After successfully reviving the once long-dead staple of UK television, Russell T. Davies then set out to expand the franchise, creating "Torchwood," a sort of Earthbound "Doctor Who" for grown-ups only, what with all the naughty language and extra violence and gorgeous omnisexual heroes quipping about. It worked, and then some, which paved the way for Davies' other spin-off idea: a kid-friendly series following the new adventures of former companion Sarah Jane Smith. Again, it worked. And then some.
"The Sarah Jane Adventures" actually began as a completely different concept: BBC executives approached Davies with the possibility of a show following the Doctor's teenage years. Davies balked at the idea, stating such a program would deflate the mystery of the Doctor's secret past, then countered with another possibility: Sarah Jane Smith.
Elisabeth Sladen's lengthy tenure on "Doctor Who" (from 1973 to 1976) made her Sarah Jane one of the most beloved characters from the classic run of the series, and she was no stranger to returning to the franchise. In the early 1980s, she starred in the failed spin-off "K-9 and Company" and appeared as one of the returning companions in the anniversary special "The Five Doctors." In the 90s, she revived the character for a string of audio plays for radio and CD. Then came Davies' "Who" revival, and with it the brilliant episode "School Reunion," which brought Sarah Jane and the new Doctor (and K-9!) together for a ripping adventure tinged with bittersweet emotion, as Toby Whithouse's script dared ask what becomes of the Doctor's traveling companions once he leaves them behind.
From that episode, we learned that Sarah Jane, still as curious as ever, returned to a life of journalism, but the years she spent hopping through time and space left her with a taste for adventure - and, more importantly, a desire for justice. Like the Torchwood gang, Sarah Jane fights the good fight right at home, so whenever evil aliens or mad monsters strike and the Doctor's not around to save the day, good ol' Sarah Jane Smith will do the job.
What Davies and co-writer Gareth Roberts do in the pilot episode "Invasion of the Bane" (aired as a New Year's special in January 2007, frustratingly months before the series would officially premiere in September of that year) is create a new family for Sarah Jane. Rather than send her out on her own, the writers give her teenage cohorts - which allows the series to be told from a younger point of view, to which its target audience can relate. "Bane" is told through the eyes of 13-year-old Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige), who just moved into a new house with her dad (Joseph Millson) following her parents' messy divorce. Across the street lives the mysterious Sarah Jane Smith, a friendly but strange lady who keeps to herself - and, as Maria discovers one fateful night, also talks to aliens.
When a bossy new friend (Porsha Lawrence-Mavour, whose obnoxious character would mercifully be dropped from the remainder of the series) convinces Maria to go on a tour of a new energy drink factory - the idea is to get free samples and enjoy a cheap day out - the girl uncovers an alien plot to take over the world. Naturally, this means Sarah Jane is already on the case, and that's when Maria discovers what wonders lie in Sarah Jane's world.
Sarah Jane's attic serves as a base of operations, packed with wondrous alien technology, chief among them Mr. Smith, a talking supercomputer (voiced by Alexander Armstrong) disguised as a transforming fireplace. (One imagines children everywhere calling out to their hearths with Sarah Jane's catchphrase command, "Mr. Smith, I need you!") Lest we forget about the character's origins, we also get a glimpse of her own sonic screwdriver (disguised as a lipstick) and, of course, robot dog K-9, who drops in for cameos that bookend the series, and whose absence through the rest of the season is explained away with clever efficiency.
(While K-9's disappearance was officially due to attempts to give the character his own animated show which would conflict with "Sarah Jane," it's nice to see the producers opting to limit the overuse of a character who could essentially solve any problem, any time. Without K-9 - and with such gimmicks as the "sonic lipstick" kept to a reasonable minimum - the writers are often forced to make the characters rely on their wits, which makes for a far more interesting and rewarding show.)
