The Sarah Jane Adventures

From the Department of (not-so) Guilty Pleasures

Thanksgiving 2010: In praise of an older woman:

The Sarah Jane Adventures returns!

For the past three years, the BBC has been producing what must be one of the best "children's television" adventure programs in the world. I'm tempted to call it a "family drama" or some other euphemism because — much as it pains me to admit the truth — I am a few years decades past any claim to being a child, but The Sarah Jane Adventures is broadcast on C(hildren's)BBC, and even a cursory glance at its website reveals that it is being marketed to ... kids. Full-stop.

And yet ... And yet, I am looking forward to its fourth season with what is a frankly childlike — maybe even childish — sense of excitement, despite last year's third series, even if last year's third series wasn't, quite, as much fun as were the first 24 half-hour episodes.

And fun is the operative word here. So far, The Sarah Jane Adventures have captured the feel of its progenitor, Doctor Who, arguably better than the revivified original itself.

As befits a spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures isn't saddled by an enormous and fanatical (and extremely vocal) fan-base and so, I suspect (though I'm sure Russel T Davies & Co. would hotly dispute my hypothesis), that its writers and producers are not suffering quite the same pressure to make it BIGGER and BETTER than it was last time out.

Which ironically gives them a better chance to produce more of the sort of stories that made it so bloody good the first and second (and, partially, third) times around. Instead of worrying (even if subconsciously) what fandom and the blogosphere are going to say moments after a program airs, they can, with clean hands and composure, concentrate on telling stories.

Yes, I'm going on about the importance of story again; yes, it's a recurring theme; and yes, it's bound to pop up again here, probably sooner than later.

If that's okay with you, then click here to read the full article.

For those unfamiliar with the program, but who have nevertheless followed me thus far, The Sarah Jane Adventures is a science fantasy spun-off from the long-running series, Doctor Who. It's titular protagonist, Sarah Jane Smith, is a part-time journalist and full-time world saver who is, most unusually for the realm of heroic fantasies, a nearly 60 year-old woman (Elizabeth Sladen already over 60 in the real world), and who spends her time hopping fences, breaking into top-secret government bases and facing down slavering alien menaces bent on conquering the Earth — or worse.

The whole gang. (Please note that all images are copyright © of The BBC.)

The Trickster — would have scared hell out of me when I was small, kind of creeps me out even now. (Screen-shot from series two, episode 9, "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith".)

Even more improbably, she is helped by a small band of brave (but far from perfect) teenagers, whom she mothers and mentors one moment, and sends head-first into mortal danger the next. Armed (usually) with only her wits and experience, her courage and her "sonic lipstick" (a sort of tricorder/magic wand that serves to open doors, interface with alien machinery and sometimes stun adversaries with high frequency sound waves), "Miss Smith" and her young allies again and again come up against overwhelming odds only to triumph and save the earth yet again (it's a children's program; don't expect too many on-screen bodies and don't expect the heroes to lose).

Despite all of the world-saving and desperate running, The Sarah Jane Adventures has also managed to pack in enough human interest to make the program emotionally affecting. Sarah Jane herself is a woman whose experiences travelling through time and space with The Doctor when she was young left her too changed to return to an everyday existence when those adventures finally ended with her return to an Earth-bound existence. And so, the woman who "knows where to look" keeps finding the strange and the dangerous where the rest of us would walk on by — until it was too late.

Her adolescent team consists of her adopted, alien-synthesized son, Luke (played by an actual teenager, Tommy Knight), a super-genius who is still a little clueless about how to live a normal life; aspiring journalist Rani Chandra (Anjli Mohindra), who lives across the road and the brash and boastful Clive Langer (Daniel Anthony), a product of a broken home who has found a new family, of sorts, in Sarah Jane's attic.

I suppose it's worth mentioning that, besides featuring a sixtyish woman as an alien-hunter, the cast is remarkably diverse to these North American eyes. Rani is of East Indian background and Clive is Black; the school which all three kids attend is very diverse and so are the range of guest stars. I'd like to think this is the unconscious product of a new Britain happy in its new, multi-hued skin, but I suspect it is actually more a (very positive) result of a conscious affirmative action on the part either of the BBC or of the series' creators — which is perhaps just as admirable, if not as happy, a supposition.

Yes, there's a robot dog; happily, it is used only sparingly.

In any event, race seems to be pretty irrelevant to the kids themselves — and again, I have no way of knowing whether that reflects reality on the ground in Britain, but I suspect it too is a conscious decision not to turn the program into a didactic issue of the week type of production.

Because what The Sarah Jane Adventures mostly are, are adventures. Like the old Doctor Who which in tone it so resembles, The Sarah Jane Adventures are intense enough to give smaller kids a scare, emotionally realistic enough for older kids to relate to, and pure, wackily adventurous enough to number grownups like myself among its fans, willing — indeed happy! — to suspend disbelief for 6 hours a year and to simply revel in a world of the adventurous imagination.

I'll be watching the new series (which began yesterday) with hope and reporting on it with ... well, with whatever it is I find.

Here's hoping that season four is a good one!

Expect my first review to appear Thursday morning, and then every Thursday for the next five weeks. I hope you'll join me, and that you'll feel free to comment away.

Spread the word!

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Sarah Jane Adventures was boss!

Old but still relevant comment...

I stumbled across The Sarah Jane Adventures one day and immediately became a fan. It felt so much like the way Doctor Who was in the beginning of the reboot and how (I've heard) it was in it's heyday. It had the absolute right balance of action, adventure, scares and childish humour to satisfy all ages.

I can't really count myself in the 'child' category anymore but I loved this show. It was incredible. I wish the Moffat would take a peek at it and try doing Doctor Who again.

Re: Sarah Jane Adventures was boss!

Thanks for the comment. Obviously, I agree with you on all points; the programme was a lovely piece of work.

I've often wondered if that was due, at least in part, to the fact that it wasn't a monster hit like who, so that Davies could just get on with telling stories without the pressure of out-doing last week's Great Big Climax with an even louder bang.

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