The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.11-12 – Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith (parts one and two)

Our son was really unhappy with this one for a while. Julie Graham, who I enjoyed very much in Acorn’s Queens of Mystery recently, plays Ruby White, who appears to be another amateur alien-fighter like Sarah Jane, but, to nobody’s surprise, is really another alien. The kid was not fooled for a second. We’re meant to dislike her from the outset before she turns heroic and the good guys welcome her, but the kid stayed unconvinced. He even came close to predicting the resolution. Ruby’s species have separate, second stomachs, and use them to feed on heightened emotions. Our son knew that had to be the way to stop her, but bet on them somehow boring the stomach into starvation rather than overloading it with too much fear. Always bet on overloading the enemy power source / supercomputer / second stomach.

So this is the big finale story, but it’s surprisingly low-key for a SJA finale, with no returning villains or Slitheen. Luke and K9 return for part two, but that’s it. It’s a low-budget battle of wits with few locations or speaking parts or even extras. The story was written by Gareth Roberts and his partner Clayton Hickman, and it’s full of good ideas and a good villain. It’s a shame that Elisabeth Sladen’s sad death meant that Ruby could never come back for a rematch. Julie Graham returned as a different character in series twelve of Doctor Who, and my fingers are crossed that we’ll get a second series of Queens of Mystery, because they sure did leave a lot of unresolved plot threads in that fine little show.

We’ll watch the fifth, final series of The Sarah Jane Adventures in December. Stay tuned!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 4.1-2 – The Nightmare Man (parts one and two)

And now back to the autumn of 2010 and series four of the huggable The Sarah Jane Adventures. This was the series where the team mostly drops to a trio. Tommy Knight left the show and this is Luke’s final appearance as a member of the regular cast, although he shows up in a few more stories to come.

This story feels like a really strange one to launch the new series. It feels like the season cheapie, with almost no additional speaking parts or locations. The Nightmare Man is a being from another dimension who feeds on dream energy. It doesn’t feel like anything that original’s going on here, but it’s done with style and is sufficiently creepy. Our son demurred, saying it’s “more Halloweeny than creepy,” and assuring us that he would not be horrified by the Nightmare Man’s bad dreams. He’s just say “So what? Bored,” and wake up. Then again, this kid has probably had fewer bad dreams in nine years than anybody else in the world. He probably doesn’t understand why people are bothered by them.

The most interesting part of the story is the Nightmare Man himself. He’s played by Julian Bleach, the most recent actor to play Davros in Doctor Who, and he seems to have borrowed his body language from the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I thought it was quite a fun performance.

The story ends with Luke driving off to Oxford to start university with K9 in tow. I wonder how he’s going to explain the tin dog to his dorm’s resident assistant.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 3.11-12 – The Gift (parts one and two)

One thing after another got in the way back in 2009, and we never actually watched this episode. In fact, when I got the DVD and saw a familiar villainous face on the cover art, I said to myself “I don’t remember any Slitheen in this series!”

There are a couple of Slitheen in this story, but the main baddies aren’t the green baby-faced fiends that we’ve seen before. These are orange-yellow Blathereen, a different family who claim to be much nicer, although no less disgusting, than their distant cousins. They are voiced by Miriam Margolyes and Simon Callow, who I hope really enjoyed the experience of doing something that actors of their caliber rarely get to do: play some belching “simple farming folk” with terrible table manners. And as for their different skin color, the BBC have come a long way from the days when they painted a red Axon costume mostly green for a different monster in “The Seeds of Doom.”

While there is a plot that has to do with the Blathereen, our son was most focused on the B-plot. Clyde brings K9 to school to help him cheat on his biology test. Every line, every camera revelation, every slow burn as Rani silently lets Clyde know what she thinks of this scheme, had him in stitches. Eventually the comedy turns serious when an alien plant sends some spores into the teacher’s face, and the kid was too busy roaring to notice the tone had changed.

That’s all for The Sarah Jane Adventures for now, but there’s more to come. We’ll start series four in October, a couple of weeks after we finish series five of Doctor Who. Stay tuned!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 3.5-6 – The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (parts one and two)

You know, the kid just does not like bad guys as much as I do. The third and final duel between Sarah Jane and the Trickster had him grumbling even more than usual – after the lights were turned on, happily – about his antics, with the interesting caveat that he just doesn’t think the Trickster is all that much of a villain. He says that the Trickster doesn’t really do anything villainous, he just lets people make the decision to stay alive instead of dying. We parents protested that changing the future can be pretty amazingly evil. This time, in the guise of an angel, he saves the life of a man named Peter Dalton and plays matchmaker, because a happily married Sarah Jane won’t go saving the planet all the time.

