For those who understand, I need not explain. But for those who still don’t, let me say it out loud: Doctor Who is the single most important character and phenomenon in the history of British science fiction, and possible the single most important and impactive character in all of science fiction. The Doctor is charm and adventure incarnate, a sort of James Bond for geeks and pacifists. That’s why any attempt to gleam off of the Doctor’s charm, universe or success is a dangerous proposition indeed, traditionally doomed to failure.
The first attempt at a Who spin-off was the atrocious K-9 and Company, in which the eponymous metal dog and his owner, former Who companion Sarah Jane Smith, would investigate mysteries and get into all sorts of Scoobylicious adventures. Thankfully, it never evolved past the pilot, which you can view here.
Then that inspired producer, but talentless hack of a sci-fi writer, Russel T. Davies resurrected Dr Who for the 21st century; then, feeling his oats, he spun his Who off into the ridiculous Torchwood. As discussed here, Torchwood suffers from Davies’ writing limitations: it mistakes science fiction for flashy gadgets, MTV direction, flat characters and weird monsters.
So when the same camp announced a new Who spin-off, one based surprisingly on the unintentionally hilarious K9 and Company, I was not hopeful. The show, again starring the former and most famous and beloved Who companion, Sarah Jane Smith, would be targeted to a child audience. This additional news did not fill me with confidence; in the American tradition, children’s shows are severely dumbed down. And Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane was from an era when the Doctor’s companions were expected to slink about foolishly and get into trouble, and not offer anything more in the way of depth or emotional range. Sounded like a recipe for more of Davies’ silliness to me.
But I am here to report that The Sarah Jane Adventures are everything that made the original Dr Who so beloved. As such, it serves to further underline everything that makes Torchwood such a masturbatory perversion of storytelling. SJA follows some months after Sarah Jane, now in her early 60s and regretting a life waiting for the Doctor to return for her, had reunited with the current Doctor in the marvelous Who episode, “School Reunion”. Sarah Jane has recommitted her life to investigating alien shenanigans in an English suburb. Sladen plays her with a bit of complexity: an older woman who has grown to accept her singleness and childlessness, and to realize that the secret to doing good is to be Doctor-like, independent, courageous and single-minded.
As this is a children’s show, Sarah Jane soon finds herself leading a little neighbourhood team of teenagers, including a 13 year old boy who was grown by aliens in a pod, and who now must serve as Sarah Jane’s unexpected son. It’s actually a touching little turn, where the silvering ex-Companion is suddenly granted a taste of the life that was denied her by her association with the Time Lord: a small simulation of family. Luke’s slow crawl to calling Sarah Jane “mom” is a cute and sweet evolution that speaks volumes about the maturity of what is ostensibly a child’s show.
It’s actually rather ironic that a kid’s show can be so much more adult than the supposedly adult-themed, but brain-numbing Torchwood.
SJA never speaks down to its audience. Plots unfold logically. Characters behave believably. Stories have a social context. There are no lazy deus ex machina endings, so typical of Davies’ offerings. Resolutions spring from the protagonists’ creativity, passions and from internally consistent plot elements. More to the point, the feel of the stories is of good people with no special skills who must nonetheless combat great forces in ethical ways. In short, The Sarah Jane Adventures are the true heir to the classic Dr Who, not the sexed up jazz that is currently marketed in prime time.
I heartily recommend this show to adults and kids alike, and especially to those of you who remember and love classic Who.