The moment that sold the Doctor Who kids spinoff, The Sarah Jane Adventures to me came back in the New Year’s Eve Pilot Special, Invasion of the Bane. It comes about halfway through the 60 minute special after introducing us to 13-year-old Maria Jackson (played by Yasmin Paige), some of her friends, the main villain (played by Bond’s Moneypenny, Samantha Bond) and reintroducing us to Sarah Jane Smith. While Maria and her friends are in Sarah’s home, the blobby green Bane attack. Sarah rushes the children inside and, for a few seconds, holds the door shut as one of the Bane tries to batter it down.
It’s a critical moment in many ways. Not only do we have excellent acting from the regulars and good special effects, it’s the moment that separates The Sarah Jane Adventures from Doctor Who.
Up to this point, the children and the audience have been in awe of this woman. From the children’s point of view, she’s an adult who’s not their parents. And, better yet, she is an adult with loads and loads of cool stuff who does cool things meeting cool aliens. From the fans’ point of view, we know Sarah as the longest-serving female companion of the original Doctor Who series, whose feisty demeanour and strong chemistry with actors Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker (especially Tom Baker) set the benchmark for the companions that followed. Until Captain Jack Harkness was handed Torchwood, she was also the only companion to merit her own spinoff (the sadly aborted K-9 and Company back in 1981), and now she’s back.
She is, in all of our points of view, an extraordinary woman. She’s faced the monsters that the children haven’t. She is the obvious authority figure for us to look up to, and she is the star of her own show. But as she protects three children and holds back the onslaught of the Bane by pressing herself against her own front door, take a look at her expression: she is terrified.
And not for herself. Not for herself at all, but for the children she’s pulled into the crossfire.
That is the critical difference between The Sarah Jane Adventures and Doctor Who, which the producers and Elisabeth Sladen have wisely picked up and mined for every dramatic potential. Unlike Sladen’s performance in K-9 and Company, we do not have a pseudo-Doctor running the show here. Rather, we have a human being thrust into the Doctor’s role. The Doctor is essentially a god. Sarah isn’t, and she knows it. The character now has an edge about her. Sarah has seen more wonders than most people on her planet and she is grateful for that, but she is also aware that she’ll likely die violently if she doesn’t retire from this job she knows she can’t retire from. And, to make matters worse, she’s just been befriended by three young and innocent new targets.
The Sarah Jane Adventures tells the story of Sarah Jane Smith, now in her late 50s, from the point of view of Maria Jackson, who moves into the house next door with her recently-divorced father. Very quickly, Maria is drawn into the strange and compelling world that Sarah leads, helping friendly aliens get past the Earth without running afoul of humanity, and saving humanity from the unfriendly aliens. Sarah at first tries to push Maria away, but gives up in the face of the girl’s persistence, and probably also because she’s reached a critical point in her life where she has realized just how lonely she is.
In Invasion of the Bane, Sarah also meets Luke, a young boy grown by the Bane as the ideal test subject to try and understand humanity and more effectively conquer it. Sarah eventually adopts the boy as her son, achieving another life goal that had been denied to her up till now. The innocent Luke (played well by Thomas Knight) is highly intelligent but has no understanding of the nuances of humanity, providing many opportunities for fun and mix-ups. From Revenge of the Slitheen, Luke and Maria are joined by Clyde (Daniel Anthony), a down-to-earth schoolmate that does a good job of grounding the trio.
There’s lots of cool and fun gizmos as well, as it appears that, following School Reunion, the Doctor has outfitted Sarah Jane with loads of alien technology (including sonic lipstick, haha), and topped it all off with Mr. Smith, an alien-supercomputer that provides critical assistance and an atmosphere of mystery, while K-9 is off tethering a black hole and incidentally working through rights issues.
It’s all a lot of fun, but the sense that these are ordinary people involved in things way beyond their depth is never far from the surface. Maria promptly gets a lesson on the dangers of Sarah’s life, but the reality comes crashing down on her in the second two-part serial that just debuted in the United Kingdom, entitled Eye of the Gorgon. Maria has already been attacked by soda-swilling zombies and by Slitheen in her own school, but it’s only when her father gets turned to stone that she realizes how much she really has to lose. Actress Yasmin Paige makes the most of this critical moment and I cannot help but be impressed. It’s asking a lot to ask child actors to cry on cue, and Paige delivers some serious emotion that marks her out as an actress with a long future ahead of her in her craft.
It’s interesting that I should focus on this because, until now if I had to characterize the two recent spinoffs of Doctor Who, I’d explain that Doctor Who was the family show that offered something for everyone in the audience ages six to sixty and beyond. Then, when Torchwood came along with its sex, violence and nudity, the parents would quietly send their children off to bed and settle in for another hour, leaving the children to tune into The Sarah Jane Adventures after school the next day while the parents prepared dinner.
There is no doubt that The Sarah Jane Adventures is aimed at a younger audience. There is less overt violence, no sex, and the atmosphere is substantially campier. However, while Torchwood mires itself in showing just how adult it can be, The Sarah Jane Adventures has a much stronger dramatic underpinning than its adult cousin. Here, we see ordinary people doing extraordinary things, absolutely terrified every step of the way, but stepping forward anyway. It is a far more compelling premise than Torchwood’s band of misfits.
Thus far, the writing of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been exemplary, the direction a whirlwind of fun, and the characters well rounded, believable and, more importantly, far more likable and interesting than what Torchwood has offered so far. So it’s ironic that Torchwood is the spin-off series that has been sold overseas to the CBC and BBC America. No plans exist as yet for The Sarah Jane Adventures to be exported, which is a shame. This is a show that could build up a fan base, and fast.