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“13 Bannerman Road is where Sarah Jane Smith lives…”


There are times when it is difficult to review movies or TV shows without letting your own feelings cloud your objectivity. It was in April this year that the sudden announcement of Elisabeth Sladen's passing shocked Doctor Who fans old and young alike. Nobody could conceive that someone who was seemingly so energetic and so full of life like Ms Sladen could succumb to an illness as cruel as cancer. Filming on series five The Sarah Jane Adventures was halted and only three stories were in the can, making series four the last complete series of the show. Enough with the maudlin stuff for now, let's move onto review series four itself...

Luke leaves for uni - but he'll be back, with bags of washing, too...
Journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) continues her never-ending quest to keep planet Earth safe from all manner of extraterrestrial invaders, along with her son Luke (Tommy Knight), and his friends Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and Rani (Anjli Mohindra); the smug extraterrestrial super-computer, Mr Smith, is still in the attic and still sounds remarkably like a smug Alexander Armstrong and K-9 is around somewhere, battling an onslaught of red tape.

Series four sees the departure of actor Tommy Knight as a regular, with the character of Luke being written out by packing him off to university at the end of the first episode. Whilst the cast has been changing fairly regularly during the show's run (this first happened when they removed the thoroughly obnoxious Kelsey and wisely replaced her with Clyde), the character of Luke was something that seemed to give Sarah Jane a life and a purpose after spending so many years pining after The Doctor and removing Luke, despite briefly popping up on webcam fairly regularly, seems to take something fairly vital to the core of the show.

The Nightmare Man: Luke has been accepted into Oxford University unexpectedly early and he prepares to say goodbye to everyone around him, but this is thrown into disarray when The Nightmare Man (Julian Bleech) starts to invade Luke's dreams, eventually trapping all of Sarah Jane's young helpers trapped in a dream-like world.

What could have been a fairly standard psychological monster story is given a greater dimension with an additional storyline that has all of the emotions explored by Sarah Jane and her young friends as her son, Luke, prepares to go to university. Lis Sladen is wonderful in this story, giving her a chance to stretch when it comes to seeing her adopted son off and it's more than a little unsettling to watch the scenes where Sarah Jane is seen as an elderly, white-haired spinster, as Ms Sladen's shock passing means that she'll never reach such an age in real life.

Moving away from the more morbid elements, Julian Bleech is on fine form as the titular character; Bleech is fairly unique in that he is a guest cast member who has appeared in Doctor Who (as Davros), Torchwood (as The Ghostmaker) and here in The Sarah Jane Adventures (as The Nightmare Man). Bleech has an inherent nastiness to him - not to mention a face that is more than capable of augmenting such evil - and the result is a performance that is full-bodied, with Bleech inhabiting the character so totally, that he loses himself in the performance.

Comedy actress Doon MacKitchan also crops up in this story, doing what she does best, turning in a good performance as she does so. Oh, and for those older fans who are feeling uneasy or conflicted whilst watching scenes of Rani in her school uniform - don't worry, as actress Anjli Mohindra was about 19 or 20 when this story was filmed...

The Vault of Secrets: Rani's mother, Gita (Mina Anwar) has joined a local UFO-spotting group just as Androvax the Veil returns to Earth, but this time he appears to be asking for help to free the handful of members of his race who are in cryogenic suspension in the titular vault. The vault is guarded by the mysterious Men in Black, androids who are prepared to use lethal force in order to keep the contents of the vault secret.

This is a pretty entertaining story, with a fairly hefty amount of humour and some pretty impressive visual effects, especially when inside the vault. The Vault of Secrets sees a couple of returning characters coming back in ways that will surprise viewers - Androvax turns out to have an altruistic streak and the mysterious Mr Dread (previously seen in the animated adventure, Dreamland) has a conversion akin to St Paul on the road to Damascas (or at least the T-800 in Terminator 2). This not only makes for interesting twists in the story, but also allowed younger viewers to see that people cannot be seen in black and white and that people change through life. Some of the humour in this story is a little obvious, especially the name of the UFO-spotter's organisation, but there are more than enough elements that work to make up for this; it's also nice to see Rani's mother roped into the heart of the story for once - going from an annoying Gita to an amusing one...

In an act of blatant short-sightedness, Katy Manning returns!
The Death of The Doctor: UNIT informs Sarah Jane than an intergalactic communication from the vulture-like Shansheeth informs of the passing of The Doctor; whilst attending the funeral, it turns out that Sarah Jane is not the only former companion to be invited, almost literally bumping into her predecessor, Josephine Jones (nee Grant) and between them they soon realise that everything is not quite as it seems...

