21/10/2011

Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith



The Sarah Jane Adventures bow out with a trio of excellent stories.
Words: John Connors


It’s impossible to watch these final six episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures without thinking of what happened after they were made though there had already been reports that this was planned as the final series due to the young cast growing up and, perhaps, the inevitable BBC cuts.

Season opener `Sky` seems to contradict that introducing the title character as a potential replacement for Clyde and Rani, both of whom are now clearly too old to still be at school. It’s a great season opener, including a big explosion, an impressive “metal kind” creature and strong performances all round. Phil Ford’s script manages to circumnavigate any budgetary restrictions to bring a vivid feel of a galactic war headed for Earth while director Ashley Way makes sweeping use of the power station in which the main action is filmed.

The dilemmas faced by the young Sky never seem forced and are played at just the right level. Sinead Michael makes a promising if slightly over excitable debut while Daniel Anthony and  Anjili Mohindra seem totally at home in their roles now. Perhaps we are watching differently, but Lis Sladen puts in one of her best performances in `Sky` whether debating the issues or showing her caring side.

Then there’s a big surprise with `The Curse of Clyde Langer` turning out to be the best story since the first season. While the Phil Ford penned story does borrow a little from the Doctor Who adventure `The Awakening`  , it is a perfectly judged narrative taking in family, homelessness and a very menacing alien along the way. After cutting his finger on an old totem pole, Clyde finds the mere mention of his name turns people against him- first Sarah Jane and Rani, then other friends, his mum and then even people he doesn’t know. He ends up on the streets with only the company of a homeless girl called Ellie. Their relationship develops into a potential romance albeit with all the uncertainty their situation brings.


Rani's noticed something the others haven't

While you might criticise Ellie’s rather too healthy appearance as being unrealistic for someone in her situation (she must have run away from home with a vat of hair products!) the subtle way in which the two interact adds a lot to the drama. Likewise, the vituperative manner in which Clyde’s friends and mother turn on him means we really feel for him as he is rejected. Daniel Anthony gives his best performance in the part., never over playing it yet slowly turning down Clyde’s characteristic confidence as his situation changes.

Rather like the Malus, the totem’s manifestation comes in the form of terrifying faces; this time several of them inset into the artefact growling away. These images are unsettling and very effective, more so than had anything emerged and started walking about. This is not a story about the threat itself however- there’s no real mystery there- in fact it doesn’t take Clyde long to work it out, but he cannot convince others. It is Sky who is the only one unaffected by the curse and who eventually- with some help from Mr Smith- manages to convince Sarah Jane and Rani to say the name and break the spell. 

The episodes are sprinkled with some lovely touches, best of which is the Night Dragon, an evocative name we imagine to be a myth but which turns out to be something quite ordinary and the mechanism for a bittersweet ending. Ford never lectures on the plight of the homeless but there’s enough here to set the target audience thinking a little about it, to get them asking questions, to foster an awareness.  `The Curse of Clyde Langer` is a superb piece of imaginative yet grounded fantasy TV for a younger audience.


The totem pole has noticed it as well

So to `The Man Who Never Was`, a lighter, appropriate manner in which to conclude the series. Gareth Roberts’ script brings together all the great things about the show and provides everyone- including a returning Luke- with plenty to do. In a week that millions are buying the latest iPhone despite modest new additions, the story is right on the button. In this case, it is a new laptop that the enigmatic Serf Corporation is launching but Sarah and the gang have their suspicions about the company’s enigmatic boss after noticing a `glitch` during a speech he gives. Turns out he is not real at all but a sophisticated hologram operated- in a brilliant looking amalgam of high and low tech- by some enslaved creatures called the Scullions using a series of huge levers!

It’s the kind of delightful nonsense at which the series has always excelled and the subsequent adventure manages to incorporate lots of action, a moral argument about the way the Scullions have been treated, some fun character beats- particularly between Luke and Sky- plus plenty of comedy (Mr Smith is particularly acid tongued!) The highlight though is Sarah’s interview with Serf in which both of them are fully aware of what the other knows and jib each other in the verbal equivalent of jousting. Once again, as if it needed saying, Elisabeth Sladen excels as she does throughout this series.

 It may be rose tinted, could be coincidence, might just be great scripts but there is something urgent about her performance in all six episodes that means Sarah Jane Smith gets an energetic send off. There’s a touching montage at the end suggesting the adventure goes on forever and really we want to imagine that Sarah Jane Smith’s do continue into her old age and to acknowledge anything else on screen would seem somehow wrong. If we watch this final series differently it will hopefully re-affirm what a fine character Elisabeth Sladen brought to the screen and how many people of several generations felt like they knew Sarah Jane Smith.- and how many more generations will still get to know her.  

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