SJA: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

I was apprehensive about watching an episode called Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith, knowing that I’m going to have to say that for real after just three more stories, and I’m not looking forward to that one bit. I’ve really loved taking this opportunity to spend more time in Sarah Jane’s company, but I’m always aware in the back of my mind that it’s not going to end happily.

There’s been a few moments along the way that have felt sad in hindsight, but this was the first time that it hit me in a big way. The episode was pootling along beautifully, with an intriguing new character who could have been either a new friend or the guest villain, and it genuinely felt like it could go either way. Clyde was running around with a big gun, which seemed a little bit strong for CBBC, even after we found out that it was unfireable. And it was revealed that Mr Smith films everything that happens in the attic, which made me ponder whether the show we’re watching is put together by him, like in Trial of a Time Lord.

And then the worrying hints that something was amiss with Sarah Jane came to a head, and Mr Smith told her that she’s “very ill indeed”. And then I was sobbing, for reasons that are obvious to anyone reading this, but that couldn’t possibly have been foreseen when this episode was made. It’s a horrible, cruel coincidence that adds a tragic edge to proceedings and it’s difficult to overlook. Objectively, I can see that this stuff is well-judged and sensitively handled, but my emotional response is far more extreme than the episode intends to give me.

But as always with SJA, there’s so much more going on. Clyde and Rani’s grief at hearing Sarah Jane was “gone” set me off again during Part Two, but when they themselves were put in peril – especially Clyde, as his perilous situation was so extreme – it made me realise that I do care about those characters after all. I think their budding romance is sweet (although I was wrong with my prediction of a snog in the finale), and being put further into the spotlight has served them well in the end – as the series has gone on, they’ve become much easier to empathise with.

Inevitably Luke shows up for the finale, having gained a poncey scarf and a slightly disconcerting aggressive streak. For once, K-9 was also allowed to join the party, albeit only via Skype, but I was glad that he was the one who rallied the troops and kick-started the fightback. It was also nice to give him and Mr Smith a little bit of closure, with a cessation of hostilities and a newfound mutual respect. Speaking of talking computers, I only realised after seeing the credits that Mr White was voiced by Eddie Marsan! What a bizarrely famous choice to play such a tiny role, entirely in keeping with the show’s proud history.

There’s another sad note right at the end, as a rejuvenated Sarah Jane vows to carry on forever, which is obviously supposed to be a happy note. This neatly illustrates the difficulty in knowing what to take from this story, but regardless of anything else, it’s an exciting, funny, high-stakes thriller, and a great way to end to another brilliant series.

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.83

  • SJA series watched: 4 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 24 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 47 of 53

I’m feeling slightly gloomy now, due to thinking so much about Elisabeth Sladen, and realising how little of Sarah Jane I have left to watch. But hey – next up, it’s Christmas. Again.

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SJA: Lost in Time

This is the first episode of a Doctor Who spin-off ever to be named after a DVD boxset, and it’s also the third format-breaker in a row, which leads me to conclude that SJA doesn’t really have a format any more, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s developed the same ability Who has to be able to go anywhere and do anything, despite a budget of pence and the lack of a handy time-and-spaceship.

Here, without even time to chat to Luke or consult Mr Smith, we’re thrown right into a really straight-forward quest structure, which really appeals to the parts of my brain that are on the spectrum. Each of the gang are sent off on individual missions to retrieve bits of a thing – it was like an ultra-compacted Key To Time, especially with the mystery components all disguised as contemporaneous objects.

Telling three mini-stories instead of one big one worked a treat; it was like a Treehouse of Horror style anthology episode, but you can cut between them to stop them getting dull. Two of the three – Rani meeting Lady Jane Grey and Clyde vs The Nazis – really felt like old Who historicals, complete with lack of aliens, and the plot coming merely from our heroes getting caught up in real life events.

