The Best and Worst of The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 4

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In a previous post, I went over a brief history of Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 that lead up to the creation of The Sarah Jane Adventures. In this post, I will follow-up on Series 5 with Series 4, which is the second time in which the Doctor himself appears in a televised spin-off, and go over a brief history of Jo Jones (née Grant), who appeared in Death to the Doctor.

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A Brief History of Jo Grant

Jo Grant first appeared in Terror of the Autons, after the departure of companion Dr. Liz Shaw in Inferno, alongside the Master‘s first appearance.

She would continue to appear in The Mind of Evil, The Claws of Axos, Colony in Space, and The Dæmons.

The following season, she would appear in The Day of the Daleks, The Sea Devils, The Mutants, and The Time Monster.

She would continue to be the Third Doctor’s companion through The Three Doctors, Carnival of Monsters, Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks.

Her last appearance was in The Green Death.

The Best:

Death of the Doctor, and Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith

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Death to the Doctor is one of the best stories to ever feature the Doctor, because he doesn’t just reunite with Sarah Jane, but also Jo Grant, her first appearance since June 1973. From the Doctor’s perspective, this take place between The Big Bang and A Christmas Carol. According to the Den of Geek review of Death to the Doctor:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith is also quite a great story, though it doesn’t feature any crossover characters, it is worth a watch. According to the Den of Geek review of Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith:

And so, with the advent of this final two-parter, series 4 of The Sarah Jane Adventures comes to a rip-roaring conclusion as the Doctor’s favourite journalist/alien investigator is pitted against her ultimate enemy…old age!

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Co-written by series stalwart Gareth Roberts and newcomer Clayton Hickman, Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith brings a lot of threads that have been bubbling under the surface throughout the season to a climax.  From Luke and K-9’s farewell in the first story through to Sarah Jane’s refusal to accept the possible demise of the Doctor in Russell T Davies’ centrepiece adventure, this has been a series all about growing up, growing older and moving on. This story is no exception.

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When a meteor falls to Earth, Sarah Jane, Rani and Clyde investigate the crash site, only for their rescue mission to be upstaged by the intervention of one Ruby White. Ruby’s a more kick-ass (and noticeably younger!) version of Sarah Jane, replete with her own house on Bannerman Road, a flash sports car and her own (handheld!) super computer named Mr White.

Initially hostile to Sarah Jane and her fellow ‘amateur’ alien hunters, relations are thawed after Sarah Jane begins to show signs of poor judgement, and endangers Clyde and Rani during an alien attack. Rather fortuitously it’s Ruby who steps into the breach again and saves the gang from certain death.

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With Ruby brought into the inner circle of the Bannerman Road, Sarah Jane becomes increasingly troubled by her own noticeably diminishing mentally agility. Seeking a diagnosis from the ever reliable Mr Smith, Sarah Jane soon discovers that she’s suffering from a form of neurological degeneration.

Worried about her unsuitability to continue investigating alien activity, Sarah Jane hands over all of her equipment (as well as access to Mr Smith) to Ruby, who she also entrusts with looking after Clyde and Rani. However, Ruby isn’t all she appears to be, and Sarah Jane’s symptoms have far more sinister origins than just the ravages of time…

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Played with lip smacking glee by Julie Graham, Ruby is revealed to be an alien Katesh, a devourer of excitement and thrills who’s comes to Earth to seek out the most exciting life on the planet (no prizes for guessing who’s that is!) and consume it. However, with Ruby’s plan to replace and devour Sarah Jane revealed, the villainous Katesh’s path to victory is blocked by the return to Ealing of a couple of familiar faces.

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While the bulk of this series has revolved around keeping the constituent parts of the extended Smith family apart, this story very much brings the gang back together with both Luke and – via-video link – K-9 returning to the fray for full blooded and important roles to play. The defeat of Ruby White is very much a team effort, but it’s a victory that wouldn’t occur without the roles played by the resident boy genius and the tin dog.

However, despite all the high-energy goings-on this is a story that very much highlights and plays to the strengths of the series’ most potent, and often overlooked, weapon – Elisabeth Sladen.

