The fourth series of the popular DOCTOR WHO children’s spin-off show “The Sarah Jane Adventures” makes it to DVD (and Blu-ray) a little over six months after the sad loss of the much loved star, actress Elisabeth Sladen, who died battling cancer in April earlier this year at the age of 65. This last full series from 2010 (several more stories were shot in the same recording block, and were recently broadcast as a mini-series on CBBC in tribute to Elisabeth, presumably to appear on DVD in the future) features a collection of strong stories in which many of the episodes feel particularly relevant to this sad passing in their dealings with the theme of growing up and having to deal with the aftermath of letting friends and family move on to pastures new; and one story (written by Nu-Who creator Russell T. Davies) even features Sarah getting to meet up with not only her immediate predecessor, Jo Grant (Katy Manning), but also (for the last time as it turned out) the recently regenerated eleventh Doctor played by Matt Smith, whose first full series in the title role had, at the time, only recently been broadcast. This two-disc set becomes rather a poignant tribute, then, to one of the best loved companions in DOCTOR WHO history, and is given a little extra dose of tear-jerking wistfulness by the inclusion -- as an extra on disc 2 -- of all four episodes of one of Sarah Jane Smith’s best original adventures from the 1970s when she had the fourth Doctor Tom Baker at her side, namely “The Pyramids of Mars” -- which is briefly referenced in episode one of “The Vault of Secrets” during this series.
The first story here, “The Nightmare Man” by Joseph Lidster, is really included at the start of the season as a means of semi-writing Sarah’s son Luke (played by Tommy Knight) out of the main body of the series, having the boy genius leave for Oxford University at the end of the second episode. Luke has always been a major component in the emotional story arc of Sarah Jane Smith ever since she adopted him at the end of the first feature-length episode, so removing him could have potentially altered the dynamic of the show detrimentally. In fact, later episodes are always careful to include a few bridging scenes in which Sarah and the gang still get to talk to Luke via webcam, so even though he’s not involved in most of the stories this season, his absence isn’t as much the problem it could have been. Lidster’s two-part story makes Luke’s journey into adulthood its main theme by exploring the kinds of fears that someone facing the trauma of moving away from home to become a student might harbour. Tommy starts having terrible nightmares in which his friends, Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and Rani (Anjli Mohindra) express jealousy or resentment at his imminent departure, and he even dreams he hears Sarah and K-9 (voiced by John Leeson) expressing relief that he’s going, and claiming he was never really a proper part of the family anyway. But Luke’s fears about growing apart from his friends, coupled with an unwillingness to believe his Mother would ever let him go if she truly loved him, are being exploited in some way by an outside force. When Cyde and Rani throw a going away party for him at the school, that force finally reveals itself as the Nightmare Man!
Played by actor Julian Bleach (who had also previously played Davros in the revamped series of DOCTOR WHO and the Ghostmaker in “Torchwood”) as a version of the Joker from “Batman” -- complete with malevolent leer and smudged clown make-up -- this twisted character has the same powers as Freddy Krueger to invade and manipulate people’s dreams. Luke’s fears are strong enough to enable the Nightmare Man to cross over from his dimension and to draw increasing amounts of power by invading the dreams of more and more people. After the first episode explores the universal fears that surround leaving home as expressed in Luke’s nightmares, the second episode of the story moves more into examining specific facets of the characters of Clyde and Rani by looking at the kinds of fears that lurk in their subconscious minds. The issue of Rani’s desire to be a journalist, and the potential conflict of interest that results from her also having to keep the secrets she has to keep in order to be a part of Sarah Jane Smith’s team, is explored here when the Nightmare Man’s manipulations cause Rani to dream that she is pulled through the television screen by Doon Mackichan’s power-suited BBC newsreader, and offered the chance to prove her effectiveness as a reporter by betraying Sarah’s trust. Meanwhile, Clyde’s feelings of inadequacy, rooted in his unhappy upbringing, are revealed when he dreams that he will end up flipping burgers for the rest of his life after leaving his years with Sarah Jane Smith behind him. An elderly Sarah Jane with grey hair, trundling along on a mobility scooter, turns up to visit him and to gloat over his inability to perform any other job!
