After a strong opener with ‘The Last Sontaran’, The Sarah Jane Adventures hits the ground running with this, the first part of its second serial, ‘Day of the Clown’. Delving into the old favourites, this episode pits our titular heroine and her band of pint-sized playmates against a shape-shifting ‘spooky clown’ played by Bradley Walsh, a sort of pied piper figure who turns out to be… well, the pied piper, as it happens.
As ‘The Last Sontraran’ reintroduced Sarah Jane and her junior Scoobies, the spotlight in ‘Day of the Clown’ is reserved for new girl Rani Chandra – played by Anjli Mohinder – and her family. And, as ever, it’s to the Sarah Jane team’s credit that the adult cast are as important as their younger colleagues in this show which never talks down to its young audience. There are some particularly impressive character moments in scenes between Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane and Rani’s mum, Gita, played by Mina Anwar, with the usually frosty Miss Smith turning up on Mrs Chandra’s doorstop with a flask of tea, a plate of baked goods and something closely resembling neighbourly cheer. It’s all a ruse, of course, with Sarah Jane quickly busting out her Jane Bond gadgetry – here, an alien detector disguised as a sassy watch – to check for any alien activity. Elsewhere, in a nod towards the opening episode of series one, Ace Bhatti’s Haresh Chandra is quickly established as Park Vale’s new headmaster, and a foil to class clown Clyde.
Rani herself is another asset to the fledgling cast: a gabby young journalist whose inquisitive nature leads to a run in with alien foes. How do they come up with this stuff? etc. Comparisons between Rani and Sarah Jane’s former companion Maria are almost inevitable, and bound to be divisive, but – based on this episode, at least – Anwar gives as good as she takes, and her character manages to be interesting and endearing without treading on Miss Jackson’s toes.
To his credit, writer Phil Ford – who’s at the pen for three of this series’ six serials – doesn’t carry on as if the recently departed Jackson family never existed; indeed, Maria’s absence isn’t merely commented on, but built into the narrative itself. Perpetually puppy-eyed Luke is feeling particularly guilty for making friends with Rani so quickly after his first friend – indeed, the first person he ever met – took flight; cockier Clyde is putting on a brave face, reverting to chatting up the new girl and giving her headmaster Dad lip in the name of moving on. Sarah Jane continues her ascent into Doctordom – watch out for her donning The Brainy Specs towards the beginning of the episode – dispensing wit and worldly wisdom in equal measure. God love her.
In all, the sci-fi plays second fiddle to the drama in this story of friends, old and new, although that’s not to suggest it’s necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the episode could probably do with less of Bradley Walsh – undoubtedly the weak link here – who runs a gamut of terrible accents in his portrayal of the same alien under a number of different guises. His Pennywise impression is perhaps the most alarming, in that it lives in the middle zone between horrifying and – unintentionally – hilarious. That said, the cliffhanger, with the coulrophobic Sarah Jane and her pals backed into a corner by an army of animated clown statues, is classic Doctor Who: in equal measures silly and scary, and brilliant for being both.