Alright, whose stupid idea was it to give a new lead character in a Doctor Who spin-off the same name as a recurring villain from the 1980s? Unless, of course, she’s really The Rani’s latest regeneration working undercover, and they’re building up to the ultimate shock twist. Either way, I’ve already warmed to her much more quickly than I did with Maria – she’s more ballsy and strong-minded, and without wanting to be cruel to an actual child, the average standard of acting has been raised. Her dad being the new headmaster is a nice extra detail, plus her mum is Constable Habib.
She was initially set up to be a nightmare neighbour for each of the incumbent regulars – she’s far too inquisitive for Sarah Jane’s liking, Clyde’s not going to want to hang around with the headmaster’s daughter, and Luke’s just pissed off that she’s not Maria – which meant that the story’s function was to give her the opportunity to prove them wrong. She already feels like a natural addition to the team, so job done on that score.
Which is for the best, because the plot itself was a little thin. It was telling that they made a reference to Kudlak, as it is a very similar premise – new attraction opens in town, kids start to go missing, it’s an alien. This time, the alien is popular daytime quizmaster Bradley Walsh, or rather loveable Corrie rogue Bradley Walsh, as he was then. He does a much better job than I’d have expected, alternating between the classic creepy clown, Professor Emilius Browne from Bedknobs & Broomsticks, and the actual Pied Piper of Hamelin. It’s a memorably disturbing performance by any standards, let alone CBBC’s.
I also liked his mannequins coming to life, like Auton Clowns, but it’s a shame they were only in it for a couple of minutes. There were a few things that weren’t quite right, such as all the adults, in the middle of a spate of missing children, finding the concept of kiddie-snatchers dressed as clowns, handing out free balloons, so preposterous. I’m getting annoyed at how SJA seems to have diverged from the main show in terms of public awareness of aliens – it’s like the events of The Stolen Earth didn’t happen here, which might be easier to accept were it not for the fact that Sarah Jane, Luke and Mr Smith were part of those events.
The climax whereby humour is used to defeat fear was a good idea, but it fell slightly flat because Clyde’s delivery of the jokes was a bit shit. Nevertheless, there’s always plenty to enjoy in SJA, and I’m enjoying the increasingly obscure back-references. Pharos are back again, along with Floella Benjamin, and there’s also a mention of good old Aunt Lavinia from K-9 and Company. And, obviously, a photo from The Celestial Toymaker, a story that was wiped a good 20-odd years before the target audience was born.
And finally, that pocket-sized instant forcefield generator that Sarah Jane gives Rani is very useful, isn’t it? It’s surprising that they’ve never used it before, considering it could protect them from virtually any alien threat within seconds.