And see, I think this is remarkably and delightfully evil, because the Trickster can only ever be defeated by people agreeing to die. Victory over him demands sacrifice, every time. How wretched is that? He’s a great, great villain, and happily, as I discussed when I was talking about the Replicators in Stargate the other day, the law of diminishing returns never sets in for him. Gareth Roberts used him three times and he’s been retired, which is good. One more appearance would be too many. At least he gets to have that standoff with the Doctor he threatened when we met him.

Oh, yeah, the Doctor’s in this! Bizarrely, because of the complex filming schedules of the Who shows back when they were making three of them, this was actually made after David Tennant’s last Who installments. The Doctor gets to run around with the kids and K9 in a situation that is remarkably like Sapphire & Steel‘s final case, trapped in a lost, repeating second in a building with nothing outside it. They have a completely grand second part to the story with Tennant doing all his running around and shouting and Doctor things while Sarah Jane and Peter get to have the emotional showdown with the baddie. Peter’s last words, if you have a heart, will break it.

Also, for those of you who really like the Tenth Doctor, I’m pretty sure you can slot Panini’s terrific collection The Crimson Hand just perfectly in between “Planet of the Dead” and this story. It’s been a while since I read that; I should dust it off again soon. Wow, it just struck me that we’ll reach the end of Tennant’s run before September. Time flies.

Anyway, all the Doctor stuff is terrific fun, and it makes for a great balance, because he doesn’t dominate the story. The emotional core is happening elsewhere, a second away, in another room. I love it to pieces, without reservation. Anybody who binges Tennant’s run as the Doctor who doesn’t detour here to enjoy this is seriously missing out.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 3.3-4 – The Mad Woman in the Attic (parts one and two)

“The Mad Woman in the Attic” draws its unusual title from a parallel timeline situation where Rani grows up alone, cuts off human contact, and, fifty years after the events of this story, has purchased Sarah Jane’s old house so she can be a bitter old lady lost in her memories. It’s an interesting framing structure, and I have always felt it distracts a little from the much warmer present-day story. It concerns a lonely alien girl called Eve, who may be the only survivor of a race of time-sensitive beings who were “exterminated” in a war between two powerful races. “I know what war that is,” interjected our increasingly vocal nine year-old critic. Most of the story was filmed on an incredibly windy couple of days at the Barry Island Pleasure Park in the spring of 2009. Unfortunately, they seem to have picked the most boring rides in the place to use.

K9 returns to the main cast at the end of this story after just a couple of tiny appearances in the previous series. The BBC’d worked out a rights-sharing agreement with K9’s co-owners at last. The kid got really, really talkative when that happened because he was so happy. He really is getting obnoxious with the commentary and used to be a lot better about keeping quiet. Must remember to talk with him about that…

The Sarah Jane Adventures 1.9-10 – The Lost Boy (parts one and two)

I just adore watching the way our son responds when friends or foes from the past resurface. Toward the end of part one of Phil Ford’s “The Lost Boy,” the baddies start unzipping their foreheads, revealing themselves to be Slitheen, and the kid bellowed “You have GOT to be kidding!” Then at the end of the adventure, K9 gets to come out of hiding for a contractually-obligated cameo and he shouted “Yay!” He also joined in with my laughter when he absolutely no idea why I was laughing. Maria explains to her dad that Slitheen are not a race, but a family of chancers, like Only Fools and Horses, but green. So I got a very good giggle and he fake-laughed atop me despite clearly not getting the joke.

Should I tell him that Only Fools and Horses is the same program that Jackie Tyler was referencing when she called Pete a “Del Boy” back in “Father’s Day”, and that it starred David Jason, who he knows as the wonderful Captain Fantastic in Do Not Adjust Your Set, which we watch together every couple of weeks? Probably not.

Anyway, “The Lost Boy” is a fine season finale. It does what the Who world typically does in a finale: bring back an old baddie, pull the rug out from under us, threaten the unity of the heroes, threaten the planet, that sort of thing. It’s incredibly fun watching it all unfold, and realizing that the Slitheen cannot trust their mysterious, unseen ally. I especially like how Clyde proves that he’s more essential than anybody credits him, believably using his wits in a couple of key scenes. And while nobody’s heart is broken by the Slitheen returning to the shelf for a couple of years, I just can’t help myself. I really enjoy the big green farting chancers!

