From DWM #441. I wanted to write something robust, not maudlin, despite the obvious shadow hanging over this final series of SJA – and that’s why I kept the Elisabeth Sladen stuff till the end. Particularly as I knew the previous issue was a special in tribute to her.
Re-reading the review now, though, that final line – which is an echo of the final onscreen caption – does still feel a bit too loaded.
If ever there was a programme that could resist the pressures of posterity, The Sarah Jane Adventures was it. Yeah, ‘was’. It’s horrid to be talking about it in the past tense, but there it is… Was.
Returning to TV for its final half-marathon, we older viewers couldn’t help but anticipate this series with a sense of melancholy. The chimneybreast in the attic, now parting only as a prelude to Mr Smith’s final fanfare. Every disapproving head-scratch from Haresh foreshadowing his last harrumph. Each of Clyde’s groansome gags counting up to the concluding page of his joke book. And there was Sarah Jane herself, with just a handful of soliloquies left to deliver to us under the stars.
But, what nonsense! Just like the four series, one pilot episode and one One Ronnie-starring Comic Relief special that preceded the final run, this year’s offerings are brimming with vitality and vigour. Any glum thoughts are impossible to sustain once we’re back on Bannerman Road. It makes fun of the notion these three stories could be interpreted as a kind of elegy. Because even in its ultimate hours, The Sarah Jane Adventures is just about that – adventures. It’s a show that champions living life to the full, trying your best, going for it… the here and now. So much so, we’ve slipped from the past to the present tense. And it feels much better.
The first story, Sky, gives us a glimpse of how SJA would have evolved had circumstances played fairer. It makes a sensible concession to the fact that this series has laudably allowed its young cast to grow up on screen. With Clyde and Rani in sixth form and Luke at university, there’s no-one of a CBBC-watching age left in the ensemble. Thus, Sarah Jane is gifted a new youngster, a talented but naïve ‘star child’ to bring up as her own.
It’s very much a retread of Luke’s own origin story, with an Alexis Colby-wannabe of a mum engineering an offspring’s creation for her own nefarious means. But that isn’t really an issue. The 12-year-old helps the show refocus on its core audience and allows the series to be introduced almost anew through her eyes. It’s a valid enough reason to repeat the concept – plus, the two characters’ similarity is actually addressed later in the run.
“Welcome to the Bat Cave!” joshes Clyde, as she ascends to the attic. He and Rani are no longer our feckless newbies, now they’re the seen-it-all-before older siblings. But, alas, this viewer didn’t warm to Sky quite as much as the rest of the gang. To be fair, they’ve all got years on her, so it’s little wonder she feels a bit stage school. Plus, being the new girl is always tricky, let alone rising to the challenge of working the “What’s pizza?” (and variants thereof) gag. So let’s not pile it on.
Instead we’ll pour on the cliché, and one of the truisms about The Sarah Jane Adventures is that it feels like Doctor Who of old. Sorry. Can’t put an interesting spin on that, because it just does. Aside from the 25-minute episodes and multipart stories, foes such as the Metalkind are exactly the sort of unsophisticated baddy the original series often brought us, back in the day. Their purpose is to stomp and slowly give chase. Plus, turn invisible when that’ll help the budget. They come with no other high-concept, except – maybe – to look a little bit awesome.
But it doesn’t start and finish there. Every SJA story is a morality tale. Phil Ford’s script brings us the Metalkind vs the Fleshkind, and the insanity (not to mention inanity) of racial conflict. This is what the Daleks vs the Thals might have looked like if they’d been conceived today… and told to carry out their skirmish in a combat zone annexed on one side by The Story of Tracy Beaker. “War is ended by people talking,” says Sarah Jane, ladling it on a mite too gloopily, but it’s still a worthwhile sentiment. Here’s hoping a least one playground punch-up has been diverted by its repetition.
That’s not to say the learning element is sequenced too high in the mix. Not at all. There are some terrific moments of action – that massive opening explosion in the scrapyard – and some fabulously naughty jokes – Rani exclaiming: ‘If I start asking Mum questions about how to look after a baby, she’ll totally freak!” This is The Sarah Jane Adventures taking care of business. Well almost. The arrival of the Shopkeeper and the Captain at the end only serves to leave us hanging. We’re told a revelation about who they are will come “all in good time”. But of course that will never be…
… Although your DWM reviewer has a theory. I’m fairly certain the Captain is actually the White Guardian in a new guise, one that represents the ultimate expression of his love for the aviary. As for his once black-clad counterpart, he’s now styling himself as the Trickster. Oh, it all makes sense, and I challenge you to prove me wrong, you whimpering wraiths!
The Curse of Clyde Langer
Phil Ford’s second script is an absolute beauty – and possibly the finest 50 minutes the show has ever brought us. Everything about it feels impressively honed. That Clyde’s opening address to camera (“Where were you the day of the storm?”) actually presages a moment later in the story is just the first of its many delights.
Here are all the strengths of SJA writ large. A tale that can bring a deftness of touch to the incalculably sad topic of homeliness, it evokes almost the entire debate in just one short exchange: “Why did she want money?” Sky asks when Clyde hands cash over to street girl Ellie. “Cos she’s a scrounger,” he replies. “Why did you give her some?” is the next question. “Cos it’s probably not her fault.” Superbly economical writing.
