Wednesday, 17 November 2010

TV Review: The Sarah Jane Adventures - season four

So that’s another series of junior Dr Who spin-off ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ done and dusted, polished off across six weeks in twice-weekly instalments. And what a series it’s been. Any drama series can be expected to be showing a little bit of creative fatigue if it’s fortunate enough to survive to a fourth run but instead of wandering into televisual senility, ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ has blazed through its fourth year with renewed energy, creativity and vitality in what’s become the best the show’s been since its first year in 2007 and very probably its most consistently enjoyable and accomplished series to date.

Series four of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ has been all about growing up and, to a lesser degree, about growing old. This year it seems as if the show’s writers and producers (Russell T Davies keeping a steady hand on the ship and even contributing a two-part script) have been conscious of the fact that the show’s intended audience is growing up and that some of the slapstick the show has indulged in in the past is unlikely to wash with a more sophisticated and maturing young audience. So the Slitheen, a constant in the show since year one, get a quick cameo in the first episode of ‘The Nightmare Man’, quickly turned to slime as if to acknowledge the fact that gunging is no longer going to be a major feature of the show. even in series finale ‘Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith’ the audience’s expectations are confounded when Ruby White’s stomach doesn’t explode in a shower of coloured liquid but just burps out a little splodge of gunk. The show’s telling its audience that it’s no longer concerned with covering people in slime for the sake of it, and neither should they be. Series four recognises that its core characters – Luke, Clyde, Rani – are getting older and each of the stories addresses the consequences and difficulties of coping with growing pains, difficulties exacerbated by the outlandish lifestyle the trio enjoy due to their relationship with Sarah Jane. Sarah Jane, too, given a new lease of life courtesy of her ‘adopted’ son Luke, has to learn to let go too, as Luke moves away to Oxford (with a robot dog for company and a disturbing taste for inappropriate neckwear) and, at the end of the series, is apparently forced to face the prospect of her own faculties diminishing.

Joseph Lidster’s brilliant opening two-parter, ‘The Nightmare Man’, may well be the best story of the series because it deftly balances some genuinely disturbing stuff – Julian Bleech’s creepy and unsettling vaguely mid-European turn as the titular villain, a creature who exists and feeds on the subconscious – and some great character stuff as the super-intelligernt Luke is fast-tracked to Oxford and his friends Rani and particularly Clyde have to cope with unfamiliar emotions as their cosy friendship is threatened. How will Luke cope on his own? What will happen to his friendships with Rani and Clyde? The Nightmare Man himself is very much a metaphor for growing up and dealing with new and unfamiliar and very real problems and, in Luke’s final confident confrontation with the Nightmare Man, it’s about rising above your fears and doubts and showing that you’re strong enough to survive even the greatest of adversity. As Luke toddles off to Oxford at the end of the story it’s the start of a new era for the show and when he returns in the second part of series finale ‘Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith’ both Clyde and Rani have grown and developed so much as they take centre-stage that he almost seems surplus to requirements and a throwback to a more naïve era in the show’s history.

‘Vault of Secrets’ is a nod in the direction of the more pantomime stories of earlier series, with its bumbling comic UFO conspiracy freaks, Rani’s Mum Gita’s comedy gurning and those always-unconvincing body-swap moments where returning bad guy Androvax (from series three) possesses Luke, Rani and Sarah Jane. But even here the show reigns back its earlier instincts for knockabout fun. The mysterious ‘men in black’ brought to life from the David Tennant ‘Dreamland’ animation last year, are a formidable presence with their wrist machine-guns and even Androvax is given a bit more light and shade as the story centres around his desperation to keep his species alive and find a new home for the last of his race. Some good FX work (a particular feature of this series) and some well-staged action set pieces kept ‘Vault of secrets’ pacey and enjoyable without ever being hugely memorable.

