Elisabeth Sladen is considered by many to have played the archetypal female companion to the Doctor in the long running BBC science fiction series “Doctor Who”. She played the role of Sarah Jane Smith for three years, between 1973 and 1976, opposite both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and soon became a firm favourite with the show’s legion of fans. Sarah Jane’s courage and inquisitive nature, and her willingness to occasionally question some of the Doctor’s decisions (while always remaining fiercely loyal) lent the character much depth during her stint, and the relationship between she and the rogue Time Lord always seemed that much more profound than has sometimes been the case with some of the other companions who had travelled on-board the TARDIS over the years. When the BBC tried to launch robot dog K-9 in his own series in the 1980s, Sladen briefly took up the role once again, being the obvious choice to accompany him on his robotic adventures, in the abortive “K-9 and Company”. The character made yet another reappearance in the Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special “The Five Doctors”, and featured in several BBC radio plays and audio book adventures during the nineties; she also made a guest appearance in the Nu-Who episode “School Reunion” opposite David Tennant and Billie Piper in 2006, which dealt with the theme of what happens to former companions of the Doctor once they’ve stopped traveling with him in time and space and have to try and lead an ordinary life again.
So when in 2005 Russell T. Davies was asked to come up with a spin-off show aimed primarily at younger viewers, the success of that previous series 2 episode provided him with the springboard for re-launching Sarah Jane Smith in her own series, something he felt was a better option than a show about the adventures of the Doctor as a teenager, which is what the BBC originally suggested. (Ironically, give the current incumbent’s tender years, Matt Smith -- at least in looks -- almost fulfils that original brief!)
“The Sarah Jane Adventures” started in 2007 and like the main show it was produced by BBC Wales, but this time for CBBC, with a premise that sees the now middle-aged journalist living in an ordinary, leafy suburban setting at 13 Bannerman Road. In the beginning, she struggles to trust other people again after years of being a loner and not feeling a full part of the human race because of all the amazing things she knows about the Universe but can’t share with anyone else. During the series, she teams up with a small band of teenagers who live in and around Bannerman Road and together they help keep the Earth safe from alien invasion, much as her old friend the Brigadier and the UNIT team used to back in the old days, except that Sarah Jane disapproves of their militaristic approach and would much rather befriend or reason with alien visitors whenever possible.
The show tacitly posits that children and teenagers are generally more open-minded and able to accept the amazing Universe of new possibilities opened up by Sarah Jane’s unique lifestyle, while the grown-up world of parents and teachers etc. is less able to adapt. But her own solitary lifestyle has also been challenged by her latest round of earthbound adventures, as well: the childless Sarah Jane has become a mother after adopting a teenage boy called Luke (Tommy Knight), a child genius who’s actually an artificial human, originally created by an alien race known as the Bane as part of their invasion plan. Since the series began, a number of accomplices and friends have come and gone, but by series 3 the line-up seems to have settled down somewhat, and now the team includes Clyde Langer (Daniel Anthony), a classmate of Luke’s and the wisecracking ‘cool kid’ of the group -- and Rani Chandra (Anjli Mohindra), a teenage would-be investigator who lives across the road and wants to be a journalist like Sarah Jane, seeing her mysterious neighbour as something of a role model. Also, in Sarah Jane’s attic is a sophisticated computer called Mr Smith (voiced by Alexander Armstrong) and the team gets occasional help from old friend K-9, in his Mark IV form (John Leeson).
Series 3 heralded a new format for the show: each of the six stories that make up the full twelve-part series were split into two half-hour episodes, and the show was broadcast twice-weekly over consecutive weekday afternoons. This series got much higher ratings than most children’s TV programming, largely because David Tennant’s tenth Doctor featured prominently in one mid-season story as a special guest. As usual, the stories feature a mix of new creatures specifically created for the show, and some of the monsters that have already been established on past series’ of Nu-Who, connecting it to the Whoniverse as a whole through both the re-booted and the original series. Murray Gold’s jaunty theme music – a melodic variation based on the rhythm underpinning the Doctor Who them itself – keys in to the series’ inherent sense of wonder and irreverence and sets the mood for the episodse to come. The stories are inevitably less weighty than most of those featured in the parent show: there is almost always a simple moral in each of the tales which a younger audience would be able to understand easily, and there is often even more overt and much broader comedy involved too. K-9 makes his first appearance since the original pilot show in 2007, and is involved in comic rivalry with Mr Smith -- the supercomputer built with extra-terrestrial technology which Sarah Jane keeps in the attic. Although the quality of the special effects often betrays a much smaller budget than even the less flashy fifth series of “Doctor Who” had at its disposal, “The Sarah Jane Adventures” is still a much more sophisticated work than 90% of programmes made for children; its young cast are routinely excellent, particularly Daniel Anthony and Anji Mohindra who have a charming chemistry between them which is augmented by some sparky dialogue, mainly from head-writer Phil Ford. All three younger characters appear fully rounded but also have their flaws – which offers ample opportunity for the series’ morality play story format to excel.