Written by Russell T Davies, this is most certainly a shameless exercise in nostalgia for long-time Doctor Who fans and frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. The decision to have Katy Manning return as Jo was a wonderful one, as she contrasts nicely with Sarah Jane and Davies even gets to reference some of Manning’s real-life characteristics, such as her being a blind as a bat and knocking over things in the process.

The sheer love that Davies pours into his script is undeniable, it almost feels like an anniversary story; when Sarah Jane and Jo sit down and share their memories of their mutual acquaintance, it’s pure and unbridled fan wish-fulfilment (as opposed to fan-wank), with so many little references to the past and the chemistry between them is simply wonderful, even if in reality, Sladen and Manning had differing opinions of the actor who played the Third Doctor. The contrast between what Sarah Jane had done with her life since she and The Doctor parted company and what Jo had gotten up to couldn't be more different, with Sarah Jane staying single and staying put contrasting sharply with Jo getting married, starting a family and travelling the world; Davies' script shows that though there are many difference between them, they are still united by their shared experience and both are happy with their lives as they approach their senior years. Some of Davies’ own personal writing traits (such as having someone exclaim “you are beautiful" to yet another extraterrestrial version of a terrestrial creature) are present and correct, but with so much love present in this story, RTD-haters can overlook this.

If School Reunion (the Doctor Who episode that relaunched Elisabeth Sladen’s televisual career) highlighted the awkward situation of meeting someone you adored and they defied the laws of aging and were now considerably younger than you, then what is seen in The Death of The Doctor is truly bizarre with Matt Smith being about a decade younger than his predecessor, then an almost gerontophillic atmosphere hangs over the proceedings, with Smith seeming like the prize hen at a fox convention. Smith delivers the goods as The Eleventh Doctor in this story and he seems at home with Sladen and Manning, allowing the audience to believe that the three characters are interconnected. There is a pleasing little reference to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart not being able to make the funeral - fans will probably guess as to The Brig's geographical location...

The Empty Planet: Clyde and Rani wake up one morning to discover that their street is deserted. Sarah Jane is also missing, just after discovering an invasion force heading towards the planet. Further investigation reveals that it isn’t just Bannerman Road, or even London, but the entire population of the world has vanished. The only other survivor is Gavin, a schoolboy whom is afraid of the teenage alien-busters, and their day is further ruined when a couple of psychotic, heavily-armed robots start shooting up the deserted streets, demanding the both the sun and the air. Will Rani and Clyde stop these locust-like invaders, and uncover the mystery surrounding the vacated world? Wanna put down some hard money on that?

This is a variation on Richard Matheson’s classic novel (and Will Smith’s not-so-classic movie) I am Legend, interwoven with the elements of youthful wish-fulfilment from Night of the Comet, where a couple of youngsters find themselves seemingly the only people left on the face of the Earth. The “invasion” tactic bandied about is particularly inspired, using the principle employed by the neutron bomb, but in this case, it is physically removing all people from the planet whilst leaving all buildings and technology unscathed, rather than utilising radiation to kill them.

It's like one of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers drunkenly copulated with a Dalek...
Speaking of which, the reason for our two plucky teens being the only humans left on the planet is pretty ingenious, and will lead to many an “ahh…” moment when viewers trace their way back through previous stories to piece it all together. It’s so very satisfying when the obvious notion of coincidence is rightly left at the door, and divine intervention ruled out altogether.

We were rather pleased that this story uses element of the classic giallo, where you think that certain information means one thing, when the reality is quite another. We won’t go into specifics, just in case you haven’t seen it, but let’s hope that it will help introduce a new generation to the notion that not everything you see or hear is necessarily what it seems. Let’s just say that it goes quite nicely with Men in Black’s “Orion’s Belt” theme.

Those of us who are a bit older will be able to spot warning signs in science-fiction writing, and from this we know that you should never trust an innocent-looking schoolboy in unearthly situations, as they are usually a lightening-rod for trouble. Sure, the little scamp might look as though he’s just wandered out from the pages of The Beano, but we all know that there’s more to him than that! Didn’t Rani or Clyde read/watch These are the Damned?

One other minor niggle is that of the somewhat camp robots, with the yellow one looking it as though it is the result of Michael Bay’s Bumblebee, Nu-Who’s Cybermen and a few bottles of Wild Turkey. The colouring of the mechanical marauders might be what causes the problems, but we can’t look at the RTD Cybermen marching along without humming the Village People classic YMCA as they go.

