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

SJA: The Gift

We start the big series finale with the gang chasing a fat lad through an industrial estate, an unmistakable sign that the Slitheen are back once again. They’re starting to become synonymous with the show, and while I don’t completely hate them, it’s a bit of a shame that they feel the need to keep bringing them back. There seemed to be a higher concentration of fart jokes too, even when the various Raxacoricofallapatorians were naked and thus not using the gas exchange thingy.

But at least there was a big variation on the theme, with the main Raxacoricofallapatorians in question being the Blathereen, voiced, quite remarkably, by Miriam Margolyes and Simon Callow. It’s a shame that they only appeared in voice over, but even so, bloody hell, they’ve got a great casting director to consistently attract such talent on what is presumably a flimsy budget.

I was obviously expecting the Blathereen to turn out to be evil, but even so I was slightly disappointed that they did. Even after their friendly gift had put Luke in a coma, I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, that maybe they didn’t know the Rakweed would be dangerous, and it had mutated unexpectedly due to something in the Earth’s atmosphere or some such. Instead, they turn out to just be a palette-swapped version of the Slitheen, which makes the previous indications that this would be a unique twist seem like red herrings.

Still, the Rakweed itself was a surprisingly effective threat, and the scale was suitably epic for the end of a season. It was great to see K-9 take a much bigger role than we’re used to. Not only did him and Mr Smith resume snark-based hostilities, but I loved the unintentionally hilarious juxtaposition of cutting between Sarah Jane desperately trying to save her terminally ill son, and the comedic caper of Clyde sneaking K-9 into school in order to cheat on a science test.

More bizarre juxtaposition was used – in a way that seemed much more deliberate – in the climax, where Sarah Jane tries to appeal to the Blathereen’s better nature. After all, they were only doing this to fuel their debilitating addiction of Rakweed, like a vegetarian version of The 456. Sadly, it all ends in violence, as Mr Smith plays them the ultimate brown noise, the Blathereen literally fart themselves to death, and Sarah Jane is left guiltily contemplating that “there should have been another way”

…all while her, the kids, the two supercomputers and indeed the entire attic are dripping with tomato-soup-esque Raxacoricofallapatorian guts. That’s what I love about The Sarah Jane Adventures – it sometimes retreads old ground, and it sometimes struggles to match its ambitions, but throughout it all it’s so much fun. It’s a thing of absolute joy.

One last thing, however. Nothing much to do with this episode per se, but something that’s only just occurred to me. Every time you see a child Slitheen disguised as a human, that means an actual child has been murdered and skinned. What is this, Sarah Jane or Torchwood?

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.33

  • SJA series watched: 3 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 18 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 35 of 53

SJA: Mona Lisa’s Revenge

This was completely batshit, but in a good way. The Mona Lisa has never struck me as somebody who was particularly in need of revenge, but then I do share Luke’s lack of certainty as to why it’s considered so much more beautiful than all other paintings. With Luke, you can blame the fact he was created in a lab, but I’m afraid I’m just a philistine. Besides, it’s probably a fake anyway.

It’s becoming clear that this series is beset with a few limitations – it’s possible that they’re being too ambitious, but then that’s to be applauded. It’s a shame that in this story they couldn’t afford to show us the big monster that they’d spent all episode building up, and it feels like there’s a slightly higher ratio of cheaper episodes to balance out the big blockbusters this time round.

Luckily, the show usually gets around these limitations quite well, often in surprising ways. There’s hardly any Sarah Jane in this one, but her absence isn’t too conspicuous because it was inevitable that *someone* was going to get trapped in a painting. By the way, I’m assuming that the police officers were all trapped in Constables, am I right? Is this thing on?

Similarly, it’s bullshit that K-9 has once again been left out of the action, with Sarah Jane’s explanation that he’s not allowed out until Luke tidies his room being right up there with all those hastily-written excuses from Tom Baker’s days. But at least they found a way to get him involved at the climax, thanks to Clyde’s sketchbook containing Chekhov’s drawing of a robot dog.

And the one thing they’re not scrimping on this series is guest stars. Not only do we have George from Drop The Dead Donkey as the curator, Mona Lisa herself is none other than Suranne Jones, although I wasn’t sure it was her at first due to the slightly freaky lack of eyebrows. It’s a very northern portrayal of the Mona Lisa, with some rather eccentric and cartoonish tendencies, but a great deal of fun. Not quite hitting the heights of her later performance as an anthropomorphised objet d’art in Doctor Who, but nevertheless well suited to the purpose.

