SJA Series 3 (Apr 9 - 11, Apr 13 - 14, Apr 16)

April 9: Prisoner of the Judoon Parts One & Two
April 10: The Mad Woman in the Attic Parts One & Two
April 11: The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith Parts One & Two
April 13: The Eternity Trap Parts One & Two
April 14: Mona Lisa's Revenge Parts One & Two
April 16: The Gift Parts One & Two

April 9: Prisoner of the Judoon Parts One & Two

And so now we move on from July 2009 and the events of Torchwood: Children of Earth207 and on to October 2009.  Series 3 of The Sarah Jane Adventures begins in much the same way as series 2 did, with an appearance of a Doctor Who alien.  But unlike The Last Sontaran, which was overtly a sequel to a Who story, Prisoner of the Judoon merely uses the Judoon for a brand-new story, involving an escaped criminal who crashed with his Judoon captor on Earth.

It's rather nice to have a story that focuses on the Judoon -- up to this point they've been generally relegated to the background, in favor of stories about plasmavores and disappearing planets, but here the Judoon are placed front and center, and we get to learn about their mindset and how they operate.  As such, it's quite a bit of fun following Captain Tybo around, as he insists on obeying all posted signs regarding traffic laws and "keep out" areas, but he has no problem shooting at people if he thinks they're breaking the law or obstructing the course of justice.  It sounds rather frightening, but writer Phil Ford and director Joss Agnew both do a good job of giving these scenes the right amount of lightness to make them seem funny rather than scary.

However, some of the best moments in Prisoner of the Judoon go to Elisabeth Sladen, who spends much of part one and just about all of part two being possessed by the escaped criminal, Androvax.  Sladen is clearly having a great time, playing an evil creepy alien, as she goes around threatening people and making plans to escape, thanks to some blueprints from a spaceship that crashed in 1947 Roswell that Mr. Smith happened to have on file.  (This is a reference to the animated Doctor Who special "Dreamland", which Phil Ford also wrote but which hadn't actually been broadcast at the time Prisoner of the Judoon went out.)  Sladen plays possessed Sarah in a much more slinky, sensual manner, which is particularly unsettling coming from Sarah Jane.  But what's also worth nothing is that Sladen plays this in a way that's different from her possession by Eldrad in The Hand of Fear -- not surprising, given that that was 33 years earlier, but it's still good to see a different take on a possessed Sarah Jane.  The way she seems to embrace being evil, as she looks forward to her upgraded nanoforms destroying Earth, is wonderfully villainous, and the moments where the possessed Sarah Jane speaks to the genuine Sarah Jane in reflections are well done without seeming too much like Gollum from Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Gita and Haresh are surprised by materializing Judoon.
(Prisoner of the Judoon Part Two) ©BBC
Plus we get some fun moments with Gita and Haresh Chandra in the Genetech facility, putting plants around the lobby and encountering aliens up close and personal for the first time ever.  (Presumably they know about aliens from the Daleks and such, but they probably didn't see them up close.)  These scenes are also played for laughs, as, after their initial encounter, Gita and Haresh spend most of their time dodging the Judoon as they try to make their way out of the building, looking panicked every time they run into them.  It's great fun.

Prisoner of the Judoon does a great job of reestablishing The Sarah Jane Adventures (well, that's what it seems like they're trying to do, what with Sarah Jane's speech at the top and tail) as a fun, quick-paced show.  In many ways this is, more than ever, setting itself up as the opposite to Torchwood, showing us that while there may be horror in the universe, there are also, as Sarah Jane states at the end, the most wondrous things: "Parts of the universe are dying all the time.  Planets, stars, people.  But the amazing part is that it isn't the end.  It's only the beginning of something new and exciting being born."  That sums up Prisoner of the Judoon (and The Sarah Jane Adventures) pretty well.

April 10: The Mad Woman in the Attic Parts One & Two

Finally!  A character named Adam in the 21st-century franchise who's a good person!