This is an imaginatively realised two-parter which stays interesting throughout while exploring the inner psyches of its main characters, with particularly good performances from Daniel Anthony and Anjli Mohindra, whose slowly blossoming relationship is nicely sketched throughout the series as their feelings start to turn into something other than just friendship. Ultimately, this is a thoughtful and hopeful parable about how friendships and relationships can still endure even though they may change as they mature across time and as people’s circumstances change. The three protagonists manage to join up in their respective nightmares by realising their strength comes from finding solace in their friendship rather than letting niggles and doubts be exaggerated and exploited by the Nightmare Man so that he comes to rule their minds through accessing their normal, everyday human fears. Once they join forces, the Nightmare Man’s powers are neutralised and he is confined to the dream dimension forever.
This is one of only two stories this season that feature the voice of John Leeson in the role of K-9 -- who is given to Luke as a present at the end of episode two so that he may accompany him to Oxford.
The second story, “The Vault of Secrets” by co-producer and former head writer Phil Ford, brings back the Veil prisoner known as Androvax (Mark Goldthorp) from the series 3 adventure “The Prisoner of the Judoon”, and introduces The android servants of the Alliance of Shades (otherwise known as Men in Black in earth UFO mythology) who were first seen in the animated DOCTOR WHO special “Dreamland”. In a story which mixes farcical comedy and run-around set-pieces performed with vigour in the series’ inimitable style, Androvax returns to Earth after having escaped the Judoon swamp prison, during his time at which he found one of the two disc keys he needs in order to unlock the gateway to an inter-dimensional vault which holds a crashed Veil spaceship containing the last remaining members of his species. The Vault entrance is located inside an old abandoned asylum on Earth and Androvax wants Sarah Jane Smith and her young friends to help him save his dying race before he himself dies from the poison venom of an alien swamp viper bite, by joining forces with him to find the other key.
The problem is, the Alliance of Shades has been charged with preventing Earth from ever making contact with alien species before its inhabitants are ready (thus all that business with Area 51), and are authorised to incinerate anyone who tries to enter the vault, using blaster weapons concealed in their robotic arms. When it emerges that releasing the Veil spacecraft will cause an instability in the inter-dimensional matrix that’s holding it secure, and will result in the destruction of the Earth, Sarah realises that Androvax – ‘the destroyer of Planets’ -- won’t hesitate to bring about the Earth’s demise if it means he can save his own race .
Plot-wise this one develops as a fairly straightforward series of chases involving the twin threat of, first, the black-suited, dark glasses-wearing Men in Black androids led by Mr Dread (Angus Wright) and second, the shape-shifting Androvax, who is still the ruthless criminal of old despite being at death’s door. Gita Chandra (Mina Anwar), Rani’s mother, returns in this story after encountering Androvax previously when he ran amok on Earth after escaping the Judoon prison transport last series. Here, we find her again, having forced long-suffering husband Haresh (Ace Bhatti) to join her in attendance of a special support group, The British UFO Research and Paranormal Studies Society (or B.U.R.P.S.S), in order to meet up with others who have encountered aliens. It turns out that the encounter group founder, Ocean Waters (Cheryl Campbell), has previously met Mr Dread but has been unable to convince anyone of the truthfulness of her encounter with this Man in Black. Gita gets yet another shock when she returns home from a meeting to find Androvax skulking about behind Sarah Jane Smith’s rose-bushes!
Amid all the drama, chases and plot switches, as we side first with the apparently reformed Androvax and then with the android Mr Dread, whose mission does after all compel him to protect the Earth, the story manages to incorporate quite a bit of comedy at the expense of both Gita and the silly UFO society, which is attended by the usual old eccentrics and cat-loving loners; but there is also some degree of poignancy evinced when Ocean and her sidekick Minty (David Webber) have their beliefs at last confirmed by Sarah when Mr Dread reappears in order to confiscate the vault key Ocean has been wearing around her neck as a piece of ornamental jewellery the whole time. That’s followed by resignation and disappointment when Sarah and the gang at the end of the story have to pretend they’ve had their minds wiped by the Men in Black (while this fate has actually befallen Gita, whose inveterate gobbiness is felt to pose too much of a risk to security) and Ocean is condemned to go back to her life of being dismissed as a loony by all she meets. This is a fun, fast-moving story, although one has to feel slightly odd about the readiness with which Rani agrees to allow her mother to have large chunks of her memory erased by Mr Dread. Actress Mina Anwar gets around the difficulty by portraying Gita as an unruly force of nature with something of a child-like mentality, who has to be protected from herself as much as anything else; while Rani is very much the adult in the relationship, despite her young age.
