The Second Coming was Russell T Davies’ first major attempt at telling a Big Story on a small scale, the second episode of which basically took place in a single Major Location and a succession of kitchens and living rooms. This idea served him well through five years of Doctor Who, and the basic premise of The Sarah Jane Adventures, with its industrial complexes and suburban interiors, is a perfect fit: each story revolves around a single Big Idea (what would happen if the entire planet were evacuated? Or the Mona Lisa came to life?), seen through the eyes of a couple of schoolchildren and the strange lady who lives over the road.
There are basically two kinds of Sarah Jane Adventure - the lolloping, lively runarounds that often feature monsters more readily associated with the parent series, and the more thoughtful, slower and spookier stories that seem to have become defined by the appearance of the Trickster. This is, of course, a gross generalisation, and the opening story of Series Five, Sky, starts deceptively with an episode that suggests the latter kind of adventure might be in store.
In a storyline that hints ever so vaguely at the seventh Doctor story Delta and the Bannermen (highly appropriate for the final round of Sarah Jane Adventures, given where they are located), an alien baby is left on Sarah Jane’s doorstep in the middle of the night, at the same time as a metal man materialises out of nowhere in the middle of a junkyard. What follows is the introductory story for a new ‘companion’ character, a replacement for Sarah Jane’s adopted son Luke. Like Luke, Sky is central to her introductory story, no mere child but the McGuffin around which the plot revolves. Unlike Luke, Sky does not arrive fully-formed, and even at the adventure’s end, she is still by far the youngest of Sarah Jane’s young friends. It’s a brave new step for the series, to have a character as young and as fragile as this, and without a full series to judge by, it’s hard to tell if it would have worked, although Sky does get the lion’s share of resolving plot issues in her second story, by way of ensuring that the character earns her place in Sarah Jane’s gang.
The rest of this first adventure is a fairly standard Sarah Jane runaround, with two alien species duking it out on battlefield Earth and neither caring a fig for the consequences – and as usual, it’s down to Sarah Jane herself to be the conscience of everyone concerned; there is always a ‘90210 moment’ in The Sarah Jane Adventures, and it’s to the series’ credit that this doesn’t feel like heavy-handed moralising so much as it is entirely appropriate, given how the outlandish subject matters are being dealt with in a children’s programme. This show could so easily be inconsequential and ‘fluffy’; instead, it’s compulsory and compelling.
One of the very best things in the show is Daniel Anthony, and it feels like at least once a series he gets a story in which to flex his acting muscles, the events revolving around his character; such is the case with The Curse of Clyde Langer. This begins with a sci-fi take on the kind of playground incident that children must be quite familiar with, Clyde essentially being turned upon by everyone he knows, ostracised from family and friends alike at the mere mention of his name. The story then deals with the issue of homelessness, and in an ostensibly ‘simplistic’ way that educates without alienating, while at the same time thoroughly enough that the message isn’t lost or glossed over.
The Sarah Jane Adventures is very good at dealing with issues in a way that children and adults alike can understand, and The Curse of Clyde Langer – with several moments of pathos that most ‘grown-up’ telly can’t begin to compete with – is easily the best of these three stories, perhaps the best in the entire five series. The resolution for Clyde’s ‘lost’ friend Ellie is ambiguous and affecting in a way that is entirely unexpected from something that gets shown on the CBBC channel.
There’s an issue at the heart of The Man Who Never Was, as well, and with the planet we live on becoming smaller by the day, it is perhaps one that’s more pertinent than initially might seem to be the case; Gareth Roberts’ story is concerned with slavery and the buying and selling of sentient beings. It is perhaps the least successful of the three Series Five stories, and sadly a very unconvincing way for the entire programme to come to an end (regardless of the short montage tacked on to the end of episode two), but that’s not to say that as a mid-series story (and The Man Who Never Was was always intended to be the third of six stories, regardless of what you might read elsewhere; The Sarah Jane Adventures finales usually involve a plot in which the nature of Sarah Jane’s character itself is brought into question) this isn’t well worth its slot. The Skullions (coming across like cycloptic Jawas) are a neat creation, as convincing yet daft as any other of the Sarah Jane monsters (oh that Character Options hadn’t given up so soon on their SJA line of figures; there have been some fantastic aliens in the last three series of this show), and the central storyline of an ‘animated man’ (who glitches) is wonderfully silly – in the very best way.
The Sarah Jane Adventures, with its alien artefacts and its small-scale incursions and Big Ideas, is basically Torchwood-for-kids, a modern, groovy, techno-savvy version of Scooby Doo. Sarah Jane herself is Captain Jack (although she precedes that character by a number of decades), the mysterious yet caring, and apparently never-aging, ‘parent’ figure to an ever-changing rotation of assistants. It’s the Doctor Who format given a home, a base of operations, and the feeling of a family unit (however disparately assembled) at its core. The Jon Pertwee era remade for the 21st Century, then. And just like the Pertwee years, there’s a sense of sameness about the stories sometimes, a sense of ideas being repeated and developed and improved. And just like the Doctor Who of the early 1970s, there’s a very definite sense of a production team at the absolute height of their game, so clued-in to the programme they’re making that they are creating what is, essentially, ‘perfect’ television. This show could quite possibly be the best children’s programme ever. There isn’t a thing about The Sarah Jane Adventures that you would wish to change.
Which is why it is such an incredible shame that the one person you really couldn’t change – the one person who was entirely irreplaceable – is now gone. Sarah Jane Smith. This time, there will be no coming back. Gone she may be, but she will live forever, thanks to her ‘regeneration’ at the hands of Russell T and chums. It’s testament to both Elisabeth Sladen herself, and the love that now exists for Doctor Who (of whatever vintage) that the character of Sarah Jane Smith has become such an indelible fixture in our hearts. How I envy those youngsters who’ve yet to experience The Time Warrior or Genesis of the Daleks!
And it’s a crying shame that we’ll never get to find out how the latter half of this fifth series of Sarah Jane Adventures would have progressed. Only an accident of accounting led to the first three stories being recorded months ahead of schedule, and with none of the really big, show-stopping episodes that have characterised previous series in evidence (no Doctors, no other returning vintage Doctor Who regulars, no borrowed monsters), the final three SJAs, as good as they are (as good as Sarah Jane always is; there’s been genuine quality control at work on this programme, as if the producers know how important good children’s telly needs to be, and have insisted this show lives up to that standard with every episode), do feel a little like a work in progress. Still, we’re extremely lucky to have them at all.
But in Daniel Anthony and Anjli Mohindra (whose Rani Chandra is the quiet, dependable heart of so many of the stories, reliable and un-showy) we have the most wonderful Doctor Who companions who never were; they are a modern Ian and Barbara, no less. Steven Moffat really ought to think about giving them a new home.