The framing story for this is...odd.  They've decided to give us a look fifty years into the future, where we see Rani as an old, lonely person, living in Sarah Jane's old place, as she explains to Adam how her life ended up this way.  But there's no clear reason at any point as to why this framing story is here in the first place; she doesn't remember things differently or have the power to change her past -- it's just the story of how Rani having a bad day cost her.

As far as bad days go, though, this one is pretty interesting, with Rani being called to the south coast of England by a former friend named Sam, who's found something strange at a closed-down amusement park that he thinks Rani should investigate.  Some homeless people are riding rides and doing little else, and the caretaker of the place isn't explaining what's going on.  But look, it's Elisabeth Sladen's husband, Brian Miller, as the caretaker!  (You might remember Brian Miller as the showman from Snakedance, or (possibly) one of the Dalek voice artists from the last two Dalek serials of the 1980s.)  It's rather nice to see them together on screen, even if they don't directly interact that much and the caretaker Harry is hindering Sarah Jane's investigation.

Eve starts to unleash her powers. (The Mad Woman in the
Part Two) ©BBC
Harry is covering up for a young alien woman called Eve, who's controlling the homeless people and having them enjoy "playtime".  She doesn't seem like an evil alien or anything -- she's simply lonely, as her planet was caught in the crossfire of a war (very strongly implied to be the Last Great Time War) and she was sent out on her own as a survivor.  As such, she's portrayed as a young woman who simply doesn't know any better, who's started to use these powers without understanding why they're wrong -- or, as we learn, that they'll kill her if left unchecked.

It's nice to have a story with a happy ending, and The Mad Woman in the Attic reveals that Eve's ship has been slowly repairing itself, while trying to get Eve to expend her energy in safe ways (with Harry's help), until the ship is ready to depart.  The ship can also show people their past and future (since Eve's people were time sensitives), which means, excitingly, we get clips of old Doctor Who episodes featuring Sarah Jane -- including The Five Doctors (which was important if you were one of the people arguing that The Five Doctors had been removed from the timeline in the wake of the Time War).  Plus we get a tantalizing hint of the future, as we see the TARDIS materializing in Sarah Jane's attic.

But yes, sorry, happy endings.  Eve isn't evil, and the ship uses her excess energy to finish repairing itself, along with that black hole K-9's been monitoring since the first episode, which means they can leave for other places.  It's a really lovely moment, made even sweeter by Eve's adoptive family, Harry and Sam, electing to go with her: she won't be lonely anymore.  The only odd bit is where the ship decides to remove Sarah Jane, Luke, and Clyde from the timeline in response to an offhand comment from Rani earlier -- "I wish they'd just leave me alone" -- which does feel strange in context, and even stranger when it's so easily fixed by Adam.  It's like they just wanted to show us the future with Rani happy with family in Sarah Jane's attic instead of the one where she's all alone, because it doesn't really fit with the rest of the story (even as we acknowledge the underlying "loneliness sucks" theme).

So The Mad Woman in the Attic is a sweet, lovely story about how great it is to have friends, even if they're sometimes not exactly what we want.  It's a well-constructed story with some fine performances, and other than the framing story this one's really firing on all cylinders.  Plus we finally get K-9 into the series proper!  (Presumably since Bob Baker has allowed them to have K-9 back, now that he's gotten his own K-9 spinoff show going and there won't be confusion as to which show is the K-9 one.)

Of course, the trailer for the next story looks even more incredibly thrilling -- Sarah Jane's getting married that the Doctor?!

April 11: The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith Parts One & Two

So we finally get a spin-off episode with the Doctor in it, and they treat him like an old-school monster in that he doesn't actually appear until the part one cliffhanger (although they keep tantalizing the audience with the sound of the TARDIS trying to materialize through the episode).