In any lesser series of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ a story like ‘Death of the Doctor’, featuring current TARDIS incumbent Matt Smith and a special reappearance by 1970s companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) who preceded Sarah Jane aboard the TARDIS, would be a centrepiece, a real flagship story for the whole series. But so strong are the rest of this year’s serials that ‘Death of the Doctor, a gift to us from Russell T Davies himself, is fifty-odd minutes of glorious, joyous fun. Davies grafts a simple but effective story to his typical beautifully-paced character moments, scenes which seem to slow down the action but in reality add some wonderful light and shade and serve as reminder of why Davies got what modern ‘Doctor Who’ should be. It’s probably fair to say that Davies was ‘Who-ed out’ by the end of his run but the break has done him a power of good. He grabs Matt Smith’s Doctor and just seems to instinctively grasp the character but ultimately the story exists as a glorified piece of fan fiction as Davies gets to do what he couldn’t really do during his time at the helm of the parent show; he just shows off. Davies fills his scripts with fan-pleasing continuity references as Jo Grant (now Jo Jones, of course) swaps TARDIS anecdotes with Sarah Jane and later, as prisoners of the Shansheeth (not the show’s finest monster hour, being lumbering vulture undertakers redeemed by suitably funereal voice-over work), the two recall their past in a string of fan-pleasing flashback sequences which recall their experiences with earlier Doctors. Random dialogue references obscure stories like the appalling Colin Baker 1984 story ‘Timelash’, the girls delight in discovering they both visited medieval planet Peladon and Davies gets to drop in references to Metebelis 3 and briefly fills us in on the fates of a number of fan favourite former companions, right back to Ian and Barbara who started it all back in 1963. Typically, Davies depicts Jo as being as scatty as ever; but, contrary to popular fan opinion, he sees her as still happily married, with a stream of children and grandchildren, still boldly travelling the world fighting for the planet’s rights just as the nascent environmentalist Jo did back in her last regular appearance in 1973. ‘Death of the Doctor’ couldn’t help but bring a little tear to the eye of anyone who ever watched ‘Doctor Who’ back on the 1970s and, if we don’t get Davies back to write the odd script for ‘Doctor Who’ in the future, can happily stand as a wonderful full-stop to his work on the show, a little coda to the character he knows and loves so well.

After such ‘fan-squee’ delights the rest of the series might have been expected be have been a bit of an anti-climax but not a bit of it. ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ picked up its metaphorical skirts and reached even higher. This year’s Lis Sladen-lite yarn, ‘The Empty Planet’ may have been written just for me, still suffering withdrawl symptoms from the premature cancellation of the BBC’s reboot of Terry Nation’s ‘Survivors’ and still morbidly fascinated by the idea of a world without pesky people in it.. Phil Ford’s script, in which both Clyde and Rani wake to find themselves in…well, the title gives it away, I suppose… is cleverly constructed to give the two youngsters a turn at talking centre-stage and crucially and fundamentally, to allow them to develop as young adults rather than children. Faced with the prospect of living on an a depopulated Earth the pair have to face the daunting prospect of starting humanity again; it’s a thought Rani doesn’t take to kindly too but Clyde seems quite pleased at the prospect.. With Luke out of the way, the viewer’s forced to see Clyde and Rani almost as a ‘couple’ the only two youngsters left in Sarah Jane’s immediate world and drawn together because of their shared experiences. It adds a new dimension on the ‘friends’ relationship the show has traded on previously and builds nicely on a few subtle suggestions of a potentially-deeper relationship between the two in the first episode of ‘The Nightmare Man’. ‘The Empty Planet’ shows the pair raving around the deserted streets of Ealing (but to a fairly local boy it’s painfully obviously Newport City Centre) and the story is enlivened by some zingy dialogue between the pair and two impressive robots which are stamping about the place. The story even takes advantage of story elements from previous years – Rani and Cllyde haven’t been ‘evacuated’ because of the ‘banning’order placed on them by the Judoon last year, prohibiting them from leaving Earth (although quite how we reconcile this with Clyde’s bodyswap with the Doctor in the previous story, I’m not entirely sure just yet).