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Playing a version of Sarah Jane who is at once frail, failing and seemingly afflicted with dementia, her performance in the first part of this story in particular is especially strong. Given some of her strongest material on the show to date, Sladen grabs the opportunity that Hickman and Roberts have given her and runs with it.

It’s the culmination of an increasing relaxation of the Sarah Jane character that seems to have been occurring since the second half of series 3. Now freed from the need to mother the character of Luke, the Sarah Jane of 2010 seems to resemble far more closely the character we grew to love back in stories such as Pyramids of Mars and The Hand of Fear than at any point since her return to the airwaves in 2006. It’s a subtle shift, but a welcome one as the sometimes overly earnest Sarah Jane of series 1 and 2 was – for this writer, at least – starting to wear a bit thin.

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However, for my money the real stand out performer in series 4 has been the ever improving Anjli Mohindra, who has noticeably blossomed as an actor with the increased responsibility that a smaller cast has brought. Daniel Anthony and – in a reduced role – Tommy Knight have both turned in decent work too, but it’s Mohindra who’s caught the eye. And – regardless of the future of the series – I’d imagine in simple career terms her stay on Bannerman Road may not last past series 5.

All in all, Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith brings a mostly excellent fourth series to a fitting close. It hints at further stories to come (anyone willing to start a book on whether Julie Graham’s Katesh returns in series 5?) while also drawing certain strands to a natural conclusion.

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The Worst:

The Vault of Secrets

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The Vault of Secrets is one of the most inconsequential stories within the show. According to the Den of Geek review:

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Nestled between Joe Lidster’s brilliantly creepy The Nightmare Man and Russell T Davies’ series highpoint Death Of The Doctor, Phil Ford’s The Vault Of Secrets is something of a ‘business as usual’ story for everyone’s favourite CBBC spin-off.

Ordinarily, that would be fine, but seeing as it’s the proverbial meat between the bread of two of the show’s finest achievements, it makes Ford’s story seem inessential.

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The main problem that The Vault Of Secrets faces right from the off is an overriding  sense of been there, done that and this is most apparent in its use of the classic Who/SJA failsafe: the returning monster.

Now monsters returning is a fine idea in principle, but it would be fair to say that, as a show, The Sarah Jane Adventures has a far spottier track record when it comes to this than Doctor Who. Aside from the Trickster, whose three appearances on the show have all been memorable, enemies such as Mrs Wormwood, the Slitheen and Commander Kaagh of the 10th Sontaran Battle Fleet have all tended to suffer from something of a ‘sophomore slump’ during their return engagements to Bannerman Road.  However, the necessities of making a show like SJA means that a fair amount of monster recycling will inevitably occur, and this time out it’s the turn of Androvax, the Veil, to get a second airing.

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Unlike previous recycled villains, Androvax’s first appearance on the show was somewhat less than a success. A meandering mess of a story, Prisoner Of The Judoon sidelined the visually striking Androvax (played by Mark Goldthorp) for much of the action and instead focused on the ‘comedy’ pairing of Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and the Judoon Captain Tybo.  This time around that mistake is avoided, as Androvax is at the front and centre of the action from the beginning and that massively improves the story.

Also coming into the mix are some other returning faces from the wider Whoniverse. The Men in Black, the robotic foot soldiers of the Alliance of Shades who first featured in 2009’s Who animated episode Dreamland, are brought onboard for their live-action debut, although their leader, Mr Dread (played by the deadpan Angus Wright) is the only member of the trio to be given anything substantial to perform.

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The main strand of the plot revolves around Androvax’s return to Earth after his escape from a Judoon prison planet. Turns out that Androvax may not be the last of his kind after all, and he’s journeyed to Earth to try and gain access to the legendary Vault of Secrets.

The Vault is an inter-dimensional storage facility for alien artefacts, the doorway to which the robotic Men in Black have been guarding since the early 1970s. Supposedly, inside the vault is a Veil starship containing the final remnants of Androvax’s species. The previously dastardly Veil plans to liberate the ship from the Vault and awaken the sleeping Veil, thus restarting the Veil species again. Naturally, Androvax’s plan involves plenty of double-crossing and possession of the regular cast, which yields the usual mixed results from the regulars as they get the chance to play ‘bad’ for a change.