Fortunately Gareth Roberts is keenly aware of the fact that this is still The Sarah Jane Adventures, and thus we get a fun story about Sarah Jane getting married.  The first half definitely is fun; the espionage stuff at the beginning, where Luke, Rani, and Clyde are spying on Sarah Jane only to see that she's been going on dates, is rather wonderful, and the scenes with Rani and Clyde dealing with the alien that Sarah Jane bought on eBay (yes, really) while trying not to let Sarah Jane's beau Peter see what's going on are a good silly time.  Roberts keeps the sense of goodwill that these moments engender going for quite some time, but he also adds in the bit about the engagement ring causing Sarah Jane to change her mind, just to make sure that we haven't tuned in to the soap opera version of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The Doctor exhorts K-9 to locate Sarah Jane while Rani, Luke, and
Clyde look on. (The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith Part Two) ©BBC
But the thing that everyone is really waiting for is the appearance of the Doctor (and as the series 3 DVD cover notes, this story was filmed after Tennant's swansong in The End of Time), and he doesn't disappoint.  It's really wonderful to see Tennant take on the guest role here, as he tries to track down Sarah Jane and defeat the Trickster, who's back for a third time to try and get rid of Sarah Jane.  Roberts manages the trick of making the Doctor important in this episode but not the main focus (as it should be), which means that while we get some great scenes with the Doctor -- including a sly reference to Sarah Jane's name change ("Sarah Jane.  She doesn't like being called Sarah," Rani corrects the Doctor at one point.  "She does by me," the Doctor blithely replies) and some extra information about the Trickster ("The Trickster is a creature from beyond the universe," the Doctor tells the others.  "Forever trying to break in to our reality, manifest himself.  He's one of the Pantheon of Discord. ... He's an eternal exile, who exists to wreak havoc") -- the resolution of the events comes from Clyde and from Peter Dalton, who decides to give up his life in exchange for allowing Sarah Jane to live the life she wants to live, even though she still loves Peter.  "But I chose you because you didn't have the strength," the Trickster cries.  "You really don't know my Sarah Jane, do you?  She gave me the strength," Peter replies.

It is occasionally slightly odd to see the Doctor used in this manner, though; the styles of Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures aren't wildly different, but they're far enough apart that there are occasional moments where the Doctor's presence feels awkward -- it's as if we need to be reminded that this is still The Sarah Jane Adventures, and so the Doctor ends up praising Luke, Clyde, and Rani quite a bit, but in a way that rings slightly false.  Still, it doesn't happen often, and while there's the other oddity of the Doctor not being the focus of the story, that's easy enough to excuse after a moment or so.

So.  Gareth Roberts pulls off the difficult task of putting the Doctor in a spin-off show and not immediately unbalancing the story as a result, and he also gives us another diabolical plot from the Trickster and a resolution that pleasingly hinges on Sarah Jane's effect on people, rather than on the Doctor's presence.  The result is a fan-pleasing, high-quality tale that hits all the right notes and manages to make this more than just "the one with the Doctor in it" (even if that likely is how most people will remember it).  If only they'd managed to get Nicholas Courtney in as they'd originally hoped, this would have been almost perfect.  As it is, we'll have to settle for very good indeed.

April 13: The Eternity Trap Parts One & Two

Huh.  Tommy Knight (Luke) isn't in this story at all -- not even a quick cameo (apparently because he had GCSE exams).  But Floella Benjamin makes her third appearance as Professor Celeste Rivers of the Pharos Institute (she was also in The Lost Boy and The Day of the Clown), so that's something at least.

The Eternity Trap is designed as a game of two halves.  The first half is an effort to tell a standard ghost tale, with lots of spooky goings-on and such.  So we get inanimate things moving on their own, people who appear and disappear, and sounds that only certain people can hear.  I have to admit, while it seems like they do a pretty good job with all of this, I wasn't terribly enamored with it.  Perhaps I'm just not particularly interested in ghost stories, but I just kept waiting for them to get on with it.  My wife said she found it reasonably effective -- particularly the scenes in the nursery, with all the mechanical toys moving and such -- so I'm willing to believe it's just me.  They certainly do a good job of building up a tense atmosphere -- it's just not one I'm terribly interested in, so I'm just waiting for the explanations in part two.