“Death of the Doctor” is written by former DOCTOR WHO show runner Russell T. Davies, who proves himself very adept here at writing for Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor. As the title rather gives away, this two-part tale brings Matt Smith into the spin-off series for the first time, now playing Sarah’s former time travelling Time Lord companion after tenth Doctor David Tennant appeared the previous year in “The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith”. This story really does prove to be something of a fan tribute, with Davies managing to squeeze in a whole bunch of references to past stories and former companions from the classic eras over the course of two episodes, which begin with Sarah Jane, Rani and Clyde being whisked away to a top secret UNIT base presided over by Colonel Karim (Laila Rouass), who turns up at Sarah Jane’s home on Bannerman Road with a UNIT convoy to convey the news that Sarah Jane’s ‘friend’ the Doctor has sadly died and his body been brought back to Earth by an intergalactic race of undertakers called the Shansheeth.
Sarah Jane agrees to attend the funeral but refuses to believe that the Doctor is really dead because she felt nothing when she heard the news. Rani and Clyde just think she’s in denial and when the Shansheeth are revealed to look like upright-walking blue vultures dressed in cowls, they have to remind her of her own rule and that she shouldn’t assume that they’re up to no good simply because of their vulture-like appearance! In the middle of the solemn Shansheeth service, an absent-minded, eccentric older woman appears with her grandson in tow and Sarah Jane realises that this is her predecessor, the Doctor’s former companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning), or Jones as she’s now called, after marrying Clifford Jones, who she met in her last DOCTOR WHO adventure with Jon Pertwee, “The Green Death”. The two get chatting and introductions are made to her grandson Santiago (Finn Jones), and soon the joint memories of Jo and Sarah’s days travelling in time and space unleash a flood of references for DOCTOR WHO fans to enjoy. Eventually, this emerges as the key reason for the Shansheeth’s deception: they’ve stolen the Doctor’s TARDIS and want to use the vividness and strength of Jo and Sarah Jane’s memories of their past adventures in order to create a new TARDIS key by the process of turning thought forms into reality with the help of their ‘dream-weave’ machine. This is a story that hinges, then, on the power of nostalgia and the experience of grief, both exploited here by an embittered UNIT commander who wants to have the same kinds of experiences as Jo and Sarah Jane, and a race of undertakers that want to change time with the TARDIS in order to be able to provide a better funerary service!
The Doctor eventually enters the story by exploiting the residual Artron energy that’s built up around Clyde from his previous encounter with the TARDIS, in order to body swap with the youngster across 10,000 light years -- leaving Clyde stranded on an rocky alien planet with a bomb about to go off (even this is a reference to the old days, since the planet surface looks just like the typical kind of quarry that nearly all classic DOCTOR WHO stories used to be filmed in, and the situation recalls the Tom Baker story ”Destiny of the Daleks”). The story itself is residual to the scenes between the Doctor and his former companions, especially Jo Jones -- who he hasn’t seen since his third incarnation; although it emerges that the Doctor looked up every single one of his former companions before his last regeneration without their knowledge (this is Russell T. having a little dig at those of us who thought Tennant’s departure was a little overinflated, as he was shown re-visiting all of the new series’ companions from Rose onwards before succumbing; now it emerges he went right back to Ian and Barbara Chesterton (nee Wright), making his an even more protracted death than we originally thought!). It turns out nearly all the Doctor’s companions after they leave him end up travelling to the farthest corners of the Earth to do good deeds and set up international charity organisations and the like (which makes Amy Pond’s apparent fate in the new series – becoming a cosmetics model – appear a little self-centred .. I mean, Amy? … Self-centred? … Surely not!) There are some great moments between Katy Manning and Matt Smith’s Doctor here, particularly when he casually mentions that his current travelling companions, Amy and Rory, are a married couple. Jo rather poignantly lets slip that the only reason she ever left him in the first place was because she wanted to get married. There’s a dark moment too when Jo jokes about not wanting to get the Doctor into trouble with the Time Lords and we realise just how much has changed and how much darker the Doctor’s world has become since the comparatively innocent 1970s, when Jo accompanied the third Doctor in his work with UNIT. The Doctor doesn’t spoil the celebratory mood by letting on that the Time Lords are no more, though. Russell T. Davies displays his customary wit and cheeky humour throughout this story, having the Doctor reference a memorable moment from “The Ark in Space” when he and Sarah Jane have to crawl through a ventilation shaft once again; and Davies blithely re-writes a major piece of WHO lore when he has the Doctor tell Clyde that he has 507 regenerations in total rather than just the 12 we’ve always been led to assume! But then again, as we all know from the last series, the Doctor lies!