Maria rescues a peculiar boy (Tommy Knight) from the factory's depths, and she and Sarah Jane later discover that he's no ordinary teen at all, but a creation of those villainous aliens, the Bane. The boy is the result of a wicked experiment that gives him the intelligence of ten thousand humans, yet he's essentially a blank slate, knowing nothing of the world. After thwarting the Bane, Sarah Jane decides to adopt the boy, naming him Luke.
It's another ingenious move on the producers' part. If Maria is a surrogate for the young audience, Luke is a chance to riff on teen culture. He misuses slang, gets jokes wrong, and never understands why kids do anything. For the most part, it's all for a laugh, or perhaps to kickstart the plot (his na´vetÚ leads to plenty of trouble). Every now and then, however, his curiosity raises larger questions, as in "Warriors of Kudlak," in which a "Laser Tag"-style gaming center is actually a trap, where aliens kidnap teens to fight in their real intergalactic war. Before the evil plot is uncovered, Luke questions the intent of the game. Why do children enjoy playing war? Why is it fun to pretend to kill? Later, the aliens show no distinction between playing war and fighting the real thing, and writer Phil Gladwin confidently refuses to resolve the question. He knows that kids watching know the difference - like all best family programming, "Sarah Jane" has great faith in the intelligence of its younger viewers - but then challenges them to construct their own answers.
Such a viewpoint is perhaps the series' strongest attribute. Instead of simply offering dumbed-down adventures at a faster pace, the producers filter smart sci-fi tales through the eyes of teens yet keeps them bursting with brains and emotion. (As such, older viewers are just as likely to have a great time as younger ones.) The writers are eager to blend wild genre concepts with themes to which kids can relate - divorced parents, trouble at school, etc.
And through it all, there is Sarah Jane. Sladen hasn't lost her charm in the years since "Doctor Who," but more importantly, she now carries an air of authority. No longer just a companion, she commands the screen - yet does so without overshadowing her supporting cast. (For the record: Paige and Millson are charming, Daniel Anthony - as Maria's brash-ye-helpful pal Clyde - makes for a great sidekick of the Mickey Smith mold, and Knight is downright perfect as the eccentric, almost alien, Luke.) Sarah Jane has always been an exceptional character, even when those old "Doctor Who" scripts called for her to be a screaming damsel in distress, but her evolution into this older, wiser adventurer is one of the great character revivals in television. Here, she's den mother, big sister, counselor, friend, neighbor, agent of justice, and voice of reason (her abhorrence of violence and military brutishness, mirrored by similar views on the current "Doctor Who," is quite welcome) all rolled into one. One look at Sladen in such a role, and it's easy to see why Sarah Jane, above all others, was chosen to return.
Just as "The Sarah Jane Adventures" returns for a second season (or "series," if you prefer) on both BBC1 and the CBBC Channel, the first season arrives on Region 1 DVD courtesy BBC Video.
Following the 60 minute New Year's special, the remainder of the season comprises of ten 25-minute episodes, each telling two-part stories in the classic "Doctor Who" cliffhanger mold. These episodes are spread over four discs, even though three discs could've done the job just as easily.
The episodes included in "The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete First Season" are:
"Invasion of the Bane" - Maria moves in to a new house, meets Sarah Jane Smith, fights off an alien invasion, and rescues Luke from the clutches of the villainous Bane.
"Revenge of the Slitheen" Parts 1 & 2 - The Doctor's old nemeses have disguised themselves as teachers at Maria and Luke's school as part of a plan to get revenge on planet Earth.
"Eye of the Gorgon" Parts 1 & 2 - Sarah Jane and friends investigate rumors of a ghost at a local nursing home, and one of the residents gives Luke a secret talisman with connections to a certain creature of ancient myth.
"Warriors of Kudlak" Parts 1 & 2 - While enjoying a fun round of "Combat 3000," Luke and Clyde are kidnapped by aliens who need young soldiers for their own war.
"Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?" Parts 1 & 2 - Maria is baffled when nobody can remember Sarah Jane or Luke, but they sure know the mysterious woman who's taken Sarah Jane's place. (This story cleverly links to the subsequent "Doctor Who" alternate universe tale "Turn Left.")
