“Together, we stop the monsters.”
Change is in the air as Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures enters its fourth season. Behind the scenes, star Elizabeth Sladen suffered ill health, of which she later died during filming of the fifth season. Creatively, the show’s writers and producers worked hard to prove the show could be more than just a children’s program. Storywise, the characters find themselves in new places in their lives and dealing with new emotions and challenges.
Sarah Jane Smith (Sladen) is an investigative reporter who, secretly, saves the Earth from evil aliens on a regular basis. She does this with the help of her genetically engineered adopted son Luke (Tommy Knight), amateur teen detective Rani (Anjli Mohindra), and comic relief goofball Clyde (Daniel Anthony).
This episode list mysteriously appeared in the sky over Ealing last night:
• “Nightmare Man”
Luke receives an early acceptance to Oxford, what with him being a super-genius and all. On the night before he leaves, he and his friends are haunted in their dreams by a nefarious figure.
• “The Vault of Secrets”
A world-destroying alien asks Sarah Jane for help, as he’s pursued by alien-hunting men in black. There are conspiracies upon conspiracies as Sarah Jane and friends try to sort out who to trust.
• “Death of the Doctor”
Sarah Jane receives word that her old friend the Doctor has died. She attends the funeral, along with another of the Doctor’s former companions, Jo (Katy Manning, reprising her role from old-school Doctor Who). Sarah Jane and Jo believe all is not as it appears, so they investigate. When Clyde disappears and the Doctor (Matt Smith) takes his place, that’s just the tip of the temporal iceberg.
• “The Empty Planet”
Rani and Clyde wake up one morning to discover they’re the only two people left on the Earth. Now, they have no one to rely on but each other to figure out where humanity has gone and how to bring everyone back.
• “Lost in Time”
A strange man sends Sarah Jane, Rani and Clyde back in time to three separate eras, where they each have a mystery to solve. It’s all about court intrigue, ghost hunting, and Nazi fighting before anyone can return to the present.
• “Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith”
When Sarah Jane meets another, younger woman who’s out saving the world from aliens, she wonders if she’s getting too old for the job, and it it’s time to hand over the reins to someone else.
First, the positives: Elizabeth Sladen is, as always, a charmer. She carries this show with great confidence and spunk, so that you can’t imagine her as any other character. She might not look like what you’d imagine as an alien-fightin’ superhero, but she pulls it off excellently. With Luke away at college for most of the season, a lot of screentime is shifted to Rani and Clyde, with entire episodes devoted mostly to just the two of them. We see that they’re both maturing as they get older, and they’re developing feelings for each other as their teen hormones start gazorching all over the place. A highlight is “The Empty Earth,” in which it’s just the two of them, without Sarah Jane’s knowledge, Luke’s genius, or any supercomputer to save the day for them. It brings out the best in both characters to have them only with their wits—and each other—to rely on. Actors Anjli Mohindra and Daniel Anthony really step it up this season, showing they’re capable of much more than stock roles as kid sidekicks.
Another highlight is “Death of the Doctor,” which is essentially a Doctor Who episode sandwiched in the middle of the season. Katy Manning storms onto the show and takes it over as if she’s always been its star, and she and Sladen immediately develop a sort of Lucy/Ethel chemistry, like they’ve been doing this for years. Adding Matt Smith into the mix just makes it all the more fun. When he and Manning have a heart-to-heart moment, I swear there’s a little bit of good ol’ John Pertwee in him somewhere.
The big problem I’ve had with The Sarah Jane Adventures from day one was how the show is so often at odds with itself. It’s supposed to be skewed for younger viewers, and yet also demands to be taken seriously. Because of this, life and death is on the line in one scene, and the characters get covered with Nickelodeon-style green slime in the next. The kid-friendly aspects of the show never fully meshed with the smart science fiction aspects, not satisfying either half of the audience. This fourth season sidesteps some of that by letting the characters change and grow by great amounts over the course of six episodes, but it still hasn’t hit the right balance between goofy and dark.
All six episodes (they’re two-parters, so more like twelve episodes) are on this two-disc set. The video quality is surprisingly soft. Flesh tones are nice, but the brighter colors are a little bit hazy, though not so much that it will ruin the picture. Audio is a decent mix, with clean dialogue and sound effects, but not a booming or immersive experience. Zero extras.
This is the part where I state the obvious. This season contains numerous callbacks to previous episodes, so it’s not the place for first-timers to begin—doubly so if you know nothing about its parent series, Doctor Who.
A mixed bag. This season has some great acting, and the decision to make big changes in the characters’ lives pays off nicely. Nonetheless, the show can often be too kiddy for the adults and too grown up for the kids.