SJA Series 4 (May 11 - May 19)

May 11 continued: The Nightmare Man Part One
May 12: The Nightmare Man Part Two
May 13: The Vault of Secrets Parts One & Two
May 14 continued: Death of the Doctor Part One
May 15: Death of the Doctor Part Two
May 16: The Empty Planet Parts One & Two
May 17 continued: Lost in Time Part One
May 18: Lost in Time Part Two
May 19: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith Parts One & Two

May 11 continued: The Nightmare Man Part One

Autumn 2010 brought us the fourth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which opened with The Nightmare Man.  Luke is off to Oxford, a year ahead of Rani and Clyde (apparently that brain really is good for something), but as he's getting ready to leave he starts to have nightmares...

It's striking, comparing The Sarah Jane Adventures to K-9, just how much more confident the former is.  Even allowing for K-9 being a low budget show in its first series, its aspirations appear to be middle-of-the-road children's fare.  The Sarah Jane Adventures, by contrast, is aiming much higher.  This first episode is a perfect example.  While we still get interpersonal drama, in Luke's leaving for university and how it's going to affect everyone, we also get the SF/horror idea of a figure from nightmares entering the real world (yes, much like A Nightmare on Elm Street).  But rather than being an end of itself, at least in the first part, writer Joseph Lidster has chosen to make the nightmares reflect the anxieties of most children who leave home for the first time -- the thought of people being glad that you're finally gone, or of being replaced and forgotten.  They're very plausible nightmares, and the realization here is more scary than the Nightmare Man himself (as played by Julian Bleach, who here becomes one of the very few actors (and possibly the only one who's not a member of the BBC Wales "company", à la monster actor Paul Kasey) to have appeared in Doctor Who and its two BBC spin-offs).  The Nightmare Man is scary not because of his appearance but because of the nightmares he can cause Luke to have.  We're deliberately at this point not given an explanation as to the Nightmare Man's true nature, which helps with the strange nature of this episode.

It's a good move, juxtaposing the change of heading to university with the associated nightmares and maintaining this focus throughout the episode, and this first part is a genuinely impressive and well-written piece.  It also leads to a great cliffhanger, as Luke finally succumbs to sleep, allowing the Nightmare Man to enter the real world -- while Luke is trapped in an empty void in his head...

May 12: The Nightmare Man Part Two

The Nightmare Man is now free, but he doesn't seem to be interested in immediately taking over the world; he's more interested in flexing his powers a bit, which involves giving nightmares to Rani and Clyde as well as Luke.  This also touches upon some deep childhood fears: Clyde's nightmare involves being unsuccessful and forgotten, taunted by Sarah Jane as a senile bag lady, while Rani's involves turning on the people she considers friends, exposing them on television as a journalist.  They're both realistic nightmares that still tie in with the main story, and so they're very successful as a result.

The Nightmare Man is pulled into a nightmare of his own creation.
(The Nightmare Man Part Two) ©BBC
And it's fitting, in what appears to be Luke's final story as a main member of the cast, that the main message is that Luke, Clyde, and Rani are unstoppable as a team: "This world has faced so many nightmares but there's always been someone there to stop them," Luke tells the Nightmare Man.  "Us.  You know, I was so scared because I thought my mates wouldn't be there for me.  Never mind Oxford, they followed me into my nightmares.  Three kids breaking down the walls of dreams to be together.  Something no one's ever done.  Because together, we're unbeatable."  It's a positive message, telling us that friendships are the most powerful thing in the universe, and it's a message that's worth hearing more often, I think.  It also means that Luke can head to Oxford, secure in the knowledge that his friends are still with him, even if they're not in the same location.

This is a strong opener for series 4, with a thoughtful script, a sufficiently scary enemy, and some great acting from the regulars.  It's a reaffirmation of what makes this show so good, and it's a great sign of what the future has in store for The Sarah Jane Adventures: even if Luke won't be around as much, the team on Bannerman Road will still be a force to be reckoned with.

May 13: The Vault of Secrets Parts One & Two

The previous story was interested in exploring some of the common nightmares that people have and putting them into a different context.  The Vault of Secrets, by contrast, is more of a good old-fashioned romp.  It's effectively a sequel to last series' Prisoner of the Judoon, with some elements from the "Dreamland" cartoon thrown in for good measure.  And so we see the return of Androvax, trying to rescue members of his race who are in suspended animation and being held by the Men in Black.

