Four years after its bright and colourful pilot, Invasion Of The Bane, kicked off proceedings with a style and vibrancy that became its signature, CBBC’s Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures, launches its fourth season with the surprisingly dark and low-key The Nightmare Man.
A lot has changed in these past four years. Cast members have left, the behind-the-scenes crew has changed and even The Doctor himself has made an appearance. But in 2010 the show faced one of the most significant changes affecting it since its inception: the alteration in mood and tone of Doctor Who itself, under the guidance of new showrunner Steven Moffat.
As conceived back in 2006, The Sarah Jane Adventures was a children’s spin-off of an established and well-loved TV brand that mirrored and reinforced the cheeky, vivid and warm style of Russell T Davies’ version of Who. Its connection to the parent show even went so far as to use a significant Who monster (the Slitheen, a Sontaran and the Judoon) in each and every season opener and finale so far, albeit with mixed results.
However, The Nightmare Man eschews that formula and, rather than pussy-foot around the changes in tone in the wider Who universe, writer Joe Lidster engages with them head on.
Going straight for the jugular, he plunges the audience into a world far removed from the Rentaghost-style pantomime that was last season’s opener (Prisoner Of The Judoon, if you’re keeping score) and instead roots the show in a milieu more in keeping with Simon Nye’srecent Who episode Amy’s Choice or the creepier SJA episodes penned by both Gareth Roberts and Phil Ford.
And it’s a gamble that pays off as it allows director Joss Agnew to shine with some imaginative and inventive direction, and for the central cast to have some fun with the material on offer. While all of the regulars give strong performances, special mention should go to Tommy Knight (as ever playing boy genius Luke Smith) who easily delivers his best work for the series. However, the real star of the show is, unsurprisingly, Julian Bleach.
Having previously made a huge impact with his brilliant and deranged turn as Davros in 2008’s Who finale, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, Bleach once again delivers a memorable and magnetic performance as the eponymous Nightmare Man. Bleach is at once playful, pathetic, enigmatic and downright creepy with a funeral pallor that gives him an almost carnival freak quality.
This is full-blooded stuff for a kids tea-time show, but the production team keep the balance of taste and restraint just right and proceedings never slide over the edge of being too scary for the timeslot.
In short, The Nightmare Man is easily the best opening episode the series has had since Invasion Of The Bane and clearly builds on the real successes and newfound maturity that the series seemed to find in the second half of its third series back in 2009.
Aside from being a top notch adventure in its own right, the conclusion of The Nightmare Man also establishes a new status quo for the show and leaves you with the nagging feeling that things just might not be as predictable or safe on Bannerman Road from here on out.