With such churlish things put firmly aside, this really is solid stuff, and what might be one of the best stories they have done, with the “kids” having to work a bit harder to carry the show off almost by themselves. With Lis Sladen now gone, it might be nice to see these two paired up in a couple of years to have a one or two specials, as they have proven they can do it - with almost nobody else around, let alone Sarah Jane herself. Damn good.

Lost in Time: Sarah Jane and the gang follow up reports of an alien sighting, only to find that they have taken the elaborate bait put down by a mysterious Shopkeeper, and his faithful parrot, The Captain. He explains that three pieces of Chronosteel, a metal forged in the Time Vortex, have been flung into Earth’s past, and each piece can alter known history in the wrong hands. With only an hourglass’ worth of time left, out three heroes are plunged through a temporal window to amass the three pieces and save the present.

Rani finds herself projected into the court of Lady Jane Grey, who quickly befriends the doomed matriarch. Whilst her rule was legendarily short and miserable, Rani brings a warmth in Jane’s desperate hours, but the treacherous Lady Matilda has plans of her own to both depose and dispose of the tragic monarch.

Clyde is dropped into the middle of World War II, with a small band of Nazis invading the beaches of a small coastal UK town, where he meets up with George Woods, and the two find their efforts to alert the Home Guard thwarted when they are both captured. The Nazis have found what they believe to be Mjolnir, the hammer wielded by Thor, and a source of unspeakable power. Realising that Hitler’s forces are now in possession of a one the Chronosteel pieces, the stakes have become much higher than just stopping the invasion of Britain.

Whilst all this is happening, Sarah Jane find herself 1899, embroiled in the midst of a ghost hunt, linking up with a young woman named Emily, who refuses to believe that all ties with the recently-dead mother are severed. A clock striking eight beings spectral sounds of children from behind a locked door, but Sarah Jane realises that these are not echoes of the past, but cries from the future, with the fate of the two youngsters hanging in the balance.

What we have here is essentially a variation on The Key to Time, but played out in a much smaller time-frame than Tom Baker had to play with, and the results make for a more satisfying whole, rather that the curate’s egg from the seventies. Indeed, there are certain elements to Lost in Time which will make fans of the long history of Doctor Who smile, with it managing to embody the original ideals of the original show whilst still retaining a flavour all its own. This is history combined with engaging adventure, providing lesson about the past wrapped up in layer of fun, making it palatable for a cynical, modern audience.

It's the Genesis of the Daleks!
We thought that the whole issue of race was going to be conveniently ignored during the story, as The Sarah Jane Adventures are more squarely aimed at kids rather than a family audience, but were both surprised and impressed to see that it hadn’t been conveniently brushed under the carpet. The Nazis sneer the term “Negro” at Clyde, who points out that Germany will end up losing the war by underestimating their enemies through “blind, stupid prejudice”. Educational and progressive stuff!

The performances and character work in this story is excellent, with the three leads having to reach a little deeper than they usually would. Anjli Mohindra is particularly good, forming a believable bond with the doomed Lady Jane which makes the end of the episode even more poignant because of her work. Daniel Anthony loses some of the cocky arrogance and smart-arse wit, to great effect, with Clyde festering a sense of anger towards the Nazis and their attitude towards him and others. This is some of the kids’ best work on the show.

One element which didn’t quite work for us was that of the parrot, as it seems a little too obviously a gimmick and an attempt to do something a bit wacky. This was almost like the schoolboy in the previous episode, where a seemingly unimportant character is actually more than they appear. On a churlish note, it was had to watch certain pieces without thinking of the old song by one of the former members of The Damned, with the words “I said Captain, I said what, I said Captain, I said what…” resisting all attempts to silence them.

In short, this is one of the most ambitious and complex stories they ever attempted on the show, in spite of not being entirely original. The interlinking of threads, using historical fact as dramatic bedrock and putting the characters in situations where every peril can be solved through either the use of coincidence or the timely intervention of technology. The ending is perfectly-pitched, and the story as a whole can be held up as an example of just what The Sarah Jane Adventures was capable of.

Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith: Tracking an inbound object hurtling towards Earth, the gang find themselves beaten to the punch by the mysterious Ruby White, a younger, peppier version of Ms Smith in a flashy sports-car. With Sarah Jane’s increasingly deteriorating memory, she feels that her journeys through the temporal universe have finally caught up with her, and although she has travelled through time, she can’t escape it. Has she found her natural successor to protect the Earth and keep alien incursions in check, or is there something more to the unfolding events...?

