After the entertaining but ridiculous Torchwood, I was rather dubious about the idea of another Doctor Who spin-off, especially since Sarah Jane's last solo television venture was the abominable K9 and Company, but based on the evidence of pilot episode 'Invasion of the Bane', The Sarah Jane Adventures has enormous potential. A near-perfect children's program, 'Invasion of the Bane' takes many of the ingredients of classic Doctor Who and strips away much of the rot that occasionally addles the new series.
'Invasion of the Bane' has a simple but effective plot that sees the eponymous Bane attempting to take over the world via pernicious fizzy pop "Bubbleshock". This is straightforward fare, but solidly written by Doctor Who novel and audio veteran Gareth Roberts, but what really brings it to life is the characterisation of the presumed regulars. Wisely, Roberts starts the story from the point of view of Maria, a new girl in the neighbourhood intrigued by her mysterious neighbour Sarah Jane Smith, especially after she witnesses her talking to an alien in her back garden. Roberts shows the audience everything they need to know as Maria gets caught up in Sarah's unorthodox life, and along with her friend Kelsey soon finds herself being chased by monsters. Big, green, monsters with tentacles. Which frankly, is what I wanted from Doctor Who when I was a kid. Roberts' writes the kids very well, with Maria proving independent and smart (she refuses to drink Bubbleshock, preferring a nice cup of tea, so she automatically counts as something of an outsider, and she pointedly asks Kelsey "So that makes it alright then, just the magic word 'organic'?"), whilst Kelsey is far more headstrong and concerned with seeming cool (it is Kelsey who makes all of the cultural references here, or generates them when Wormwood reads her mind). Meanwhile the Archetype, whom Sarah ultimately adopts at the end, is the ultimate question generator, since he knows almost nothing, which makes good sense in terms of exposition in future episodes. Oh and Maria also has a hunky single father, although what role he might fill in future episodes I couldn't possibly imagine.
Sarah Jane herself also works very well here, even if her character development is signposted early on, as we learn that she shuns the company of others and she warns Maria to keep away from her because her life is dangerous. Unsurprisingly, she comes to appreciate the importance of having friends, especially when the Archetype saves the day and she remarks, "I would be dead without you!" In fact rather of lot of what happens here is predictable, but this doesn't matter because Roberts handles it with flair: thus, the blatant infodump in Sarah's attic is rendered magical by the wonder written into the script, and the eccentricity of K9 in the cupboard with his arse in a black hole, and the ramshackle-looking but highly advanced Mr. Smith. And, for old fans, the nods to the past such as the photograph of the Brigadier. There's quite a lot of this sort of smooth handling of the unoriginal, with the scene of Sarah meeting the alien in her garden having a fairytale air to it. As in Doctor Who, we of course end up with a lead who has foreknowledge of the threats that the team will undoubtedly be facing, but exposition always seems more natural when children are asking questions about things. My only main concern in terms of 'Invasion of the Bane' as the first episode in an ongoing series is the worrying presence of irritating narrative shortcuts such as the sonic lipstick and the wrist watch that identifies the Bane for Sarah, but hopefully these come from co-writer Davies rather than Roberts, and will be relied on less in the rest of the series than they are in Doctor Who. I also, incidentally, suspect that Davies is responsible for the nauseating line, "There was only ever one man for me, and after him nothing compared", about which the less said the better.
When I was little, it was the monsters and villains in Doctor Who that always engaged my entertainment, and although at first glance the Bane are unremarkable generic green monsters (and the Bane Mother looks a bit like the old illustrations of the Nestenes on the Target novelisation covers for 'Spearhead from Space' and 'Terror of the Autons'), Roberts makes them interesting enough to keep the adults (or at least, this adult) entertained, with Davey unable to conceive of entering the women's toilets because human culture forbids it, Mrs. Wormwood baffled at the nonsense that fills the heads of children, and Davey getting eaten for failing to kill Sarah because "A hunter that loses its prey is unfit to serve the Bane Mother". Robert's trademark wit is in evidence throughout 'Invasion of the Bane' (and there are some tongue-in-cheek moments for older viewers, such as the acknowledgement that Bubbleshock must have sidestepped all manner of health and safety regulations to be mass produced to quickly) and Mrs. Wormwood gets quite a lot of it, especially when she gets lines such as "These miniature versions have parents" and "the thoughts of a child are chaos". And it is Mrs. Wormwood who steals the show here.
The cast of 'Invasion of the Bane' is generally very good, with some impressive performances from the child actors and Elisabeth Sladen stepping back into her old role with ease. The only weak link is Jamie Davis, who is rather stilted as Davey, but it is former Miss Moneypenny Samantha Bond who really grabs the attention, delivering an enormously entertaining arch performance as the catty and malevolent Mrs. Wormwood. She gets away with dialogue like "descend and consume" and "I can't understand a word she says. She's all noise and ignorance" because she takes the role as near to over-the-top as she can, without actually being hammy, which is impressive. She's clearly designed to be enough of a pantomime villain to appeal to the kids, and it works. My favourite Mrs. Wormwood moment, incidentally, is when Sarah sarcastically thanks her for the assassination attempt and she icily replies, "My pleasure. The next one will involve harpoons". Happily, she gets away at the end, furiously announcing, "Until the next time, Miss Smith", so she's presumably all set to become Sarah's new arch-nemesis. Hilda Winters, eat your heart out.
Director Colin Teague brings a real dynamic energy to 'Invasion of the Bane', which I would imagine is very useful for a series aimed at children, who almost certainly have less of an attention span than I do. Children's program or not however, I enjoyed 'Invasion of the Bane' enormously, tapping as it does into the spirit of Doctor Who of old and carrying itself off with confidence and humour. It's much better than Torchwood and even large chunks of the new series of Doctor Who, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to The Sarah Jane Adventures proper.