This review contains spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
2.5-6 Death Of The Doctor
As Tom Baker is prone to saying in interviews (repeatedly), nostalgia is a powerful thing. It got hordes of adults in line to see The Phantom Menace back in 1999, drew them out again in 2008 to watch Indiana Jones don his fedora one more time and this past summer it was the fuel that drove the year’s most successful movie, Toy Story 3.
Though not up to the standard of Pixar’s most recent crowning achievement (what is?), Death Of The Doctor certainly paddles in the same waters in its attempts to use our own memories of the broader Who mythos to create a stirring and moving piece of drama in its wn right.
Despite its undoubted success, SJA has always existed, unlike Torchwood, as more of an adjunct to the main series than a full-blown ‘stand on its own two feet’ spin-off. In part, that’s down to the constant re-use of Who monsters on the show, but also it reflects Sarah Jane’s rather more storied history as a part of the Doctor Who family.
However, with the Doctor’s inevitable appearance in the CBBC show finally occurring in 2009, it seemed that perhaps the connections between The Sarah Jane Adventures and its parent show might loosen. After all, in terms of crossovers, once the Doctor himself has appeared, where else is there left to go?
Surprisingly, the answer is somewhere wonderful and it’s a place that has its roots in that touching, fleeting and ambiguous final meeting between Sarah Jane and the Tenth Doctor during the closing minutes of The End Of Time.
We pick up the story with UNIT, led by the suspiciously glamorous Colonel Karim (Laila Rouass), turning up on Bannerman Road to inform Sarah Jane of the recent death of the Doctor. Refusing to believe them, Sarah Jane is shown a video clip of the Vulture-like Shansheeth, the universe’s coffin bearers, who claim that the Doctor has been killed in space and that they’re bringing his body ‘home’ to Earth for immediate burial. Even after seeing this transmission, Sarah Jane’s sceptical. She claims that if the Doctor was dead she’d know and the last time she saw him, well, she was convinced he was about to regenerate.
Despite her misgivings, Sarah Jane knows that she has a duty to investigate and, along with Clyde and Rani, decamps to UNIT’s base at the foot of Mount Snowdon, where the Doctor’s body is said to be lying in state. It’s while visiting the chapel of rest inside the base that Sarah Jane finally crosses paths with the woman who preceded her in the TARDIS, the eternally blonde, Jo Grant.
It’s a great re-introduction scene for Jo who, though obviously much older than when we last saw her, is still the same bubbly and slightly scatty character we fell in love with back in the early 1970s. Of course, bringing two eras of a show together is always a risk, but thankfully, this is more than just an empty exercise in fan fiction and it’s a real testament to Russell T Davies’ skill as a writer that he uses Jo’s reappearance, not just as a chance to catch up with the former Miss Grant, but as a counterpoint to Sarah Jane’s own life.
Now, some fans argue that Davies has reshaped and remoulded the Classic Who canon to fit his own whims, but I’d disagree. One of the great successes of Davies time in charge of Who was the way he made explicit and literal many of the things that were implicit and underdeveloped in the old series. As with Sarah Jane before her, Davies applies this same principle to the revived life of Jo Grant (now Jo Jones and a grandmother of 13!) and it works a similar treat.
As you’d expect, the scenes with Jo and Sarah Jane are great fun and take centre stage in the story and the knock-on from that is the relegation of series regulars Clyde and Rani (along with Jo’s grandson, Santiago) to the role of supporting players. Despite this, Rani manages to get one very good scene with her dad, while Clyde has a couple of sparky moments with everyone’s favourite Time Lord, including a very revealing chat about the concept of regeneration!
Which brings us to the titular hero of the title. While Jo and Sarah Jane’s meeting is enjoyable and quite moving in its own right, it’s only when the Doctor appears, roughly halfway into the story, that the show is elevated into the realms of the really rather special.
Exploding onto our screen through the power of an Artron energy transfer (who knew!), Matt Smith gives possibly his best performance as the Doctor to date. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with David Tennant’s performance in School Reunion, but Smith manages to avoid going over old ground, mainly because he and Tennant are such vastly different actors.
This is most apparent when Smith has his first proper conversation with Katy Manning’s Jo in nearly 40 years. Unlike Tennant, whose Doctor was a fizzing bundle of angst and energy even when he was sitting still, Smith is almost serene as he sits on a rock and reassures his former companion that her life has been anything but wasted. It’s a beautifully underplayed little scene, which seems a world away from the whirling dervish-style reunion between the Doctor and Sarah Jane back in 2006.
However, despite all the fan pleasing elements and some gorgeously judged character moments (Jo’s observation that the TARDIS ‘smells the same’ is a personal favourite) what we also get, as with all Russell T Davies’ stories, is a rattling good adventure yarn.
This is helped no end by the fact that the Shansheeth are probably the best alien race Davies has created since the Ood. Brilliantly voiced and executed, there’s something quite haunting and melancholic about the Shansheeth that belies their rather goofy appearance. They’re the biggest surprise in the episode and are a monster that I hope makes a return to the show(s)in some shape or form further down the line.
Their plan is quite nifty too. Turns out they’ve engineered this whole charade to gain access to the TARDIS and, using a device called The Weave, they plan to literally weave a new TARDIS key out of Jo and Sarah Jane’s memories of the Doctor.
Tired of delivering death to the universe, these vultures of the intergalactic battlefields, want to use the TARDIS to bring life instead.
It’s a familiar RTD theme, the desire to hold back the natural order of things, but it works far better here than it did with the criminally underwritten Naismith character in The End Of Time.
As for the Shansheeth’s inevitable downfall, well, let’s just say that memories and nostalgia play their part and that a whole host of familiar faces make appearances and help save the day.
All in all, this is as ambitious a piece of storytelling as The Sarah Jane Adventures has delivered and this story comfortably sits alongside Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane? as the show’s crowning achievement. More than anything else it acts as a perfect coda to Russell T Davies’ time on Doctor Who and in many ways is a far more fitting note for him to end on than the somewhat excessive The End Of Time.
As always with Davies, the warmth and fun comes at a price, and when Sarah Jane recites the names and current occupations of a whole host of former companions at the end of the episode, you get the feeling that it’s Davies tying up loose ends rather than planting seeds for anything new.
If that is the case, then it would be a shame, as Death Of The Doctor finds Davies far more engaged with the world of Who than at any point since 2008. On this evidence, I sincerely hope that, just like Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith, his goodbye is merely temporary.
Read our review of the prior episodes, The Vault Of Secrets, here.