This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.
Watching this story is an odd experience, because it's a re-launch of sorts that can't help but play out in the shadow of Elisabeth Sladen's untimely passing. As a result, there's a sense that although new story possibilities and new character dynamics are set up, we already know that these won't – in fact can't
– really be developed or explored beyond the next few episodes. Sky
is concerned with establishing a future for the series, but it is one which will never properly come to pass.
The story begins and closes with a voice-over from Sarah – “we're a part of the universe too, and we really aren't alone... life here can be an adventure too” – bringing to mind the structure and sentiments of Invasion of the Bane
. Likewise, the eventual reveal of just who introduced baby Sky to Miss Smith also draws on the programme's history, while successfully leaving a greater mystery hanging in the air. Plus we get the added bonus of a return appearance from Floella Benjamin as Professor Celeste Rivers, suggesting that The Sarah Jane Adventures
has fully and definitively grown into its own continuity: a Sarahverse intertwined with the Doctor's own Whoniverse.
Phil Ford makes excellent use of Rani's parents as a comic counterpoint to the more dramatic proceedings, though we never do get the punchline to “how many comedy headmasters does it take to change a lightbulb?” Episode one in particular contains many light-hearted moments; Clyde's turn as a children's entertainer is inspired, with his rustle/Russell joke surely being a sly shout-out to creator Russell T. Davies. And Professor Rivers' “wait for me, I'm in wellingtons!” is also a well-judged twist on what could otherwise have been a generic chase sequence. Despite her own scientific knowledge and professional standing, Celeste isn't above pretending to be a Sarah Jane-style adventurer; the glee of her “zap, zap” play-acting shows how inspiring Sarah's adventures can be. It's a tiny detail of Benjamin's performance, but it captures in microcosm the zest for life's adventures that has always been at the heart of this series.
Leaving Sinead Michael's first appearance as Sky until the episode one cliffhanger gives the story a strong kick into its second half, although the child-as-weapon idea seems very similar to A Good Man Goes To War
. The parallel suggests that Sarah Jane
production teams may have become less cohesively engaged with one another by this point, but nonetheless Michael turns in a creditable performance. Sky is understandably a little limited in character terms, with much of her dialogue involving not understanding things, but presumably the next few stories will build on what is a promising debut.
One missed opportunity is the fact that there's never any doubt over Miss Myers' villainy thanks to her almost cartoonish costuming and depiction. I would have welcomed slightly more ambivalence; the script could have created greater mystery over whether or not Sky was actually being protected from an alien war by her mother. Instead, Miss Myers is little more than a caricatured maniac; the sort of anti-Sarah that we've seen before in the guise of various lady villains. Episode two illustrates how giving Sarah Jane a daughter in Luke's place has the potential to make the show far more directly and obviously female-focused, with Rani realising that she needs to become a source of fashion tips (“Ranipedia!”), whilst the story's resolution involves Sky having to choose between her different 'mothers'.
Prefigured by Professor Rivers' “zap, zap”, it's game-play which becomes crucial to saving the day when Clyde (a tad implausibly) shuts down a nuclear reactor in a sort of “big arcade game.” Playing Mario becomes a rehearsal for the story's heroics, although Clyde's skill has to be augmented by Rani's knowledge of the light spectrum. So it's ROYGBIV to the rescue, as textbook learning and gaming are equally called upon.
“There's always something more amazing to come”, Sarah Jane Smith tells us as the 'next time...' trailer starts up. That makes a good mission statement for a series opener, but as a viewer it's hard not to reflect on the loss and the pain of endings as well as the hope and pleasure of new beginnings. A recent Radio Times
interview with Elisabeth Sladen's daughter Sadie Miller called this a “tribute series”, and it is partly that. But as the first new story screened after Lis's death, Sky
also becomes something more than the sum of its parts. It's a tale of optimism coloured by fans' and audiences' real world sadness; a struggle between fiction and fact as much as between fleshkind and metalkind.
Reminding audiences of the value of child's play and playfulness, The Sarah Jane Adventures
has been, and continues to be, a testament to the BBC's public service remit as well as to the popularity and charm of Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah. Although Doctor Who
is sometimes referred to as “the mothership” or “parent” show, perhaps SJA
's focus on stories of maternal care make it the true 'mothership' of the franchise. Welcome back, Sarah Jane; you're as sparky and as wonderful as ever.