Sunday, 16 November 2008

Catching Up with Sarah Jane

Dr Who gets Simon Callow, Sir Derek Jacobi, Pauline Collins, Penelope Wilton, John Simm. Torchwood gets James Marsters, Richard Briers and even that bloke off Neighbours. The Sarah Jane Adventures gets Floella Benjamin, Bradley Walsh and Russ Abbott. All’s not fair in the guest-casting world of Dr Who’s cheeriest, kid-friendly spin-off but otherwise it’s business as usual for the redoubtable Miss Smith and her eager gang of young Scoobies.

Six episodes of series two have rattled by since Stuff cast its beady eye on the season’s opening romp ‘The Last Sontaran’ and while the show has the same zest and enthusiasm and eagerness-to-please that it ever did, the subsequent stories haven’t quite had the same sense of scale, the same visual pizzazz as they did in series one. In fact, with its notable lack of proper good-old fashioned rubber monsters since the first story, The Sarah Jane Adventures is looking a bit cut-price this year. Men with balloons and boggle-eyed astrologers may be good for the budget but I wouldn’t have thought they’re likely to cause many night-time tantrums or damp bedsheets amongst the show’s target audience.

‘Day of the Clown’, the second story, had a lot to do and did it with gusto. With Maria and her dad Alan having moved away to Washington (DC, not Tyne and Wear) at the end of the previous story (gone but not forgotten, as far as this series is concerned) this two-parter introduced the new young family moving in across the road from Sarah’s incongruous Gothic pile. Meet Rani Chandra (Anji Mohindra) and her Dad (the headmaster of Park Vale Comp where the kids hang out and have the odd adventure) and her mum (about whom we know very little apart from the fact she keeps calling Sarah Jane ‘Sarah’, much to the latter’s continual annoyance). The new crowd move in seamlessly courtesy of a fast-paced, witty script and before long Rani is privy to the secrets of Sarah’s attic and the gang are off investigating a mysterious clown who keeps popping up and luring kids to his museum of the curious. The story is predicated on the fact that a lot of people find clowns creepy and sinister; I just find them a bit dull and always have (but then I’m thirty-something years outside this show’s intended demographic so what do I know?) and in part two it turns out that the sinister clown is actually the real Pied Piper and he’s here to steal your kids. Bradley Walsh (for it is he) gives a surprisingly-effective performance as the white-faced clown/ringmaster and the story’s only disappointment – apart from the fact it all looks a bit bland and flat – is its denouement in which Clyde (Daniel Anthony, easily the best of the kids in the show now although I’m not sure he really qualifies by virtue of the fact that he’s really 21) tells the Piper a string of really bad jokes which make him disappear back where he came from. Enjoyable but not really up to the standards of the best of last year’s serials – and that was most of them.

In ‘Secrets of the Stars’ a fake astrologer has a moment of revelation when he’s zapped by an alien intelligence. Suddenly he really can control the stars and predict the future and…er…well, he uses his powers to take over the world’s kids and….er, well, it’s all a bit like the previous story in fact. Russ Abbott chews the scenery and everything else he can get his hands on as the possessed Martin Trueman , once again the story ups its stakes a bit too high by having his benign influence reaching right out across the world (what’s wrong with a few more localised threats every now and again, SJ?) and the whole thing peters out fairly unremarkably. The story is enlivened by some moody location filming at the New Theatre in Cardiff (despite the script’s protestations that it’s Acton) although once again the series strains credibility by asking its audience to accept that a trio of streetwise teens in the year 2008 would be seen dead anywhere near a cheesy astrological stage show, parental influence or not.

The most recent/current adventure ‘Mark of the Berserker’ continues the lower-key approach of series two but in a story which is more effective and dramatic than the previous three. In fact, the key is so low here that the story verges on soap opera in places – albeit one with an alien pendant altering people’s personalities (storyline forthcoming in Emmerdale, probably). Said pendant is discovered in the grounds of Park Vale school and quickly recovered by Rani who secretes it in Sarah Jane’s attic while the journalist is off on some weekend frolic of her own (Lis Sladen has only one scene in episode one – boo!). Meanwhile Luke (Thomas Knight) is enjoying a sleepover at Clyde’s when Clyde’s estranged father Paul (Gary Cheadle) arrives out of the blue after years away and tries to rekindle his relationship with his son. At first Clyde’s not impressed – he can’t get his head around why his father would abandon his family to run off with his wife’s sister (you see what I mean by soap operatics?). But keen to win his father’s approval, Clyde takes his Dad to Sarah Jane’s attic where he (rather foolishly) reveals his secret life as an alien hunter and general saviour-of-the-world only for his Dad to snaffle the pendant and use it to influence the will of others - which includes wiping Clyde’s memory of his friends. Part two is a cracker. Luke and Rani discover, courtesy of a laptop video-link with Maria and her Dad, that the pendant is a relic from a savage alien civilisation and its ultimate aim will be to turn the wearer completely into a Berserker. Clyde and his Dad go on a free shopping spree which looks like ending in disaster when Dad tries to acquire a boat to take his son away forever.

‘Mark of the Berseker’, like the two preceding stories, isn’t big on spectacular visuals – but here it works because the story’s more interesting and character dynamics are centre-stage. We finally get to find out more about the background of Clyde and Daniel Anthony acquits himself superbly in a string of emotionally-heartfelt sequences, culminating in his little heart-to-heart with Sarah Jane at the end of the episode, setting up events for the following story. ‘Berserker’, like the best SJAs, presents difficult moral questions to its young audience and handles them sensibly and maturely. Once again there are no easy answers, no particularly happy endings (despite everything Clyde and his Dad remain estranged at episode’s end) and a reminder of the show’s great mission statements – there are wonderful things out there and there’s nothing you can’t do if you’ve got friends and family around you. Awwww.

We’re in the home straight now for this second series of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Elisabeth Sladen remains the show’s shining star, ageless and timeless and once again giving her all for the character she’s been playing for the greater part of her professional life. The next story ‘The Temptation of Sarah Jane’ is a sequel of sorts to last year’s ‘Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?’ and, from its trailer, it looks as if much of the show’s budget may have been kept aside for two lavish, atmospheric episodes set in the 1950s. The season will end with ‘Enemy of the Bane’ where Sarah and co meet some old enemies…and Sarah Jane meets up with a very old friend.

The Sarah Jane Adventures may not quite be touching all the bases it managed last year but it’s still a wonderful, imaginative little series which keeps the dying flames of quality kid’s TV in the UK burning and acts as a charming coda to the ever-evolving world of Dr Who itself.

EDIT: Having now seen the first episode of 'The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith' I'm happy to report that this story is where SJA season two really finds its feet. This is, so far a wonderful and poignant story which tells us more about SJ herself than we've ever known in the past. It's one of those lovely time paradox stories where Sarah Jane can't resist the opportunity to travel back to 1951 to meet her parents who died when she was a baby. But little does SJ realise that an old enemy has laid a very deadly trap for her... Smart, funny script by Gareth Roberts, lavish period production values (you can almost taste the ginger beer in the fayre sequence!) and a stunning performance by Lis Sladen, absolutely relishing the chance to put some more flesh on Sarah's bones after all these years.

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