Review: The Sarah Jane Adventures - Season 4 (PG) / Directed by: Joss Agnew, Alice Troughton, Ashley Way, Brian Minchin / Scripts by: Phil Ford, Joseph Lidster, Gareth Roberts, Russell T Davies, Rupert Laight, Clayton Hickman / Starring: Elisabeth Sladen, Tommy Knight, Anjili Mohandra, Daniel Anthony, Anthony Armstrong (voice), John Leeson (voice), Matt Smith, Katy Manning
It’s really no exaggeration to suggest that the death, in April this year, of long-time ‘Doctor Who’ stalwart Elisabeth Sladen was a body blow which left many antique fans of the series, myself included, reeling. Hard to imagine quite how the actress’s legions of younger fans, addicted to her teatime ‘Doctor Who’ spin-off show ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ must have felt by this horrible collision between fantasy and reality - but a quick look at the memorial wall on the BBC’s ‘Newsround’ website will leave no-one in any doubt that here was an actress whose work, as just one character, reached out across the generations and left an indelible mark on all of them. The last six episodes of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’, forming the truncated fifth season, have just transmitted on CBBC, marking the final bittersweet end of an era. ’Sarah Jane’ was a show which was always growing and evolving, just like its audience, and this is surely never more evident than in its fourth series, transmitted last year and finally arriving on DVD and Blu-ray (a first for the series) this month.
Series four of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ is all about growing up and, to a lesser degree, about growing old. In its fourth year it seemed as if the show’s writers and producers (Russell T Davies keeping a steady hand on the ship and even contributing a two-part script) had been conscious of the fact that the show’s intended audience was growing up and that some of the slapstick the series had indulged in in the past is unlikely to wash with a more sophisticated and maturing young audience. So the Slitheen, a constant in the show since year one, get a brief cameo in the first episode of ‘The Nightmare Man’, quickly turned to slime as if to acknowledge the fact that gunging is no longer going to be a major feature of the show. Even in series finale, the uncomfortably-presciently-titled ‘Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith’ the audience’s expectations are confounded when villainess Ruby White’s stomach doesn’t explode in a shower of coloured liquid but just burps out a little splodge of gunk. The show’s telling its audience that it’s no longer concerned with covering people in slime for the sake of it, and neither should they be. Series four recognises that its core characters (beyond Sarah Jane herself) – Luke, Clyde, Rani – are getting older and each of the stories address the consequences and difficulties of coping with growing pains, difficulties exacerbated by the outlandish lifestyle the trio enjoy due to their relationship with Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane, too, given a new lease of life courtesy of her ‘adopted’ son Luke, has to learn to let go as Luke moves away to Oxford (with a robot dog for company and a disturbing taste for inappropriate neckwear) and, at the end of the series, is apparently forced to face the prospect of her own faculties diminishing.
Joseph Lidster’s brilliant opening two-parter, ‘The Nightmare Man’, is possibly the best story of a strong season because it deftly balances some genuinely disturbing stuff – Julian Bleech’s creepy and unsettling vaguely mid-European turn as the titular villain, a creature who exists and feeds on the subconscious – and some great character stuff as the super-intelligent Luke is fast-tracked to Oxford and his friends Rani and particularly Clyde have to cope with unfamiliar emotions as their cosy friendship is threatened. How will Luke cope on his own? What will happen to his friendships with Rani and Clyde? The Nightmare Man himself is very much a metaphor for growing up, dealing with new, unfamiliar and very real problems. In Luke’s final confident confrontation with the him, it’s about rising above your fears and doubts and showing that you’re strong enough to survive even the greatest of adversity. As Luke toddles off to Oxford at the end of the story it’s the start of a new era for the show and when he returns in the second part of series finale ‘Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith’ both Clyde and Rani have grown and developed so much as they take centre-stage that he almost seems surplus to requirements and a throwback to a more naïve era in the show’s history.
