Shiny Shelf

The Sarah Jane Adventures

By Mark Clapham on 02 October 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Basing a children’s TV show around a companion from mid-seventies ‘Doctor Who’ is, to say the least, not the most obvious pitch for a show. After all, audiences are built through recognition, and the target audience for this show, and in some cases the parents of that target audience, won’t remember Sarah Jane Smith’s initial adventures in the TARDIS. Sarah Jane’s reappearance in the ‘Who’ episode ‘School Reunion’ was predominantly about adult concerns – nostalgia, separation, growing old – and didn’t point an obvious way forward for a series aimed squarely at kids.

However, here are ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’, picking up a short time after the events of the pilot shown on New Year’s Day, and on the basis of the three episodes shown so far this is a show that really works. If ‘Torchwood’ was ‘Doctor Who’ with an adolescent strop-on, trying (sometimes rather desperately) to be serious and adult, then ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ is ‘Doctor Who’ cut loose from having to appeal even partially to grown-ups.

While the current series of ‘Who’ has the gloss and broad-church appeal of a flagship mainstream drama, ‘Sarah Jane’ is willing to be a bit cheaper and sillier than that, unafraid to abandon any pretence of Hollywood-standard effects and just have a bunch of kids be chased around by a man in a big green monster suit. The series’ physical effects, limited locations, absence of adult relationships, twenty five minute episodes and multi-part stories are pleasingly reminiscent of old ‘Doctor Who’.

CBBC’s original request for a ‘Who’ spin-off was a series about the Doctor’s childhood, a sort of Gallifreyan ‘Harry Potter’, and while that idea was thankfully canned there’s a shadow of it in Sarah Jane’s adopted, alien-engineered son Luke, an unworldy super-genius who generates a lot of the stories. The inversion of the premise is very neatly done – Sarah Jane started out being shown the universe by the Doctor, and is now parenting a young pseudo-Doctor and explaining the Earth to him. The premise of the show has Sarah Jane, Luke and audience-identifiable normals Maria and Clyde getting into scrapes with aliens hanging around West London, with a few shocks and laughs but no serious scares. It’s a lot of fun.

‘Revenge of the Slitheen’ is written by ‘Bane’ co-writer Gareth Roberts, and cannily gets the ’school taken over by aliens’ story over and done with straight out of the gate. The eponymous monsters fit better in a straightforward kids show than they did in ‘Who’, and are played even broader here. Perhaps because it’s a series opener it feels a little top-heavy, with a lof of exposition up-front and most of the action in the second episode, but it efficiently re-introduces the concept of the show, brings in new boy Clyde and has some very funny set-pieces – I, for one, could watch that child Slitheen run around all day. Seriously, put a channel of that on and I’d watch it – hilarious.

The third episode is the first half of Phil Ford’s ‘Eye of the Gorgon’, is a bit spookier and travels further afield than your average kid’s show, flitting between an old people’s home and a sinister convent. With hooded figures and evil nuns it’s both scarier and more fetishistic than you’d expect for CBBC, but stays the right side of acceptable. The regulars are really gelling by this point, and there are some fun set pieces.

‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’ is a really entertaining, unpretentious kids show that’s smart enough for adults to enjoy. Here’s another spin-off comparison – if ‘Torchwood’ was what the 2005 ‘Doctor Who’ revival might have been if it had consciously aimed for the same cult audience who watched ‘Buffy’ on BBC2, then ‘Sarah Jane’ is a vision of what that revival might have been like if it had been made as an afternoon kids’ show. That both niche variants now exist alongside the parent series just goes to show the extent to which the BBC is allowing fans to have their cake and eat it. Long may it continue.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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