‘Lost in Time’ a thoughtful and mature two-parter which more than adequately fulfils the BBC’s Reithian principles of “educating and entertaining” as, through the handy convenience of a time portal conjured up by the mysterious ‘Shopkeeper’ (former ‘The Bill’ star Cyril Nri), Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani are dispatched into three different time zones to recover three artefact upon which the fate of the world depends. Oo-er. This is basically the ‘Dr Who’ ‘Key To Time’ season across fifty minutes but it pitches Clyde into a World War 2 scenario and a close encounter with racist Nazi invaders, Rani gets to know the doomed Lady Jane Grey and Sarah Jane enjoys a more traditional supernatural adventure where echoes of the future impact upon the past. Moody and slower-paced than much of the season, this is deep, intelligent thought-provoking stuff and a reminder of how far the show has come so quickly from the Mona Lisa with a space gun and the Judoon driving a Police Car.

So to the season finale and ‘Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith’ (just screened on the CBBC channel, where the show has been pulling in close on a million viewers per episode, far better than most of the weekly output of the higher-profile Sky 1) which really piles on the emotion and evokes a real sense of closure for the whole series. If we didn’t know that half of the next series is already in the can it’d be easy to believe, from part one at least, that time’s up at last for Sarah Jane. In part one the gang meet up with Ruby Anne White (played with real power and malevolence by Julie Graham who’s so clearly having the time of her life here) who is everything Sarah Jane is only younger and with better tech (she has a palmtop version of Sarah Jane’s redoubtable but clunky Mr Smith supercomputer). There’s something wrong with Sarah Jane; she’s forgetful, distant, not quite in control. Mr Smith diagnoses that she’s “very ill indeed” and Sarah Jane, not one to outstay her welcome, decided to do a moonlight flit and leaves it all – the house, the supercomputer, everything to the entirely-plausible Ruby who has wormed her way into all their affections. But is Ruby all she seems? Can Clyde and Rani find out what’s become of their friend and find out Ruby’s secrets…if she has any? The episodes are yet to screen on BBC1 where many of you may be planning to watch so I’ll say little else about the story other than to say that it’s another rousing romp, packed with more tear-jerking moments, big set-pieces, great FX and assured performances. It’s probably not really spoiling anything to divulge that the story and, indeed , the fourth series, ends in its usual upbeat “there are wonders out there in the Universe” fashion but this time it’s not quite as cloying as it has been in the past because this year the show has earned it.

Series four of ‘The Sarah jane Adventures’ has been pretty much an unparalled success. I’d go as far as to say that, on many levels, I’ve enjoyed it more than the most recent run of ‘Dr Who’ episodes but maybe that’s more to do with heightened expectations for the parent show as well as a few misjudged creative decisions in Matt Smith’s first year which knocked the edge of the show a bit.. Four years in, Sarah Jane’s show is on top form, a show with enough depth and maturity now to please even undecided adult who won’t come close because it’s a kid’s show. I said it about series one and I’ll say it again here; can we have a few more adult shows with the chutzpah of ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ please. Bring on series five; and I for one wouldn’t object to a series six and seven too. Terrific stuff,


One Ten said...

I totally agree - it has been a great series, a real notch up. Like you I expected The Death of the Doctor to be a high point, and it was exceedingly good, but the other stories - whether pared down essentially to a Clyde and Rani two-hander (The Empty Planet) or pairing everyone up with an excellent guest cast (Lost in Time). I'm new to your blog - so I haven't seen what your criticisms of the recent Doctor Who were (I utterly loved it) - but while I didn't enjoy Goodbye Sarah-Jane as much as the others, this series of Sarah-Jane has not had a single dud. Great review.

Paul Mount said...

Welcome aboard One Ten...and thanks for the comments! I'll be reviewing the season five DW boxset shortly - I'm not that critical of the series really but as a big fan of the Russell T Davies era I found the 'tone' of the series a bit wonky in places. Still finding Amy difficult to tolerate, I have to say, but I'm hoping these are growing pains and the show will hit its stride again next year. The signs seem to be good!