SJA: The Lost Boy

Rediscovering The Sarah Jane Adventures has been one of the greatest joys this project has provided for a long time, and the last two stories of the first series have been something else. The first few adventures did the job of establishing a status quo, laying the groundwork for a finale that plays so beautifully on said status quo being destroyed. It’s so disturbing to see Luke torn away from the family and enduring the ultimate nightmare – discovering you’re a Chelsea fan.

It was a great double bluff – we trusted Mr Smith when he said that Luke was indeed the missing boy, so we spend most of the first episode believing it might be true. This gives us an excuse to explore the creepiness of that idea, and then to move on before it runs out of steam. It seemed weird at the time that the news reports focused on the idea that the boy had been kidnapped by some mad, lonely woman, rather than… you know. But firstly, kids’ show, and secondly, it all makes sense when you realise it’s part of Mr Smith’s plan.

You could tell that something was amiss with Mr Smith before the big revelation – he wasn’t doing the big fanfare when he emerged, and his voice was subtly different throughout, deeper and more clinical. I listen to Alexander Armstrong’s voice a lot as part of my job, and it’s therefore hard to disassociate his work here from his role as a game show host – since SJA was made, he’s become more famous for being himself on TV than he is as an actor. It’s like when Les Dennis was in Corrie for a bit – his performance was great, but all I could see was Gail Platt marrying Les Dennis from off of Family Fortunes.

But I digress – it was nevertheless a fantastic twist, continuing the fine tradition this series has of throwing in a complete headfuck moment as the cliffhanger. This series has even managed to make the Slitheen an effective villain – skinny Slitheen! Having them hiding as smaller-framed people not only managed to keep their presence as a surprise, but also had them shake off the last vestiges of the sometimes-troublesome size-based humour that’s always followed them around. There was barely a fart joke in sight, and as such they can finally be taken seriously as a threat.

But Mr Smith was the real villain of the piece, even though it looked for a while like it was going to be Floella Benjamin at Pharos, of all places. And when the villain is an alien supercomputer, embedded right at the heart of Sarah Jane’s organisation, there’s only one hero who can defeat it. It may have been an extremely short cameo, but oh it was so lovely to see K-9 once more. It’s a great compliment to the series that he hasn’t particularly been missed, and it’s meant that his brief return felt really special. Worthy of a finale to a damned fine series.

RATING: 9

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8

  • SJA series watched: 1 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 6 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 11 of 53

SJA: Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane Smith?

Wow. That was better than a lot of episodes of Doctor Who, new and old. The story is as clever and complex as you’d expect from the main show, and it’s just as dark and serious as anything Torchwood managed – there’s no doubt as to which is the better spin-off, nor the one that’s more enjoyable for grown-ups. Although the sub-plot with Maria’s dad being a super cool sk8r dude was very how-do-you-do-fellow-kids, especially when they had to have Clyde wear a helmet.

The first episode was the making of Maria, as she took centre stage in Sarah Jane’s absence and set about unraveling the mystery. She handled the extra pressure much better than I thought she would, and the scene where she confronts Andrea and vows to get Sarah Jane back was reminiscent of The Doctor in Bad Wolf.

And fuck me, does this show know how to up the stakes. It was creepy as hell when Sarah Jane was removed from time, with everything changing around Maria, but then the Graske comes along, takes Maria too, she ends up in Brighton in 1964, and everything is dialled up to 11. It’s totally gripping and relentless – there are huge moral debates about life and death going on, and meanwhile the world is about to be destroyed by a giant meteor, and the clock is constantly ticking. It’s an absolute thriller.

The meteor is the perfect plot device to use for this story – it’s the show saying, quite unequivocally, that no Sarah Jane = the end of the world. For most other characters, this would be a bit of a stretch (I don’t mean to keep shitting on the inferior spin-off, but I’d never believe that the Torchwood team were that vital, for example). But for Sarah Jane, and Elisabeth Sladen, you totally feel it, and you’re desperate for her to get back. I felt my lip wobble when she was pleading to be back with Luke.

And bloody hell, her replacement was Jane Asher! Having such a famous face as the Sarah Jane substitute was a little bit of a distraction at times, but I guess it needed to be someone notable so that they didn’t seem too inferior by comparison. So there she was, fondly reminiscing about the 60s being her golden time while she passes round her home-made cakes. Although, Andrea was supposed to be 13 in 1964, while Jane was old enough to be shacked up with a Beatle by that time.

Meanwhile, I really enjoyed the Trickster bringing up The Doctor. Throughout the series, there have been frequent mentions of Sarah’s links to UNIT; as well as reinforcing her credentials as a defender of the Earth, these help to maintain a link with the main show, which the explicit references to The Doctor, and what the current adventure could mean for him, cements. This really feels like it’s not just a part of the same universe, but that it’s another aspect of the exact same show – the story of The Doctor’s best ever companion, and what she gets up to without him. Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures are two sides of the same coin, and on the evidence of this, equally capable of excellence.

