SJA Series 1 (Feb 6, Feb 23 - Feb 27)

February 6: "Invasion of the Bane"
February 23: Revenge of the Slitheen Parts One & Two
February 24: Eye of the Gorgon Parts One & Two
February 25: Warriors of Kudlak Parts One & Two
February 26: Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? Parts One & Two
February 27: The Lost Boy Parts One & Two

February 6: "Invasion of the Bane"

1 January 2007 was an exciting day for Doctor Who spinoff fans; not only did we get the last two episodes of series 1 of Torchwood, but we also got the first episode of the latest Doctor Who spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures, earlier in the day.  Note that "Invasion of the Bane" isn't a pilot though, even though it aired separately from the rest of the first series' episodes; the whole series was commissioned at once and it was planned at the outset that this would be a holiday special.

Now, when Russell T Davies first wanted to revive Doctor Who (long before they actually let him do it), his first pitch was reportedly for a low-budget version about a retired time-traveller who dealt with alien threats from a house on an ordinary street (rather than travelling through the universe and having to create a new alien world every week).  Knowing that, it's not hard to see how The Sarah Jane Adventures reuses that idea, with Sarah Jane in place of the Doctor.

The first thing that's obvious about "Invasion of the Bane" is how much less xenophobic it is than Torchwood.  Sarah Jane may initially be more cautious about getting other people involved in her life, but the first thing we see her doing is helping an alien head back home -- and not just any alien, but one from the same species as from the Torchwood episode "Greeks Bearing Gifts".  Sarah Jane seems to be a lot more open-minded than Captain Jack and his team.

The second thing that's obvious is that this is pitched more towards children than adults, with the other lead characters being teenagers.  Maria Jackson is shown to be a bit of loner by virtue of having just moved into the neighborhood, and while her dad is shown to be all right her mom is clearly pitched to be obnoxious and a bit oblivious.  (It's an odd divorce, though, that sees Chrissie constantly over at her ex-husband's place.)  Yet despite the emphasis on younger viewers, it's not talking down to them -- and the overall effect is one that adults can find entertaining as well.  It also helps that the script does a good job of slowly introducing the weirdness into things, as Maria sees Sarah Jane with the alien, and then heads to the Bubble Shock (a form of pop) factory to find more weirdness -- including a teenaged boy who doesn't seem to know anything.  Like I said, they do a good job of ramping everything up while introducing the main characters, rather than just thrusting the weirdness upon the audience and hoping they'll keep up.

Maria, Luke, Sarah Jane, and Kelsey in Sarah Jane's attic.
("Invasion of the Bane") ©BBC
One of the best moments, in fact, is after the Bane attacks Sarah Jane and the others in her home, at which point they find themselves in the attic.  It's a piece of exposition, plain and simple, but it's delivered really well by Elisabeth Sladen:
SARAH JANE: Aliens are falling to Earth all the time.  It's not just those stories you hear on the news.  All sorts of creatures.  Some have got lost, like the one you saw me sending home last night.  Some of them crash-land, and some of them want to invade. ...
MARIA: But how'd you get started?
SARAH JANE: I met this man.  A very special man, called the Doctor.  And years ago, we travelled together.
MARIA: In space?
SARAH JANE: Space, and time.  And then it came to an end, and suddenly I was back to a normal life.  Electric bills, burst pipes, bus tickets and rain. ... For years I tried to forget, and then I met him again, the Doctor.  We'd both changed, but it's funny because we were still both the same.  And I learnt I could carry on here on Earth, doing what we always did.  That's when I started this.  I began my life again.
It's lovely and sweet and a far cry from "the 21st century is when it all changes and you've got to be ready."  Torchwood plays on fears; The Sarah Jane Adventures, it seems, play on hope.

Of course, this is a Doctor Who spin-off, so we do get an alien invasion from a species called the Bane, who are putting a part of themselves into Bubble Shock so that they can take over the world (for some reason -- it's not actually quite clear what they want).  And yes, it's really hard not to think of the episode of Futurama where Fry learns what's really in his favorite drink Slurm -- I wonder if Russell T Davies and/or Gareth Roberts were aware of that when they were writing this.  But it's still nicely done (and I love the design of the Bane -- bizarre without being laughable).

