The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA). Sounds a bit naff doesn't it. Well, it isn't. Far from it in fact.
SJA is, for those who don't know, the second spin-off to come from Doctor Who (the first being Torchwood) following it's very successful relaunch 6 years ago. It stars the perpetually lovely Elisabeth Sladen as the intrepid investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith, who traveled with the 3rd and 4th incarnations of the Doctor back in the day and now carries on the good fight, assisting nice aliens and foiling nasty ones whenever they arrive on Earth. Or at least, whenever they arrive on Earth near where she lives, which to be fair, seems to happen pretty regularly. She is aided in this by a group of youngsters, including her adopted son Luke (who has been effectively written out recently), Lukes best mate Clyde and neighbour girl Rani, who is fine as far as she goes but not a patch (the character or the actress) on Maria, whom Rani replaced when the actress left a short way into S2.
Say what you will about Russell T. Davies, the Head Writer/Executive Producer/Showrunner/Whatever you want to call it, of Doctor Who when it relaunched (and I have, oh I have, at length and with naughty words), but it's only fair to point out that whatever his failings as a writer (or more accurately, a writer of science-fiction), he did what few others would have even bothered to try to do, and he did it with style. He brought Doctor Who back, and he made it a force to be reckoned with, not just on British Television but around the world. Crap writer* he may be, but as a producer and a showman, he got the job done.
SJA (and Torchwood) may actually be a bigger deal than Who, when you stop to think about it. Who ran for 26 seasons first time around. 26 seasons, with numerous producers and writers at the helm at different points in it's run, and numerous very popular characters coming and going. Yet at no point did any of those producers manage to launch any of those characters into a successful spin-off.
The closest anyone got was John Nathan-Turner, who had a pretty mammoth stint as producer on the show towards the end of it's life. He managed to produce a pilot episode for a proposed spin-off series. Guess who the lead character was. Yes, I know you all know, I'm not claiming for a second to be telling anyone anything they don't already know on here because frankly most people know more than I do about this stuff. I'm just doing a bit of preamble to make myself feel clever, OK?
Anyway, the Adric spin-off. In which the deceased maths troll returned as a ghostly spirit to work alongside the Brigadier in a Randall and Hopkirk-esque journey into the heart of darkness that is Skegness in the off season. No, hang on... It was Sarah Jane wasn't it?
Of course it was. Although you wouldn't know it from the title. The show was called K9 and Company, and would have focused on Sarah Jane (the Company, presumably), working with K9, the robot dog who had also traveled with the Doctor for a time.
I had never watched this pilot, despite owning it on DVD for a good long while. I had intended to slot it into a full chronological re-watch of Doctor Who, but circumstances beyond my control meant that I couldn't buy any more DVDs and many of those I already owned were lost so that idea went for a burton. It sat, languishing at the bottom of the pile, forgotten and neglected.
So I'm at a loose end at the weekend, having lost my internet connection for the umpteenth time and being deprived of my beloved twitter, and I'm ruminating on the fact that the current series of SJA is about to end, and one thing leads to another and in goes the disc. It doesn't get off to a particularly promising start, it has to be said, but the title sequence has been mocked before, by wittier men than I, so I shall move on.
What of the actual story? Set in a none more cliched rural community the story sees Sarah Jane and K9 up against a coven of witches, intent on a human sacrifice to get a decent crop. You know, like every other rural horror of the last 9trillion years. (Shamefully, the Whoniverse would return to the concept of rural folk all being dodgy psychos as recently as 4yrs ago, with the God-awful Torchwood episode Countrycide) There aren't really a lot of ways to big up a story where the villains of the piece are a fat old farmer and the lady from the post office. I will say that the revelation of the female villains identity did come as a bit of a surprise, so there's that, but it was a surprise based more on the facts that a) the character was barely present for most of the show, and b) another, much more prominent character could not have been more obviously played as a villain. Fair play to them for giving it a go but the swerve felt like a cheat rather than clever. (Had the eventual villain been around more and the red herring played more subtly, dividing suspicion and keeping you guessing, the finish would have had more impact. As it stands, I barely recognised the villain when she was unmasked.)
Even Elisabeth Sladen, and by God it pains me to say this, comes across as somewhat lacking. Without a decent foil, be it The Doctor or, as in SJA, strong support from her younger castmates, her natural charm has nothing to bounce off. Her relationship with K9 is the same one that everybody else has (he's a snarky know-it-all and she rolls her eyes) while her cousin/nephew/I'm not really sure is exactly the kind of stuffy and obnoxious character that we narrowly avoided when Luke turned up in SJA. Both are abnormally smart for their age but whereas in the modern series it is played with a knowing, self deprecating air the guy in K9 and Co. is just stuffy and obnoxious. Not to mention redundant; since this was meant, on paper at least, to be K9's show, why did they need another brainbox?
And in perhaps the biggest disappointment, it's not even sci-fi. Well, it's got an ex-time traveler and a robotic dog so in that respect, of course it is sci-fi, but the actual mystery they are trying to solve...? There is no sign that these people are achieving anything with their rituals. They are simply misguided local yokels with one foot in the past. What is the point of doing a Doctor Who spin-off if you aren't going to embrace the genre?
I'll be honest, it's hard to be completely objective about the whole thing, given that we now know, thanks to SJA, what the possibilities really are but even allowing for artificially heightened expectations and giving a bit of the old benefit of the doubt to compensate, it's still difficult to muster up too much enthusiasm. Sadly, the budgetary and shooting limitations that were becoming all too apparent in the Doctor Who shows of the day were all present and correct here, with none of the 'push the boat out' attitude you might have expected from a high profile launch. On the contrary, the whole thing looks rushed and cheap. It's telling that Sladen, normally a very enthusiastic presence on Who DVDs, finds it difficult not to slag off this show on the audio commentary. It seems she spotted a lot of the flaws herself at the time but was unable to do much about it.
So all in all, a bit of a failure. Points have to be given though, for getting the thing made at all. Well done, John Nathan-Turner. A forger of new paths.
* Crap writer may seem very dismissive and not particularly constructive. This post is not about him though, and the comment was designed purely to move past him to the meat of the piece. I would not dismiss any writers work out of hand and have very defined reasons for disliking his work. I shan't go into them here though because I'm trying to watch my blood pressure.