PRISONER OF THE JUDOON takes the thuggish, often brutal race of militaristic, rhinoceros-headed galactic policemen called the Judoon, and turns them into figures of fun for this opening episode in the series. The Judoon first appeared in the first episode of series 3 of Nu-Who, where they proved to be rather fierce and single-minded in pursuit of their harsh idea of the law, dealing out what can only be described as some very rough justice, while generally being unconcerned with the welfare of anyone who is unfortunate enough to get in their way while they’re in pursuit of their criminal quarry.
And this is why when a Judoon prison ship crash-lands in the middle of a London estate, Sarah Jane and her young friends know they have to help Captain Tybo (its bad-tempered Judoon prison guard occupant) recapture his escaped prisoner before he calls in Juddon reinforcements: a prospect which doesn’t bode well for human life in the area. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the fact that the prisoner at large is a dangerous form of criminal alien being belonging to the ‘Veil’ race. Called Androvax – he is also known as a destroyer of worlds!
When Androvax takes over Sarah Jane’s body and inveigles his way into Genetec Systems Labs -- a company pioneering a sophisticated form of nanobot micro-technology -- the whole future of the planet is put at risk; Androvax plans to build himself a spacecraft using the Genetec nanaobots, but he’s not too concerned with the fact that they’re inherently unstable, and will continue eating everything in their path even after he makes his escape. It’s up to Clyde, Luke and Rani to stop Androvax, rescue Sarah Jane, and stop the Judoon from harming her while the alien menace is still in possession of her body.
This is a pacey introduction to the new series which features a nice mix of light comedy and suspenseful jeopardy. The Judoon appear more like bumbling comedy characters here than they have when they’ve made their previous appearances in “Doctor Who”. A running joke is made out of their single-minded, rule-following nature, and their insistence that the law be followed at all times is taken to absurdist comic extremes; Captain Tybo is concerned about obeying no parking restrictions and even refuses to pass through a door with a NO ENTRY sign on it when in pursuit of Androvax! Although the streets seem to be conveniently empty in the middle of the day while this lumbering humanoid rhinoceros makes his search for the Veil creature in broad daylight, there is one amusing scene in which Tybo and Sarah Jane’s companions commandeer a police patrol car and cause some degree of consternation when Captain Tybo demands that a fellow commuter waiting alongside them at a traffic light turn down the volume on his car stereo in line with local noise abatement policy! There’s also an amusing one-liner from Rani when she watches Tybo waving his oversized blaster gun about with distaste and asks, “Who do you think you are, anyway … Jack Bauer?” Androvax becomes the focus of the story in the second episode, which plays out in fairly standard fashion with the Earth under threat from the nanobots and the alien foe intent on bringing the planet to ruin before he leaves out of sheer resentment for the death of his own world. The stories of “The Sarah Jane Adventures” tend to be structured as easily digestible morality fables which emphasise virtues such as the importance of friends and the need for trust and forgiveness; and, most of all, they illustrate that families can be created from unpromising materials and will flourish when these qualities are allowed to prevail but -- as becomes evident with the embittered Androvax – relationships break and resentments build when they don’t, as Rani discovers in the second episode.
THE MAD WOMAN IN THE ATTIC is another story with a pronounced morality tale feel to it, although it attempts far too much with the limited amount of time available in just two half-hour episodes, to be able to deal with its complex themes adequately. It’s a curious hybrid melding of science fiction ideas and images and some classic fairy tale motifs, and though it has some interesting ideas going for it, they get a bit lost and muddled in the unsatisfactorily rushed conclusion. The story emerges from Rani’s falling out with Sarah Jane and the others because she feels like they don’t take her seriously. She decides to investigate on her own some sightings of a devil-like creature at an off-season funfair where several people have disappeared in the past, after a childhood friend, Sam Lloyd (Toby Parks), makes contact with her again and gives her details of the case. She meets an elderly caretaker there and glimpses people on some of the rides with glowing red eyes who appear to be in a trance. The caretaker turns out to be harbouring an alien called Eve – a young red-skinned child from a race that can manipulate timelines and who can show people their past and their future in a mirror which links to her ship’s on-board computer. She can also control humans by putting them into a trance, thus creating a ready-made group of friends for herself. When Sarah Jane and the rest of the gang come looking for Rani, she ignores their advice and lets Eve outside, where her immaturity causes her to lose control of her powers, risking her own life and those of her captives.