The Sarah Jane Adventures will return to our lineup in the summer, after we have watched series four of Doctor Who. Stay tuned!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 1.0 – Invasion of the Bane

On January 1, 2007, one week after the Doctor Who episode “The Runaway Bride,” BBC One showed a special preview episode of the forthcoming Sarah Jane Adventures series. “Invasion of the Bane,” co-written by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts, functions as a pilot episode, setting up the unusual premise. It’s set more than a year since we last saw Sarah Jane in “School Reunion.” She’s had to temporarily part company with K9, who’s on a mission in space, and she’s using an attic room full of alien tech to help stranded or lost extraterrestrials find their way home. Occasionally she has to put her foot down when some visitors from space – like this story’s Bane – have a little more malice in mind.

The obvious question is where did Sarah get all this gear? I figure that as soon as she spotted Daleks in the sky above Canary Wharf, Sarah got down there just in time for the Doctor to clean up the mess, and loaded the back seat of her car with whatever space junk would fit before the government and/or UNIT figured out what was going on. From what we learn later, she picked up “Mister Smith,” the crystal alien that powers her supercomputer, around the same time. The sonic lipstick is a cheeky gift from the Doctor which he left inside the new K9 that he left her. Problem mostly solved!

In the first episode, Sarah meets a new ally in the form of 13 year-old Maria, played by Yasmin Paige, and an adopted son – an artificial human rescued from the bad guys – called Luke, played by Tommy Knight. The villains are a race of blob monsters called the Bane who take on human forms. Samantha Bond plays the nasty Mrs. Wormwood and her “mother” is a big CGI eyeball with a mass of thrashing green tentacles in the factory ceiling. Our son’s only complaint about this story is that we didn’t get to see the Bane Mother in full. “Invasion of the Bane” is centered around the aliens getting England hooked on a new soft drink, which is a pleasantly 2000s update to plastic daffodils. The baddies have even hired a big bus just like the Autons and the Master did thirty-six years previously, and darn if the Bane Mother didn’t look a lot like the original Nestene Consciousness. We never learn how these villains got their drink distributed to shops throughout the UK and afforded the massive advertising campaign, but at least their factory gets blown up real good.

I always felt that The Sarah Jane Adventures was a splendid companion to Who in its day. I love its goofy, kid-friendly tone, although, as much as I liked the character of Maria, the first run was the weakest of the five because they were trying a little too hard to come up with stories that would appeal to young teens instead of just flying by the seat of their pants and doing wild and ridiculous monster stories as they’d do later on. We’ll see whether it holds up in a few months’ time, and pencil it in for April, right after we finish series three of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who 2.3 – School Reunion

For Toby Whithouse’s first Doctor Who episode, he got the plum assignment of bringing back Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, with K9 Mark III looking a little worse for the wear and dumped unceremoniously and inactive in the trunk of her car. They were last seen in “The Five Doctors” twenty-three years, or “half a dozen” regenerations, ago. Of course our son had the biggest ear-to-ear grin you’ve ever seen when K9 was revealed. It took him a few seconds to register Sarah Jane. It took him no seconds at all to register his favorite dog. He was very pleased when I told him that we’d be seeing them again in the near future.

The beautiful center of the story is Sarah Jane’s return, with all the mixed emotions that it brings. I think that they did a brilliant job balancing the unresolved sadness of the Doctor never returning – Sarah Jane was the only companion that the Doctor ever actually dumped – with the hilarious “missus and the ex” comedy. Rose is completely shocked to learn that the Doctor ever had any traveling companions before her. In the eighties, it seemed like everybody who joined the TARDIS got a TED talk in regeneration and prior companions. Peri even recognized a random photo of Jo Grant in “Timelash.” The Ninth Doctor clearly just didn’t tell Rose much of anything, did he?

The brilliant, brilliant scene that begins with Rose and Sarah Jane sniping at each other over who has seen more impressive sights is the episode’s highlight. They break the tension as they realize that the Doctor’s face might change but he’s still the same clueless man. I bet a thousand fanfic writers were punching the air as Rose and Sarah Jane collapse with laughter while the Doctor can’t get a sentence out, saying “Yes, that, exactly like that!”

It’s all so good that the actual plot is fairly irrelevant, honestly. Anthony Stewart Head is the main baddie, and at least he gets a completely terrific showdown scene opposite David Tennant. For the record, these monsters are called Krillitanes and they’re after something called a Skasis Paradigm, but they might as well be Slitheen in Downing Street or Mark Gatiss with a big CGI monster or Sontarans with GPS smoke bombs. As much as I enjoy Russell T. Davies’s four seasons, there are plenty of present-day Earth stories where I just adore the characters and the dialogue so much but have no idea what the actual stakes are. It’s apparently building blocks of the universe, this time. I’ll try to remember that.