The Men in Black. (The Vault of Secrets Part One) ©BBC
The Men in Black have made a smooth transition from CGI creations to live action -- not that it was exactly a hard transition, given their nature, but it's still done well.  Plus it's nice to see some love for the somewhat neglected cartoon.  (Even if that's probably because Phil Ford wrote both that and this.)  They're a much more compelling threat here than they were in "Dreamland" as well, since they're actually the main...well, "villains" is too strong a word, but that's the function they're fulfilling for a good chunk of time.  No Viperox here to steal their thunder.  It also helps that Angus Wright does a great job of being cold and imposing as Mister Dread, the leader of the Men in Black.

And interestingly, we also get an attempt to reframe Androvax's character.  He's still rather unpleasant to deal with, but he's not as evil as he was the last time.  Instead he has the noble goal of trying to rescue the last surviving members of his species before he dies, and while he may be going about achieving that goal in the wrong ways (taking over people and stealing what he needs without remorse), that doesn't make what he's trying to do any less honorable.  Of course, the fact that the planet will be destroyed by his actions does mean that he needs to stopped, or another solution found, but at least his heart is in the right place.

But the best thing about The Vault of Secrets is that it never loses its underlying sense of fun.  From Sarah Jane disrupting a NASA Mars rover before it captures an image of a pyramid (thus providing us with a quick in-joke) to Clyde quoting Terminator 2 to Gita dragging Haresh to the British UFO Research and Paranormal Studies Society (B.U.R.P.S.S.), the overwhelming feeling this story gives off is one of playfulness.  It's clearly having a good time with all these ideas, and it's hard not to feel the same way as a viewer.  And we even get a happy ending, with Androvax able to take his people away without the Earth being destroyed.  It's not a deep, philosophical episode, but The Vault of Secrets is an entertaining episode that will leave a smile on your face.

May 14 continued: Death of the Doctor Part One

After cowriting the first episode, Russell T Davies has stayed away from contributing scripts to the series -- but now he's finally back with Death of the Doctor.  It's a nice hook, suggesting that the Doctor is dead, even if it's not one we actually believe (if nothing else, the main series is carrying on, so it's unlikely they'd let their main character be killed in a spin-off) -- but what works well here is that Sarah Jane refuses to believe it either.  And to Davies' credit, he does a good job of having it both ways: having us believe that there's something going on with the Doctor's "death", but maybe wondering that Sarah Jane is simply in denial.

Jo and Sarah Jane try to work out who would want to fake the
Doctor's death. (Death of the Doctor Part One) ©BBC
However, the most wonderful thing about this first episode is the appearance of Katy Manning as Jo Jones (née Grant).  From her first, slightly scatterbrained entrance, she slips effortlessly back into the role, and her interactions with Elisabeth Sladen are pure joy.  You also get the sense that, after five years of Russell T Davies reining in his fanboy tendencies on Doctor Who (for fear of alienating the casual audience), he's finally allowed himself to cut loose.  So we get references to Peladon, Azal, Zygons, Daleks...  Davies even sneakily has Jo reminisce about her visit to Karfel, as mentioned in Timelash.   But we also get a little bit of sadness as well, after Sarah Jane lets slip that the Doctor came back and saw her more than once -- something that apparently never happened to Jo.  "Oh, he must have really liked you," Jo says, with happiness and wistfulness equally mixed in one of the best line readings ever.  And you also get a hint of sadness from Sarah Jane, as she listens to Jo's stories of how she married Professor Jones, had seven kids and twelve grandchildren ("Would you believe number thirteen is on its way?"), and has spent her whole life traveling the world and standing up for what's good and right.  Jo is someone who met the Doctor and turned her experiences into action almost immediately, while Sarah Jane needed to see him again to realize what she should do.  It's a nice touch.

And, happily, the end of this episode sees the Shansheeth (who've been orchestrating this funeral) reveal their true colors, followed by the appearance of the eleventh Doctor, who swaps places with Clyde:
RANI: That's the Doctor?
JO: What Doctor?  The Doctor?  My Doctor?
SARAH JANE: Yeah, well, he can change his face.
JO: I know, but into a baby's?
DOCTOR: Oi!  Imagine it from my point of view.  Last time I saw you, Jo Grant, you were, what, 21, 22?  It's like someone baked you.
Clyde seems worse off, stuck on a red dusty planet with some sort of device counting down, but the Doctor is able to take more action on Earth.  Well, in theory, but the cliffhanger has him transfixed and in pain by a Shansheeth device...

May 15: Death of the Doctor Part Two

(Today marks the 500th day I've been watching Doctor Who and writing this blog about it.  I haven't missed a day yet; I'm pretty proud of that...)

The Shansheeth really are a great creation, aren't they?  Their heads appear to be animatronic, with only limited movement, but because the design is so expressive they get away with it -- and I love how they seem to have a sort of hunched back.

