With the newest series of The Sarah Jane Adventures currently airing on both CBBC and BBC One, it’s time to look back at the previous year’s run with the now obligatory pre-Christmas complete DVD release.
Series 3 was very much make or break for SJA. The production teams plan to produce both series 3 and 4 back-to-back had been nixed by the powers that be and the budget for the new series was in danger of being significantly scaled back.
As Russell T Davies himself admitted during a BAFTA event in early 2009, things were looking so bad that the team had to ask themselves whether it was worth continuing to make a show that was in very real danger of becoming a travesty. Naturally, as the existence of the series 3 boxset proves, that ‘nuclear option’ was never taken, but this didn’t mean that the season ahead would be without issues.
The issue of budget is most clearly apparent in Phil Ford’s season opener Prisoner Of The Judoon. From the virtually empty laboratory complex that Sarah Jane visits, all the way through to the rather shoddy CGI (a significant step down from The Mill’s work on series 1 and 2) and the seemingly endless scenes of (cheap to shoot) waffle, it’s clear that this is a show that doesn’t quite have the resources to pull off what it’s set out to achieve.
But the problems with this particular adventure are more profound than simply a few production or budgetary issues. For a start, the story, despite a relatively strong and confident opening, soon begins to feel extremely laboured and overstuffed. The inclusion of the Judoon as ‘comedy’ relief is cumbersome and the shift to HD does the titular alien rhinos no favours in the numerous daylight scenes.
Faring better on the visual front is new character, Androvax, who is an impressive make-up job by Millenium FX. However, despite his striking look, as a character Androvax is pretty dull and his main claim to fame is that his ability to possess people leads to a rather ill-judged performance by the usually pitch-perfect Elisabeth. Sadly, that is the most memorable thing about the episode.
Luckily, the series’ second, Joe Lidster’s The Mad Woman In The Attic, is memorable for all the right reasons. A smaller scale, time-twisting tale that focuses heavily on the character of Rani (Anjli Mohindra), it’s a story that packs a significant emotional punch and is a welcome return to form after the Judoon misfire.
Of particular note is a strong and evocative score by Sam and Dan Watts and well judged guest turns by both Brian Miller (Lis Sladen’s real life husband) and Eleanor Tomlinson as the alien child, Eve. Thanks to the time travel-centric nature of the story, it also contains a neat little teaser for the next story.
The Wedding Of Sarah Jane Smith, penned by series stalwart Gareth Roberts, is, quite rightly, billed as this series’ main event. It’s an incident packed story in which we not only get treated to the return of the villainous Trickster, but also the wedding of Sarah Jane to the mysterious Peter Dalton (the impeccable Nigel Havers) and the very first appearance on Bannerman Road of the Doctor (David Tennant).
This third adventure finds the SJA crew crossing paths with the Last of the Time Lords as he attempts to stop the Trickster exploiting her impending nuptials and taking his revenge on Sarah Jane once and for all. Designed as an addition to Tennant’s final year in the role, The Wedding Of Sarah Jane Smith is a sweet and heartfelt adventure, expertly handled by director Joss Agnew, that plays to the series’ strengths and gives both Tennant and Sladen the chance to shine as they battle the machinations of easily the series’ best recurring villain.
But when the dust settles it’s the final TARDIS scene between Sladen and Tennant that sticks in the mind. A direct call and response to Sarah Jane’s original farewell in The Hand Of Fear, it’s a very moving moment and shows off Roberts’ (often overlooked) subtlety and class as a writer.
After the fireworks of The Wedding Of Sarah Jane Smith, the series sensibly chooses to move into a lower key with Phil Ford’s The Eternity Trap. Unlike the season opener, this one finds Ford on much better form as he weaves a contained, yet effective haunted house story that sees the usual trappings of Bannerman Road, Luke Smith and super-computer Mr Smith cast aside and instead focuses on Sarah Jane, Rani and Clyde.
Joining them for this adventure is the returning Professor Rivers (Floella Benjamin) and her young scientist sidekick Toby Silverman (Adam Gillen) who, on behalf of the Pharos Institute, have been investigating strange goings on in a supposedly haunted manor house.
With a spry turn as the ghostly Lord Marchwood from Smallville’s Callum Blue and a suitably arch and creepy performance as villain Erasmus Darkening from the ever brilliant Donald Sumpter, The Eternity Trap allows the series to play with a slightly more horror-centric tone. Director Alice Troughton has a lot of fun with this opportunity and she quite clearly brings some of the tension building skills she so ably demonstrated on the classic Who episode, Midnight, to the table.
From the spooky we then shift to the silly with Mona Lisa’s Revenge. Alongside series 2’s The Secret Of The Stars (starring Russ Abbott, no less), Mona Lisa’s Revenge probably wins the award for the campest episode of SJA so far.
It’s a story of paintings coming to life, unrequited love between art geeks and contains a gloriously OTT performance from Suranne Jones as a decidedly Northern version of Da Vinci’s famously frowning lady. Naturally, there’s alien skulduggery afoot, but more than any other episode this story is just a whopping slice of fun with some great one-liners that, like The Eternity Trap before it, shows off Phil Ford’s writing at its best.
Which brings us to the series finale, The Gift. This story is both the first SJA finale not to be penned by Phil Ford and also the first SJA script to be written by Rupert Laight. Thankfully, like Ford on series 1, Laight rises to the occasion and delivers a story that finds the ubiquitous SJA villains, the Slitheen, usurped by their orange-skinned cousins, the Blathereen.
Voiced by Simon Callow and Miriam Margolyes, Leef and Tree Blathereen are easily the most successful version of the oft-maligned alien race since Annette Badland’s original depiction in Doctor Who, and their plan, involving the unleashing of the aggressive and addictive alien, Rackweed, is certainly their most bizarre so far.
Behind the camera, Alice Troughton once again delivers some top-notch direction that manages to capture both the fun and wit of the show, while also bringing an impressive scale to proceedings as the story moves between Ealing and the Antarctic and the fate of the world (and Luke Smith!) hangs in the balance.
All in all, it’s a fitting end to a season that started so uncertainly and yet rallied to deliver some of the show’s strongest and most successful material to date.
Interestingly enough, on the back of the success of this run of episodes, SJA was re-commissioned for both a fourth and fifth season. Judging by the quality of the episodes currently airing on the BBC, it would appear that the channel has made a very sensible decision.
The sole extra is an extract from the SJA BBC audiobook, The White Wolf. Despite being read by series lead Elisabeth Sladen, it’s a very poor offering that looks even worse when one considers that there are tons of better extras currently available on the SJA website. Considering the price point of the boxset, a commentary, or even a couple of behind-the-scenes documentaries, would make for a far more enticing product.
The Sarah Jane Adventures Series 3 will be released on November 1 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.