Finally, I wasn’t sure what to make of Miss Trupp, a somewhat stereotypical frumpy middle-aged spinster, desperately in love with her boss who barely notices she exists. A story we’ve all seen thousands of times before, and one which hardly does much to challenge the patriarchy. But once again my expectations were confounded when, after the man finally realises he’s in love with her too, she calls him a creep and tells him to get stuffed. Go on, Miss Trupp.

Actually, one more thing: why did BBC News send Entertainment Correspondent Lizo Mzimba along to cover an art theft?

RATING: 7

This series of Sarah Jane Adventures is not yet over, but as I’m going through all of this in as precise a chronological order as possible, it’s the traditional mid-November Doctor Who special next. Irritatingly, it might be a while before I find time to watch it, due to work and social commitments, but hopefully not too long. After all, I figured out the other day that if I stick to the current pace, I’ll be up-to-date by around Christmas, and that would work out very nicely…

SJA: The Eternity Trap

This is just bloody typical. K-9 turns up and is awesome, and then for the next story he’s left at home. Forty years of this shit. But not only that, Luke was left at home too, and we didn’t see hide nor hair of Mr Smith. It was weird that there wasn’t so much as a cutaway or a bookend featuring them, and also that, no offence to Clyde and Rani, apart from Sarah Jane herself, they elected to make an episode without any of the best characters.

Naturally this felt like a bit of a disappointment after the show hit new heights last time. It wasn’t that it was bad necessarily, more that it lacked anything particularly special. The haunted house is such a standard setting that it seemed rather by the numbers – a succession of stock scares that we’ve seen dozens of times before, including such cliches as the creepy toy room, books flying off the shelves, doors slamming, a stuck record, a secret passage behind a bookcase and creepy children down the end of a corridor. Although the self-playing snooker table was a nice touch.

One thing that it did have in its favour was none other than Donald Sumpter, another very big name for a CBBC show. He was having a lovely time camping it up and being daft, but it did feel like he wasn’t quite taking it seriously enough towards the end. Maybe it’s because he went on to be Rassilon very briefly, but I thought his character would turn out to be a rogue Time Lord. He had a home-made inter-dimensional device in a cellar and a face that hasn’t changed in 300 years, but then I remembered that the Time Lords are all supposed to be completely dead at this stage.

Elsewhere in the guest cast, Floella Benjamin is back as a part-time companion of sorts, for some reason. That’s all well and good, but her assistant is absolutely woeful. I spent most of the first part worrying about how I was going to approach this write-up, because I wasn’t sure whether he had something wrong with him or if he’s just shit. Thankfully, having looked him up and seen he’s just a normal man who’s gone on to have a half-decent career, it’s the latter, so I can take the piss. He’s *dreadful*. He sounds like Bob Mortimer’s impression of Harry Kane from Athletico Mince.

RATING: 5

SJA: The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith

Wow. That was very special indeed, and not just because of the very special guest star. The annual Trickster episodes have always been the highlight of each series so far, and this is no exception – it’s quite easily the very best Sarah Jane story I’ve seen. It seems that at this particular period, the spin-offs were in better form than the main show.

It’s such a joy to have K-9 joining the gang properly that it’s hard not to rue the fact he wasn’t there from the beginning. Not only does he provide so many great moments on his own – such as when he’s trying to be inconspicuous by saying “do not look at me, everything is normal” – but he also improves Mr Smith immeasurably. You’d think that having two supercomputers around would make one of them redundant, but it turns out that giving each of them just half of the exposition to cover leaves them both free to fill the gaps with humour.

This episode is proper laugh-out-loud funny, and I could listen to John Leeson and Alexander Armstrong exchange insults all day. K-9 criticising Mr Smith for being too opinionated, the pair of them accidentally dobbing the kids in for spying on Sarah Jane, Mr Smith getting insecure about there being “no need to consult the dog”. Absolutely marvellous. Plus, K-9 now has an as-yet-unseen hover mode to negotiate the stairs in and out of the attic. I fucking love K-9.

While I’d have been happy with the show turning into a full-on supercomputer sitcom, this episode also had Nigel bloody Havers! He’s such a smooth bastard, and a great coup for the show. He’s so irresistibly charming that you really root for Sarah Jane and Peter as a couple, even though it’s perfectly clear throughout that something’s not right. This show has so much heart, from the way Sarah Jane slowly allows herself to fall in love, to her continually lovely relationship with Luke.

And I haven’t even mentioned the headline act yet. It’s a superb entrance from The Doctor at the end of Part One – let’s face it, that particular moment in the wedding ceremony was designed for people like him – and it’s exciting to see him running around with Luke, Clyde and Rani. It’s a shame that there wasn’t more of him and Sarah Jane together, but you can’t have everything; it felt like Tennant wasn’t available for more than a couple of days, with his scenes being relatively simple and self-contained.