Sarah Jane’s story was the exception, and the old Who thing it reminded me of was Ghost Light, but better. As well as being the only one with a sci-fi element, of sorts, Clyde and Rani both had to stop the timey-wimey objects being used to change history, whereas Sarah Jane uses her key to save those children from burning to death. I thought we were going to go down a very dark path where Sarah Jane has to leave them to die in order to save the world, but then I remembered which spin-off I was watching.

It all wrapped up very nicely; despite the moments where everyone looked up what happened to the people they met being a bit sickly, the method by which Sarah Jane’s key was returned to her was very neat and clever. And I liked the reveal that the parrot was behind the whole thing – very Douglas Adams. The episode also introduces children to the possibility that their teacher might be a secret Nazi double agent. Plus points all round.

RATING: 8

SJA: The Empty Planet

Almost inevitably, this felt like a bit of a come-down from the very special previous episode, something which has often happened throughout the four series. I don’t know whether it’s just because these episodes are suffering by comparison, or if the post-Doctor slot is used somewhat sacrificially to take a risk on an unconventional episode.

This was a Sarah Jane-lite story, and indeed an every single human being except Clyde and Rani-lite story. Indeed, it was the first time since his departure that Luke couldn’t be bothered to Skype his mum. It was pretty much a two-hander for vast swathes of the first half, which did a great job of using sound – or lack thereof – to create a really eerie atmosphere.

The only snag is that I’m not quite interested enough in Rani and Clyde for them to carry a whole story by themselves. I like them both, but they’re the two least complex and most generic characters in the gang. Sarah Jane’s absence was palpable – in a way that it perhaps wouldn’t if Luke or K-9 were still around – but thankfully the script made the most of its limited resources by leaving plenty of time for a spot of introspection.

I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms before, but Clyde and Rani actually identify what it is that makes you care about them the least – they’re the hangers-on. Unlike Luke, Mr Smith and K-9, they (and previously Maria) are not part of Sarah Jane’s family, so they’re one step removed from her, and therefore a further step removed from The Doctor. Still, the more time we spend with them, the less that’s relevant, and I must say their budding romance is being handled well, feeling natural and patient.

The second part became more of a runaround, with the aid of two big colourful robots. There was an unusual amount of location work, and with the streets being empty it made me notice for the first time just how little the Ealing where Sarah Jane lives looks like the Ealing where I live. They usually compensate by referring to real places in the dialogue, so it was distracting that the denouement took place in the fictional “Ealing Circle” instead of, say, Ealing Common.

The fact that these are the thoughts I’m taking away from this one probably tells you a lot. It was fine, and it kept me adequately entertained, but I can tell it’s going to be one of those that I struggle to remember. The only other notable thing was that the next time trailer at the end was about a minute and a half long, which either tells us that they were really proud of the next story, or that this one was running short.

RATING: 6

SJA: Death of the Doctor

Oh, that was just incredible. I was expecting a huge nostalgia fest due to the presence of Jo Grant, and I got that and so much more. It felt like a huge love letter to the whole of the classic era, written by the man who loved it so much that he brought it back from the dead, made it the biggest show on TV and then, after handing over the reins of the main show, couldn’t resist using the also-hugely-successful spin-off to play with his favourite toys one last time.

As you’d expect from RTD, emotions are running high throughout, and I felt like I was constantly on the verge of tears for the whole of the first part. Obviously the Doctor wasn’t actually dead – apart from anything else, this would have been a very strange place to drop that particular bombshell – but it was hard to watch Sarah Jane going through that grief. The lines were deliberately blurred between her justifiable (and ultimately correct) suspicion of a conspiracy, and the suggestion that this was just denial as a coping mechanism.

Then you throw Jo Grant in to the mix, and oh man, you don’t realise how much you’ve missed her until you see her again. Age has not diminished her spirit and her radiance – quite remarkable considering she’s apparently had seven children, which makes you wonder how she had time to travel the world and change it as she went. Like Sarah Jane greeting her as an old friend despite them never having met before, you just want to give her a huge hug.

