Blightyvision: “The Sarah Jane Adventures”

Created by Russell T. Davies
Starring Elisabeth Sladen, Daniel Anthony, and Tommy Knight

The sad fact of the matter is, I knew there was another series half in the can, and was thus holding off reviewing as far as this show had gotten until one more series had come out.  However, with the sad news of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing recently, I figured it was as good a time as any for me to finally have a look at this series.

An attempt was made in 1981 to give Sarah Jane Smith her own spinoff with the ill-fated “K-9 and Company.”  Fortunately for all, in 2006 her return to the new series of Doctor Who in the episode “School Reunion” spurred another attempt at her own series.  This time, The Sarah Jane Adventures survived its pilot and went on to run four series — good series.

The setup seems a bit like a better-executed version of something that had been rattling around in RTD’s head — he admitted a bit back to wanting to do a spin-off Doctor Who series featuring a very young indeed Doctor and school-age companions, aimed at a CBBC-aged crowd.  Fandom said OH HELL NO, and instead we got to see just how well a sixty-something actress can head up a cast made up predominantly of teenagers.

The pilot episode, “Invasion of the Bane,” was thrillingly geeky for what it was.  It introduced Sarah Jane as we’d last seen her, working (still) as a gutsy investigative reporter from her home at 13 Bannerman Road.  (A sly “Delta and the Bannermen” reference?  Possibly, but there really is a Bannerman Road out there.)  With help from her new neighbor Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) and Maria’s devastatingly annoying “friend” Kasey, Sarah Jane investigated the case of a dastardly alien tainting a popular brand of soda.  In the process she found Luke (Knight), an archetypal human boy created by aliens for experimentation, and adopted him right off.  Together with Luke, Maria, and computer-in-the-attic Mr. Smith (voiced by comedian Alexander Armstrong), Sarah Jane has her own alien-fighting team on hand to protect the Earth while the Doctor is away.

After a successful start, the weak link (i.e. Kasey) was removed and replaced with the much more amiable and well-written Clyde (Anthony) and the show took off almost immediately.  The episodes were very Doctor Who-lite — the same themes, many crossover aliens, but with some of the darker edge taken off and clocking in at a more manageable run-time of under 30 minutes per episode.  The imagery and nature of the stories are aimed at a younger audience, but they never pander and still maintain the strong plot without quite as many arc-words and Lonely God moments as its parent show.

At the beginning of the second series, Paige bowed out to pursue her education, and Maria’s spot was filled by the fan-baitingly-named Rani Chandra (Anjli Mohindra).  Maria’s departure and Rani’s acceptance into the group were handled in their own separate episode in an understanding and straightforward way that made things clear to its younger viewers while still moving the plot along.  (Luke’s departure for college was handled similarly — and from the POV of the parent, at that.)  Because of this, the limited casting changes never feel particularly abrupt.

One of the truly fantastic things about the show — and something that has, on occasion, made me actually prefer it to Doctor Who — is its readiness to dive back into classic Who. Later episodes feature guest appearances by both David Tennant and Matt Smith as the Doctor, and K-9 (voiced by John Leeson, as ever) makes occasional appearances.  Not bad … but then there are cameos from Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier and Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and a brief bit in one episode where Sarah Jane tweaks NASA’s Mars rover to prevent it from seeing a pyramid.

The Sarah Jane Adventures is, to be honest, properly magnificent.  It’s a lighter companion piece (no pun … okay, pun completely intended) to Doctor Who, more kid-oriented while still being clever.  Sladen is far more mature in the role years later, but she’s still easily recognizable as the Sarah Jane we all know and love — and her energy is amazing, practically enough to capture the attention of a young audience without any younger help.  And it’s been an amazing repository for all the old-school references and guest appearances that we just haven’t been able to have in Doctor Who proper for some reason.  It was set to run for two more series before Lis Sladen’s untimely death, and the first half of Series 5 was already completed with the second half being written.

The death of the title character — and one without whom the series can’t really go on — is a rotten, heartbreaking reason for a show to end, especially when it was only getting better by the season.  Whether they’ll show what got made, and hopefully tie up the ending of Sarah Jane’s story within the context of the show, is yet to be seen.  Either way, this is a true must-watch for Doctor Who fans of all eras — more so, actually, for classic fans.  Where it could have gone given more time is anyone’s guess, but what we got to see has been amazing.

The Sarah Jane Adventures is available in separate DVD box sets for Series 1, Series 2, and Series 3, with the fourth hopefully soon to follow.  I was so close to finishing this review without getting all weepy, too …

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  1. Written by Arkonbey
    on 2011-05-05 at 23:41

    From this review and others I’ve read, it seems that SJA is a fitting legacy for Ms. Sladen.

    I must admit to not having watched any SJA yet. As a Who fan, that is probably dereliction of duty. I’ll have to remedy that asap.

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