The story, obviously, belongs to Daniel Anthony’s Clyde, but it’s fascinating to see how those around him have defined his character. Daniel’s onscreen rapport with Anjli Mohindra (Rani) is never better, as they banter and trade insults in the early scenes (she flashing him the ‘Loser’ sign). The depth of his sadness, when that curse kicks in and Rani turns her back on Clyde, is superbly played. Similarly his encounters with Sarah Jane, and Elisabeth Sladen’s shockingly venomous portrayal of her character’s sudden surge of hatred. When Clyde later spots Sarah in the museum and realises: “I’m going to have to go,” the sense of resignation – coupled with the realisation he’s now utterly isolated – is tremendously affecting.
But it doesn’t stop there. In short order, we then see our hero in a genuinely threatening confrontation with his former friend Steve (no wisecracks here, or fun escape plans), before an equally harrowing encounter back home with his mother. “Mum! I love you! Please don’t do this!” Such plaintive words, and how loudly they must resonate with the core audience. It all speaks of a show in full pomp – scripts written to draw out every facet of the cast and the format, confident everything about SJA is equal to the challenge.
The second episode of the adventure tops even that, as it delves deeper into the subject of homelessness. Once again, the genius lies in the brevity. Ellie (a brilliantly ‘real’ portrayal from Lily Loveless) telling Clyde she ended up on the street because: “My mum married again. Let’s just say it didn’t work out for me.” It’s what’s left unsaid that chills. That she and Clyde build up a tentative romance and then are left estranged at the end of the story is astonishingly brave. The curse of Hetocumtek, be damned. This is the thing that will haunt us for years to come.
Fittingly, though – cos it is her show, after all – Sarah Jane gets the very best line. Surveying the cardboard city that’s become a refuge for her friend, she sighs, “The most alien world of all is right here.” Her impotence is exactly the right note for the programme to hit. One could speculate there would be some pressure to provide a more reassuring pay-off. This is kids’ TV, right? But it would have been horribly glib to cast poverty from our thoughts with a twist of the sonic lipstick.
The Man Who Never Was
From the urban psychodrama of The Curse of Clyde Langer, the final two episodes plonk us into the heart of Gareth Roberts-Land, and the nuttier end of town, to boot. Although Roberts has provided some of the series’ more elegiac stories (Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? and The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith both come to mind), he’s also brought us its most rumbustious efforts (Revenge of the Slitheen, Secrets of the Stars).
The Man Who Never Was is defiantly in the latter camp, presenting a slightly bonkers, slightly heightened world, and yet another tale that revolves around that stalwart of children’s drama: The latest craze! In this instance, that’s particularly well-timed; scenes of Joseph Serf portentously talking up his SerfBoard aired just days after Apple’s release of its own annoyingly grammatically-styled iPhone 4s. Plus, a software upgrade that had Appleytes fretting into the wee small hours when, in rather an SJA-like turn of events, their contacts blinked out of existence: “Everyone I know, gone!” (But seriously, Apple, once, I managed to restore my phone from back-up, iOS5 turned out to be smashing).
A lovely old runaround, the tale comes with oodles of added value. And not just the satire on the late Steve Jobs. There’s the obvious stuff, like one-eyed Munchkins, the Skullions, who are operating their own-brand version of the Teselecta, and the wickedly funny “GRAB HARRISON’S P-E-N… full-stop” gag. Plus, James Dreyfus’ John Harrison is sublime, a B-list baddy who’s only in it for the money and the tart put-downs (“I expected high-class industrial spies, not Mumsnet!”). Alongside all of that, there’s Peter Bowles as Sarah’s old acquaintance, smoothy Lionel Carsons. He’s underused, sure, but someone who encourages us to imagine a bit of saucy past for our heroine. How marvellous. I also particularly enjoyed Clyde and Rani attempting to second-guess the plot, speculating they were going to end up with people walking down the road chanting: “Serve the computer!”
But what this story is really about is reconciling the different generations in the Smith household, as Luke and Sky concede that even though they each essentially serve the same plot points, there’s room for ‘em both in this crazy old show.
This review, you may have noticed, has so far gone light on talking about Elisabeth Sladen. That’s because, to me, it’s felt right to hold back my thoughts on her until this point. I want to consider her contribution to the Sarah Jane Adventures as a whole. Well, if I can.
As the series’ lead, one feels she set the pace all along. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that all the glories and all the fun we’ve treasured over the years have been reflections of Elisabeth. This programme’s strength has come from cast and crew trying to be equal to her, and to Sarah Jane Smith.
However, that’s been a symbiotic relationship, the actress responding in kind with some beautiful work. In Sky, for example, there’s a lovely, poignant moment when she’s talking to Luke through videoconference. “Love you,” she offers, but he’s already disconnected and she rolls her shoulders as if huddling from the cold. Later in that adventure – and also in The Man Who Never Was – we see the flipside of Sarah Jane, refusing to be intimidated by Miss Myers or Harrison. She’s seen far worse! But nothing that affects her so profoundly as the destitution in The Curse of Clyde Langer.
Sarah Jane Smith is (let’s never say ‘was’) a character impossibly rich in detail, but one who has always felt deceptively uncomplicated. As a companion in Doctor Who, she was so successful she became the archetype for that role. All other TARDIS travellers are in her shadow. As a children’s hero in her own right, she just fits. It’s as though there’s always been a Sarah Jane in Ealing, shepherding a gang of young friends and saving the world.
All of this, all of the above, everything in fact, is thanks entirely to the constancy, devotion and craft of Elisabeth Sladen. Because of her, we will have Sarah Jane Smith with us… forever.