In terms of plot, Death of the Doctor Part Two isn't terribly exciting.  The Shansheeth capture Jo and Sarah Jane and force them to remember the TARDIS key so that they can access the TARDIS and head out into the universe and "stop death" -- apparently this branch of the Shansheeth are tired of being the galaxy's undertakers.  (And, interestingly, Davies is going to return to this idea of stopping death very soon -- but that's for another day.)  And that's about it for evil plans.  In terms of story, however, this episode has a lot going for it.  We get the UNIT base being locked down, while the Groske tells them to follow him, only to find that's so they can get to his pizza before it gets cold.  "What?  I thought you had a plan," Clyde exclaims.  "Shansheeth too scary," the Groske replies.  "We hide."  We also get Jo and Sarah Jane accompanying the Doctor back to that red place, the Wasteland of the Crimson Heart, so that the Doctor can properly travel to Earth without swapping with Clyde, where they all have a nice conversation, as Jo wonders why the Doctor never came back, only to learn that the Doctor had been looking in.  "Because you're right, I don't look back," he tells her.  "I can't.  But the last time I was dying, I looked back on all of you.  Every single one.  And I was so proud."  It's a touching moment, and I really like the idea that David Tennant went back and looked in on all of his companions, not just the tenth Doctor ones, at the end of The End of Time.  And then there's the quick conversation between the Doctor and Clyde:
CLYDE: Even your eyes are different.  It's weird, cos I thought the eyes would stay the same.  Can you change colour or are you always white?
DOCTOR: I could be anything.
CLYDE: And is there a limit?  How many times can you change?
DOCTOR: Five hundred and seven.
(Although of course now we know that the Doctor was simply being flippant with his response to Clyde, as "The Time of the Doctor" confirmed.)

The Doctor, Jo, and Sarah Jane in the TARDIS. (Death of the
Part Two) ©BBC
Everyone's on fine form here, and while the memory weave plot looks like an excuse to use a slew of clips from old Doctor Who, new Doctor Who, and The Sarah Jane Adventures, the clips are all incredibly brief (although they did manage to slip in Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell from The Three Doctors, in addition to the various Pertwee, Baker, and Tennant clips) and serve the narrative (as opposed to the clip show K-9 recently gave us in "Mind Snap").  Plus it really is incredibly exciting for some reason to see the old stuff referenced in the new.

But then that's sort of the heart of the story.  Doctor Who under Russell T Davies was always a show that retained the same basic concept and spirit of the original while constantly looking forward.  This, however, feels like his love letter to the old days, a way to reunite old friends and learn about the fates of others.  "I do a little search sometimes," Sarah Jane says, when Rani wonders about other past companions of the Doctor.  "I can't be sure, but there's a woman called Tegan in Australia, fighting for Aboriginal rights.  There's a Ben and Polly, in India, running an orphanage there.  There was Harry.  Oh, I loved Harry.  He was a doctor.  He did such good work with vaccines.  He saved thousands of lives.  And there's a Dorothy something.  She runs that company, A Charitable Earth.223  She's raised billions.  And this couple in Cambridge, both professors.  Ian and Barbara Chesterton.  Rumour has it, they've never aged.  Not since the sixties.  I wonder."  Even if all these characters couldn't be there in person, they're still around in spirit.  It's a beautiful idea, and the whole story is filled with this sense of love for the old days.

It may not have the most exciting plot, but it's carried off with great style in what proved to be Russell T Davies' only time writing for the eleventh Doctor.  That sense of joy and love and adventure means that Death of the Doctor is definitely a winner.

May 16: The Empty Planet Parts One & Two

Not that was really any doubt, but the nice thing about The Empty Planet is that it ably demonstrates that Clyde and Rani can carry a story pretty much on their own.

It's an effectively eerie idea, having the entire planet essentially abandoned -- it brings to mind movies like 28 Days Later (as well as Doctor Who's own takes on the subject, including The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Invasion of the Dinosaurs), with its cities devoid of life. Even if these moments in this story don't quite reach those same heights (as, other than a shot of a quiet London skyline, we don't get shots of famous landmarks looking abandoned), it's still very well done.