In fact, if you wanted a spin-off of Doctor Who that was actually somewhat like its parent show, you could do a lot worse than "Invasion of the Bane", which shows that there's actually quite a bit of life even in a more limited format like this.  It's certainly a lot closer to the spirit of Doctor Who, and none of the main characters are particularly irritating.  (Well, except Kelsey, but she appears to be designed to be annoying -- and this is her only appearance anyway.)  There's a sense of affection in the writing and the direction, and it's absolutely wonderful to see Sarah Jane Smith out on her own, standing up for the right causes and not under anyone's shadow.  If the rest of the series is like this, The Sarah Jane Adventures will be quality entertainment.

February 23: Revenge of the Slitheen Parts One & Two

It's been three months since "Last of the Time Lords", and nearly ten months since "Invasion of the Bane", but it's finally time to return to Bannerman Road and The Sarah Jane Adventures.  And you might get a blast of nostalgia as you note that we're now getting multi-part (well, 2, but still) adventures with 25-minute installments, just like 20th-century Doctor Who.  (And if that's not enough nostalgia for you, you can spend time looking at all the things in the background in Sarah Jane's attic: there's a book on UNIT and lots of drawings of Doctor Who things, like the old sonic screwdriver, the TARDIS, and, intriguingly, the Jagaroth spaceship from City of Death.  Oh, and writer Gareth Roberts has one of the Slitheen namedrop the Wallarians, as mentioned in Carnival of Monsters.)

The Slitheen decide what to do about Sarah Jane. (Revenge of
the Slitheen
Part Two) ©BBC
We get some more recent nostalgia as well, as the Slitheen are brought back.  They seem rather more at home in a school than in Downing Street, which is both a positive and a drawback, as they're not quite as grotesquely incongruous and threatening here.  But the farts seem to gain more notice from the students, which is somewhat entertaining.  These Slitheen seem just as villainous as the bunch we saw in Doctor Who, but now they have the added motivation of revenge against the planet for the deaths of their family members.  Their plan is a little odd, though; they want to drain all the energy from the Earth and the sun, put into giant batteries, and then sell it off.  It looks like it takes an incredible amount of effort to make this happen -- the Slitheen must really want revenge.

The other major event in these two episodes is the introduction of Clyde Langer, a fellow boy from school who, like Maria and Luke, has also just started school in a new place.  Clyde is cocky and self-confident and perhaps trying a bit too hard to be cool, but he quickly fits in with Maria and Luke, and he's certainly significantly less frustrating a character than Kelsey was in "Invasion of the Bane".  He certainly copes with all the new alien stuff a lot better, and he does help in figuring out the Slitheen's weakness.  Daniel Anthony does a good job of making Clyde likeable while he's skeptically learning about aliens and then running away from them.  (And his face when the one Slitheen explodes on him and Maria is great.)

It's not an incredible standout episode, but it's fun while it lasts and serves to reintroduce everyone and the basic format of The Sarah Jane Adventures.  It's certainly never dull, and while it may not be memorable, it's still entertaining while it lasts to see everyone in action, running around schools and fighting aliens.  The Sarah Jane Adventures are off to a good start.

February 24: Eye of the Gorgon Parts One & Two

This is another pleasantly charming episode that doesn't happen to be particularly memorable, but is fun while it lasts.  What's perhaps most striking about Eye of the Gorgon is how much it feels at times like a synthesis of Tom Baker-era Who and children's television -- but that synthesis never feels that awkward.

Luke and Clyde are accosted by some unfriendly nuns. (Eye of
the Gorgon
Part One) ©BBC
The Who bits are the basic setup of the main plotline.  There's a sense of following in the footsteps of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, as we're introduced to an ancient alien artifact that has ties to ancient Earth history, and Greek mythology in particular.  Much like those '70s stories used mythology and older stories and had them inspired by something alien and dangerous, writer Phil Ford does the same thing here, with the Gorgons (not the Quark villains189) being aliens who want to come to Earth and colonize the place via humanity -- although it's not clear why it's taken them three thousand years to get to this point.  (The plot seems to want us to conclude it's because the talisman was lost, but this is never actually stated.)  Mixed in with this we get sinister nuns protecting the Gorgon while it prepares to take over the world (although full marks for making the nuns actually under the thrall of the Gorgon and not actually intrinsically evil), and an old abbey with secret passages.  (Actually, it's not a million miles away from The Abominable Snowmen, either -- and look, the Yeti get a namecheck in part two.)  If they'd decided to actually go full bore on the scarier aspects of this setup, they'd have had a pretty scary episode.  But this is kids' TV (as opposed to Doctor Who, which often gets lumped with children's television but is actually designed for a family audience), so they can't go that far.

