The Sarah Jane Adventures series 4 episodes 3 & 4 review: The Vault Of Secrets

Returning faces from the Doctor Who universe pop up in the latest episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures...

4.3-4 The Vault Of Secrets

Nestled between Joe Lidster’s brilliantly creepy The Nightmare Man and Russell T Davies’ series highpoint Death Of The Doctor, Phil Ford’s The Vault Of Secrets is something of a ‘business as usual’ story for everyone’s favourite CBBC spin-off.

Ordinarily, that would be fine, but seeing as it’s the proverbial meat between the bread of two of the show’s finest achievements, it makes Ford’s story seem inessential.

The main problem that The Vault Of Secrets faces right from the off is an overriding  sense of been there, done that and this is most apparent in its use of the classic Who/SJA failsafe: the returning monster.

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Now monsters returning is a fine idea in principle, but it would be fair to say that, as a show, The Sarah Jane Adventures has a far spottier track record when it comes to this than Doctor Who. Aside from the Trickster, whose three appearances on the show have all been memorable, enemies such as Mrs Wormwood, the Slitheen and Commander Kaagh of the 10th Sontaran Battle Fleet have all tended to suffer from something of a ‘sophomore slump’ during their return engagements to Bannerman Road.  However, the necessities of making a show like SJA means that a fair amount of monster recycling will inevitably occur, and this time out it’s the turn of Androvax, the Veil,to get a second airing.

Unlike previous recycled villains, Androvax’s first appearance on the show was somewhat less than a success. A meandering mess of a story, Prisoner Of The Judoon sidelined the visually striking Androvax (played by Mark Goldthorp) for much of the action and instead focused on the ‘comedy’ pairing of Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and the Judoon Captain Tybo.  This time around that mistake is avoided, as Androvax is at the front and centre of the action from the beginning and that massively improves the story.

Also coming into the mix are some other returning faces from the wider Whoniverse. The Men in Black, the robotic foot soldiers of the Alliance of Shades who first featured in 2009’s Who animated episode Dreamland, are brought onboard for their live-action debut, although their leader, Mr Dread (played by the deadpan Angus Wright) is the only member of the trio to be given anything substantial to perform.

The main strand of the plot revolves around Androvax’s return to Earth after his escape from a Judoon prison planet. Turns out that Androvax may not be the last of his kind after all, and he’s journeyed to Earth to try and gain access to the legendary Vault of Secrets. 

The Vault is an inter-dimensional storage facility for alien artefacts, the doorway to which the robotic Men in Black have been guarding since the early 1970s. Supposedly, inside the vault is a Veil starship containing the final remnants of Androvax’s species. The previously dastardly Veil plans to liberate the ship from the Vault and awaken the sleeping Veil, thus restarting the Veil species again. Naturally, Androvax’s plan involves plenty of double-crossing and possession of the regular cast, which yields the usual mixed results from the regulars as they get the chance to play ‘bad’ for a change. 

Now, the classic ‘restoration of my dying species’ plot is as old as the hills, especially in Doctor Who, but while, more often than not, the parent show manages to address that element in an interesting and engaging way, here it just comes across as hackneyed and trite. Androvax might be a nifty looking monster with some pretty cool powers, but after watching two adventures featuring him, it’d be fair to say he’s also one of the dullest villains to emanate from Upper Boat in the last five years.

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In terms of character, he’s a bad guy with a forked tongue who can possess bodies and wants to destroy the universe. And that’s about it! Admittedly, he’s given a bit more variety this time around (he’s dying of a venomous space-snake bite that he received on a Judoon prison planet, for starters), and his mission is a little more nuanced, but, fundamentally, he remains the same gruff, one-note monster he was before.

Placing these episodes directly after an adventure featuring Julian Bleach’s marvellous Nightmare Man only brings this lack of personality even more into focus.

However, Androvax is only one of the problems that this story fails to overcome. The other major issue is the rather laboured and unfunny sub-plot surrounding BURPSS (British UFO Research and Paranormal Studies Society) a ‘comedy’ group of alien investigators led by Ocean Waters (Cheryl Campbell) and her sidekick Minty (David Webber).  It transpires that Ocean has a long-standing connection to the sinister Men in Black, which turns out to be key to Androvax’s quest and causes all of our key actors to converge on Ocean’s house as episode one draws to a close.

The major issue that the whole BURPSS/Ocean sub-plot has is that, fundamentally, it’s just there to push the plot forward and no more. That’s fine if you care about the characters involved in these scenes or the scenes themselves are witty, funny and bristle with life, but the BURPSS characters are never really either funny or engaging. You just don’t buy into them in the way that audiences could engaged with Elton Pope’s LINDA group in Love & Monsters or Wilfred Mott’s Silver Cloakgang of OAPs in The End Of Time. Those groups were filled with character, warmth and wit, whereas BURPPS is just a bunch of boring ‘eccentrics’ pottering around in a church hall.

In the final analysis, this adventure feels like both overstuffed and underdeveloped, with too many elements vying for attention and no dominant idea or flavour to call its own. I’ve been a big fan of Phil Ford’s writing since series one, but this story is far from his best work. Probably his most successful script for the show in the last two years was The Eternity Trap in the latter half of season 3. That story stripped away many of the tropes of a ‘standard’ Sarah Jane adventure and Ford made the absolute most of its possibilities.

Contrast the quality of his work here with the standards he achieved then and on both Dreamland and The Water Of Mars over on Doctor Who in 2009 and there is simply no comparison. Hell, even the two Doctor Who Adventure Games that he’s written this year have been more imaginative and engaging than what we get in The Vault Of Secrets

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Maybe it’s the nature of these ‘romp’ episodes that doesn’t sit easily with Ford’s style, or that the limitations of format and writing more SJA scripts than anyone else is taking its toll on the co-producer? Either way, it’s clear that Ford’s writing is always better when the material he’s dealing with is richer, darker and creepier than the by-the-numbers froth we get here.

Despite my criticisms, there are still positives within the episode. Joss Agnew again turns in some excellent direction and the pre-credits sequence is a really effective piece of action storytelling. The cinematography and the various effects work is of the usual high standard with the CG shots of the Vault in all its glory a particular highlight. As ever, the regular cast are as reliable as ever and, in particular, the issue of Clyde and Rani’s increasing intimacy is handled very nicely.

All in all, this episode is a stumble. It’s a return to the overly formulaic stories of old that I criticised in my review of The Nightmare Man and doesn’t really offer up anything other than a well mounted, though ultimately un-engaging, run around. It’s a shame that, after the real success of The Nightmare Man, The Vault Of Secrets comes up short in this way, but any disappointment should be tempered with the knowledge that the very best that the show has to offer is just around the corner.

Read our review of the series premiere episodes here.