Gareth Roberts has written four episodes for DOCTOR WHO, including the two popular Craig Owens adventures during Matt Smith’s current run, starring James Corden. “The Empty Planet” sees Roberts tasked with providing a story that doesn’t really feature Sarah Jane Smith at all, apart from fleetingly at the beginning. Instead Clyde and Rani become central to the storyline when everyone else apart from them and one other thirteen-year-old boy disappear from the face of the Earth! Without the expertise and guidance usually provided by their mentor Sarah Jane, the two young adventurers must set about piecing together what has happened to the entire population of the Earth while also being forced to face up to their growing feelings for each other. The central conundrum is a compelling one and the story is at its strongest in the first episode when we witness Clyde and Rani waking up one morning and gradually realising that the entire population of the planet apart from them-selves appears to have vanished in the blink of an eye. One lone schoolboy who seems on the surface unremarkable, and a strange alien text which keeps scrawling across TV screens or any other electronic display, are the only clues they have to work on … until fierce-looking brightly coloured robots appear as well, and start trying to hunt them down.
The solution to it all revolves around Gavin (Joe Mason) – the boy with low self-esteem -- who thinks he’s unimportant when he is really the most important boy on the planet. Director Ashley Way makes use of fluid, mobile camera moves that emphasise the empty streets and strangely vacant suburban homes that comprise the backdrop to the adventure. Daniel Anthony and Anjli Mohindra are able to carry the two episodes easily and their characters are becoming increasingly likable, with Roberts providing some witty dialogue including a tart line about Chris Moyles that is especially funny in context given the series’ usually rather more gentle sense of humour. Perhaps the only slight problem with it comes with the story’s conclusion, when Gavin is required to accept an entirely alternate reality from the one he thought he lived in in a matter of seconds in order to save the planet. One wonders what would have happened if he’d not actually wanted to do the thing he has to do in order to bring everyone back home safely, or displayed the slightest doubt over making such a radical change to his life. Still, this is an intriguing, well-told tale that holds the attention right up to the final moments.
“Lost in Time” by Rupert Laight is a mini riff on the Key to Time story arc from the classic serial. In it, Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani are tasked with finding three segments of a special kind of metal called Chronosteen. Forged in the Time Vortex, the metal is corrupting the flow of Earth history and if the pieces are not found and reassembled in time the planet will be destroyed. This scenario sets in motion three parallel adventures, taking place at various points in Earth history and each featuring one of the three main protagonists. The trio are assigned their tasks by a mysterious shopkeeper and his pet parrot (whom the shopkeeper refers to as the Captain, and who actually appears to be in charge of the operation). They’re lured by him to an old department store by an article planted in the local paper about aliens being sighted in the area. Laight’s story works surprisingly well in flitting from story to story as, first, Rani is transported back to the Tower of London in the year 1553 on 19th July: the final day of the nine day reign of Lady Jane Grey, just as Mary’s army reaches London and claims the crown of England; Clyde meanwhile, finds himself in England during World War II, on the Norfolk coast in 1941, just as Nazi’s are about to invade Britain! Lastly, Sarah Jane ends up in the year 1889, where she runs into an intrepid Victorian ghost hunter called Emily Morris who is investigating a haunting in a London townhouse. The trio have only until the sand runs out on an egg timer to track down the missing Chronosteen segments and return with them through a time window; otherwise the Earth will be destroyed.
