Fans of the popular British sci-fi TV series Doctor Who may recall the previous Wild Reed post in which I discussed the return of Sarah Jane Smith, one of the Doctor’s most popular traveling companion of the original or “classic” Doctor Who series (1963-1989). I noted that Sarah Jane, played by Elisabeth Sladen, made an appearance in “School Reunion” – an early episode in the second season of the revived or “new” Doctor Who (2005-present).
Though invited to rejoin the Doctor and his current traveling companion, Rose Tyler, Sarah Jane gracefully declined, preferring to move on with her life here on Earth. Yet “School Reunion” wasn’t the last we’d see of investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith. Earlier this year in the United Kingdom, Sladen reprised her role as Sarah Jane in the pilot episode of her own television series for the CBBC, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Production on a full series of ten 30-minute episodes is due to begin next month.
Adventure, Wonder, and Integrity
Geared to a slightly younger audience than either the new Doctor Who or it’s first spin-off, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures is nevertheless, judging from the pilot, a well written, acted, and produced television show. And for young (and not-so-young) viewers, it not only offers escapist entertainment, but some important insights into the living of a life of adventure, wonder, and integrity.
Of course, this really isn’t that surprising given that one of the show’s creators, Russell T. Davies, is head writer for the “new” Doctor Who, and as this TV show’s executive producer, Julie Gardner reminds us, “[Doctor Who] is not a series for the world weary, jaded, or coldhearted. . . . There’s wit and love and pain and adventure. . . The universe is dangerous and your moral choices, your actions, define you.”
“If we all had a little more of the Doctor in us,” says Gardner, “our world would be a better, braver place.”
Writes Alex Newman of the pilot episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures: “This supposed children’s program . . . tackles loss, loneliness, fear and despair - all ingredients of ‘adult’ drama - but in a way that allows the characters to grow and learn something about themselves and their boundaries - and other people. It does it without hitting the younger end of the audience over the head with it, and at the same time almost avoids falling into the trap of producing tacky syrup for the older end of the spectrum to become stuck in.”
Since her reunion with the Doctor, and their working together to unmask and defeat the Krillitanes (documented in the “School Reunion” episode of the “new” Doctor Who series), Sarah Jane has clearly found renewed energy in pursuing her interest in paranormal and extraterrestrial goings-on. As a result, her neighbors consider her somewhat eccentric. Yet as Sarah Jane defiantly declares: “I don’t care what people think of me. Never have. I just want to find the truth.”
And equipped with an extraterrestrial super computer known as Mr. Smith and various gadgets and devices gained from her past adventures with the Doctor (including a wrist watch that scans for alien life and a robotic dog, K-9 Mark 4), Sarah Jane Smith is more than capable of getting to the bottom of mysterious happenings. Her plucky deposition also helps.
Yet there’s an introspective and wistful side to Sarah Jane as well – one that allows for the expressing of heartfelt insights into the human condition.
“When I was your age,” she tells her young neighbor Maria, “I used to think, ‘Oh, when I’m grown up, I’ll know what I want, I’ll be sorted.’ But you never really know what you want – you never feel grown-up, not really. You never sort it all out.”
Of her time with the Doctor, she remarks: “I met this man. A very special man called the Doctor. And years ago, we traveled together [in time and space]. Then it came to an end. And suddenly, I was back to a normal life – electric bills, burst pipes, bus tickets, and rain.”
Without doubt, there’s a certain sadness about Sarah Jane Smith. She’s not one to wallow in it, however, but rather names it and accepts it. Such a conscious and proactive response serves to energize her as she moves on with her life. In a number of areas of my own life I can resonate with this aspect of the character of Sarah Jane Smith. I also think that Elisabeth Sladen does a wonderful and beautiful job in bringing to life a fully human individual – one with very real doubts and regrets, hopes and aspirations.
Knowing Where to Look
In “School Reunion” there was a tinge of bitterness to Sarah Jane’s reminiscing of her time with the Doctor and its abrupt end. Yet with a long-overdue experience of closure, afforded by the concluding events of “School Reunion,” Sarah Jane has clearly come to peace with her past – and her present and future: “I saw amazing things, out there in space; but there’s strangeness to be found wherever you turn. Life on Earth can be an adventure too. You just need to know where to look,” she says.
And Sarah Jane certainly knows where to look for strangeness and adventure. In the series pilot episode, “Invasion of the Bane,” her inquisitive nature leads her to the factory that produces Bubble Shock!, a highly addictive soft drink that’s taking Britain by storm. As others have observed, this particular scenario actually bears some similarity to the Futurama episode “Fry and the Slurm Factory”, where an addictive soft drink is discovered to have a terrible alien secret. The earlier B-movie,The Stuff had also used a similar idea.
Bubble Shock!, Sarah Jane discovers, is being made by an alien entity known as the Bane, who are able to disguise themselves as humans by use of “image translator” technology. And leading these counterfeit humans is the sinister Mrs. Wormwood, CEO of Bubble Shock! As Sarah Jane observes, Mrs. Wormwood’s name echoes the star Wormwood from the Book of Revelations, which, after plunging to earth, poisons all sources of freshwater.
The Bane wish to consume the people and resources of Earth, and their plan to do so takes advantage of modern humanity’s tendency to mindlessly consume. Sarah Jane, however, refuses to even sample Bubble Shock! “I’d rather die,” she tells Mrs. Wormwood, who is soon more than willing to oblige.
What follows is a classic adventure tale complete with tentacled aliens, resourceful kids, the camaraderie of new found friends, the ultimate defeat of a larger-than-life villain with plans for world domination, and perhaps most refreshingly, a heroine who is of “a certain age” (Sladen turned 60 on February 1) yet who is more than a match for all manner of challenges and dangers.
For instance, when one of the Bane aliens, in its real and hideous form, breaks into Sarah Jane’s house and heads up the stairs intent on killing Sarah Jane and her young friends, it mockingly refers to her as an “old woman,” to which Sarah Jane retorts, “Hey, less of the ‘old’,” before resolutely repelling it with a toxic spray of alien origin.
Shocked by the appearance of the Bane, Sarah Jane’s young friends are surprised to hear her insist that the government “knows all about aliens.”
She goes on to note that: “There are secret organizations dedicated to finding them,” a reference, no doubt, to the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce or UNIT (from the classic Doctor Who series) and the Torchwood Institute (from the “new” Doctor Who).
“But they tend to go in all guns blazing,” concludes Sarah Jane. “I just think there’s a better way of doing it.”
No Longer Alone
At the beginning of “Invasion of the Bane,” Sarah Jane is a reclusive and not very friendly individual. Yet by the conclusion of the program and the defeat of the Bane, she’s formed a bond with two of her young neighbors and adopted “the archetype” human child the Bane had created.
“I thought, ‘I can handle life on my own’,” Sarah Jane tells Maria and her newly adopted son Luke. “But after today – I don’t want to!”
Yes, we’re all in this together and we need one another. No man (or woman) is an island. It’s yet another life-saving truth uncovered and articulated by Sarah Jane, and one which we all need reminding of again and again.
And may there be many more such truths to come – along with, of course, plenty of adventures involving scary aliens, a sonic screwdriver disguised as lipstick, and our ever resourceful and funkily-attired heroine, Sarah Jane Smith!
See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Blast from the Past: The Return of Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith
She’s So Lovely
Impossible! . . . It Can’t Be!
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Postscript, January 2008: The first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures was a great success in the U.K. Plans are underway for a second! Here’s hoping both will be shown in the U.S. some time soon.