I said at the time that Jo was the first of a new type of companion, and there was no better candidate for someone to stand alongside Sarah Jane, occupying that same special place in people’s affections. It was wonderful to watch them bond, comparing notes on the Doctor and swapping anecdotes about Peladon. But there was a serious side too; I’d often wondered how other companions would have felt about the Doctor having post-departure adventures with Sarah Jane and not them, and that was addressed beautifully.

I’d have been more than happy with Katy Manning being the headline guest star – backed up by a future Doctor (sort of) voicing a giant space vulture – but then of course the real deal turns up, travelling via the body of a teenage boy. I was worried at first that it wouldn’t be as special as the last time, considering that Sarah Jane has no history with this particular Doctor. Jo being taken aback by his baby face was funny, but it reinforced the fact that this is the first time either of them have met him, and therefore they don’t have that special instant connection.

Within minutes of Part Two, these fears were proved to be completely unfounded, as Matt Smith rolled back the years with a performance that really sold the idea that this is completely the same man who appeared in flashbacks looking like Pertwee and Baker. The tears were flowing during his big chat with Jo, which revealed how much she’d longed to see him again, whilst simultaneously providing her with the closure she’s been waiting for. It also revealed that the Tenth Doctor did visit every single companion on his farewell tour after all, which is just wonderful.

This rare off-world trip for SJA was also one last hurrah for Jo and Sarah Jane, and it just felt so right to see them slip effortlessly back into those traditional companion roles. They give us wide-eyed wonder as they experience an alien planet, they help the Doctor solve every problem he’s faced with, and they even end up getting kidnapped and placed in mortal danger. The culmination of the plot is what tips us into a full on celebration of Classic Who, with the message being that Jo and Sarah Jane’s adventures were so awesome, the mere memory of them is enough to save the universe.

This then continues with an unprecedented amount of back-references to characters who were last seen decades before the target audience were born, and it’s honestly one of the most heart-warming things I’ve ever seen. We’d already heard that Liz Shaw now lives on the Moon, which was awesome enough, but I really love the idea that just about everyone who travels with the Doctor goes on to do incredible things; their lives vastly improved by having known him.

Tegan’s back in Australia fighting for Aboriginal rights, Ben and Polly set up an orphanage, Ace has raised billions for charity, and Harry – sadly discussed in the past tense – saved countless lives by curing diseases. But most of all, I’m so happy that Ian and Barbara got married, and that they’ll literally live happily ever after, having not aged since the 60s. This feels like a parting gift from Russell – he’d already given us so much joy, but he decided we deserved even more.

This was one of those episodes that really reminds you why you love Doctor Who so much. And it’s not even an episode of Doctor Who.

RATING: 10

SJA: The Vault of Secrets

This series never fails to take me by surprise. The philosophy behind it seems to be to always go for the most fun option, and it’s presumably in this spirit that someone watched Dreamland and decided that the robotic Men In Black, who played an incredibly tiny role in proceedings, were ripe for a live action comeback. I can’t say I’d have drawn the same conclusion, but that’s why I don’t make Doctor Who spin-offs for a living, as Mr Dread and his gang were a fun and effective secondary villain.

The main villain was also a returnee – Androvax from the Judoon one last series – and much like the Men In Black, it’s an idea that was merely one of many in its original appearance, and is much improved by being fleshed out and made more prominent. Last time round he was a straightforward bad guy that simply needed to be chased down and captured, but here he’s more multi-faceted and his motives more equivocal. It means that while he’s still cunning and untrustworthy – something that Sarah Jane frustratingly falls victim to on slightly too many occasions – you can understand his reasons and sympathise with him to a degree.