There are some rather profound themes concerning loneliness and regret in old age being dealt with in this story; the mirror that can show you your future is a classic fairy tale fantasy conceit given a science fiction spin here, the Faustian nature of which is alluded to in the incidental resemblance of Eve to the classic image of the Devil -- even though she is not in any way evil and is simply a child who is not in full control of either her emotions or her powers. The whole story is told in flashback from the point of view of Rani in the year 2054, when she is the mad woman in the attic of the title, living in the dark, semi dilapidated attic of 13 Bannerman Road completely alone and with her old friends and Sarah Jane apparently no longer around. She is telling the tale to a teenager who visits the house, apparently as a dare from his friends. This is also the future the young Rani is shown by Eve in the mirror, and the rest of the story explains how it came to pass because of Rani’s falling out with her old friends. The story is brilliantly constructed to enable director Alice Troughton to cross-cut, at one crucial point, between the young Rani seeing her aged, lonely future in Eve’s predictive mirror, while this elder Rani remembers back to that precise moment while gazing at herself in the mirror on the attic wall.
The trouble with this intriguing tale is that fairy tale magic and science fiction alien powers really are conflated to become an all-purpose deus ex machine, conveniently providing any device the story requires, whenever it is needed. Thus Eve’s malfunctioning computer is able to grant wishes in fairy tale-like fashion and gives Rani her hasty unthinking desire (uttered in a fit of pique) to be left alone by the others, when it manipulates time in such a way that Sarah Jane and her friends literally never existed. The wish is just as easily retracted at the end, of course, and we see Rani in the ‘real’ future, now surrounded by grandchildren and living in a bright and sparkling 13 Bannerman Road with pictures of Sarah Jane and the others all around her. The troubling, unintentional message of this idea, though, seems to be that a happy sociable life is somehow worth more than a sad and lonely one, so it doesn’t matter that the old and ‘mad’ version of Rani is wiped from the timeline altogether!
The story utilises the mirror’s ability to see into Sarah Jane’s future in order to give us a little teaser for David Tennant’s forthcoming guest appearance in the next story THE WEDDING OF SARAH JANE SMITH, when Sarah Jane is given a fleeting vision of the TARDIS materialising in her attic while Eve’s Ship whispers ‘he is coming back!’ . Tennant doesn’t appear till the second episode of this two-part story, but we’re kept in an expectant mood throughout as the TARDIS materialisation noise is heard several times by Luke, Rani or Clyde at various points throughout the first episode. Although the story was broadcast before the Christmas/New Years’ Day Doctor Who special “The End of Time”, in which David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, these were actually the very last scenes the actor filmed in the role of the Doctor.
In this third story, the Doctor (David Tennant) intervenes to stop his old companion making a terrible mistake that would leave the Earth undefended from alien threat, after she falls in love with smooth-talking but mysterious businessman Peter Dalton (Nigel Havers), and accepts his surprise proposal of marriage. Her son Luke is elated to see his mother so happy, but Clyde is suspicious and is convinced something odd is happening when he and Rani investigate Peter’s house and find that it hasn’t been lived in for some time, with months’ worth of letters piling up at the door. The whole thing turns out to be a fiendish plot by the Trickster – a faceless, robed manifestation from the Pantheon of Discord that belongs to a race of beings from outside the Universe, who gain their powers by causing havoc and discord. Peter has been manipulated by the Trickster after an accident at home left him close to death. The Trickster keeps Peter in a half alive, half dead state, using him as a vessel to manipulate Sarah Jane into going along with his plans and separating her from the Doctor and her companions when she finally discovers the evil scheme.
In this story, marital happiness is equated with a drug-like trance state: as soon as Sarah Jane slips on Peter’s engagement ring (provided by the Trickster) she becomes a smiling, domesticated romance addict, uninterested in her old pursuit of keeping the Earth safe from extra-terrestrial threat. The Doctor literally gets to stop the wedding in classic, last minute style by crashing the service in the middle of the giving of the vows. After initially suspecting that Peter is himself part of the threat, we learn that his feelings are in fact completely genuine (and so are Sarah Jane’s, despite the fact that their meeting was orchestrated by the Trickster), but in order to defeat the Trickster’s plans, Peter must renounce his deal with him and accept the death he should have suffered in the original accident.