RATING: 9

SJA: Warriors of Kudlak

So far, this series has been good fun, but with a handful of caveats; I’ve mostly been watching it and appreciating the skill that’s gone into its crafting, rather than immersing in it fully. This time, everything seemed to click, and I was finally able to get lost in the story like I do with a good Who episode. Maybe it’s because I always loved Laserquest, and the mere sight of such an establishment immediately brought to mind the smell of musty vest packs and post-skirmish Slush Puppies.

I think it’s also notable that this is the first story without Maria’s parents, and therefore the first time that she’s been free to adventure without any distractions, which immediately makes the gang feel more like a team. Mostly though, it’s just a really good story; the first half trundles along quite nicely, but it really kicks up a gear when the action switches to the spaceship.

Luke functions like a mini-Doctor, jerry-rigging gizmos and leading the escape party, whilst generally being two steps ahead of everyone else. Then, while each story so far has had a fun, gimmicky twist leading in to the cliffhanger, this one deploys its twist towards the end, and it’s one that you could easily see the main show using – in fact, I’m not sure it hasn’t already. It’s so much more sophisticated than most people would expect from a kids’ show, which is exactly why there’s no such thing as “just” a kids’ show.

The best thing about the twist is that it makes General Kudlak a much more complex and interesting character than the generic shouty alien man we see in the first episode. It befits what is a seriously impressive prosthetic job, considering what I assume is a tiny budget; I guess the hordes of henchmen in motorcycle helmets are the price you pay for that. Also, when Sarah Jane went to the missing kid’s house in the first episode, he had fifteen identical posters on his wall, laid out in a perfect grid. Top notch set design.

The one thing I wasn’t keen on was Clyde’s strange reaction to finding a girl in a crate – “wahey, things are looking up” or some such. I know he’s a teenage boy, but that shouldn’t be your first thought upon finding a girl in a crate, and call me a libtard cuck if you will, but it’s not an attitude that should be expressed by an aspirational character in a children’s programme. Later, there seemed to be some sort of group vote among the non-speaking abductees, that leads to the same girl going over and kissing Luke as a reward for his efforts. Fuck the patriarchy.

RATING: 8

SJA: Eye of the Gorgon

I’m coming to the conclusion that The Sarah Jane Adventures has more in common with the classic series than New Who does. Having 25-minute installments is nicely nostalgic, and it lends itself to the types of slow-building stories that used to be a staple. Each adventure has one solid idea at the centre, and here they’re happily mining Greek mythology like it’s 1979.

It’s also doing a great job of utilising the two-part structure, raising the stakes throughout the first episode, ready for a more action-packed second half. And again, for the second story in a row, there was a big twist in the cliffhanger, with Maria’s dad blundering in and getting himself turned to stone. I’m beginning to quite like him, but the mum is really getting on my tits. The melodrama of Maria dealing with the divorce isn’t doing much for me, but if I was a ten-year-old it’d probably seem more relevant, and it would be incredibly useful for any kids going through similar things themselves.

The guest cast was particularly high-caliber in this episode, in stark contrast to the slightly ropey Slitheen last time. Beth Goddard! Having nuns as the villains in a kids’ show felt pleasingly subversive, like the Auton policemen back in the day. Mrs Warboys! I don’t know her actual name, and frankly I don’t want to. Phyllida Law! Easily the star of the show, as is good and proper for a legend of this magnitude.

It wasn’t hard to fall in love with poor old Bea, and the hints that she was once a companion-like figure to her own Doctor-like figure. Much like the divorce stuff, the way this episode dealt with a topic as heavy as Alzheimer’s was commendable, and this seems to be a hallmark of the series – mixing serious subjects with silly sci-fi runarounds and fart jokes, in a way the target audience will absolutely lap up.

For the adult viewer, the main thing that it’s lacking is the complexity of the storytelling, so it’s not quite as immersive and satisfying as the main series. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to keep the fans happy, such as the references to Sontarans and The Yeti. The former is particularly interesting, as it’s their first mention of the new era, so it counts as both a back-reference and foreshadowing for their impending return.

RATING: 7

SJA: Revenge of the Slitheen

A Doctor Who spin-off set in a school beset by alien invaders? It’ll never catch on. But while I’m yet to see Class, having elected to save it for when it slots into this project, revisiting The Sarah Jane Adventures is a much more appealing prospect, thanks largely to the title character herself. It’s so nice just to know that I’ll be in her company for the next couple of weeks.

Elsewhere in the ensemble, Luke continues to be intriguing, Maria continues to be nice but a little dull, her mum remains annoying, K-9 is still conspicuous by his absence, while Mr Smith seems to have developed an element of snark since the pilot. New boy Clyde is a big improvement on the tedious girl he’s replacing – he occupies the same sort as role as the cynical cool kid, but they had him demonstrate his usefulness several times, as if he was auditioning for a spot on the team.