Now, the classic ‘restoration of my dying species’ plot is as old as the hills, especially in Doctor Who, but while, more often than not, the parent show manages to address that element in an interesting and engaging way, here it just comes across as hackneyed and trite. Androvax might be a nifty looking monster with some pretty cool powers, but after watching two adventures featuring him, it’d be fair to say he’s also one of the dullest villains to emanate from Upper Boat in the last five years.

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In terms of character, he’s a bad guy with a forked tongue who can possess bodies and wants to destroy the universe. And that’s about it! Admittedly, he’s given a bit more variety this time around (he’s dying of a venomous space-snake bite that he received on a Judoon prison planet, for starters), and his mission is a little more nuanced, but, fundamentally, he remains the same gruff, one-note monster he was before.

Placing these episodes directly after an adventure featuring Julian Bleach’s marvellous Nightmare Man only brings this lack of personality even more into focus.

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However, Androvax is only one of the problems that this story fails to overcome. The other major issue is the rather laboured and unfunny sub-plot surrounding BURPSS (British UFO Research and Paranormal Studies Society) a ‘comedy’ group of alien investigators led by Ocean Waters (Cheryl Campbell) and her sidekick Minty (David Webber).  It transpires that Ocean has a long-standing connection to the sinister Men in Black, which turns out to be key to Androvax’s quest and causes all of our key actors to converge on Ocean’s house as episode one draws to a close.

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The major issue that the whole BURPSS/Ocean sub-plot has is that, fundamentally, it’s just there to push the plot forward and no more. That’s fine if you care about the characters involved in these scenes or the scenes themselves are witty, funny and bristle with life, but the BURPSS characters are never really either funny or engaging. You just don’t buy into them in the way that audiences could engaged with Elton Pope’s LINDA group in Love & Monsters or Wilfred Mott’s Silver Cloak gang of OAPs in The End Of Time. Those groups were filled with character, warmth and wit, whereas BURPPS is just a bunch of boring ‘eccentrics’ pottering around in a church hall.

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In the final analysis, this adventure feels like both overstuffed and underdeveloped, with too many elements vying for attention and no dominant idea or flavour to call its own. I’ve been a big fan of Phil Ford’s writing since series one, but this story is far from his best work. Probably his most successful script for the show in the last two years was The Eternity Trap in the latter half of season 3. That story stripped away many of the tropes of a ‘standard’ Sarah Jane adventure and Ford made the absolute most of its possibilities.

Contrast the quality of his work here with the standards he achieved then and on both Dreamland and The Water Of Mars over on Doctor Who in 2009 and there is simply no comparison. Hell, even the two Doctor Who Adventure Games that he’s written this year have been more imaginative and engaging than what we get in The Vault Of Secrets.

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Maybe it’s the nature of these ‘romp’ episodes that doesn’t sit easily with Ford’s style, or that the limitations of format and writing more SJA scripts than anyone else is taking its toll on the co-producer? Either way, it’s clear that Ford’s writing is always better when the material he’s dealing with is richer, darker and creepier than the by-the-numbers froth we get here.

Despite my criticisms, there are still positives within the episode. Joss Agnew again turns in some excellent direction and the pre-credits sequence is a really effective piece of action storytelling. The cinematography and the various effects work is of the usual high standard with the CG shots of the Vault in all its glory a particular highlight. As ever, the regular cast are as reliable as ever and, in particular, the issue of Clyde and Rani’s increasing intimacy is handled very nicely.

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All in all, this episode is a stumble. It’s a return to the overly formulaic stories of old that I criticised in my review of The Nightmare Man and doesn’t really offer up anything other than a well mounted, though ultimately un-engaging, run around. It’s a shame that, after the real success of The Nightmare Man, The Vault Of Secrets comes up short in this way, but any disappointment should be tempered with the knowledge that the very best that the show has to offer is just around the corner.

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Next is the best and worst of Series 3.

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3 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 4

  1. Pingback: The Best and Worst of The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 3 | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: The Best and Worst of The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 2 | The Progressive Democrat

  3. Pingback: The Best and Worst of The Sarah Jane Adventures: Series 1 | The Progressive Democrat

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