Once again, comedy plays a big role in the first episode, as Clyde, Rani and Luke attempt to keep Sarah Jane’s alien-fighting activities a secret from Peter whilst alien-related panic surrounds them all. The second episode is dominated by the Doctor’s reappearance, when, along with Sarah Jane’s companions, he’s trapped in a single recurring second of time in order to stop him from intervening in the Trickster’s attempt to manipulate the former companion. We’ve already seen the tenth Doctor meet and work alongside his former companion in both “School Reunion” and in the big stand-off between the Daleks and the full Nu-Who family in the series 4 finale. Here, the story provides a chance for the Doctor to meet and work alongside Sarah Jane Smith’s new young protégées. Despite Sarah Jane’s emotional goodbye to Peter and her renunciation of the life with him that the Trickster was offering her, and even after Peter’s noble acceptance of the fact that his love for Sarah Jane was never meant to be and that he should have died before he even met her, it is her second goodbye to the Doctor (with dialogue that echoes her final scene with Tom Baker back in her exit story “The Hand of Fear”) that inevitably becomes the emotional focus of the episode, particularly as David Tennant’s incarnation is near to exiting the role for good at this point as well. The boost to the ratings afforded by this cross-over ensured the same device would be used again in series 4, when Matt Smith’s eleventh incarnation makes an appearance.
THE ETERNITY TRAP is a good old-fashioned ghostly tale, very deliberately furnished with just about every cliché of the genre from both past and present and a whole heap of sly references from the world of film and literature. Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani pay a visit to Ashen Hill Manor to observe some paranormal experiments being conducted by Professor Celeste Rivers (Floella Benjamin) and her young assistant Toby (Adam Gillen) for the Pharos Institute. Pretty soon all sorts of apparitions and phenomenon are occurring all over the house: wet footprints appear across the floor, objects move by themselves and a phantom beast appears to be patrolling the grounds of the estate. Then professor Rivers disappears while investigating the nursery – the site of the most pronounced paranormal activity. Many people have been fabled to have disappeared in the house over the centuries, including the children of the original owner, Lord Marchwood, in 1665. Marchwood employed the services of an alleged alchemist by the name of Erasmus Darkening (Donald Sumpter) who is said to have searched for the elusive power to turn base metal into gold from his laboratory in the basement of the Manor -- and all these years later, his experiments appear to be the root of the problem; for Darkening still seems to cast a malign shadow over the house.
This story features all the modern paraphernalia associated with ghost hunting thanks to “Most Haunted” and its dubious ilk (EMF meters, night-vision cameras and ‘stone tape’ theory etc.) and combines it with the traditional Gothic staples of ghost fiction: secret passageways, spectral apparitions, moving objects and phantom hounds -- bringing them all together in a Sci-Fi interpretation that seems to owe much to the “Phantasm” franchise. Erasmus is a stranded alien and the ghostly effects at the Manor are being caused by his malfunctioning time machine, which has captured many people over the centuries, holding them like flies in a dimensional trap as Erasmus tries to manipulate a time portal to get him home, as well as letting in all sort of malevolent entities as well. Sarah Jane discovers his advanced alien technology in the basement, covered in cobwebs but still functioning.
This is one of the more successful stories in the series with a rich ghostly atmosphere and a clever science fiction cross-over to explain the apparitions in terms of futuristic science, although there are hints that there might also be ghosts in the house after all, even with all the pan-dimensional manipulation of Darkening and his infernal machine.
THE MONA LISA’S REVENGE is also built around perennial ideas that crop up often in ghost stories: themes that concern the images from paintings coming to life or of people becoming trapped inside a painting are suggestive and evocative ones that relate to the reality of the feelings art can induce in the human subject, which can almost give it a life of its own. The tone here is largely comic though in this unlikely knock-about-style adventure which features the Mona Lisa coming to life while on lone to Park Vale Art Gallery. She is toting a Sontaran blaster filched from a painting by Clyde, while searching for her “brother” – which turns out to be another painting made from the same’ life-energy’-impregnated oils, but which is so hideous that it sends anyone who sees it mad. Understandably, the Mona Lisa cannot be allowed to succeed in her mission to bring this artistic abomination to life.
