The Superior Spin Off

The most surreal line of the week award continues to be won by Robin Hood. Last week, after an encounter with an ingratiating underling, Keith Allen’s Sheriff harrumphed, “Why do you never kiss my ring, Gisburne?” This week, pursuing a troublesome carrier bird, he was heard to loudly declare, “We have to catch the pigeon. Catch the pigeon!” Which presumably means the ever-cheery Gisburne is Muttley.

Those aware of my TV tastes are presumably baffled by my lack of comment on Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures. Well, don’t worry, I did watch it! After all, being on Children’s BBC, it was a sight more adult than Torchwood.

With ten episodes comprising five two-part stories, it was the inevitable mixed bag, but some good stuff was to be found within. I was somewhat downhearted to see the return of Russell T Davies’ uninspiring blobby aliens in Revenge of the Slitheen, but pleasantly surprised to find them in an actually rather well-written story. Gareth Roberts, who is shaping up as a rather good TV writer, followed up his pilot script Invasion of the Bane with a sort of reboot of the show. Gone is annoying teenage girl Kelsey, replaced by somewhat less annoying teenage boy Clyde. Otherwise the format remains the same, but Gareth’s script deftly re-introduced the characters and situations for those who might have missed the pilot.

In a nutshell, ex-companion Sarah Jane Smith has adopted alien-created teenager Luke, hangs out with him and neighbour Maria, who’s really the show’s main character. Appealing though Sarah Jane us to us old fanboys, a children’s drama can’t really have a woman in her fifties as the star of the show. So Sarah acts as a sort of Gandalf/Doctor figure to the kids, involving them in the alien mysteries she solves with her convenient super computer Mr Smith (K9 being busy sealing off a black hole until his copyright owners see sense).

Of the stories, inevitably Gareth’s were the standouts. Revenge of the Slitheen had the alien Del-boys hanging around in a school, and they seemed to fit better in a children’s show than in Doctor Who itself. By far the standout of the entire series was Gareth’s Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, which was a well-written time paradox story that addressed some complex, adult themes far better than any amount of gratuitous swearing in Torchwood. The story dealt sensitively with issues like death, guilt and divorce in a sensitive way that didn’t talk down to its audience of children, without alienating them.

True, Maria’s awful mum does seem rather like a cartoon character and her dad is just too good to be true, but the show didn’t shy away from showing the devastating effects divorce can have on kids. It also confronted the issue of whether you would sacrifice your best friend to survive yourself, as a time paradox enabled Sarah’s friend Andrea to cheat her own death at thirteen years old by switching places with the teenage Sarah. As Andrea, the too-little seen Jane Asher gave a knockout performance as a woman haunted by the realization of what she’s done but still unwilling to undo it.

Indeed, the show had a remarkable quality of guest stars in some surprisingly challenging roles. Old stalwart Phyllida Law popped up in Phil Ford’s alien nun epic Eyes of the Gorgon, playing a woman adventurer deliberately reminiscent of an older Sarah Jane, now afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Children’s TV campaigner Floella Benjamin turned up herself in season finale The Lost Boy, instantly recalling Play School for those of us of a certain age.

Probably the weakest story was Philip Gladwin’s Warriors of Kudlak, in which a laser tag franchise was actually a recruiting ground for soldiers in an alien war. It had a couple of neat twists, such as the alien computer hiding the fact that the war had been over for years, but overall was reminiscent of nothing so much as The Tomorrow People. And I’m pretty sure the basic plot was filched from 1984 movie The Last Starfighter

The show had a pretty good regular cast, headed of course by the reliable Elisabeth Sladen. Lis played Sarah Jane exactly as she had from the 70s onward, but therein was a bit of a problem. The character has never really been too complex, so Lis’s range of emotions seemed rather… well, limited. It was revealing that in Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, Jane Asher gave a far more subtle performance as a character who was in many ways an analog of Sarah. Still, with this new show casting Sarah pretty much in the role of the Doctor, range is necessarily going to be limited.

The kids were good, though. Yasmin Paige as Maria had the lion’s share of character development and gave a good performance as a girl struggling to deal with a broken home while concealing her involvement with all sorts of alien shenanigans with her neighbour. Tommy Knight, as Sarah’s adopted son Luke, was basically the Spock/Data of the piece, constantly puzzled by the everyday banalities of life. His wide-eyed innocence was rather sweet, and very much in keeping with the tone of the character. Heaven help him when puberty finally hits him… Lastly, new boy Daniel Anthony gave a charismatic turn as the cocky, streetwise Clyde, though his character was too often used as comic relief to be truly convincing.

The final story, The Lost Boy, brought the series to a satisfying conclusion with the revelation that Sarah’s oh-so-convenient supercomputer Mr Smith was actually an alien entity bent on the destruction of Earth to free his people from its core. It’s a brave move to introduce a sympathetic alien computer, then reveal that it was the bad guy all along; rather as if Tomorrow People computer Tim had suddenly revealed himself to be Hannibal Lecter. Still, Mr Smith was easily despatched by a few blasts from K9, conveniently reappearing as if copyright were never a problem. It was great to see him again, with the ever-excellent John Leeson again providing the voice.

It’s been a fun series, and if Torchwood can get a second run, surely this can. The quality of writing and directing parallels Doctor Who easily, with many of the same people involved. True, there are quibbles; Sarah may not be as magnetic a character as the Doctor, and that sonic lipstick’s just plain silly. But it satisfyingly recalls the glory days of children’s drama when it was producing some of the most imaginative fantasy shows on British television. The only real puzzler is with the Doctor, Torchwood and Sarah Jane all preventing the destruction of the planet on a weekly basis, how come they don’t bump into each other more often?
“Oh, I’m sorry, Captain Jack, I thought I was preventing the alien meteor destroying the Earth.”
“No, Miss Smith, it’s an alien sex meteor. That’s Torchwood’s remit.”

Perhaps that’s why…