‘Vault of Secrets’ is a nod in the direction of the more pantomime stories of earlier series, with its bumbling comic UFO conspiracy freaks, Rani’s Mum Gita’s comedy gurning and those always-unconvincing body-swap moments where returning bad guy Androvax (from series three) possesses Luke, Rani and Sarah Jane. But even here the show reins back its earlier instincts for knockabout fun. The mysterious ‘men in black’ brought to life from the David Tennant ‘Dreamland’ animation two or three years ago, are a formidable presence with their wrist machine-guns and even Androvax is given a bit more light and shade as the story centres around his desperation to keep his species alive and find a new home for the last of his race. Some good FX work (a particular feature of this series) and some well-staged action set pieces kept ‘Vault of Secrets’ pacey and enjoyable without ever being hugely memorable.
In any earlier series of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ a story like ‘Death of the Doctor’, featuring current TARDIS incumbent Matt Smith and a special reappearance by 1970s companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) who preceded Sarah Jane aboard the TARDIS, would be a centrepiece, a real flagship story for the whole series. But so strong are the rest of this year’s serials that ‘Death of the Doctor‘, a gift to us from Russell T Davies himself, is simply fifty-odd minutes of glorious, joyous fun. Davies grafts a simple but effective story to his typical beautifully-paced character moments, scenes which seem to slow down the action but in reality add some wonderful light and shade and serve as reminder of why Davies absolutely got what modern ‘Doctor Who’ should be. It’s probably fair to say that Davies was ‘Who-ed out’ by the end of his run but the break clearly did him a power of good. He grabs Matt Smith’s Doctor and just seems to instinctively grasp the character but ultimately the story exists as a glorified piece of fan fiction as Davies gets to do what he couldn’t really do during his time at the helm of the parent show; he just shows off. Davies fills his scripts with fan-pleasing continuity references as Jo Grant (now Jo Jones, of course) swaps TARDIS anecdotes with Sarah Jane and later, as prisoners of the Shansheeth (not the show’s finest monster hour, being lumbering vulture undertakers redeemed by suitably funereal voices) the two recall their past in a string of flashback sequences which recall their experiences with earlier Doctors. Random dialogue references obscure stories like the appalling Colin Baker 1984 story ‘Timelash’, the girls delight in discovering they both visited medieval planet Peladon and Davies gets to drop in references to Metebelis 3 and briefly fills us in on the fates of a number of fan favourite former companions, right back to Ian and Barbara who were there when it all started back in 1963. Typically, Davies depicts Jo as being as scatty as ever but, contrary to popular fan opinion, he sees her as still happily married, with a stream of children and grandchildren, still boldly travelling the world fighting for the planet’s rights just as the nascent environmentalist Jo did back in her last regular appearance in 1973. ‘Death of the Doctor’ couldn’t help but bring a little tear to the eye of anyone who ever watched ‘Doctor Who’ back in the 1970s and, if we don’t get Davies back to write the odd script for ‘Doctor Who’ in the future, it’s a story which can happily stand as a wonderful full-stop to his work on the show, a little coda to the character he knows and loves so well.
After such ‘fan-squee’ delights the rest of the series might have been expected to have turned out to be a bit of an anti-climax but not a bit of it. ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ picked up its metaphorical skirts and reached even higher. Season four’s Lis Sladen-lite yarn, ‘The Empty Planet’ may have been written just for me, still suffering withdrawal symptoms from the premature cancellation of the BBC’s reboot of Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’ and still morbidly fascinated by the idea of a world without pesky people in it. Phil Ford’s script, in which both Clyde and Rani wake to find themselves in… well, the title gives it away, I suppose… is cleverly constructed to give the two youngsters a turn at talking centre-stage and crucially and fundamentally, to allow them to develop as young adults rather than children. Faced with the prospect of living on an a depopulated Earth the pair have to cope with the tricky business of potentially starting humanity all over again; it’s a thought Rani doesn’t take too kindly to but Clyde seems quite pleased at the prospect. With Luke out of the way, viewers are forced to see Clyde and Rani almost as a ‘couple’, the only two youngsters left in Sarah Jane’s immediate world and drawn together because of their shared experiences. It adds a new dimension to the ‘friends’ relationship the show has traded on previously and builds nicely on a few subtle suggestions of a potentially deeper relationship between the two in the first episode of ‘The Nightmare Man’. ‘The Empty Planet’ shows the pair racing around the deserted streets of Ealing (but to a fairly local boy it’s painfully obviously Newport City Centre) and the story is enlivened by some zingy dialogue between the pair and two impressive robots which are stamping about the place. The story even takes advantage of story elements from previous years – Rani and Clyde haven’t been ‘evacuated’ because of the ‘banning’ order placed on them by the Judoon last year, prohibiting them from leaving Earth (although quite how we reconcile this with the consequences of Clyde’s bodyswap with the Doctor in the previous story, I’m not entirely sure just yet).
