‘It’s for children,’ or so began the opening gambit of many a review of The Sarah Jane Adventures when it made its debut with an hour-long special, ‘The Invasion of the Bane’, almost two years ago; ‘but it’s quite good.’ Gasp! Indeed, a lot of the fare on offer here in the first full-length series is geared towards a younger set of Doctor Who fans than would usually peruse the pages of this humble website; like ‘School Reunion’ before them, a lot of the two-part serials find their setting in the classrooms and lunch halls of the local comprehensive. The Slitheen – and how many times have we been reminded that kids love the Slitheen? – put in an appearance or two, and the themes of friendship and family are more prevalent than in ‘adult-oriented’ older brother Torchwood, with all its sex and swearing.
However, fart gags aside, the series goes deeper than others might dare, using the science fiction element to explore a set of complex issues and emotions that you wouldn’t get in, say, Tracey Beaker or Ker-ching. Or Torchwood, for that matter. Oh, burn! Case in point, third story ‘Eye of the Gorgon’ is a daft old gothic romp, which sees Sarah Jane’s adventures with The Doctor paralleled by those of Bea Nelson-Stanley and her husband. Bea, now resident in the brilliantly-named Lavender Lawns nursing home, suffers from dementia, and is presumed senile by her attendants, allowing the ever-reliable Elisabeth Sladen – who is, despite not looking a day over forty, officially Getting On – to play some of the frets and worries of aging that Sarah Jane hinted at in ‘School Reunion’, particularly as the episode reaches a bittersweet conclusion.
To their credit, the writers follow a character arc which spans from Sladen’s early appearances alongside Jon Pertwee, through abandoned spin-off K9 & Company, and her reunion with The Doctor in the new series of Doctor Who. And so it is that when nosey neighbour Maria Jackson begins to track Sarah Jane after catching her conversing with the ‘Star Poet’ – a sort of CGI butterfly first seen romancing Toshiko in Torchwood episode, ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’ – she’s burnt by her reunion with The Doctor, and being replaced by a younger model, evidently lonely, but unwilling to allow anyone to get close. An all-together frostier character than might usually be found at the helm of a programme aimed at eight year olds, then, but the fact that the series is aimed at children but never resorts to pacifying or patronising them is its great gift.
Standout episodes include ‘Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?’, a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey adventure that temporarily puts Sladen out of commission, giving the young cast their chance in the limelight and the writers a means of exploring some of Sarah Jane’s heretofore hinted at backstory. A ‘what if?’ story that sees Sladen replaced by cake decorator extraordinaire, Jane Asher, the two-parter serves as something of a dry run for the Doctor Who series four episode, ‘Turn Left’, and is every bit as moving as it reaches a difficult conclusion. Yasmin Paige shines as Maria Jackson, fulfilling the duties of new series companion as established by Rose in Doctor Who and Gwen Cooper in Torchwood, and cementing her status as up-and-coming BBC regular.
Series finale ‘The Lost Boy’ – a timely offering that plays with the iconography and expectations of the ‘missing child’ phenomenon that has pervaded tabloid media over the past few years – shifts the focus onto Daniel Anthony and Thomas Knight, both playing to their strengths and adding subtle nuances to their characters, Clyde Langer and Luke Smith. Sarah Jane reverts back to frosty ice queen as her adopted son is taken away from her, allowing the writers to look at the show’s ‘Scooby Gang’ from an outsiders perspective; for, indeed, why the hell would a woman in her sixties spend her every waking moment socialising with a set of hormone bombs who haven’t even sat their GCSEs? It’s moving stuff, that even manages to muster up a convincing – by Doctor Who standards, at least – nearly-apocalypse.
The special features betray the intended audiences age, with the DVD menu allowing the viewer to have a good old nosey around Sarah Jane’s attic, hunting out and peeking at her ‘secret files’. Oo-er. All is present and correct, with Sarah’s PC offering the usual fare of character and monster profiles; her telescope allowing a glimpse at various trailers shown on CBBC throughout the shows’ run; and especially impressive is Mr Smith – the exposition machine, a super-computer fashioned by Sarah Jane herself out of an alien crystal and some fairy lights – complete with fanfare, offering a wealth of interview and promotional footage from a whole spectrum of BBC shows.
Highlights include Elisabeth Sladen plugging the series at various stages in its development, and the young cast making a Slitheen mask – modelled, in a particularly surreal turn of events, by presenter Konnie Huq, who compliments it with a pink feather boa – over on Blue Peter. Also included are a handful of out-takes and deleted scenes, only accessible via correct completion of a series of surprisingly difficult quizzes, and a handy Sarah Jane timeline taking in her very first appearance on Doctor Who, right the way through ‘Hand of Fear’, ‘The Five Doctors’ and ‘School Reunion’, enhanced by classic clips from the episodes in question.
With a second series rife with the some of the least well-kept secrets in television history bound to set fanboys old and young aquiver when it returns in late September this year, not to mention Sunday afternoon repeats of the first series seeing it shuffle ever-closer into the Saturday night hotspot of it’s parent show, The Sarah Jane Adventures looks set to take some of the edge off of Doctor Who‘s extended absence in 2009. Based on the strengths of this boxset alone, it’s certainly worthy of the success.