Friday 7 October 2011

The Sarah Jane Adventures - Sky

My earliest memory of Doctor Who is seeing an episode with the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) up against the Daleks. This was several years before I became hooked on the show and began watching it religiously. It was at a time when Doctor Who terrified me and gave me nightmares. I remember seeing the Doctor tied up on a table being interrogated by the Daleks. I remember seeing the Daleks exterminate a man who had betrayed them, and most terrifying of all, I remember an army of Daleks coming out from under a bridge to exterminate everyone.

I often saw snippets of episodes, as my mom watched the show every week. They always scared me, so I never really sat down to watch whole episodes. Nevertheless, there was always something about the show that intrigued me, and the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith became prominent figures in my mind. Eventually, I saw episode 2 of “Full Circle” and I was hooked for life. Of course, by that time, the companion was the second Romana, and Sarah Jane Smith was long gone. Still, Sarah Jane had formed a huge impression on me over the years. To me, she was part of what made the show Doctor Who.

Now that I was hooked, I simply had to find out more about the programme I had been missing all those years. I began voraciously reading the novelizations of the episodes, and would frequently discover moments I remembered seeing on television. Naturally, I was curious about my earliest memory. I quickly discovered that there was only one Dalek story with the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane: “Genesis of the Daleks”. I found a copy of the novelization in the library, read it, and was surprised to find that it didn’t really fit my memory. Now, the old Target novelizations sometimes deviated a bit from the TV episodes. They were often condensed considerably, so I thought that maybe the book had just handled the scenes from my memory differently than the episode had. I wasn’t fully convinced of that, though, so I tried double-checking that there wasn’t another Dalek story that could fit my memories. Sarah Jane had been in the Third Doctor story, “Death to the Daleks”, so I considered the possibility that that was the one I remembered. I really didn’t think it likely because Tom Baker was so clearly in my memories of the story in question. Nonetheless, I read the novelization of “Death to the Daleks”. It didn’t fit.

Eventually, Doctor Who started to come out on VHS tape. Around the same time, the Canadian television station, YTV began broadcasting Doctor Who starting with the First Doctor, William Hartnell, and slowly going through the whole series. Naturally, I started buying the tapes and watching the early episodes in earnest. By this time, I wasn’t trying to search out my old memories of the show anymore (although I was looking forward to seeing things I recognized). I was just interested in seeing old Doctor Who episodes that I had never seen before. One day, a friend of mine acquired “Day of the Daleks” on VHS and came over to my place so we could watch it together. And there they were: the scenes I so vividly remembered with Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith. were Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning as the Third Doctor and Jo Grant. I was stunned. Sometime over the years, Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen had supplanted themselves in my memories of that story. Even to this day, I still have those incorrect memories. Oh, I’ve seen the story a few times now and can remember it correctly, with the correct characters and actors, but I also retain those completely wrong memories. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen simply had that much impact on my early life. Memory’s a funny thing.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one to be deeply affected by Sarah Jane Smith. Fandom as a whole and the show itself had clearly been affected by her presence. When John Nathan-Turner decided to create the spin-off series, K-9 and Company, he needed a human character to lead the show alongside its robotic star. Who did he go to? Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith. Alas, the show did not survive beyond the pilot episode (which really is rather mediocre), but Sarah Jane Smith was back again a couple years later for the twentieth-anniversary story, “The Five Doctors”. In the 90’s, she was back again in Downtime, the direct-to-video spin-off from Reeltime Pictures. In an interview, Elisabeth Sladen once said, “I left Sarah Jane a great many years ago, but she never left me.” In much the same way, Sarah Jane left the show in the mid-70’s, but the show never really left her.

When the BBC revived Doctor Who, Russell T Davies brought her back yet again in the 2006 story, “School Reunion”, and she instantly found her way into the hearts of a whole new generation of fans. Doctor Who was now a runaway hit, and Torchwood was a hit spin-off series, but the BBC was also looking for more. Since Doctor Who was aimed at a family audience and Torchwood at an adult audience, the next target was a child audience. And so, The Sarah Jane Adventures was born. It was a true delight. Although aimed at children and aired on the CBBC, it was written with such intelligence and such heart that adults could enjoy it just as much as the children. It, too, was an instant hit, and went on to have four full seasons. There were cameo appearances by the Brigadier and Jo Grant, both the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, and several Doctor Who monsters like the Slitheen and the Sontarans. Sarah Jane even reappeared a couple times on Doctor Who itself. They were in the middle of filming the fifth season of The Sarah Jane Adventures at the time of Elisabeth Sladen’s shocking death.

When I read the news on the Doctor Who News Page, I was completely numbed. I didn’t want to believe it. The headline had to be a mistake, or some sort of cruel, horrible joke. But it wasn’t. I was in tears before I finished reading the entire article. Never before have I been so deeply affected by the death of an actor, by the death of someone I never actually met and only knew through a character. The loss of Nicholas Courtney (who played Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart) a couple months earlier had affected me, but not quite in the same way, as important to the show as he was. Everyone knew Courtney was ill. His death was not a surprise. Elisabeth Sladen had been battling cancer for several years, but nobody, apart from her closest friends and family, knew. Her death came as a shock to everyone. Even writing this now, months after her death, is affecting me. The tears have already started. It’s a testament to Elisabeth Sladen’s abilities that a character she started playing over thirty-five years ago still has such a strong effect on people today, so strong that that character was brought back multiple times, and the role remained as fresh and new in 2010 as it was in 1974. In an industry where women over 30 are considered old and can generally only expect supporting roles, here was a woman in her 60’s who had the lead role on a hit television series. The outpouring of emotion from fans and the British press was phenomenal. Charities were set up in her honour. Fans made tribute videos. Folk singer Talis Kimberley even wrote a tribute song, “Goodnight, Sarah Jane”.