‘Lost in Time’ is a thoughtful and mature two-parter which more than adequately fulfils the BBC’s Reithian principles of “educating and entertaining” as, through the handy convenience of a time portal conjured up by the mysterious ‘Shopkeeper’ (former ‘The Bill’ star Cyril Nri), Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani are dispatched into three different time zones to recover three artefact upon which the fate of the world depends. Oo-er. This is basically the ‘Doctor Who’ ‘Key To Time’ season from 1978 across fifty minutes but it pitches Clyde into a World War 2 scenario and a close encounter with racist Nazi invaders, Rani gets to know the doomed Lady Jane Grey and Sarah Jane enjoys a more traditional supernatural adventure where echoes of the future impact upon the past. Moody and slower-paced than much of the season, this is intelligent thought-provoking stuff and a reminder of how far the show has come so quickly since the Mona Lisa with a space gun and the Judoon driving a Police Car.
So to the season finale and ‘Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith’ which, with the benefit of hindsight, manages to bring a premature sense of imminent closure for the whole series. In part one the gang meet up with Ruby Anne White (played with real power and malevolence by Julie Graham who’s so clearly having the time of her life here) who is everything Sarah Jane is only younger and with better tech (she has a palmtop version of Sarah Jane’s redoubtable but clunky Mr Smith supercomputer). There’s something wrong with Sarah Jane; she’s forgetful, distant, not quite in control. Mr Smith diagnoses that she’s “very ill indeed” and Sarah Jane, not one to outstay her welcome, decides to do a moonlight flit and leaves it all – the house, the supercomputer, everything - to the entirely-plausible Ruby who has wormed her way into all their affections. But is Ruby all she seems? Can Clyde and Rani find out what’s become of their friend and find out Ruby’s secrets… if she has any? It’s another rousing romp, packed with more tear-jerking moments, big set-pieces, great FX and assured performances. But it’s a difficult couple of episodes to watch now, knowing as we do what was in store for Lis Sladen not that long after these episodes ostensibly depicting Sarah Jane as gravely ill, were recorded. Life imitates art yet again, and this time not in a good way.
Series four of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ was pretty much an unparalled success. Four years in, Sarah Jane’s show was on top form, a show with enough depth and maturity to please even sniffy adults who wouldn’t come close because it’s a kid’s show. I’ll be looking at the recent very last batch of episodes in greater depth in next month’s ‘TV Zone’ column but this DVD release stands as a fitting example of how much the series was able to grow and mature from its debut pilot episode in 2006 and how kid’s TV is going to be such a poorer place without Sarah Jane to defend the world just as that world has lost a little bit of its sparkle with the passing of Elisabeth Sladen.
Special features: Nothing exclusive (hopefully a tribute to Lis for the season five boxset?) but an entire four-part ‘Doctor Who’ serial from 1975 (‘Pyramids of Mars’ starring Tom Baker and Lis) isn’t a bad extra, recognised as one of he best fourth Doctor/Sarah Jane stories and it’s certainly a tale likely to entice younger viewers who’ve yet to sample the delights of ‘classic’ ‘Doctor Who’
‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ season four is available on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK from 2 Entertain on 31st October 2011