The TV Series:
The DVD release of the fifth and final season of UK sci-fi series The Sarah Jane Adventures unwittingly serves as a souvenir of that unique TV show quandary: you have a hit show and the star suddenly dies - what to do?
History serves up a few examples. Some shows (Petticoat Junction, Chico and the Man) worked their way around the death by having the late actors' characters venture off somewhere, never to be seen again. Others (NewsRadio, 8 Simple Rules) choose to incorporate their cast members' deaths into the shows themselves, which in the case of sitcoms makes for some strange shifts in tone.
Russel T Davies and the producers of the BBC's kid-oriented Doctor Who spinoff The Sarah Jane Adventures pursued yet another option after their star, Elisabeth Sladen, succumbed to cancer halfway through production on this season. Since the show was so closely identified with Sladen's journalist/mentor character Sarah Jane Smith, her death prompted the production to be halted altogether. The resulting DVD contains the resulting three two-part episodes out of a planned six, all of which originally aired in October 2011 on the U.K.'s youth-oriented CBBC channel.
Watching these few episodes, I can see why they took that path - the show is Sarah Jane, a character that has a lineage going back to the classic Tom Baker Doctor Who of the mid-'70s. Since Elisabeth Sladen had been playing that role for 30-plus years, it would have looked opportunistic/tacky had the producers recast the role with a different actress. The show's Sarah Jane Smith, investigative journalist, operates a covert alien-saving operation from her suburban London home. Each episode is set up as a sort of extraterrestrial whodunit, with intrepid Sarah Jane investigating various strange goings-on with the help of her teen son, Luke (Tommy Knight), and two local kids, Clyde (Daniel Anthony) and Rani (Anjili Mohindra). While these basically self-contained adventures take our gang out to a wide variety of locales, Sarah Jane's cozy attic filled with alien artifacts and a talking supercomputer forms the show's main base of operations (even the DVD's menus are designed to look like Sarah Jane's attic).
Having never seen The Sarah Jane Adventures before viewing this set, I was struck by how appealing it was. This non-violent, kid-friendly (but entertaining for adults as well) romp calls to mind the more lighthearted moments in Doctor Who or Torchwood. If the first two Series Five episodes seem a little tired, plot-wise, they succeed based on the cast's likability and the fun, non-condescending manner in which they were done. Opener Sky finds Sarah Jane in the possession of a foundling that was dropped off on her doorstep. Sarah Jane, Clyde and Anji eventually discover that the baby, who has the power to conduct electricity when she's upset, is actually an alien child who was placed in Sarah Jane's care by a mysterious metallic giant from space. An imperious alien woman named Miss Meyers (Christine Stephen-Daly) shows up to claim the baby, revealing that the child was bred to serve as a pint-sized bomb meant to destroy the metal man's civilization. Before that can happen, however, the baby rapid-ages into a young girl named Sky (Sinead Michael) who becomes a regular part of the series as Sarah Jane's adopted daughter. The precocious, know-it-all Sky might as well be the Cousin Oliver of this show, but she fits in nicely and isn't nearly as obnoxious as she initially appears.
For a kids' show, The Sarah Jane Adventures packs a lot of thought-provoking ideas into its plots, which can come across as unsubtle at times. They add a lot to the show's uniqueness, however - especially with my favorite episode on this disc, the series-concluding The Man Who Never Was. This clever, eventful outing concerns the hyped-up announcement of a electronic gizmo called the SerfBoard, made by Serf Systems, a high-tech company presided over by its enigmatic American CEO, Joseph Serf (Mark Aiken). Before the SerfBoard premiere gets under way, Sarah Jane snags an interview with Serf which is closely monitored by the man's anxious bodyguard, Harrison (James Dreyfus). Of course, Sarah Jane and the kids soon discover that the SerfBoard is a mind-control device built by Harrison, and Serf himself is not a real man but a hologram of the recently deceased CEO controlled by a tribe of cowed, exploited aliens which Harrison bought on the Asian black market. Sure, the allusions to Apple and its secretive corporate image can get heavy-handed, but it's brought off with plenty of aplomb and cheeky humor (kudos to screenwriter Gareth Roberts and director Joss Agnew).
Even in its fifth year, there's a lot to like about The Sarah Jane Adventures. Elisabeth Sladen's nurturing presence helps a lot (so rare to see a middle-aged TV character in that sort of mentoring role), but most importantly it's a show that never talks down to its young, curious audience. "Gone too soon" applies to both Sladen and the show she starred in.
Like other recent BBC shows, The Sarah Jane Adventures was shot digitally in 16:9, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen on disc. The image is cleanly mastered with appealing color balance, robust darks, and nice sharpness that never gets too contrasty.
The original stereo soundtrack on these episodes is the sole audio option. The cutesy, ever-present music scoring is mixed in too loudly for my personal tastes, but otherwise it's a pleasant, clear track. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.
The 18-minute featurette Goodbye Bannerman Road - Remembering Elisabeth Sladen celebrates the actor's career with her Sarah Jane co-stars visiting the show's exterior set and sharing memories of her generous spirit and sense of humor. It also traces the genesis of the Sarah Jane character with a few cool '70s era Doctor Who clips, along with fond testimonials from that show's Russel T Davies and Matt Smith. The only other extras (if you could call them that) are the forced previews for other BBC products that open the disc.
The BBC's DVD edition of The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Fifth Season brings the kid-oriented Doctor Who spinoff to a close in a short but sweet single disc. Two of the three episodes here evidence a bit of script fatigue, but the energetic pacing and cheeky chemistry between Elisabeth Sladen and her young co-stars make it enjoyable, family-friendly entertainment. Sladen and the programme she steered were both gone too soon. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.