K9 and Company 1.1 – A Girl’s Best Friend

The only spinoff that made it to the screen during Doctor Who‘s first 26 years was this lone unsold pilot starring Elisabeth Sladen that aired as a Christmas special in 1981. It’s also the first occasion that the show ever gave some screen time to a former companion, as we catch up with Sarah Jane Smith, last seen in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear”.

According to this episode, the Doctor dropped K9 Mark Three off at Sarah Jane’s house in Croydon in 1978. He sat boxed up in an attic while Sarah was off being a journalist, and eventually the crate made its way to the large country house owned by Sarah’s Aunt Lavinia, just in time for Sarah to finally be in the same place as her gift and have a small adventure around some superstitious country folk still a-worshippin’ the “Black Arts” while people start disappearing, including her aunt’s science-obsessed ward Brendon.

(Incidentally, there’s no particular reason to think that the fourth Doctor dropped off a new K9 for his old friend somewhere in the space between “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis,” but that doesn’t stop list-making fans from trying to crowbar it in right there. For all we know, the Doctor assembled Mark Two and Mark Three together, before he even met Romana. Or maybe the next Doctor built him.)

Anyway, despite the presence of notable actors like Bill Fraser and Colin Jeavons, the episode, written by Terence Dudley, has never engaged me much, but we had the actual target audience on the sofa between us, and our favorite seven year-old critic thought this was just fine. It may not be particularly thrilling, and it might lack menace or urgency, but the pace is just perfect for kids this age to chew on the mystery and consider who, other than Jeavons’ character and his leather-jacketed son, is in Hecate’s coven. Of course, he was most pleased with K9’s two action scenes.

The episode got some very respectable ratings – better than season 18 of the parent show, in fact – but there was some changeover of the muckity-mucks in charge at the BBC and more episodes weren’t commissioned. Elisabeth Sladen would have to wait another quarter-century to headline a Who spinoff, but she and K9 would be back in just a couple of years.

Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (parts three and four)

The other thing I really don’t like about “Warriors’ Gate” is Romana’s departure. It’s not as bad as Leela’s was, but it’s far too sudden and it isn’t given any sense of occasion.

Imagine this story with the roles reversed. If Romana had spent part three behind the mirror, then we’d see a reason for her empathy with the Tharils and her decision wouldn’t seem like it came from nowhere. I think that could have made a good serial much stronger.

But this is otherwise a solid story, and I like the way it assumes that the viewers are intelligent enough to figure out that time can flow in different directions on the other side of the gateway’s mirror. I don’t really have a lot of time to talk about it tonight, but our son also enjoyed it, and thought it was compelling and weird. It probably needed more of those Gundan robots, though. He really liked those things.

He’s also got his fingers crossed that there will be a K9 Mark Three. He’ll find out pretty soon.

Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (parts one and two)

It’s kind of the nature of characters in adventure shows to do dumb things. Admittedly, the audience is given a lot more clues than Romana could know that the dudes who show up outside the TARDIS – one of them played by the great Kenneth Cope – are some of the cruelest, most desperate, and most hateful villains the show’s given us for some time: slave traders. But Romana was given enough of a warning when a strange lion-man, wearing shackles!, actually enters the TARDIS and warns them about the people who are chasing him. I guess she figures that she can be smug and superior and push these guys around, and she’s completely out of her depth, kidnapped, and nearly killed by them.

This has always weighed heavily on this story for me. “Warriors’ Gate” is the first Doctor Who serial written by Stephen Gallagher, who would later write some successful science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories. It’s an extremely interesting and complex story with some really interesting visuals – particularly in the next two parts – but Romana’s idiotic decision to put herself in danger has always aggravated me. There should have been another way to get her involved in the narrative than that.

I thought that our son would be a little more baffled than he was, but really, the first two parts are actually pretty straightforward. It’s when we get to the other side of the Gateway that the narrative gets a little less direct. He really enjoyed the Gundan robots, creaky, decaying skeletal things in armor with axes that have been left to be covered by cobwebs and dust. Like I say, it certainly is a story with great visuals, and part two ends with a very effective hand-held camera shot from the POV of one of the lion-man slaves, stalking his way through the cargo ship toward the helpless Romana, which he said was incredibly scary.