The Sarah Jane Adventures series 4 episodes 1 & 2 review: The Nightmare Man

The Sarah Jane Adventures returns to our screens with some style. Here's our take on the series opener, The Nightmare Man...

This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.

4.1-2 The Nightmare Man

Growing up is never easy. And it’s something that the venerable Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures has struggled with since its launch on New Year’s Day 2007. Created for CBBC as a complement to its parent show, SJA had an incredibly strong first season that contained several top drawer adventures (Revenge Of The Slitheen, Eye Of The Gorgon and The Lost Boy) alongside one stone cold Whoniverse classic in the shape of Gareth Roberts’ brilliant and haunting Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane?

Sadly, season two saw something of a step down in quality and it would be fair to say that, by the end of that run, the future of SJA looked somewhat unclear. Would it be a show that settled into a comfortable groove serving up ever paler versions of Who stories, or would it develop its own identity? On the evidence of season three opener Prisoner Of The Judoon, the former appeared to be the case. However, despite that rather lumpy start, the series rallied and season three turned out some of the show’s strongest material so far.

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And so we come to the launch of series 4 and the question remains: would the series build on the good work of the previous year or slide back into a pattern of familiarity and formula? Pleasingly, The Nightmare Man , Joseph Lidster’s highly impressive opener, builds on the successes of series 3 and pushes them further.

For a start, this is the first series opener not to feature a returning Who monster and immediately that gives proceedings a fresh feel. Another thing that Lidster develops (albeit a development from his own The Mad Woman In The Attic from season 3),is a more complex use of structure than we’ve previously been used to.

Episode 1, in particular, implements a Blair Witch-style device to set the context and tone of the story and before, rather cleverly, using that same device to push the narrative forward in episode 2. It’s a nice touch, isn’t telegraphed and adds a nice unity to the quite distinctive halves of the story.  

In terms of the plot, the story focuses on Luke Smith, who’s struggling with his imminent departure to university. Thanks to his Bane-enhanced super-intelligence Luke’s leaving school a year early and as the season opens we find Bannerman Road’s resident boy genius feeling anxious and awkward about the changes to come.

To make matters worse, Clyde Langer, Luke’s best friend and fellow alien-hunter, has seemingly withdrawn from their friendship and, for the first since his ‘birth’, Luke’s starting to have dreams. But these aren’t ordinary dreams. No, these are dreams inspired and fuelled by the eponymousNightmare Man (the brilliantly creepy Julian Bleach), a being from another dimension who’s locked himself onto Luke’s subconscious and has been feeding on the boy’s hidden fears and anxieties as a means of pulling himself out of the abstract and into reality.

After using Luke’s nightmares to build up his own strength, this carnival freak version of Freddy Krueger manages to invade both Clyde and Rani’s dreams, locking them inside nightmares constructed out of their own fears, while using the extra power he’s gaining from them to plunge the entire planet (or at the very least, Ealing!) into everlasting sleep. 

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These dream sequences, which make up the bulk of episode 2, are imaginatively staged by director Joss Agnew and have an unsettling feel that’s shot through with the dark, mordant humour that typifies the various Who series at their best. These sequences also give the regular cast a chance to shine outside of the restrictions of their regular roles.

Daniel Anthony gets to play a rather less cocky, brow beaten burger flipping version of Clyde who’s now trapped in a dead-end job in a bizarre late night café, where the only customer is a somewhat decrepit and not altogether pleasant version of Sarah Jane Smith. Elisabeth Sladen has fun playing this mobility scooter-bound version of the Doctor’s former companion and the scenes with her and Clyde are particularly enjoyable.

Slightly less successful, but still entertaining is Rani Chandra’s nightmare. Trapped inside a bizarre TV news show with the haughty and ruthlessly ambitious BBC journalist Louise Marlowe (played with lip-smacking relish by Smack The Pony alumni Doon Mackichan), Anjli Mohindra’s Rani is faced with the dilemma that some day her own journalistic ambitions may come into conflict with her alien-hunting work with Sarah Jane.  Watching these scenes one wonders if seeds are being planted for future schisms within the ranks at 13 Bannerman Road,as well as for a possible future romance between a certain Mr Langer and Miss Chandra.

Despite the uniformly strong performances on show, special mention should to go to Tommy Knight as Luke Smith. While not always a fan of his performance, here (in his last ‘regular’ appearance), Knight delivers arguably his strongest and most confident work yet and allows Luke to leave Bannerman Road with his head held high.

Sadly, Luke isn’t the only regular character making his farewell bow, as joining the erstwhile boy genius at university (and undoubtedly playing an active part in Freshers’ week) is the nation’s favourite disco era robot-dog, K-9.

If it’s to be his last appearance in a BBC show, it’s a fitting end to the Who career of Professor Marius’ enduring creation. In fact, our final sight of K-9, heading off to university in the front of a VW Beetle with a seatbelt across his chest, is a charming image that strangely seems to sum up Russell T Davies’ homely, potent and highly successful take on the fictional universe he helped revive.

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But as K-9 and Luke ride off into the sunset, it’s The Nightmare Man‘s slightly darker and more sophisticated approach, which neatly mirrors the changes in tone in the parent show under the stewardship of Steven Moffat, that augurs well for the show’s continued future, leaving us with the tantalising possibility that the best Sarah Jane adventures may be yet to come.