Erasmus Darkening is confronted by Lord Marchwood. (The
Eternity Trap
Part Two) ©BBC
Unfortunately, the explanations that are provided aren't terribly interesting.  There's some technobabble about a transdimensional accelerator and how Erasmus Darkening is an alien who's been trapping people in the house for the last 344 years, but not enough is made of this: it's sufficient for them to say that it's actually science, not magic or anything paranormal, without delving into things.  This is a shame; if they'd explored the centuries-old electronics in the secret cellar a bit more, or done something clever with it, this might have become more special.  But no, Erasmus is defeated thanks to more technobabble (he's converted into electricity) and that's about it.

This is actually rather frustrating because there's quite a bit that's right about this.  The acting is almost all really good -- Donald Sumpter (who was in The Wheel in Space and The Sea Devils) is suitably threatening as Erasmus, while Callum Blue does a good job as the heroic Cavalier, Lord Marchwood.  And it's always lovely to see Professor Rivers again -- really, only Adam Gillen lets the side down a bit as Rivers' assistant Toby, who seems terrified of everything most of the time, rather than the intensely fascinated character the script wants.  But sadly, this seems like a story by the numbers; you may find the first half effective, but the resolution of The Eternity Trap is a damp squib that the story can't quite overcome, and the result is ultimately rather uninvolving.

April 14: Mona Lisa's Revenge Parts One & Two

This story is so absolutely daft in its central idea that it's hard not to love it.  It seems Leonardo da Vinci used some special alien paint from his fellow painter Giuseppe di Cattivo (not a real person) when he was painting (one of the copies of) the Mona Lisa, which somehow imbued the subject with life, after a sort.209  And when it gets close to another painting painted with that paint, it becomes alive somehow and starts terrorizing people.  As I said, it's daft, but they're clearly having so much fun with it that it's easy to be carried along with the spirit of things.

The Mona Lisa needs Mr. Harding's help to find her "brother".
(Mona Lisa's Revenge Part Two) ©BBC
This is definitely a good thing, because there's not actually enough story to sustain this over two episodes, so we get a long segment at the beginning about Clyde winning an art contest and then a number of chases sprinkled throughout.  But all the actors are very comfortable with their roles -- the regulars are all on top form (well, except for Luke's odd stammering insistence that they don't need Sarah Jane's help -- he's had a row with his mum, see) and clearly very comfortable in each other's presence, and all the guest stars are just as committed.  Jeff Rawle (who you might remember as Plantagenet in Frontios) does a fabulous job as the head of the International Gallery, Lionel Harding, who's both enamoured with the Mona Lisa and terrified of her when she comes to life.  ("I told them security had to be improved here," Harding laments after he thinks someone has stolen the Mona Lisa.  "I told them, after that Cup of Æthelstan fiasco at Easter," he adds, thus definitively placing this after "Planet of the Dead".)  And Suranne Jones is clearly having a blast as the Mona Lisa, threatening people with a Sontaran blaster she plucked out of a painting and generally having a good time putting people into paintings and trying to locate her "brother" (painted with the same paint), di Cattivo's The Abomination -- a painting so terrifying you can't even look at it.  The only odd thing is that Jones plays this in (presumably) her native Mancunian accent, which sounds incredibly strange coming out of an Italian painting.  But after a while you sort of get used to it.

There are lots of fun moments in Mona Lisa's Revenge -- the Dark Rider stalking Clyde, Rani, and Luke through the Gallery is a memorable image, but the sight of the Mona Lisa sticking her hand outside, only to see it turning to paint -- meaning she's still trapped, albeit in a larger space than before -- is really well realized.  And while the resolution is slightly odd (K-9 comes in to blast the Abomination away), Miss Trupp's utter rejection of Harding ("Mona Lisa dumped you, did she? ... Oh, I heard you.  'Mia bella.'  That trollop imprisoned me, and you were all over her.  You, you art tart!") is a great touch.

