Tuesday, 30 September 2008
She's back - Sarah Jane returns!!
So here, at last, a mere five days after promising to write a few comments about the first story in the new run of 'The Sarah Jane Adventures', I'm finally getting around the putting my thoughts to blog, as it were. Apologies. Life just gets in the way sometimes. Anyway, on with the motley as Mr Dickens might say...
One of the great delights of the success of the return of Dr Who is that it's resuscitated the career of one of the finest actresses to have graced the classic series in the often thankless role of 'companion' (or Dr Who 'girl' as they were sometimes rather dismissively known). Elisabeth Sladen played the lively journalist Sarah Jane Smith for three years back in the 1970s and while the actress put her acting career on hold to raise a family years ago, the character of Sarah Jane still called out to her and she often reappeared on TV in special episodes or, more recently, a series of audio adventures. When the Tv series returned in 2005 we could dare to hope that Sarah Jane might pay a visit too...and when she reappeared in 2006's 'School Reunion' it was like meeting an old, beloved friend for the first time in ages and catching up with what she'd been up to in the intervening years. Better yet, the character was then gifted her own spin-off show, involving many of the same creatives - and series one of 'The Sarah Jane Adventures', screened on CBBC last year, was an absolute joy, a triumph of the sort of TV story-telling values which informed my own youth back in the (cough) 1960s and 1970s.
If you haven't been watching because you think it's a kid's show (well, it is, but it doesn't exclude us oldies) then shame on you. Sarah Jane's own show is imbued with the same joy and spirit which informs the parent show, telling stories about humanity in the face of extremes and telling them with a warmth and wit which still seems beyond the ability of the more earnest and eager-to-be-adult 'Torchwood'. With Sarah Jane herself having achieved some kind of 'closure' on her life with the Doctor after suddenly encountering again thirty years after their adventures together ended, Sarah Jane still has issues. Sarah, always the most interesting and identifiable of the classic series companions (which is why she's the only one who's come back or who needs to come back - her story is really, potentially, the story of all of them post-Doctor) still has issues; her time with the Doctor has cut her off from human relationships and she's spend the intervening years, as we saw in 'School Reunion' back in 2006, trying to fill the Doctor-shaped void in her life by carrying on his good work on Earth and investigating extra-terrestrial phenomena as any good investigative journalist would. But it's been at a cost and, as the series opened in the 2006 Christmas debut episode 'Invasion of the Bane', we meet a Sarah Jane who is cold and remote, frosty and unapproachable and who very definately, as an older woman who never married and never had a family of her own, doesn't want a gaggle of kids running around getting in her way. Circumstances conspire against her, however. and before long she's got herself an adopted alien-construct son and a feisty young neighbour who's keen to join the newly-established Sarah Jane/Scooby gang. The first season of ten full episodes (five two-part stories) combined sci-fi thrills and real emotion. Sarah's neighbour Maria (Yasmin Paige) is as fractured as Sarah (maybe that's what brings them together); Maria's living with her father Alan (Joseph Milsom)after an acrimonious divorce from the flighty Chrissie (Juliet Cowan) who, despite the fact she's now living with her new boyfriend, the mysterious Ivan, is still sticking her nose into the affairs of her abandoned family. And as Sarah's adopted son Luke (Thomas Knight) struggles to come to terms with and understand humanity, new boy Clyde (Daniel Anthony) joins the group to provide the one-liners and a bit of muscle every now and again. The first series mix of runaround sci-fi (Warriors of Kudlak, Revenge of the Slitheen) with more contemplative drama-led stuff (Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, The Lost Boy) was a real revelation, often touching more emotional basis than ever Dr Who itself and finally rounding out Sarah Jane (particularly in Whatever Happened..., one of the finest stories in any of the three modern Who series) into a real character who actually had a life before part one of 'The Time Warrior' way back in 1973.
Series two kicks off in fine style with 'The Last Sontaran', written by Phil Ford who wrote so many episodes of Gerry Anderson's recent CGI re-imagining of 'Captain Scarlet' for ITV (whoe then proceeded to throw the series away in the middle of one of their inane shouty Saturday morning kid's shows). It seems that no sooner has Sarah Jane adjusted to life with a surrogate family than it looks as if that life is going to be wrenched away from her as Maria's dad Alan has been offered the job of a lifetime - in Washington DC, if you please. Accepting the post will mean uprooting Maria from her home, her scool and her extraordinary life with Sarah Jane Smith. Meanwhile a nearby research station has detected odd lights in the sky and when Sarah Jane and co investigate they find Sarah's oldest enemy lurking in the forest. Like last year's 'Revenge of the Slitheen' this first story reintroduces a recent enemy from the Dr Who stable - and for Sarah the Sontaran, the first alien she encountered in her time with the Doctor, is the stuff of nightmares indeed. Neatly following on from this year's Dr Who two-parter 'The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky', this story sees the last survivor of the doomed Sontaran invasion stranded on Earth and desperate to exact revenege for his race by using Earth's satellites to set off the planet's arsenal of nuclear weapons (the stakes are never low for Sarah Jane). There are some lovely set pieces; the Sontaran 'unmasking' is a masterpiece of CGI (even if the Sontaran head-mask itself still doesn't quite have the real 'meaty' flesh look of the original from over thirty years ago!), the Sontaran silver golfball ship looks genuinely impressive and there's always fun to be had watching a monster chasing people around a crackling forest, raygun blazing. But the story's heart is in its emotional sequences, where Maria agonises over leaving Sarah and the gang. Elisabeth Sladen plays Sarah's reaction beautifully; Sarah resorts to her default 'distant' setting (God, this woman is damaged!) and the promising Yasmin Paige is full of angst and insecurity. But in the end she makes the only decision she can and the moral for the kiddies is that wherever your friends are and however often you get to see them, they'll always be your friends.
A good rousing start for season two then and new challenges for Sarah Jane as a new family move in across the road and become involved with their mysterious neighbour. It's sad to see the departure of Yasmin Paige and her gang (particularly Juliet Cowan as Chrissie who came good in the end) but, as with all the new Who family series, change is all part of the formula which keeps this series working. So set aside your preconceptions and make some time for Sarah Jane and the Bannerman Road gang; not only does it pass the time amiably until the TARDIS drifts back into our orbit, it really is a damned fine show in its own right...