing in Sarah-Jane’s life. She has demonstrated she is capable of being in love and saving the world. She may well get married in the future and share her Earth defending with a romantic partner, and good for her.
    What did Ten actually do, compared to Clyde who put his life on the line to face the Trickster? and Why isn’t the Doctor helping her – not by saving the day when it suits him but by nurturing mentoring relationships with the others who could help her on Earth?
    We forget, this isn’t the Doctor’s show. Let’s call the guest star of the story… Bob. Bob is pretty fantastic, but he’d be a Mary-Sue if he came in, saved the day while the regulars stood around and let him, and then pootled off. Bob inspires people to be the best they can be, so he isn’t necessary to saving the world. Bob is like a teacher. Bob gets a set time with his students in which to teach them everything, and then he lets them use that knowledge in their chosen career. Bob would be exhausted if he went back and caught up with all his past students to see if they were making the most of their… human resources.
    I am kind of impressed that Ten is letting his human children do things on their own. He obviously knows he’s dying soon, and he won’t be around forever to molly coddle his precious Earth. He’s letting us stand on our own.
    hy does he have to be so paranoid about getting hurt that he couldn’t even have a cup of tea with Sarah Jane[?]
    It is a shame, however, that he’s still in the mentality that he turns the people he touches into weapons of mass destruction, so he won’t stay for a cup of tea. Then again, it would be instant pain because the first thing Sarah-Jane would ask, being as she’s just lost her lover, is how things are with Rose. But Bob is a guest on the show and he’s not got time in 25 minutes to go into his life story. Last of the Time Lords and the TARDIS, enough to be working with.
    An interesting thing for me is the contrast between Sarah-Jane’s loneliness and the Doctor’s. At the end, Sarah-Jane is very happy with her life and the three children in it. It’s enough, but there is scope for more in the future if she chooses. The Doctor, however, is not happy with just the three children to combat his loneliness when the Trickster confronts him. He needs more in his life.
    I like the precedent the episode sets, in that the Doctor will visit previous companions. He could have left Sarah-Jane to the ‘one adventure he’s always wanted’. It sets it up that he will visit other companions in the future. Hopefully Donna and Rose, so he can fix what he did wrong there. It seems Rose is the only companion that hasn’t walked down the aisle so far…
    Though I do agree, as it stands the Doctor is in a very small and limiting place as a character. Let us hope that he stole the ideas from Rae and the Humperdinck I handed to him in person.

  2. If it makes you feel any better about the Specials, the Wedding of SJS was written by Gareth Roberts (Shakespeare Code, Unicorn and the Wasp). RTD is no more responsible for this than he is the Girl in the Fireplace.

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