This mad storyline is played out in superficial comic-book fashion, with an unrecognisable Suranne Jones giving an enjoyable(ish) but one-note performance as the devious and unruly Mona Lisa, here inexplicably given a pronounced Mancunian accent. While mad Mona can bring the painted image to life, she can also condemn living people to limbo, trapping them inside the paintings on the gallery walls. A noteworthy moment comes when Clyde, Rani and Luke – who are at the gallery because Clyde won first prize in an art competition – suddenly notice that the gallery is empty because all the policemen and gallery officials investigating the Mona Lisa painting’s disappearance are now trapped inside the very pictures that cover the walls! There is very little substance to the story in terms of themes, although the reoccurring broken family motif is still here: Mona Lisa is driven by her connection to the other painting (which was made with the same special oils) and its close proximity in Park Vale Gallery is what somehow gives her the power to come to life; but the story soon degenerates into a lot of running about inside the art gallery.
The trouble with this and several of the other stories in the series comes back to the apparent lack of any defined rules to govern the fictional Universe in which they occur. Magic powers are conjured up from nowhere with very little explanation or coherence, doubtless because the programme is trying to tap into the popular strain of fantasy magic that defines the Harry Potter Universe. The classic Doctor Who series for all its faults rarely cheated the viewer by allowing literally anything to occur for the sake of a cheap joke, not unless it logically followed from the parameters the story had already lain down. Yet it is a problem that is occasionally creeping even into the modern parent show these days; but not to the extent it does here in this story, where because the Universe is portrayed as so mercurial that paintings can be brought to life and people can be imprisoned in works of art on a whim, there is never much doubt that everything will be happily corrected just as arbitrarily at the end, thus dissipating all suspense or drama.
THE GIFT ends the series with the return of one of the more unpopular monsters of the Nu-Who era: those maggoty, Teletubby lookalikes the Slitheen -- a ruthless, criminal-capitalist family from the planet Raxicoricofallapatoria who were the deceptively kiddie-pleasing vehicle for some heavy-handed Iraqi war satire in Christopher Ecclestone’s first and only series as the Doctor. Here the subject seems to be the bio-genetic imperialism of transnational companies, foisting their genetically modified product on third world countries with the promise of food for all. In this case the third world country becomes a third world planet – Earth – which is the subject of a promise to end all famine with an edible alien plant called Rakweed (anything that’s described as a ‘weed’, even by its salesmen should arouse some suspicion, surly?), bred by another of the related families from Raxicoricofallapatoria – the Blathereen. After gaining Sarah Jane’s trust by foiling a Slitheen plot to crush the Earth’s carbon into diamonds, the Blathhereen (voiced by Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes) visit Rani’s house for tea and a meal of Clyde’s Shepard’s Pie, before presenting one of the Rakweed as a present to Sarah Jane at the end of the evening. There’s some initial humour over dinner based on the gang’s guilt about their suspicion that they could be walking into a Raxicoricofallapatorian trap since the Blathereen look exactly like their evil cousins the Slitheen, except they’re a darker shade of orange. It turns out that it is a trap: the Rakweed is the Blathereen’s favourite food; they guzzle down tons of it and they want to turn the whole planet into one big Rakweed farm. The plant has been genetically modified to send its spores into the atmosphere, poisoning humans and sending them into a deep coma, after which the spores germinate in the ground in a matter of minutes. Before long London is covered in the things
The Slitheen/Blathereen are far more at home in “The Sarah Jane Adventures” than they ever were in “Doctor Who” proper. This story is an enjoyable romp, the creatures made all the more delightfully grotesque by Callow and Margolyes distinctive vocal performances. The Triffid-like Ragweed, with its poison spores that cause a hideous red-spotted rash, tap into plenty of current fears about genetic contamination, probably guaranteeing that yet another generation of kids grow up suspicious of the very concept of artificial genetic manipulation -- although Sarah Jane was being more than a little negligent leaving an alien form of plant life hanging about near a window in the first place, genetic manipulation or no genetic manipulation. Although everything gets wrapped up conveniently quickly in the last five minutes when a cure-all is found which not only wipes out the Rakweed completely but also restores the comatose victims to normal, this story contains just the right mix of comic interactions (between Clyde and Rani, K-9 and Mr Smith, and the two greedy Blathereen who pay an unpleasant price for feasting on so much Rakweed), an apparently intractable threat and some better than usual special effects, ending the season on a relative high and some fine team work from Sarah Jane and her alien-fighting family.
“The Sarah Jane Adventures”: Series Three features all twelve episodes spread across two discs with excellent transfers and 2.0 stereo audio. The only extra is a very short extract from a Sarah Jane Adventures BBC audio book, “The White Wolf” – really it’s just an advert, but Elisabeth Sladen has a breezy reading style that seems well suited to the format. The show is an enjoyable stop-gap for Doctor Who fans awaiting their next fix of the real thing at Christmas. Not all of it is entirely successful but the likable cast ensure even the more irritating stories have their plus side and David Tennant’s last appearance makes it near essential.