Review: The Sarah Jane Adventures - Series Five (PG) / Directed by: Ashley Way, Joss Agnew / Written by: Phil Ford, Gareth Roberts / Starring: Elisabeth Sladen, Daniel Anthony, Anjli Mohindra, Sinead Michael, Tommy Knight, Ace Bhatti, Mina Anwar, Alexander Armstrong (voice) / Release date: 6th February 2012
In a fairer world the sixth season of The Sarah Jane Adventures would be gearing up for production right about now, twelve episodes of clever, thrilling, witty adventure TV for kids (of all ages) heading for CBBC in the Autumn. But the world, as we know, just ain't fair and the tragic death of Elisabeth Sladen last April brought the successful Doctor Who spin-off to a premature end and left the fifth series truncated down into just the six episodes which had been filmed earlier in the year for budgetary reasons. Screened last October these six brief episodes - just three two-part stories - arrive on DVD to bring the story of Doctor Who's greatest companion to a final end. And whilst these six episdoes aren't really the show at its strongest - who knows what might have been waiting in the second half of the season? - they remain a fitting, poignant testament to a show which never took its audience for granted and never ever sold them short in terms of the show's remit to provide intelligent, imaginative storytelling for children.
Where season four had resolutely addressed the issues of the show's supporting characters growing up - Sarah Jane's genetically-engineered son Luke (Knight) went off to University (and took his robot dog with him) and the scripts were slyly suggesting that Clyde (Anthony) and Rani (Mohindra) were not only maturing fast but were becoming a sort of 'partnership' all their own (emphasised in this fifth season by the returning Luke calling the pair 'Clani' in the final story), season five attempts to press the reset button and aim the show more squarely at a young audience again with the introduction of Sky in the first story (which bears her name) which has a knowing resemblance to the show's 2006 sixty-minute pilot episode Invasion of the Bane which saw the reclusive Sarah Jane Smith inadvertently becomimg a mother when she 'adopts' Luke, a creation of the alien Bane. In Sky the ages-long battle between the Fleshkind and the Metalkind spills over onto Earth when a living weapon (Sky herself) engineered to wipe out the Metalkind falls into the hands of Sarah Jane and the Bannerman Road gang and quickly develops into a naive and terrified twelve year-old girl. The story even echoes Samantha Bond's turn as the villainous Mrs Wormwood with the flamboyant Fleshkind matriarch Miss Myers (Christine Stephen-Daly) and at the end of the story, with the aliens vanquished and Sky 'deactivated', Sarah Jane wilfully takes this new waif under her wing. Like Tommy Knight before her, Sinead Michael who plays Sky isn't an especially strong actor (her cause isn't help by the isn't-she-sweet twinkly piano music which seems to accompany her every appearance) but she serves the intended purpose of giving the show a younger identification figure for a younger audience.
The Curse of Clyde Langer is stronger stuff dealing with themes of alienation and homelessness in a manner which wouldn't disgrace an adult drama. Here an ancient totem pole on display in a museum exhibition exerts a baleful influence over Clyde who becomes a figure of hatred and loathing to anyone who says his name in full. With everyone turned against him - Elisabeth Sladen is on particularly good form as she pours out her bile and hatred towards her former friend and ally - Clyde finds himself cast out on the streets and living in a homeless shelter with an attractive young girl apparently named Ellie. Of course there's a happy ending of sorts but the show manages to make a few discreet points about the fact that, to most of us, the homeless are invisible creatures whose existence we deny just as much as the more routine aliens which seem to terrorise Sarah Jane's little corner of London with alarming/amusing regularity.
The show goes out with a bit of a damp squib in the broad The Man Who Never Was in which the launch of a new tablet computer (nothing like the iPad, Good Lord, no) is a cover for a massive scam to fleece the world's population by conning them into buying a rubbishy piece of computer kit. Oh how we've all been there... This is largely knockabout stuff (although there's an eye-openingly rude gag in the second episode) featuring a hologram operated by one-eyed cloaked aliens and a performance from James Dreyfuss as the bad guy which is so over the top it's in orbit around Saturn. Many an eye will moisten, though, at the end of the story's second episode which becomes a devastatingly-sad tribute to Lis Sladen in the form of one of her familiar lovey-dovey voiceovers and a montage of some series highlights, ending up with a close-up of Lis at her best, smiling benignly like the cool much older best friend none of us has ever had.
Series five is a tough one to call because it's really only half the intended story. Sky suggests the show's very first story arc with the brief reappearance of the mysterious, quirky Caretaker (Cyril Nri) from the previous season, and a vague promise from Sarah Jane that we'll find out just who he is "one day" and with Luke passing on the mantle of Sarah Jane's ward at the very end of the series. So many stories untold, so much left undone. But the final caption promises, as it probably should, that the adventure continues forever. The Sarah Jane Adventures will be replaced in the CBBC schedule later this year by another Russell T Davies show - Wizards Vs Aliens is casting at the moment and will start filming shortly - and whilst I've no doubt it'll be a robust, exciting adventure it just won't be The Sarah Jane Adventures, the children's own spin-off which adults could enjoy too.
Special features: The Sarah Jane boxsets haven't previously been overflowing with bonus material but season five boasts a real doozy. 'Goodbye Bannerman Road - Remembering Elisabeth Sladen' is a beautiful twenty-minute tribute to the beloved actress with Daniel Anthony, Anjli Mohindra and series script editor Gary Russell returning to the Bannerman Road location just outside Cardiff a year after their last filming sessions and a few months after Lis's death and they share warm, sad memories of working with the legendary actress. Elsewhere there are clips, contemporary news reports of Lis's passing and even current Doctor Matt Smith voicess his admiration. It's a lovely piece, and it alone justifies purchasing the set, even if the episodes represent the series operating at half-strength. 'Goodbye Bannerman Road', trust me, is enough to make a grown man cry. Oh. It just did...