This review contains spoilers.
It’s a bittersweet thing to be reviewing series five of The Sarah Jane Adventures. On one hand, it’s great to see the return of arguably the best – certainly the most consistent – of the Doctor Who spin-offs. But it is, of course, the final series, following the tragic passing of Elisabeth Sladen earlier this year. Fortunately, if this opening episode is anything to go by, it’s a show going out at the top of its game.
The series literally returns with a bang, as the pre-credits sequence gives us that classic sci-fi staple of a homeless man witnessing something falling to earth with a reassuringly expensive-looking explosion. Out of the wreckage steps a cross between Batman, the Predator and Night Owl from Watchmen. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric opening, and may go some way to silencing critics who complained of series three and four’s ‘low-budget’ feel.
Meanwhile, in Ealing (or ‘leafy and affluent Ealing’, as it was rechristened by reporters during the riots), Sarah Jane is awakened by a classic trope of her own, as someone’s gone and left a baby on her doorstep. We’re left wondering for a moment if perhaps Doctor Who’s Craig Owens has had enough of Stormageddon, but when the baby’s crying blows the lights in every house on Bannerman Road, it becomes clear that the child is more Krypton than Colchester.
The scene that follows, as Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani try to get to grips with their new arrival, is one of the highlights of the episode. The gang have always worked well together, but never more so than here, as we get a sense of real comradeship between the trio. With Luke out of the picture (bar a webcam appearance at the start of the story), this feels less like ‘Sarah Jane, Her Son and His Mates’ and more ‘Sarah Jane and Her Amazing Friends’.
What’s brilliant is that, after four years, the writers still manage to show us new sides of the characters. Elisabeth Sladen is at her comic best here, when Sarah is faced with the prospect of bringing up a baby from scratch, while Daniel Anthony shines as Clyde’s paternal side floats reluctantly to the surface. Anjli Mohindra’s Rani feels a little under-used here, playing second fiddle to Sarah Jane as the pair go off and investigate the meteor (leaving Clyde to try and entertain the baby). It’s a bit of a shame, really, since Rani’s parents arguably get more focus during the episode than she does.
Ah, yes, the Chandras. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the stuffy headteacher and the flower shop owner are back to crowbar some added levity into the episode, and generally throw up hurdles for our intrepid investigators. Mina Anwar and Ace Bhatti are both accomplished comic actors, and work well together, but in such a busy episode you can’t help but feel that they’re just a bit unnecessary.
There’s a brief trip through the round window to see Floella Benjamin (making her fourth – and presumably final – appearance as the charmingly eccentric Professor Rivers), and then Sarah Jane and Rani are off in search of the metal meanie from the start of the episode, who’s on his way to Bannerman Road.
And that’s where the episode turns delightfully crazy. Former Holby City actress Christine Stephen-Daly shows up as baby Sky’s villainous mother, clearly having great fun playing a cross between Servalan from Blake’s 7 and a footballer’s wife, who plans to use her child as a weapon to end her people’s war with the Metalkind (the aforementioned Night Owl/Predator thing). And she’s based inside a nuclear power plant, for some reason.
There’s shades of The Terminator about it all. Most of the Metalkind’s scenes are presented from a green-tinted first person perspective, and the mother’s line “Get in the van if you want the child to live!” was enough to raise a knowing chuckle.
It’s mad, ambitious stuff, and as such makes for a perfect series opener. Phil Ford’s script is fast-paced, with a nice balance of action, gags and character moments, and the episode looks every bit as impressive as anything the show’s older sibling has to offer.
It’s a confident, comfortable return for an often underappreciated series. Though not completely perfect, if you’ve never seen the show before you could do a lot worse than to check this out. And if you have seen the show before, you’re in for a treat.