And because this is targeted towards children, we get some elements that would be decidedly out of place in Doctor Who.  Maria's mother Chrissie is really rather awful by way of being completely self-absorbed and oblivious to the larger world (to be clear, this is obviously a character point, and Juliet Cowan does a good job with what she's given) -- she doesn't consider what moving into her ex-husband's new house for a few days will do to her daughter, and she wanders around Sarah Jane's property looking for Maria, rather than just calling her.  (This comes after the last story, where she was convinced that she was the common element to all the weird things happening since Maria met Sarah Jane.)  And the petrification of Maria's dad in the part one cliffhanger does feel more tilted towards younger viewers than older.

But that doesn't detract from this story in any way.  As I said, if there's a problem with Eye of the Gorgon, it's that it's rather unmemorable.  It's fun while it lasts (and Phyllida Law gives a great performance as the Alzheimer's-afflicted Mrs. Nelson-Stanley -- incidentally, I think this is the first mention of Sontarans in the BBC Wales stuff), and the Gorgon is a nice idea, but it's not scary enough or striking enough to stay in the memory.  Still, that's not the worst of sins by any means, and it's nice to have a Who idea like this, even if they pull their punches a bit.

February 25: Warriors of Kudlak Parts One & Two

Now we're getting into it!  This story is where The Sarah Jane Adventures starts to really distinguish itself from its sibling shows, as we're presented with a scenario and plotline that naturally fits into this show in a way that it's hard to imagine Doctor Who or Torchwood pulling off quite as well.

In Warriors of Kudlak, writer Phil Gladwin gives us a storyline inspired by things like The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game, with children being recruited to fight in a war based on how well they do in a game.  It's not the most original plot ever, but it's also a plot that's never been done by televised Doctor Who or one of its spin-offs, so that's not really a problem.  Besides, Gladwin does a good job of balancing the two storylines -- Clyde and Luke playing the game and getting recruited, and Sarah Jane and Maria investigating a missing child that seems to lead to the place where Clyde and Luke are -- so you never feel bored with either one.  All the regulars continue to be excellent -- we're a long way from the exaggerated and/or wooden acting you occasionally get in these shows (stand up, K-9) -- but Daniel Anthony in particular has a great energy and charm as Clyde.  It's great to watch them all together.

General Kudlak learns he's been duped. (Warriors of Kudlak
Part Two) ©BBC
But let's be honest; the star of this story has got to be Chook Sibtain as Mr. Grantham.  He is clearly having a great time playing this character, and you can't help but be entertained as well.  But it helps that he's still taking this all seriously; even when he is acting in an exaggerated manner, it feels like a natural part of the character, so you're never pulled completely out of the story.  But it's his interactions with, well, everyone, that make this story great.  It also helps that Clyde and Luke are being proactive and trying to break everyone out of the crates they're being held in -- it means that while Sarah Jane and Maria are investigating and dealing with Grantham, they're not just waiting helplessly.  And General Kudlak, of the Uvodni race, is a great-looking alien (although the decision to dress him in a red peacoat, maybe not so much).  They also do a great job of making the two storylines neatly dovetail, with Sarah Jane and Maria teleported aboard the Uvodni ship to rescue the kidnapped children.

But the decision that really makes this story stand out is the fate of General Kudlak.  Once he realizes that he's been duped (well, sort of; it was actually a programming error, it seems, but it comes out to the same thing), he's surprisingly contrite and gracious -- and he's even willing to make amends by trying to find other children he'd press ganged into service and bringing them back home.  It's the sort of ending that you simply can't imagine Torchwood (or even, to an extent in this era, Doctor Who) doing -- but Warriors of Kudlak pulls it off with ease, and we get a happy ending with no one dead, and that missing kid Lance back home, ready to be great instead of dying in an alien war.  "Well, after today, he might want to be an astronaut," Sarah Jane says.  "Be the first man on Mars.  The first human man on Mars, that is."190

It's a fun story, with some great characters and a good plot, and a happy ending to boot.  It's actually a bit of shame that Phil Gladwin never wrote for the show again -- he clearly has a good handle on the characters and knows what makes a good story.  Warriors of Kudlak shows The Sarah Jane Adventures beginning to really find its stride.