Meanwhile, Luke is gone, but much like Maria before him, he’s not forgotten, appearing via webcam towards the start and never being far from the other characters’ thoughts throughtout. Shame the same can’t be said for K-9, but that’s hardly a surprise at this stage. Unlike with Maria, there’s no new character to take Luke’s place, but I guess “the kid over the road” is a lot easier to recast than “the title character’s only child”. It means we now have a gang of three, and it’ll be interesting to see how much this affects the dynamic. For a start, it’s clear that Rani and Clyde are getting closer. There’ll be a snog by the time this series is out, you mark my words.

I thought we were going to see Rani’s parents being brought into the fold, like how Maria’s dad gradually became an honourary member of the team, until Gita’s memory was wiped and she reverted to being the slightly annoying comic relief. I worry that with Luke gone, and Rani never having fully inhabited the audience avatar role that Maria had, we’re starting to lose some of the emotional stakes – this was a fun little story that zipped along nicely, but it ultimately felt inconsequential and lightweight. There’s always a place for that within a set of episodes, but I’m just concerned that Luke’s absence leaves too much of a hole.

Regardless, the main thing I’ll remember from this episode is the truly epic back-reference to Pyramids of Mars towards the start. One of those moments that would still have made sense to the kiddies, but that means so much more to the likes of us. It also explains why scientific developments in the real world are not always consistent with established facts from the Doctor Who universe – Sarah Jane and Mr Smith are there to cover everything up.

RATING: 7

SJA: The Nightmare Man

Aww. I’m slightly sad that I’m already on the last full series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, partly because of the awful reason behind it finishing, but also because I could happily watch more of it. It’s such a lovely show, plus it’s all new to me, and the shorter episodes are often more manageable than a full-length New Who episode if I’ve had a long day.

In retrospect, it feels like this story marks the beginning of the end, with Luke departing for university, despite the fact that he still only looks about fourteen. I had no idea he’d left before the end, and it means that Sarah Jane herself is the only original member of the gang left, aside from the odd alien supercomputer.

At least he had a decent send off, with a story that was structured like a Doctor Who two-parter, with the first half being one long set-up for the second. It spent a long time covering the character stuff before the plot kicked in, and it’s to its credit. After a brief introductory montage with an extremely green Slitheen to keep the kids interested, great care is taken to explore what Luke’s departure means for him and everybody else.

I remember my mum bawling her eyes out when she dropped me off at university, but at least we didn’t have to contend with Julian Bleach haunting our dreams. This is his third different villain across three different shows, and it’s a typically bonkers performance – basically Julian Bleach’s interpretation of The Joker. The nightmares he concocts ring so true to the fears we all face while growing up, and it keeps Luke front and centre by always having the scary bits interwoven with the domestic stuff, with each component of the story informing the other.

Then, much like the last Who story I watched, the first episode ends with one big event (in this case, the Nightmare Man crossing to the real world), before a full second episode devoted to the fall-out. Clyde and Rani are dragged into a dream world that features Sarah Jane as an old biddy, and Doon Mackichan as a newsreader. Obviously I was reminded of Collaterlie Sisters, and equally obviously I noted that the method used to escape the dream – simply imagining a door and walking through it – was also the method used to escape Better Than Life in the Red Dwarf novels.

Eventually, the monster is quite literally defeated by the power of friendship, which is a tad trite and perfunctory, but it kind of had to happen that way in order to resolve Luke’s anxieties, and allow him to leave with a smile on his face. However, I was not prepared for K-9 being packed off with him, which seemed very abrupt. While he featured slightly more than average, he didn’t get anywhere near the amount of focus and attention that Luke got. I know that’s fair enough – K-9’s only been in it for a relatively short time, and the kids are going to care much more about Luke – but me and that dog go back a long way, and I don’t feel we’ve got closure.

Mind you, I live in Ealing, and it’s about an hour away from Oxford by road, or you can even get a train directly from Ealing Broadway. They say they won’t see each other until Christmas, but Luke could come back every weekend if he wanted to. They’re all full of shit – they don’t actually care about each other after all.

RATING: 8