At the time of Lis Sladen’s death, they had completed filming six episodes of the new season, including the two episodes that were to be the finale. Those six episodes have now started airing. Here is my review of the “Sky”, the opening two-episode story:

Sky” is a fun little story. It’s not particularly deep or spectacular, but it’s entertaining and great to sit back and relax to. Written by Phil Ford, who has written many other Sarah Jane Adventures episodes, it opens with Sarah Jane discovering a baby left on her doorstep. In an effort to find out who left the baby there and why, Sarah Jane, Clyde, and Rani are caught up in a war between two worlds. SPOILERS FOLLOW

It’s impossible to review this story without commenting on Elisabeth Sladen’s performance. As this is one of her final performances, it’s also hard not to think about this when watching her, and likewise have that colour my opinion. However, I can rest comfortably on the knowledge that I’ve always thought her performances stellar in every episode of the series, so when I think the same of her performance now, I can know that my perceptions haven’t been coloured that much. And she does give a great performance, particularly how she handles Sarah Jane’s uncertainty with looking after a baby. One of the things I really like about The Sarah Jane Adventures is how they’ve handled Sarah Jane in a domestic setting. She is a strong, independent, adventurous woman, and was never the type to settle down and raise a family. Yet children’s programmes tend to rely on domestic settings. They need to get the child characters in there, after all. So, while Sarah Jane was never looking for a family, she had one thrust upon her. She has accepted the responsibility, has become a mother to Luke and grown to love the children in her life, but she’s never truly become comfortable with it. She still longs for adventure. In “Sky”, she’s forced for the first time to look after a baby. As she herself comments, dealing with Luke as a teenager was difficult enough. She’s not prepared for a baby. So what does she do? She leaves the baby in Clyde’s care (and few people would ever consider Clyde a good parenting choice) and takes off on the adventurous part of looking after the baby: finding the real mother! I love that when the others are commenting on how cute baby Sky is, Sarah Jane comments, “You think so? I always think babies look a bit rubbery.” Perfect Sarah Jane.

The performances of the regulars (Daniel Anthony as Clyde and Anjli Mohindra as Rani) are top-notch as usual, but some of the guest performances do leave a bit to be desired. Christine Stephen-Daly as Miss Myers is a little over-the-top for my tastes—in particular, her delivery of the line, “The end is nigh!” is cringe-worthy (but to be fair, it’s a campy line to begin with)—but the character is otherwise a decent one. She has strong and believable motivations, so I can live with the slightly campy performance. I also wasn’t entirely convinced by the nuclear plant worker Miss Myers takes control of (the credits list his name as Caleb, although I don’t think it’s ever stated in the dialogue). I didn’t really find his fear at Miss Myers's sudden appearance all that credible, and the rest of the time he’s mostly a non-entity with no real screen presence. Admittedly, he spends most of that time under Miss Myers’s control, so it may not be entirely the actor’s fault.

The cameo by Professor Rivers (played wonderfully by Floella Benjamin) was a pure delight. Her character is always fun, and I absolutely adored the bit with her pretending to have sonic lipstick of her own. Indeed, for the briefest moment, I actually thought she really had some!

The weakest part of the story would have to be twelve-year-old Sky, both the performance and the character. I had a suspicion throughout that she would be joining the cast at the end, as she was just a little too much of a Luke clone: a child created by an alien race for use in a war who ends up under Sarah Jane’s care. Instead of super intelligence, she has super powers. It was pretty obvious she was meant as a replacement for Luke now that he’s off to university. I also found Sinead Michael’s performance annoying. There’s always a risk with child actors and alas, that risk is seen clearly here. I would say that hopefully she improves over time, but unfortunately, there are only four episodes left for her to improve in, so it’s unlikely. I would have preferred if baby Sky had stayed a baby. It would have made for some interesting possibilities in future episodes as Sarah Jane struggles to save the world and look after a baby at the same time.

The metalkind are an innovative new alien species, and are very visually interesting. The Sarah Jane Adventures doesn’t use a whole lot of original alien designs (budgetary concerns mean they often need to reuse existing costumes from Doctor Who or Torchwood), so it’s nice when they do show up and they look as well-designed as the metalkind. The background about the war between the metalkind and the fleshkind is also tantalizing. I love that neither side is the clear villain, and that you can never be entirely certain who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. Perhaps they’re both telling the truth in their own way, or perhaps they’re both lying.

The twist at the end revealing that baby Sky was delivered by the Captain and the Shopkeeper from last season’s “Lost in Time” came as quite a surprise. I’m glad that of the six episodes they managed to film for this season, two of them are the final two, as the mystery of who the Captain and the Shopkeeper are is clearly meant as an on-going season arc. I just hope those final two episodes have the answers!

Overall, “Sky” is a great start to a new season (albeit a short one) of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s not the best episode in the series, but it’s a fine story nonetheless and a joy to watch.

To end with, here are a couple of my favourite fan-made tributes to Elisabeth Sladen.

From Babelcolour:

From Seduff:

And the song, “Goodnight, Sarah Jane”:

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