The first part focuses more on this feeling of isolation and abandonment, as Rani and Clyde try desperately to find anyone else at all still around. There's an interesting sense of chemistry between the two of them in a way that we haven't really seen before -- almost a romantic quality. This might partly be because they keep bringing up the "Adam & Eve" stuff, but it's still a new side to the characters. It's not the entire thrust of the episode, however, as they also encounter one other boy, Gavin, who was left behind, even if they can't figure out why he too remained.  "Is Gavin normal, though?" Clyde wonders.  "When I was alone, I thought I was the only one left.  It was horrible.  If I'd seen anyone else, even if it was Chris Moyles, I would have run towards them, not away, like Gavin did.  Wouldn't you?"  "Yeah," Rani replies.  "But when you were that age, sixth form kids looked big and scary."  "I'm not big and scary," Clyde argues.  "And that flat, apart from one photo, was there anything that said a kid lives here?  No kids' DVDs lying around, no photos of them with him.  And his room, it was like a cell.  No computer games or anything.  Isn't that weird?"  "Then we should feel sorry for him, not start judging him," Rani responds.  "He lives a really rubbish life, and what's our first reaction?  Oh, maybe he's an alien.  What are we?"

Gavin with the two robots. (The Empty Planet Part Two) ©BBC
And then we get some genuinely impressive robots tracking them down -- they're a really great design and they're very well realized.  Their appearance also changes the nature of the story somewhat. It's no longer just about being alone, it's also about avoiding the robots. Although it seems the robots aren't actually evil -- they're just trying to find the heir to the throne of their homeworld, which is Gavin. (I guess they thought he'd be easier to find if they got rid of all the humans?) But it takes a while for our heroes to realize that, so we get some nice chases and some fun disbelief dialogue from Gavin, as he tries to keep up with what Rani and Clyde are saying, as they try to work out why they were left behind, bringing up time travel and the TARDIS and the Judoon, while Gavin just listens on in sort of amazement.  "You keep saying these really stupid words," he says at one point.  "If you're so clever, why can't you just go out and stop the robots?"  But of course that's what happens.  It's a good move, making Gavin as much an innocent as anyone else in this story -- no one has any sinister motives, and it all ends very happily.

So overall this is a nice little story focusing on Clyde and Rani, the "hangers-on" of Sarah Jane's group, who nevertheless prove to be more than capable of handling this latest problem. The Empty Planet is a fun story with a satisfying plot and a pleasing resolution.

May 17 continued: Lost in Time Part One

This is a bit of an odd beast, to be honest; there's some sort of strange shopkeeper who lures Sarah Jane, Clyde, and Rani to his shop so that he can send them through a "time window", so that they can each retrieve some sort of metal MacGuffin that could catastrophically change the course of history.  So Sarah Jane is investigating "ghosts" in 1889, Rani is waiting on Lady Jane Grey during her nine-day reign as Queen of England, and Clyde is watching Nazis land in Britain on 7 June 1941.  It basically looks like an excuse to play around with three different time periods -- very Whoish, but at this point the special "chronosteel" metal that has the power to change time really does just look like a MacGuffin.  Clyde's the only one who actually sees the piece he's meant to find, as it's powering some secret Nazi weapon (although it's possible the dagger that Rani sees Matilda procure is also chronosteel), while Sarah Jane is more concerned with hearing voices from the future (the "ghosts") and listening as the voices apparently set the locked room they're in on fire in said future.  All while the shopkeeper watches their exploits and frets that "we need the chronosteel now.  And the sands have almost run through.  If Sarah Jane and her friends do not return soon, they'll be trapped in the past.  Forever."

So it's sort of hard to judge this episode, seeing as how we still haven't gotten to the main thrust of the plot by the end of part one.  It does look like an excuse to explore a couple eras of history, which is nice, but even then we haven't gotten a complete handle on these eras yet -- Rani's part is probably the most fleshed out, while Sarah Jane's feels like it could be almost anywhen.  So we'll have to see how the rest of this story pans out...

May 18: Lost in Time Part Two

No, this episode is just as odd as the previous one.  We don't get much in the way of complications beyond things like being recaptured; instead, this is a way to have adventures in history with the thinnest of plot rationales.

Sarah Jane and the shopkeeper look at the time window. (Lost
in Time
Part Two) ©BBC
The Sarah Jane portion has the least to do with a time period, but the stuff with the future echoes (to borrow a Red Dwarf term) is kind of nice.  I also like the subtle idea that, from the future kids' point of view, they were rescued by a ghost (as Emily must have appeared to them).  But other than that, we get Clyde's brush with a Nazi invasion and Rani learning a bit about Lady Jane Grey and what she was like as a person.

It does help that everything is done really well; for such a small amount of screen time spent in different eras, they do a good job of evoking the time periods, both in sets and in performances.  Everyone behaves the way we sort of intuitively expect them to behave, and this helps carry the day in terms of story and such.

