SJA: The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith

I don’t understand it. There I am, happily watching a nice lightweight fantasy show aimed at 9-13 year olds, and then next thing I know there are tears streaming down my face. This was an extraordinary episode, easily matching, and indeed bettering, a great number of stories from regular Who.

The Trickster is a cracking invention, and he works so well as a recurring character because he’s essentially a What-If Machine. Whenever he turns up, you know you’re in for something weird and alternative-timeline-y, but it’s a different scenario every time; after tackling “what if Sarah Jane died as a child?” and “what if Donna never met The Doctor”, it’s now “what if Father’s Day happened to Sarah Jane?”.

It’s all there, right down to the heroic sacrifice via a car accident. It was obvious throughout that it was heading to the familiar conclusion, but that didn’t matter, because what happens when Father’s Day happens to Sarah Jane is that you get Elisabeth Sladen being incredible. While it’s entirely possible that my response is more emotional than it might have been were she still with us, it takes nothing away from the strength of her captivating performance.

Sarah Jane acts recklessly and selfishly, with all the arrogance and hubris of The Doctor at the worst of his excesses. And yet we’re always on her side, because the entire first episode is given over to establishing her reasons – she does the wrong thing, but you can completely understand why. It’s a universal theme; in one way or another, everyone’s either lost parents, is scared of losing parents, or has to deal with not having parents to lose.

Raw emotion is always bubbling under the surface, but there are plenty of fun moments to be had while exploring the past with Sarah Jane’s parents, such as Luke’s impeccable ability to count gobstoppers, or their distinctly 00s choice of pseudonyms. There was even a reference to “miners on Peladon”, which is admittedly not the most surprising Peladon reference I’ve seen this week.

It all led up to stonking cliffhanger, with a cheap but effective rendition of a destroyed Earth, bolstered by the Planet of the Apes inspired inclusion of a befucked Big Ben. And as a resident of Ealing for ten years next month, I appreciated the Greenford tube sign, even if the font wasn’t anywhere near correct. Thinking about it, that must have been Ace’s local station too; I wonder if she ever found herself on Bannerman Road at any point?

Oh, and I loved the mix-up with the police box, which even went as far as playing the appropriate bit of music from the main show. Funny, tragic, creepy, heartwarming; this story is very special indeed. And who was that I glimpsed in the next time trailer? I’m going to cry again, aren’t I?

RATING: 9

Music of the Spheres

I remember watching the BBC One broadcast of the Doctor Who Prom at the time, and it was a great show. In isolation, this portion of it is absolutely fine, but you’d only watch it in isolation if, for example, you were in the middle of a mission to watch every official Doctor Who production just so you can mark them off a spreadsheet and write a blog about them.

As a consequence of this policy, there comes a time every now and then where there’s bugger all to say. My only opinions are that it was better when it was part of a bigger show, and the audience-participation bits seem daft when you can’t see or hear the audience, but that’s obviously not a criticism of the piece, just of the version that I watched tonight.

I liked the use of the full version of “reverse the polarity”, and I loved the use of the original theme at the end, if only for the fact that it meant that Delia Derbyshire’s work was played in the Royal Albert Hall. That is the end of my opinions. In conclusion: clearly a good thing, but not particularly engaging or entertaining in this specific context, and so therefore a neutral:

RATING: 5

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

Attack of the Graske

Ah yes, I remember playing this on the red button on Christmas Day 2005, and possibly once or twice on the website thereafter. It’s stuck with me incredibly well, as I distinctly remembered the bit where you have to cut between the two views of the family living room, and spot the imposter. Ditto for the bits where you have to pick which area of the screen he’s hiding in.

It’s pretty bloody good – entertaining, well-written and making good use of the very limited options provided by the technology to craft a game that’s as varied as possible. The production values are higher than you’d expect too; nothing too stunning, but well-directed and not scrimping on the locations and costumes. My first ever TV job was as a runner on an interactive drama for the BBC website at around the same time, and it strikes me that we’ve gone backwards since then in terms of the resources allocated to online-only ventures.

But anyway, I played through the whole game today on Youtube, as the version on the BBC website doesn’t seem to be working any more, at least not for me – as soon as I made my first decision, the video disappeared and the next one didn’t load. When I got to the end, my memory from over a decade ago faltered just as I was faced with a crucial dilemma.

The game told me I could press one button to release the prisoners and teleport them back home, or press another button to freeze everyone apart from me in time. The first one seemed so obvious as to be some sort of trap, and I figured that if I hit freeze then it would buy me the time to sort everything out properly without the Graske’s interference.

This, apparently, was the wrong decision. I got the bad ending, where the little girl’s parents remain trapped forever and she’s in the grasp of alien imposters. I ruined Christmas. I was therefore grateful for the ability to navigate back to the previous Youtube video, and choose the option that is basically labelled “choose this option, only an idiot would pick the other one”.

And my reward? A cosy family scene in which Another Rock n’ Roll Christmas by Gary Glitter is playing. Glitter’s first conviction as a child sex offender occurred six years earlier, so it was an odd choice for a game aimed squarely at the under-twelves.

Favourite line: “There’s a risk that if you switch to ITV tonight, the universe may implode.”

RATING: 7