Rani’s story sees her becoming a Lady in Waiting for the tragic Lady Jane, and befriending her while knowing she can do nothing ultimately to save the girl from the fate history has planned out for her. The Chronosteen segment turns out to have been made into a dagger which is to be used by a Protestant extremist in Lady Jane Grey’s court, who plans to assassinate the young queen and blame it on Catholic plotters, hoping to rally a response against Mary’s attempt to usurp the throne. Clyde’s segment turns out to be a Nazi artefact, believed by them to be the Hammer of Thor, which is being used to power a radar blocker that will aid the Nazi’s imminent coastal invasion plan. Sarah Jane’s story reveals the haunting to be an echo of the future from her own time, in which two children are to perish in a fire in a locked bedroom. The key to that bedroom is the Chronosteen piece she must track down; but it is trapped in the future time echo and only Emily Morris (whose own parents died in similar circumstances) can help her get to it. This last tale continues the series’ interest in Nigel Kneale-like ‘Stone Tape’ explanations for ghosts as recorded ‘echoes’ trapped within the walls of buildings, last seen in the previous series’ story “The Eternity Trap”. Each story concludes by emphasising the connections between the past and the present in poignant fashion, as each of the trio return from their respective adventures in history with an enriched appreciation of the period they witnessed, Rani reading how Lady Jane went to the axe knowing she was destined to be remembered by history, and realising that she helped play a role in that certainty, even if she could do nothing to save Lady Jane from her fate; Clyde looks up the boy who helped him foil the Nazi invasion plot in 1941, and finds a news article about the now eighty-year-old expert in radar technology who was recently decorated by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Sarah Jane’s story ends with a bit of Moffat-like timey wimey, wibbly wobbliness when she meets the granddaughter of Emily Morris, who turns up with the key that is needed to complete the Chronosteen assembly after having been left instructions in her grandmother’s will that she should come on that specific date and give it to a woman named Sarah Jane Smith. This is “The Sarah Jane Adventures” at its best: combining playfulness, drama and imaginatively rendered storylines which often have a serious moral point to impart but always in an entertaining way.
This also applies to the final story of this series, “Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith” by former Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman and Gareth Roberts. Here Sarah Jane contemplates her life of adventure coming to an end and the prospect of handing over the reins to a younger, fitter, more dynamic rival. Absentmindedness and carelessness seem to be causing Sarah Jane to make uncharacteristic mistakes during recent missions, putting the lives of her young companions in danger unnecessarily. This corresponds with the arrival on Bannerman Road of one Ruby White (Julie Graham), a dynamic former archaeologist who seems to be everything the young Sarah Jane once was, and who turns up in the nick of time to save Rani and Clyde during an encounter with the Dark Horde. Miss White becomes a close confidante of Sarah Jane and her two young friends over the ensuing weeks, but Sarah’s memory seems to be getting worse and worse and Ruby has to take over more of the responsibilities of Sarah’s life to compensate for her forgetfulness. But when Sarah Jane finds herself even forgetting the name of the Doctor during a conversation with Ruby, she knows there must be something seriously wrong with her. She has attic supercomputer Mr Smith (Alexander Armstrong) medi-scan her, and is informed that she is gravely ill and no longer fit to be in a position of authority over others. Sarah hands over total control of the attic to Ruby, giving her complete access to all her resources and control of Mr Smith too. But at this point Ruby White reveals her true agenda …
As well as turning into one of the more satisfying confrontations with one of the more devious alien villains this series, the story gains additional poignancy from its presentation of a Sarah Jane dealing with uncustomary frailty, and facing the apparent end of her life of adventure due to the encroaching disabilities of old age. There are some especially touching moments contained here in the performance of Elisabeth Sladen, which combine with a well-realised adventure that also finds time to include all the series recurring characters coming to the aid of the stricken Sarah Jane, including Luke and K-9. Even Rani’s busybody mum Gita (Mina Anwar) reveals unexpected depths in helping her distraught daughter see through Ruby White’s deceptions, and she even reveals that she’s secretly always known that her daughter and Clyde have been up to something with Miss Smith, but that she let them get on with it because she’d realised that Rani had something with Sarah Jane that could never be replaced. Julie Graham gets to eat up the scenery as the alien soul stealer with an external stomach hidden in the cellar! This is a villain who would surely have made frequent return visits if the series has continued. There’s a great moment at the end when a restored Sarah Jane announces that she feels she can ‘go on forever!’ And she surly will in the hearts and minds of millions of fans, young and old.
This 2-disc set also includes all four episodes of the 1975 story “The Pyramids of Mars”, featuring Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the dream DOCTOR WHO partnership, when Baker was at his peak in the role. Written by Robert Holmes from an original draft by Lewis Greifer, this is a classic story from the Gothic flavoured Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes production era, in which the Doctor and Sarah visits a priory in the year 1911, where the site owner, archaeologist and expert on ancient Egypt, Marcus Scarman, becomes possessed by the imprisoned, malignant alien entity known as Sutekh -- bringer of ‘the gift of death to all mankind’! This provides a fitting coda to a set that features one of the strongest run of stories in “The Sarah Jane Adventures” catalogue.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog: Nothing But The Night!