Sarah Jane Smith may well be the most beloved companion in the long history of Doctor Who. As evidence, I submit the fourth season DVD set of The Sarah Jane Adventures – the second and lighter of two spinoffs, and a collection of ripping yarns that will entertain Whovians of any age. Clearly, Sarah Jane is popular enough to sustain a series that only ended when she did.
The first disc in the DVD release of The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Fourth Season opens with the BBC and 2IEntertain logos and a card that reads ‘In Memory of Elisabeth Sladen: 1946-2011.’ That’s as it should be – even though there is a fifth, six-episode season left to be seen.
The six two-part adventures collected in the show’s fourth season DVD set have a little something for everyone: horror [The Nightmare Man, Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith], humor [The Empty Planet], giddy silliness [The Death of The Doctor], time travel [Lost in time] and a lovely riff on the Matrix movies [The Vault of Secrets].
Each cliffhanging adventure is briskly paced, clever [and occasionally brilliant] and guaranteed to keep kids of all ages enraptured [though for the youngest, it might be from behind the sofa – especially in the case of The Nightmare Man].
As for characters, Sarah Jane is a former journalist who has an adopted son named Luke[Tommy Knight] – who was genetically engineered to destroy the Earth – and the family pet is an artificial intelligence housed in a robot dog, K-9. An extraterrestrial computer, Mr. Smith [voiced by Alexander Armstrong], is situated in the attic of the Smith house Rounding out the team are two neighbor kids – high school journalist Rani Chandra [Anjli Mohindra] and aspiring artist, Clyde Langer [Daniel Anthony].
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen the show before, because there’s an engaging intro/saga sell at the beginning that gives you the basics so that you can jump in at practically any point.
Something that the show does well is set up stories from situations that already exist in the lives of the characters. In season opener The Nightmare Man, for example, the genetically engineered Luke, who never dreams, starts having nightmares. Is it just that he’s nervous about heading off to university [Oxford, no less]?
That very real possibility allows The Nightmare Man [Julian Bleach] to take control of Luke’s sleep cycle and crossover to our plane of existence from his. Written by Joseph Lidster and directed by Joss Agnew, The Nightmare Man is a compelling bit of horror-tinged sci-fi.
The reappearance of Androvax [Mark Goldtharp], a body-stealing foe the team has already defeated once, leads to the appearance of three gentlemen in black suits and sunglasses – led by the Mr. Smith-like Mister Dredd [Angus Wright] – who have been tasked with keeping the knowledge of extraterrestrials from us Earthlings. To say that there are some serious conflicts of interest in The Vault of Secrets would be to seriously understate the situation.
Kudos to writer Phil Ford and director Joss Agnew for some inventive riffing and a lot of pure fun.
The season’s best adventures [along with the previously mentioned The Nightmare Man], though, are The Death of The Doctor [written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Ashley Way] – which features the return of Jon Pertwee-era companion Jo Grant [Katy manning] and a splendidly goofy guest appearance by Doctor eleven [Matt Smith] – and the season finale, Goodbye Sarah Jane smith [written by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman; directed by Joss Agnew].
In The Death of The Doctor, UNIT sends an envoy to inform her of The Doctor’s death and take her, Clyde and Rani to the UNIT base for the funeral. All, of course, is not as it seems – and the concept of a race of intelligent vultures as interstellar funeral directors is both horrifying and a hoot! It’s also cool to find out what Jo Grant has been up to since the seventies [hint: she’s a real tree hugger!].
In Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith, Sarah Jane seems to be showing signs of Alzheimer’s just as another, ruder, female defender of Earth, Ruby White [Julie Graham] appears – complete with her own extraterrestrial computer, a handheld model called Mr. White [voiced by Eddie Marsan].
One of the show’s charms is the slightly less expensive [and slightly cheesier] effects – that echo classic Who effects of years past. The robots of The Empty Planet [written by Gareth Roberts; directed by Ashley Way] – Clyde and Rani find themselves alone on an empty Earth – have a kind of endearing clumsiness that adds unexpected humor to the adventure, for example.
There are moments of great poignancy, too. In Lost in Time [written by Rupert Laight; directed by Joss Agnew], Sarah, Clyde and Rani are sent to three different past eras in search of devices that are capable of changing history. Rani winds up in England on the ninth day of Queen Jane Grey’s nine-day reign and forms a fast bond with the sixteen-year old Jane [an incredibly effective Ann Beattie], while Sarah Jane is sent to the late nineteenth century to nab a device that is key to saving the lives of two children in the future.
Overall, though some adventures stand out above the others, even the slightest of them is great, inventive fun. For a series in its fourth season, that’s not always the case. For The Sarah Jane Adventures, though, it’s not the just case, it’s with panache!
The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Fourth Season is bereft of features [I would have loved to hear commentaries on at least three of the adventures, but such is life], so the set’s grade is unsullied by lackluster extras.
Final Grade: A-