The legacy of Sarah Jane Smith

Over on TV Today, I’ve previewed the first story in the new, final series of The Sarah Jane Adventures:

First and most importantly, there is the joy. Joy at a children’s drama series that has shown that – in a genre where primary colours and slapstick tend to dominate – imagination, wonder and emotional truth still have their place. Joy at a series which spun off from Doctor Who with such confidence that it hasn’t felt the need to constantly reinvent itself (yes, Torchwood, I’m looking at you). Joy at a show that knows that, while it is squarely aimed at children aged 6 to 12, the audience doesn’t mind that their heroes are older kids led by a woman in her sixties.

School Reunion: Say Hello, (Finally) Wave Goodbye

Review of Series 2, Episode 3 – with spoilers

If there’s one thing you have to remember of the reborn Doctor Who, it’s that the science fiction element is secondary. Far more important is the character interplay, the emotional investment of the Doctor and Rose, and the sundry other characters they meet. Sometimes – as in New Earth – the weakness of the sci-fi element detracts from the heart of the story, in both senses of the word. But sometimes, just sometimes, you get a story that’s so full of emotional beats that it’s virtually indestructible.

And that story is School Reunion, with a debut Who script by Toby Whithouse. There’s a wonderfully creepy B-story of alien bat-men posing as teachers, led by Anthony Head as the uber-sinister Headmaster Finch – a story which, with its scenes of children being hypnotised into doing others’ dirty work by means of souped-up computers, has elements of exec producer Russell T. Davies’ debut TV drama, Dark Season. And while that story is fine, save for a couple of plot jumps (where does Milo go?), it’s really just an excuse for the real plot. And that can be summarised in just four words:

Sarah Jane Smith. K9.

For anyone who was into Doctor Who thirty years ago, Sarah Jane set the benchmark by which any Doctor Who companion, before or since, has been judged – a benchmark that Rose is one of the few to even approach, let alone surpass. Despite her popularity, her summary departure from the TARDIS in 1975 is one of the more unexpected, and least satisfactory, in the series’ history. The manner in which she left has always seemed unresolved. Of course, in fictional lore, the Doctor gave Sarah-Jane a gift to remember him by – a new model of his robot dog, K9, in the execrably funny spin-off, K9 and Company. But all the cutesy electronics in the world don’t give you closure on the unexpected demise of a relationship that you always hoped would never end (says the bloke who bought his first iPod in a bout of post-break-up retail therapy)…

When Sarah Jane comes back into the Doctor’s life, as they are both investigating the goings on at Deffry Vale School, there is the chance to see the emotional destruction that the Doctor leaves in his wake, as well as the realisation on Rose’s face that, one day, he’ll leave her too. And it’s a thing of beauty. As Mickey says, it’s a classic “missus-meets-the-ex” scenario, as Rose and SJ start off sniping at each other, but gradually realise that they’re far too alike to be anything other than best of friends.

This is without doubt the most emotional the series has ever got in its 43-year history, and it does it in a way that only a series that has run that long could ever do. There are so many emotional touchpoints to savour here, as we examine the long-term effects a relationship with the Doctor has on the people he leaves – has to leave – behind. Obviously, the scenes of one-upmanship as Rose and Sarah Jane try to outdo each other on the horrors they’ve seen, and the confrontation inside and out of the night café where Sarah Jane finally tells the Doctor how he made her feel (and Rose gets a glimpse of her own future) will stand out.

But we should not let that overshadow the other, less obvious, story: how Mickey and K9 are both secondary characters, utilised for exposition and/or comedy value, and will never attain that higher echelon of “companion”. It’s a perfect parallel, and as we enter the second series with gusto, this is the perfect time to make it. As Mickey makes three a crowd in the TARDIS by the episode’s end, we must surely remember the fate of his seventies counterpart just minutes earlier – is this a foreshadowing as to Noel Clarke’s character’s fate?

There seem to be other hints of future events, too (although I’m speculating here), many of which are ripples building on ripples. The Doctor’s apparent temptation of the concept of becoming a god – able to save the Time Lords and “finish the War” (note, finish it – not reverse it, or avenge it) – brings to mind the fable of the Face of Boe, who will speak his dying words to the “lonely god”. It’s a nice touch that it’s Sarah Jane who brings him back, her words – “everything has its time, and everything ends” – echoing his own, in The End of the World, about the Earth, Cassandra and, by implication, his people.

And it’s the final scene that us long-term fans have been waiting thirty-one years for: Sarah Jane finally gets the Doctor to say goodbye. And in doing so, he leaves Sarah Jane another gift: a rebuilt model of K9 (in series mythology, this may be Mark IV, but in my universe, it’s Mark V – Mark IV is in Manchester…). Far more importantly, he gives her closure, and the chance to stop waiting for him to return.

A beautiful end to a heartbreaking episode.