It was a smart move to start the series with a monster from the main show, and if you’re going to pick one to bring back for the kids’ spin-off, it’s the Slitheen. They’re more brazen with the fart gags here, not that they were ever particularly subtle in the first place. It doesn’t quite work for me, as there’s a little too much mugging, but I’m now probably triple the age of the target audience.

On the whole though, I was pleasantly surprised by the Slitheen. In their human forms, they suffered a little because they weren’t being played by actors of the calibre of the originals, but the design of the monsters has been tweaked to make them more sinewy and insect-like. The implementation is better too, with a darker paint job and more realistic textures, plus they seem to have developed a heightened sense of smell.

They were surprisingly scary towards the end of the first episode, which ramped up nicely to the multi-layered cliffhanger, and the reveal of the child Slitheen was a great twist. The first part was just like a first part from the classic series, with lots of world-building and investigation until the plot is slowly revealed, while the second episode was more like the new series, with our heroes bounding around and facing ever-increasing stakes at a fair old pace. It even had an appearance from Trinity Wells.

It was obviously a lot more light-hearted than your average Who episode, albeit with hints at heavier concepts, such as the dilemma over whether the help the child Slitheen escape. Sarah Jane’s speech about The Doctor was another spine-tingler, much like the one in the pilot, and felt like a mission statement. I think I’m going to enjoy this series a lot more than the other spin-off. As long as I don’t think about the fact that the kids it was aimed at are probably old enough to have their own kids now. They talk about broadband as an impressively new thing.

My one gripe is with the lengthy and not particularly discreet Next Time trailer immediately after the cliffhanger – the main show figured out that this was idiotic ages ago, the first time the Slitheen turned up. There’s over a minute of recap at the start of the second part too, which feels excessive – these are the same kids who watch Doctor Who every week, they don’t need as much of a helping hand as you think.

RATING: 7

SJA: Invasion of the Bane

On New Years Day 2007, there were no less than three new episodes of Doctor Who spin-offs transmitted on the same day. This is one of the very rare occasions that my rewatch will be going at a slower pace than original broadcast. First up, we welcome The Sarah Jane Adventures to the fold, with a debut that comes along and demonstrates exactly how a spin-off series should be started.

The answer is to basically do Rose, whereby the audience is introduced to the companion figure first (it’s a younger character this time because it’s a younger audience), and we then meet the mysterious alien-y figure through her eyes. It’s a role that Sarah Jane is obviously more than capable of fulfilling; that was evident the first time they tried this show, regardless of its many other faults.

Maria seems just as well-suited to her role, but the big problem in this episode is clearly Kelsey. She’s got some quite funny lines, but as Mrs Wormwood points out, “she’s all noise and ignorance”. I remember being so relieved when I heard she wouldn’t be returning for the main series. Maybe she could have been toned down as she developed, but when you’ve just been introduced to the likes of Owen Harper and Donna Noble, you want the CBBC spin-off to be a safe haven from these brash, disruptive, antagonistic characters.

Luke, on the other hand, is absolutely great, both in concept and performance. It’s an idea with so much potential for both drama and comedy, and you’ve got the makings of a good little gang there, once Kelsey is replaced. Sarah Jane’s attic is very cool indeed, even if the reveal of Mr Smith was a little overblown – this time round, it reminded me of the study being revealed as a TARDIS in Shada. The pictures of The Brigadier and Harry were a particularly nice touch.

It’s just a shame that K-9 can’t join the party, continuing the long-standing tradition of the poor bugger being restricted to a tiny cameo appearance during a story that doesn’t involve him. I’ve never seen the Australian K-9 series, due to the fact that it looked like a load of old bollocks, but it can’t have been worth the sacrifice of a potential series full of adventures for Sarah and K-9 together. The black hole explanation for his absence seems tacked on and not terribly convincing, but that was kind of unavoidable.

The plot is a straight-forward one – the latest in a long line of Willy Wonka retellings, with quite a similar premise to the Futurama version. The monsters were pleasingly old school in design; lumpy and mucky, as if they were made of the same rubber, latex and heavy paint that Sarah Jane faced all those years ago. Apart from the one that’s recycled from Torchwood, of course, although thankfully this one is a star poet, rather than a sexy mind-reading murderer.

It was a fun and happy way to spend an hour, full of warmth and heart. That’s thanks to Elisabeth Sladen of course, who was always such a magnetic presence. The final scenes with her talking about how nobody could compare to The Doctor tugged at the heartstrings, and made me really look forward to seeing more of her – I did watch the first series or so of SJA at the time, but I kind of fell behind at some point and there’s loads of it that I haven’t yet seen.

I’m particularly looking forward to seeing whether that middle eight in the closing theme is a regular thing, or whether it was dropped after this initial special, because it was bloody mental.

RATING: 8