But ultimately the plot is just an excuse to have some time travel without the Doctor or the Rift, and they haven't done a great job of disguising it as any more than that.  The shopkeeper is suitably mysterious, but that sense of mystery regarding his true identity and the nature of the chronosteel does mean that there's little there to hang the plot onto.  Fortunately the actors and the direction help carry the day, but it is a story that leaves you wanting something a bit more substantial afterwards.

May 19: Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith Parts One & Two

It's rather heartbreaking, watching the first episode of this story -- we're constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop regarding both Ruby White and Sarah Jane's condition, but while we do so we have to endure the sight of Sarah Jane losing her memory and her mental acuity.  In many ways this is the heart of the episode -- once Ruby reveals her true colors, this is largely business as usual, but the scenes leading up to that cliffhanger are really well done.  Elisabeth Sladen does a beautiful job of portraying Sarah Jane slowly losing her grip as she becomes more and more absent-minded -- putting Clyde and Rani in danger because she's forgotten her sonic lipstick is one thing, but forgetting the name of the Doctor?  That cuts right to the heart of the matter, and it really is tough to watch at times.

It's also interesting to see essentially another Sarah Jane Smith running around, in the form of Ruby.  While we know that something's up (I suspected the Trickster, but alas, he's nowhere to be found in series 4), we don't know what, and it's still interesting to see the dynamic between Ruby and Sarah Jane, both when they're suspicious of each other and when they're on friendlier terms.  "They're great kids, but they're a different generation," Sarah Jane tells Ruby.  "I could do with a grown-up friend."  It's a lovely moment, even when you know it's going to go wrong.

Ruby drains Sarah Jane's life essence. (Goodbye, Sarah Jane
Part One) ©BBC
Of course, it's really an alien plot, and as I said, this part of the story is on much firmer ground.  Sarah Jane trapped in a cellar, being digested by an alien stomach that feeds off "life essence" triggered by excitement, isn't exactly the sort of thing that the show has done before, but it does feel like the sort of thing the show could have done before.  I also like how Clyde immediately susses that something's wrong with the idea of Sarah Jane leaving without saying goodbye to even Luke and is trapped in an airless prison cell above the planet for his troubles.  (Although doesn't that violate the Judoon's "don't leave Earth" order?  You'd expect them to come in and arrest Ruby as an accessory...)  It shows that he's clever and loyal, and that it doesn't really matter -- a surprisingly bleak moment for the series.  The farewell message he leaves on his phone is also quite tragic (and he never finishes what he was going to say to Rani -- clearly the writers are playing with this Rani/Clyde thing).

But it's ultimately Rani and Luke who save the day (and hooray!  Tommy Knight's briefly back for more than just a computer screen cameo!), thwarting Ruby's plan to drain Sarah Jane and overloading her with all the excitement of 6 billion people at once.  It's a clever resolution, and we get a suitably sequel-hunting ending, as Ruby vows to get her revenge on the planet.  And the "splurge" on Clyde is a cute moment.

This is an entertaining story, to be sure, but it also has a surprising amount of vulnerability in it as well -- Elisabeth Sladen's performance is really fabulous, and she greatly helps sell the concept.  And while the other bits might feel a bit typical, they're at least done with great style and confidence.  As another story in the series this does really well; as an ending to series 4, Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith is a great choice to close out the run.

Series 4 has been another strong run for the show -- despite the reduced role of Tommy Knight this year, the stories they've been telling haven't suffered at all, and we've in fact gotten a chance to see Anjli Mohindra and Daniel Anthony get more of a focus as Rani and Clyde.  All this, anchored by the ever-reliable and highly watchable Lis Sladen, means that series 4 has maintained (and in some cases even improved) the high level of quality we've come to expect from The Sarah Jane Adventures.


223 The fact that the acronym for A Charitable Earth is ACE suggests that this is indeed the seventh Doctor companion -- as does the reference to "Dorothy something", a sly joke regarding the question of Ace's surname.  The story goes that the original intention was to give her the same last name as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, which would be Gale (and this makes sense in the larger context of the names in Dragonfire), but when Paul Cornell, writing the New Adventure No Future, asked someone what Dorothy's last name in The Wizard of Oz was, that someone misremembered it as "Bucket", so Cornell, in conjunction with Kate Orman -- who was working on the upcoming novel Set Piece -- chose "McShane" instead, as they weren't going to make Ace's last name be Bucket.  All fine and good until BBC Books got the novel licence --  at which point they commissioned Mike Tucker and Robert Perry to write a couple books.  Tucker and Perry, unaware of the "McShane" name chosen by the Virgin authors, went with the original intention of Gale -- which meant that for a while Ace was running around with two surnames, depending on who you asked.  Mark Michalowski eventually resolved this in his novel Relative Dementias by establishing her full name as Dorothy Gale McShane.