February 26: Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? Parts One & Two

Following on the heels of Warriors of Kudlak, we get another good story.  Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? is the sort of story you'd think Doctor Who would have done by now (changing a timeline and seeing the results), but, while it's been threatened a lot as the motivation behind other stories, we've never really seen the effects of such a change (other than that moment in Pyramids of Mars with the barren, ruined Earth).  Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, on the other hand, decides to play with this idea -- admittedly in a minor way (as the Trickster arranges things such that the only meaningful difference that results from Sarah Jane's removal from established history is the impending meteor crash that Sarah Jane was going to prevent), but still in an interesting one.

One of the nice consequences of this (in real world terms) is that it gives a chance for Yasmin Paige to take center stage as Maria, as she's the only one who remembers Sarah Jane after the Trickster changes history (thanks to an alien cube that Sarah Jane gave her).  After being totally confused by the presence of a woman named Andrea Yates in Sarah Jane's house, and combined with the fact that no one besides her remembers Sarah Jane or Luke, Maria figures out that this is because Sarah Jane and Andrea traded places during an accident when they were both 13 -- Andrea was supposed to have died, but Sarah Jane seems to have taken her place.  Maria shines in this roll, railing against everyone, trying to figure out what happened, and being incredibly angry that no one else remembers Sarah Jane.  It's a great showcase of her talents.  And Maria's dad (as played by Joseph Millson) also gets the opportunity to stand out -- first by trying to humor Maria but being totally bewildered (and a little concerned) by her behavior, and then by being placed in the same position as Maria was in, once the Trickster takes her away.  And he gets to outwit a Graske, which is a lot of fun too.

Alan and Maria look as Andrea decides to defy the Trickster.
(Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? Part Two) ©BBC
Another nice thing about this story is Jane Asher as Andrea.  Asher (who's probably still best known as Paul McCartney's one-time fiancée, but as far as Who fans go played Susan Foreman in the 1994 BBC Radio 4 play Whatever Happened to Susan Foreman? (which can be found on the Dalek Invasion of Earth DVD if you're interested)) does a great job of playing a character who starts to remember that she made a desperate bargain with the Trickster, and tries to keep it going until she realizes that the world needs Sarah Jane more than it needs her.  Andrea is shown to be not so much evil as simply human, desperate to cling to her life but ultimately willing to make the greater sacrifice, and Asher does a great job of getting this across.  It's also interesting how Andrea had forgotten about Sarah Jane's death (albeit probably because of the deal she struck), but Sarah Jane had never forgotten about Andrea's death -- and in fact cited it as one of the defining moments of her life.  This seems to be the moment that finally clinches it for Andrea, and it's played very well.

It's a good, solid story, and writer Gareth Roberts does a great job of taking what could have been a clichéd and tedious idea and turns it into something more interesting.  He's aided by Graeme Harper's direction, which gives a lot of impetus to these proceedings.  The Trickster is a great creation -- and it's a simple but creepy mask -- and it's hardly surprising that he would go on to be one of the Sarah Jane Adventures' recurring foes.  This is a story that works on almost every level -- even Maria's mom Chrissie isn't that annoying.

Plus we get a great cliffhanger -- Alan now knows about aliens and supercomputers, and demands an explanation from Sarah Jane and the gang...

February 27: The Lost Boy Parts One & Two

And so here we are, the series 1 finale of The Sarah Jane Adventures, and the focus is on Luke.  Apparently he's actually a missing boy named Ashley, and once Sarah Jane finds out she has no choice but to turn him over to his parents -- even though he really doesn't want to go.  Mr. Smith confirms that Luke is Ashley, with the implication being that the Bane abducted a boy and did some surgery and mental conditioning on him, rather than just growing a human clone like we all thought.  This part of the story seems awfully fishy, but it never seems like writer Phil Ford ever expects us to believe that Luke is really this missing boy -- there's a gesture toward it near the beginning, but this is soon set aside in favor of more interesting things.  It is, however, genuinely a surprise to see that the aliens behind this elaborate plot are the Slitheen -- the slimline suits are a good move, throwing the viewers off the trail.  Of course, they're working for something called the Xylok -- although, oddly, the child Slitheen from Revenge of the Slitheen seems to be the one in charge.
Alan, Maria, Sarah Jane, and the Slitheen watch the moon being
pulled into the Earth. (The Lost Boy Part Two) ©BBC