But it really didn’t matter; it’s a testament to the quality of the story that the presence of the greatest hero in television history wasn’t really the main attraction. What Sarah Jane and Peter have to do to defeat The Trickster is so sad, partly down to the gravitas and style that Havers brings to proceedings, and also because I love Sarah Jane so much that I can’t bear the thought of her going through so much pain.

(Incidentally, it’s just occurred to me that The Trickster’s thing about needing consent in order to bring his chaos makes him very similar to the Monks from Who Series Ten. Only better.)

The moment that finally made me cry, however, wasn’t intended to be a sad one. It was The Doctor’s latest goodbye to Sarah Jane, with him talking about the things she’ll do that are still to come. I’ve been thinking a lot about Elisabeth Sladen recently, and how tragic it was that she was taken from us just when she was back where she belonged. This just brought it home – she was still so young, and had so much more to give.

A bittersweet experience then, but make no mistake that this has got absolutely everything you want from a Doctor Who-based story: laughs, twists, timey-wimey stuff, a great villain, heartbreak, K-9, back-references to Metebelis III and The Key to Time, and even The Doctor himself. Never mind the fact that it’s from a spin-off – this is simply solid Doctor Who.

RATING: 10

SJA: The Mad Woman in the Attic

I’m glad that I stopped watching Sarah Jane when it was originally on, simply because it’s a joy to have something completely fresh to watch at this stage of the project. Surprises have been short on the ground of late, and this story’s first one was that the eponymous mad woman isn’t Sarah Jane herself.

Instead it’s a timely opportunity for Rani to take centre stage, as she’s been slightly peripheral since settling in so quickly. It’s a shame that the future Rani was played by an older actress, rather than sticking Anjli Mohindra in make-up and giving her the chance to really try something different. Her anxieties about the gang not treating her with the same respect as Maria are reasonable, although I did feel she got let off rather lightly on the whole “telling some kid absolutely everything about your secret double life” thing.

Eve was an interesting alien – one of those morally ambiguous ones I like, where they’re doing bad things but have innocent intentions. She’s a victim of the Time War, and you know I’m also a fan of exploring the consequences of The Doctor’s actions, and of those occasions where things that happen in the main show have an impact on the spin-offs.

The story kept you guessing about the nature of what we were seeing of Rani’s future. Was it a cautionary tale about what would happen if she didn’t improve her relationship with the others, or was it something that the aliens were actively making happen? In the end, it was down to a misunderstanding on the part of Ship, the evil face in the mirror that was revealed to be essentially a slightly malevolent Holly. This was a pretty satisfying reveal, although I did totally call it from the way Rani said “I wish” in a way that was almost asking to be taken literally.

Less satisfying was the fact that it was all reversed within a minute or so of this revelation, but that wasn’t important at this stage, because we’d just had the second big surprise: K-9 is back! And for good this time, having successfully completed his mission to piss about with a black hole / unsuccessfully completed his unofficial Australian spin-off. We didn’t get to see much of him initially – although it was all worth it for Mr Smith’s sarcastic “oh good” on his return – but it’ll be interesting to see how the SJA team handle the same logistical and storytelling challenges that the DW team faced in the 70s.

It all ended with Eve going off on adventures new, alongside Rani’s best mate (with whom she’ll one day have a mixed-species son), the old man from the fairground and their wacky on-board computer. If Big Finish ever run out of spin-offs, there’s a sitcom right there. The revelation that the lad from the future is Sam’s son explains why the two of them look so alike, but not why they both look so similar to Luke. There must have been a fashion for teenage boys to all have the same big emo hair in 2009.

One more thing: with the silly intro and a particularly lengthy “previously” recap, episode two didn’t actually start until two minutes and 30 seconds in. This is ridiculous, although pretty much the first thing you see is footage of Sarah Jane with Pertwee and Baker, so all is forgiven.

RATING: 8

SJA: Prisoner of the Judoon

A complete change of tone now, with the return of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which this time comes with a little briefing at the start of each episode, recapping the premise of the show. Fair enough for the first episode back, but it seems it’s appended to the start of every episode from now on, and that’s going to get annoying pretty sharpish. I didn’t see the need for it in the first two series of Torchwood either, but this one is longer.

Anyway, this story follows the template set by the previous series opener in kicking things off with a guest monster from the main show. With it being the Judoon, it’s perhaps not quite as exciting as when it’s a Sontaran, but then the aim seemed to be to use it for laughs rather than scares. This particular Judoon sounded like the Cookie Monster, but the comedy worked, especially the slavish devotion to obeying all laws, including those regarding paying and displaying.