It's great to see this story so confident and self-assured in its own oddness that it doesn't feel the need to accommodate the viewers or meet them halfway.  Mona Lisa's Revenge is a charmingly bizarre tale that treats its subject as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and for an hour we believe them.  It's not an overtly flashy or gimmicky tale, but it's still a roaring success.

April 16: The Gift Parts One & Two

(I keep forgetting to mention how inappropriate it seems to have a trailer for Torchwood: Children of Earth (complete with Peter Capaldi saying "shit") on disc 2 of the region 1 release of series 3 -- but then I guess that tells you who BBC Worldwide think the North American audience is...)

The Gift provides us with our final major appearance of the Slitheen in any Doctor Who show to date (they get a small appearance in the series 4 opener of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but that's about it), but they make the most of it.  I like the way we start in media res, with the Slitheen about ready to turn the Earth into a giant diamond that they can sell (although this just makes me think about the ningi from The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where a ningi is "a triangular rubber coin six thousand eight hundred miles along each side", and thus no one has ever collected enough ningis to own a Triganic Pu).  I also like the fact that the Earth is saved not by Sarah Jane and the gang but by a different family of Raxacoricofallapatorians, the Blathereen -- you can tell they're different because they're orange, not green.  The Blathereen are on the side of justice, and they provide Sarah Jane with a gift to all mankind: a special plant called Rakweed that could be used as food, thus ending famine.

The Rakweed releases its spores. (The Gift Part One) ©BBC
Of course there's a problem with the Rakweed (did you really think there wouldn't be?), in that it reproduces at an incredibly accelerated rate and it puts people into comas.  This part is the primary thrust of the story, but in some ways it feels incidental to the main two storylines: the one where Sarah Jane confronts the Blathereen about the situation, and the one where Rani and Clyde are trapped in the school, unable to avoid the huge amounts of Rakweed outside.  Part of me was kind of hoping that the Blathereen were genuinely misunderstood, and the Rakweed problem was a mistake ("Whoops, didn't realize it was going to start attacking people"), but no, the Blathereen are revealed to actually be Slitheen-Blathereen (married into the family), and thus are as evil as all the other Raxacoricofallapatorians we've seen.  Their being addicted to Rakweed is kind of interesting as well, but other than that there's little to really distinguish their actions from the Slitheen.  The stuff with Clyde and Rani is more compelling, as there's an element of threat involved -- we see other students and teachers succumb to the Rakweed spores -- but it still feels straightforward and thus rather unexciting.  The way they learn how to defeat the Rakweed is pure chance, and thus Sarah Jane's repeated praise of how good they are feels undeserved.  (There's also the matter of the racism displayed toward the Blathereen, but this at least is called out in the story, even if the resolution worryingly seems to reinforce it.)

I dunno, there's not really anything wrong with The Gift; it does what it sets out to do reasonably well, and there are some nice moments along the way.  It just doesn't seem that exciting -- this feels like an older Sarah Jane script from series 2 that they dusted off and used, but the problem is that the show has since moved on.  The Sarah Jane Adventures is now a more sophisticated show, and The Gift is a throwback to a simpler time.  It's not a bad story by any means, but it is somewhat old-fashioned.

But this illustrates how much The Sarah Jane Adventures has evolved this series.  They're comfortable enough to do more unusual stories that rely on characters rather than plots, and when they gel they really gel.  It's telling that the weaker stories have been the more standard runarounds.  The Sarah Jane Adventures have really hit their stride, and it's a genuine pleasure to watch this show.  Keep it up, you guys.


207 There's a thought; were Luke, Clyde, and Rani affected by the 456?  What was Sarah Jane doing that week?  (Allowing for the fact that the British government weren't telling anyone what was actually going on -- but still, you'd think Sarah Jane would have been doing something -- particularly if Luke and company were affected.)
209 We have to assume that only one of the seven copies of the Mona Lisa (see City of Death if you've forgotten about the multiple versions) was painted with the alien paint, or else there would have been enough around to have activated it.  Bad luck that it was the alien paint version that survived the fire at Count Scarlioni's in 1979.