It's an interesting move, making Mr. Smith secretly a villainous alien all along.  This sort of "traitor" storyline tends not to work very well when shows attempt it, but this one is surprisingly effective -- after all, who would think the computer would be the villain?  And they handle it well, turning Mr. Smith into the sort of gloating villain that Sarah Jane often fights, but they still manage to have their cake and eat it too, by infecting Mr. Smith with a virus that deletes the Xylok aspect of his personality while still allowing Sarah Jane to use all the useful bits.  And we get K-9 back for a bit!  He's fighting off Mr. Smith while Sarah Jane puts in the virus (another reason why you shouldn't set your CD drive default to "Auto-Play"), thus stopping Mr. Smith from smashing the moon into the Earth and releasing the dormant Xylok.

It's also cool how the show decides to handle Alan Jackson having learned about aliens and such at the end of last episode.  He initially overreacts, declaring his intentions to move, but he's awfully quick to accept it and get involved in the action.  (It also means he's even more sympathetic toward Maria and her friends when Chrissie tries to separate them.)  It's really nice to see another person drawn into this world, and it's great that it's Alan.  (Pity, then, that he and Maria only have one more story left.)

So The Lost Boy isn't the most exciting plot, and the moon collision stuff is a bit strange, but what really makes this story work is the character dynamics between all the regulars.  It's a lot of fun to watch Clyde defend Luke and try to work out what's going on, and it's just as interesting to see Maria pull her dad into this and find evidence that the story about Ashley isn't what they think ("Maria, I told you, I don't want you here," Sarah Jane tells Maria, trying to distance herself emotionally.  "They're not Luke's parents, they're Slitheen," Maria replies matter-of-factly).  These relationships are what make The Lost Boy work so well.

But then that's largely been the case for this entire first series.  What The Sarah Jane Adventures have really done well is develop the main characters and make us care about them.  Elisabeth Sladen does an outstanding job as Sarah Jane, providing a wiser, older voice to counterbalance the younger members (although the writers do have trouble not making her seem just like the Doctor at times).  And happily, the people they've gotten in to play Maria, Luke, and Clyde are all first-rate talents -- it never feels forced or painful to watch.  Throw in some satisfying storylines (even if they tend to be rather light and breezy -- but that's not a bad thing either) and the result is a fine first series, and a much better claim to following in Doctor Who's footsteps than series 1 of Torchwood could make.


189 I assume there are about six people who understood that reference.  To everyone else, my apologies; carry on.
190 Setting aside the fact that Sarah Jane has been on Mars in Pyramids of Mars (since that hardly counts as official)... what about The Ambassadors of Death?  One of the opening lines notes that Mars Probe 7 "took off from Mars manually", so there were definitely people aboard.  And it's not like Sarah doesn't know this; even if you try to suggest that she didn't know about Mars Probe 7 (highly unlikely, given her background and the fact that Michael Wisher kept giving us live television updates of the mission's progress), you have to deal with the fact that The Android Invasion has her doing a profile of Guy Crawford right before he made his Jupiter mission -- so no, it's not very likely.  So what happened to those '70s Mars missions?
     (All right, here's a fig leaf: if you assume that Mars Probe 7 was the first of the Mars Probe missions to actually land on Mars -- not implausible, as the first moon landing took place in Apollo 11 -- but that the alien spaceship intercepted the craft before it landed (after all, it had already made contact with humanity via Mars Probe 6 and thus might have been waiting for a return visit) and that they landed the craft for some reason but without any humans on board and then faked a twelve-hour broadcast from the surface of Mars (maybe so as not to freak out Earth's general population), then maybe no person has actually set foot on Mars yet.  You have to have humanity learn this somehow (so that Luke doesn't say to Sarah Jane, "Wait, what about Frank Michaels?"), and also to have them decide that Mars is out (which is plausible after the events of The Ambassadors of Death) but maybe Jupiter is worth checking out.  No, it's not very satisfying, is it?)