The Sarah Jane Adventures

When the Doctor Who revival became an overnight success in 2005, Russell T Davies went forward with two spin-off ideas. After the adult oriented Torchwood began on BBC Three, he sought to create a series aimed at the CBBC audience and thus became The Sarah Jane Adventures. And yet, the origins of this series goes back over thirty years.

Sarah Jane Smith is undoubtedly the most popular Doctor Who companion, but she's also one of the longest running Sci-Fi heroines. Played by Elisabeth Sladen, the character appeared alongside Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker's Doctors from 1973 to 1976. An investigative journalist, she was no damsel in distress and redefined the role of the companion due to her feisty attitude and banterers rapport with the Doctor. Both Smith and Sladen became so popular amongst Whovians that producers first attempted a spin-off with the character in the 1981 pilot, K9 & Company. The series didn't take off and Sladen reprised her role in two Doctor Who charity episodes and various radio and audio adventures during the 90’s and early 2000’s. Sladen enjoyed a cult following which remained strong 30 years after her debut, but she never imagined playing the character on screen again.

However, Russell T Davies always planned to bring back a classic companion to the revival series and Sarah Jane was the inevitable favourite. Playing opposite new Doctor David Tennant and companions Rose and Mickey, the aptly titled School Reunion became popular amongst new and established Whovians who admired the homage to the classic series. At the end of the story, Sarah Jane decides to move on from the Doctor and start a new life on Earth; and so the journey began. After Elizabeth Sladen accepted the offer to star in the spin-off series, filming began on a pilot under the title The Sarah Jane Adventures. The premise would see Sarah Jane investigate cases involving monsters and aliens, all with the help of her team of young but astute companions. With her big house, trusting computer Mr Smith (voiced by Alexandra Armstrong) and gadgets including a sonic lipstick, the show had all the ingredients to succeed.

The Sarah Jane Adventures.The pilot, entitled Invasion of the Bane, is in my opinion the strongest opening episode of the two spin-off shows. It sets the motion running with a clever story, snappy dialogue, witty humour and high production values that puts K9 & Company to shame. The first two regular young characters introduced in the episode are Maria Jackson and Luke, a genetically engineered boy genius who Sarah Jane adopts. Instead of falling into the trap of bland children's TV characters, thanks to Yasmin Paige and Tommy Knight, they bring a sense of intelligence and energy to the formula, as do Daniel Anthony, Anjli Mohindra and Sinead Michael who joined the team throughout the remainder of the series as Clyde, Rani and Sky. These characters adopt a similar rapport with Sarah Jane to that of the Doctor and companion, but always feel like a team effort.

What stands The Sarah Jane Adventures apart from the CBBC crowd is that while it is classed as a children's drama, the way Russell T Davies approaches the show is by producing it as a straight drama. Certain reviewers have noted that while the series does occasionally fall into certain clichés of children’s TV, e.g. trapped doors and clueless parents etc, unlike other children’s TV, it never spoon feeds or patronises the viewer. Various themes and social issues addressed included divorce, homelessness, bullying and even death, and not always in a science fiction context.

Always imaginative with its monsters and adventures, the series conceived some intriguing villains including Mrs Wormwood, The Trickster and The Nightmare Man. Also, paying homage to the parent series, various Who villains made appearances including the Slitheen, who were always better suited to SJA, the Judoon and the Sontarans, which is appropriate as they made their first appearance in Sarah Jane’s debut in the 1973 classic serial, The Time Warrior. While the series couldn’t be as scary as its parents series and certainly not compared to Torchwood, it was still exciting, intense and always watchable TV, again never patronising the viewer. As Elisabeth Sladen once said, ‘its safe fear, good always conquers.’ This influence can been seen in Russell T Davies’s early 90’s children’s TV shows, Dark Season and Century Falls.

The Sarah Jane Adventures.Unlike Torchwood, which rarely included crossovers, The Sarah Jane Adventures regularly acknowledged its parent series both new and classic. Two famous 70’s companions; the Brigadier and Jo Grant made appearances in the show. Furthermore, the producers took a bold step by writing episodes with appearances from David Tennant and Matt Smith’s Doctors. Had the series continued, it was planned for the Seventh Doctor companion Ace to appear. The serialised structure of the series was similar to the classic Who series, with one story being told over two parts. The result was an acclaimed and highly rated show that despite its time slot and target audience, attracted as many adult viewers as children. This is perhaps due to many adults remembering Sarah Jane from the classic series but also because the series is well written and produced. After five successful series, the show remained a firm favourite on CBBC and with many ideas and plans for further adventures, it might well have still been running today.

Tragically, in April 2011 the cast, crew and Whovians worldwide were devastated when they learnt that Elisabeth Sladen had died at the age of 65 after a battle with cancer. The fifth series, which was filmed prior to Sladen’s death, aired later that year as a tribute to Sladen and would be Sarah Jane’s final televised adventures.

Inevitably, the show came to an abrupt and unsatisfying end, however not only will the legacy of the character live on, but so will the actress who played her. While the series itself is regularly quoted as the ‘Doctor Who spin-off for kids,’ although it never attracted sci-fi fans desperate for more gritty and dark stories, no one can deny one underlying influence. How many sci-fi series has a female protagonist over the age of 60 who is strong, energetic and relatable?

Thanks to her nearly four decade performance playing Sarah Jane Smith, Elisabeth Sladen achieved a legacy that so many actors never do; she gained a cross-generational appeal and will continue to do so. Her maternal and youthful energy remained from her first Doctor Who serial to the last Sarah Jane Adventure and coupled with her status as a role model for girls and boys, is perhaps why her untimely death is one that many fans still find hard to contend with.

Review: : John Collins August 2015

for Television Heaven