"The Lost Boy" Parts 1 & 2 - Sarah Jane is shocked to discover Luke isn't an invention of the Bane, but a boy who went missing months ago. Or is he?
Video & Audio
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is as solid as we'd expect from a newly minted TV series, with no visible issues stemming from the move from PAL to NTSC. There's a bit of softness in some shots, but otherwise, colors are rich and bold, detail is crisp, and the CG effects look surprisingly good. If you've seen any of the new "Doctor Who" episodes on DVD, "Sarah Jane" is on that level.
The Dolby stereo is equally vibrant, creating a big sound despite only handling two channels. Music and effects come through boldly without overwhelming the dialogue. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided.
Each of the four discs includes "Sarah's PC," click-through text "files" covering "Character Profiles," "Investigating Tools," and "Alien Profiles." They're not limited to the facts of the episodes on their specific discs, and as such, there's some profile overlap throughout the set.
Discs One and Four also feature a "Telescope" section - promos for other related offerings. Disc One offers a TV promo for "Invasion of the Bane" and a trailer for the "Doctor Who: Series 3" box set. Disc Four delivers two short "Sarah Jane" promos produced for CBBC.
Also on Discs One and Four are "Mr. Smith," which plays archival video footage through a "Mr. Smith" interface. (This prevents the footage from being viewed full frame; there's always the edges of the "Mr. Smith" video monitor. See the picture on the left for an example.)
On Disc One, the "Mr. Smith" offerings are:
"Sarah Jane Smith: From Journalist to Time Traveler and Beyond," which offers numerous clips from multiple "Doctor Who" episodes, plus "Invasion of the Bane" (curiously missing: "K-9 and Company"), all highlighting Sarah Jane's key adventures. We see Sladen's first TV appearance (from "The Time Warrior"), her farewell ("The Hand of Fear"), and her grand return ("School Reunion"), among others.
"BBC Norfolk webTV: Interview with Elisabeth Sladen" (7:19) is, as it sounds, an interview with Sladen to promote the premiere of "Bane."
"Blue Peter Footage" (5:13) offers clips from Sladen's appearance on the children's series "Blue Peter," again to promote "Bane."
"Behind the Scenes" is a brief collection of production photos you can click through.
On Disc Four, the "Mr. Smith" offerings are:
"Making a Slitheen Mask" (4:26), a collection of clips from a "Blue Peter" episode.
"BBC Breakfast News TV Spot: Interview with Elisabeth Sladen" (8:03) finds Sladen sitting down for a chat with cheery morning show hosts with fond, if fuzzy, memories of classic "Doctor Who."
"Audio Adventures" offers excerpts from two "Sarah Jane" audio books, both narrated by Sladen: "The Thirteenth Stone" and "The Glittering Storm."
Another "Photo Gallery" features more production photos for you to browse.
Disc Four also contains a "Quiz Area." Answer five trivia questions correctly, and you're treated to a batch of outtakes from the first season.
"The Sofa Area" is an oddity: you "leaf through" a book on Sarah Jane's coffee table, each "page" offering a plot recap of the series' six adventures.
Disc One opens with promos for "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and the BBC America cable channel. Disc Two plays a promo for "Robin Hood." Disc Three kicks off with a trailer for the fourth season of "Doctor Who." Disc Four offers a preview for "Primeval."
As with the "Doctor Who" DVDs, all four discs in this set kick off with lengthy animated menu sequences that can't be skipped. If you let the submenus idle for too long, they revert to the main menu. Let that idle, and the episodes automatically play after a minute or two.
Whether you're new to the "Doctor Who" franchise or a lifelong fan, you're sure to find something to love in "The Sarah Jane Adventures." It's wonderful, thoughtful, imaginative children's entertainment that's sharp enough to wow grown-ups with equal measure. Highly Recommended.