There must have been more than the odd viewer whom thought that the title of this story was hinting at the end of the run, and even with the age of internet spoilers, there was some doubt that the misinformation machine was in full swing to keep news of its demise at bay. That (what turned out to be) the final three stories were shot right after this one meant that Sladen clearly wasn’t in the best of health, so make of that what you will.

The character of Ruby White is one which is clearly designed to provoke a reaction, in the trouser department for men and the urge for women to punch her squarely in the mouth. As played by professional MILF Julie Graham, she is literally a Succubus, with her jollies being derived from draining the thrills out of its victims, as opposed to certain fluids from those Biblin’ days of yore. The story plays upon the fears held by all women of a certain age, that they are going to be replaced by a younger, more vivacious model, with Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith going one further and exploiting the universal fear of slowly losing ones’ mind and the memories of a lifetime.

More potently than merely replacement, the overriding theme is a sombre yet universal one, where the faculties of even the strongest of people start to fade, and there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it, other than just accept it. It starts small in all of us, even in something as trivial as not being able to run as fast before, or finding that an exhaustive library stored away in the mind isn’t as easy to access anymore. It’s a sad fact of life, and this story really channels is well.

In spite of the good winning out in the end, when watching this again, there is a definite bitter taste residing in the mouth, the death of Sladen tainting what plays as a life-affirming “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning” tale. That Sladen begins to suffer symptoms which see her basic abilities taken from her one by one really makes this uncomfortable viewing, and her performance really leaves you in no doubt that something really was wrong at the time.

Some of the more crass elements which are written in and played to the hilt were obviously in there through audience expectation, but it’s adults and the smarter kids whom will know where the true strength of the writings lies, and get the most out of this quietly powerful story. Maybe this should have rightly been the end of the line for The Sarah Jane Adventures

Fresh from yet another sappy comedy-drama...

Video


Series four of The Sarah Jane Adventures was the first to be shot in high-definition and there is a Blu-ray release, but unfortunately we’re reviewing the SD version, so we’ll concentrate on this…

The anamorphically-enhanced 1.78:1 image looks awfully similar to that of series three (which we reviewed this time last year), with fairly strong colours and a reasonable amount of image detail for a standard definition release. There is still the characteristic "smudginess" that is usually seen on standard definition BBC DVD releases, but this isn't a damning statement, as it still looks pretty good.

Audio


The 2.0 stereo soundtrack isn’t too bad, with a pleasing amount of ambience out of the surround speakers when your amplifier is switched to a Pro-Logic setting. Dialogue is perfectly clear, with Murray Gold's theme and Sam Watts' incidental music being well-represented in the mix.

Extras


Even though there is only one extra included on this disc is a very substantial one; as a tribute to the late Elisabeth Sladen, the story of Pyramids of Mars is presented here in its entirety.

Rightly looked upon as one of the very best serials that Doctor Who has ever produced, The Pyramids of Mars is a cracking story that sees The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) travel back to 1911 and discover that Sutek the Destroyer is behind a series of ominous events and only The Doctor and Sarah Jane can stop the last of the Osirians bringing his gift of death to all mankind...

For fans of New-Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures, this story serves as a wonderful introduction to the original series, with fairly timeless production values, great acting, a fair amount of suspense of and a number of moments that will have younger viewers diving behind the settee. The fact that it has got a load of pretty cool mummies wandering about the place killing people by crushing them to death just adds to the enjoyment value. This is a wonderful extra to include, which can help the classic Doctor Who series gain a new generation of fans; we have to wonder just which story that can include as an extra on the series five box set next year - we're thinking The Hand of Fear.

Sarah Jane Smith - and Lis Sladen - will always be around...

Overall


The Sarah Jane Adventures Series Four is terrific fun, with The Death of The Doctor being the highlight for long-time Doctor Who fans such as ourselves; Lis Sladen is as great as ever and Daniel Anthony just keeps getting better and better as Clyde (who would have made a pretty good Doctor Who companion, very much in the mould of Ben), along with sterling support from Anjli Mohindra. The pervading sense of sadness at the tragic loss of Elisabeth Sladen hangs over the show, but once you get hooked into the stories, you'll start seeing Sarah Jane on-screen, rather than Lis Sladen and appreciate her talents, rather than mourn her passing.


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