The scares were provided by the eponymous prisoner, who promptly took over Sarah Jane’s body. Or, as Luke unfortunately phrased it at one point: “the prisoner’s inside my mum”. Lis seemed to be having a lovely time playing the villain for once, but dare I say it, it wasn’t her strongest work. It all seemed a bit route one, hissing and shrieking like a cross between an Ice Warrior and Angelica Houston in The Witches.

In addition to all of this, there was this whole extra bit with nanobots poised to destroy the world (thanks in part to Jason’s dad from Corrie doing an awful American accent), but that threat never felt real because so little time was spent on it. A lot more could have been done with the concept, so why waste it when you’ve already got so much to deal with? Similarly, the scenes with Rani’s parents getting into Judoon-based scrapes were funny, but also superfluous – every element was OK, but it could have been better if the others weren’t jostling with it for screen time.

Also, an awful lot of the threats in this story were resolved by Luke being a genius and pressing the right buttons in the nick of time. When you’ve got a character with that much ability, you have to come up with problems that can’t be solved by just wheeling him in and saying “fix it”, otherwise there’s just no tension.

Besides, wouldn’t it have been better for Sarah Jane to use her special skills – compassion, determination and mental strength – to break free of the Androvax herself, rather than it deciding to let her go? As it was, she was just a victim and a bystander in this story, and I don’t feel I’ve got my complete Sarah Jane fix.

RATING: 6

SJA: From Raxacoricofallapatorius with Love

Aww, Ronnie Corbett. Of all the victims of the great celebrity cull of 2016, he was one of my favourites. His presence on my screen is guaranteed to make me smile – it’s the warm feeling you get when an old family friend pops round. This was clearly written with a great deal of affection for the man, and it’s exactly my kind of in-jokey humour. Although, by my count he’s the third Rani.

Like any good Comic Relief sketch (and lord knows *good* Comic Relief sketches have been few and far between in recent years), it gets very silly very quickly, and then more so. Of course the gang are all wearing deadly deely boppers. Of course Ronnie Corbett is a Slitheen. Of course K-9 turns up and gets clamped. And that final shot of K-9 improbably sporting a Red Nose for no logical reason is superb. Five minutes of pure joy.

RATING: 9

SJA: Enemy of the Bane

The extraordinary thing about this show is how it’s forever expanding its own little world, while also maintaining such strong links to the past. The SJA-specific mythology continues to grow apace, with Mrs Wormwood and the Bane becoming the latest recurring enemies. Her asking for help and vowing that she’d turned good is not dissimilar to the current Missy storyline in the main show, with the added element of giving poor old Luke some mummy issues to deal with.

And this was all fine and dandy, but let’s face it, what I’m really interested in is the other big guest star. It was such a warm, comforting feeling to see Sir Brigadier one last time. Nicholas Courtney may have been moving a little slower than he was in the old days, but he’s still just as sharp, smooth and charming as ever. Imagine being told when the show came back in 2005 that within four years, we’d be seeing Sarah Jane and the Brigadier breaking into UNIT and stealing alien artifacts. Such a joy.

I wasn’t aware that this story was the origin of UNIT’s Black Archive, which seems to have been moved between this story and the 50th, because that warehouse looked nothing like the Tower of London. I share the Brig’s slight distaste for the RTD-era portrayal of UNIT, and it brought home just how much they’ve softened since the likes of Kate and Osgood took over. Oddly, the Major we meet is very much modeled after the old-school 70s UNIT – he’s like an even creepier Mike Yates.

It was no real surprise that he turned out to be a Bane, and it wasn’t the type of the story where there’s much complexity to the plot – every trap is obvious, every double-cross predictable, every story beat linear and logical – but, a) it’s a kid’s show, and b) it’s really well executed and loads of fun. It sets out to do a straight-forward job, but it does it with a great deal of success.

That said, it did provide me with one all too rare moment of genuine surprise – a plot twist that I didn’t already know about in advance from a next time trailer or a DVD cover. The Sontarans are back as well! Specifically, it’s Kaagh from earlier in the series, who was always likely to show up again having been allowed to leave Earth, but I wasn’t expecting it so soon. He’s not quite as strong as he was in his first appearance, as he’s playing second fiddle to Wormwood a lot of the time, and so unable to assert his dominance.

But even if this story – and indeed this entire series – did nothing else, it gave us Sarah Jane and The Brigadier being reunited and facing off against Sontarans, on actual telly in the 21st century. Quite extraordinary.

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.67

  • SJA series watched: 2 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 12 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 23 of 53

I’ll be back to Bannerman Road before I know it, but first, it’ll be Christmas again…