“I saw amazing things out there in space. But there’s strangeness to be found wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure, too. You just need to know where to look…”
After successfully reviving the once long-dead staple of UK television, Russell T. Davies then set out to expand the franchise, creating “Torchwood,” a sort of Earthbound “Doctor Who” for grown-ups only, what with all the naughty language and extra violence and gorgeous omnisexual heroes quipping about. It worked, and then some, which paved the way for Davies’ other spin-off idea: a kid-friendly series following the new adventures of former companion Sarah Jane Smith. Again, it worked. And then some.
“The Sarah Jane Adventures” actually began as a completely different concept: BBC executives approached Davies with the possibility of a show following the Doctor’s teenage years. Davies balked at the idea, stating such a program would deflate the mystery of the Doctor’s secret past, then countered with another possibility: Sarah Jane Smith.
Elisabeth Sladen’s lengthy tenure on “Doctor Who” (from 1973 to 1976) made her Sarah Jane one of the most beloved characters from the classic run of the series, and she was no stranger to returning to the franchise. In the early 1980s, she starred in the failed spin-off “K-9 and Company” and appeared as one of the returning companions in the anniversary special “The Five Doctors.” In the 90s, she revived the character for a string of audio plays for radio and CD. Then came Davies’ “Who” revival, and with it the brilliant episode “School Reunion,” which brought Sarah Jane and the new Doctor (and K-9!) together for a ripping adventure tinged with bittersweet emotion, as Toby Whithouse’s script dared ask what becomes of the Doctor’s traveling companions once he leaves them behind.
From that episode, we learned that Sarah Jane, still as curious as ever, returned to a life of journalism, but the years she spent hopping through time and space left her with a taste for adventure – and, more importantly, a desire for justice. Like the Torchwood gang, Sarah Jane fights the good fight right at home, so whenever evil aliens or mad monsters strike and the Doctor’s not around to save the day, good ol’ Sarah Jane Smith will do the job.
What Davies and co-writer Gareth Roberts do in the pilot episode “Invasion of the Bane” (aired as a New Year’s special in January 2007, frustratingly months before the series would officially premiere in September of that year) is create a new family for Sarah Jane. Rather than send her out on her own, the writers give her teenage cohorts – which allows the series to be told from a younger point of view, to which its target audience can relate. “Bane” is told through the eyes of 13-year-old Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige), who just moved into a new house with her dad (Joseph Millson) following her parents’ messy divorce. Across the street lives the mysterious Sarah Jane Smith, a friendly but strange lady who keeps to herself – and, as Maria discovers one fateful night, also talks to aliens.
When a bossy new friend (Porsha Lawrence-Mavour, whose obnoxious character would mercifully be dropped from the remainder of the series) convinces Maria to go on a tour of a new energy drink factory – the idea is to get free samples and enjoy a cheap day out – the girl uncovers an alien plot to take over the world. Naturally, this means Sarah Jane is already on the case, and that’s when Maria discovers what wonders lie in Sarah Jane’s world.
Sarah Jane’s attic serves as a base of operations, packed with wondrous alien technology, chief among them Mr. Smith, a talking supercomputer (voiced by Alexander Armstrong) disguised as a transforming fireplace. (One imagines children everywhere calling out to their hearths with Sarah Jane’s catchphrase command, “Mr. Smith, I need you!”) Lest we forget about the character’s origins, we also get a glimpse of her own sonic screwdriver (disguised as a lipstick) and, of course, robot dog K-9, who drops in for cameos that bookend the series, and whose absence through the rest of the season is explained away with clever efficiency.
(While K-9’s disappearance was officially due to attempts to give the character his own animated show which would conflict with “Sarah Jane,” it’s nice to see the producers opting to limit the overuse of a character who could essentially solve any problem, any time. Without K-9 – and with such gimmicks as the “sonic lipstick” kept to a reasonable minimum – the writers are often forced to make the characters rely on their wits, which makes for a far more interesting and rewarding show.)
Maria rescues a peculiar boy (Tommy Knight) from the factory’s depths, and she and Sarah Jane later discover that he’s no ordinary teen at all, but a creation of those villainous aliens, the Bane. The boy is the result of a wicked experiment that gives him the intelligence of ten thousand humans, yet he’s essentially a blank slate, knowing nothing of the world. After thwarting the Bane, Sarah Jane decides to adopt the boy, naming him Luke.
It’s another ingenious move on the producers’ part. If Maria is a surrogate for the young audience, Luke is a chance to riff on teen culture. He misuses slang, gets jokes wrong, and never understands why kids do anything. For the most part, it’s all for a laugh, or perhaps to kickstart the plot (his naïveté leads to plenty of trouble). Every now and then, however, his curiosity raises larger questions, as in “Warriors of Kudlak,” in which a “Laser Tag”-style gaming center is actually a trap, where aliens kidnap teens to fight in their real intergalactic war. Before the evil plot is uncovered, Luke questions the intent of the game. Why do children enjoy playing war? Why is it fun to pretend to kill? Later, the aliens show no distinction between playing war and fighting the real thing, and writer Phil Gladwin confidently refuses to resolve the question. He knows that kids watching know the difference – like all best family programming, “Sarah Jane” has great faith in the intelligence of its younger viewers – but then challenges them to construct their own answers.
Such a viewpoint is perhaps the series’ strongest attribute. Instead of simply offering dumbed-down adventures at a faster pace, the producers filter smart sci-fi tales through the eyes of teens yet keeps them bursting with brains and emotion. (As such, older viewers are just as likely to have a great time as younger ones.) The writers are eager to blend wild genre concepts with themes to which kids can relate – divorced parents, trouble at school, etc.
And through it all, there is Sarah Jane. Sladen hasn’t lost her charm in the years since “Doctor Who,” but more importantly, she now carries an air of authority. No longer just a companion, she commands the screen – yet does so without overshadowing her supporting cast. (For the record: Paige and Millson are charming, Daniel Anthony – as Maria’s brash-ye-helpful pal Clyde – makes for a great sidekick of the Mickey Smith mold, and Knight is downright perfect as the eccentric, almost alien, Luke.) Sarah Jane has always been an exceptional character, even when those old “Doctor Who” scripts called for her to be a screaming damsel in distress, but her evolution into this older, wiser adventurer is one of the great character revivals in television. Here, she’s den mother, big sister, counselor, friend, neighbor, agent of justice, and voice of reason (her abhorrence of violence and military brutishness, mirrored by similar views on the current “Doctor Who,” is quite welcome) all rolled into one. One look at Sladen in such a role, and it’s easy to see why Sarah Jane, above all others, was chosen to return.