With great anticipation we welcome back Sarah Jane Smith, freelance journalist, traveler in time and space, friend of the Doctor, and defender of Earth (or, at least, Bannerman Road). Her initial season of "The Sarah Jane Adventures" was great fun indeed, and as we move into a second batch of ripping tales, we discover an even greater character depth, themes of family slipped in among the alien invasions.
The season is a batch of hellos and goodbyes, as Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige) and her family leave the series, replaced by new neighbors the Chandras, among them young Rani (Anjil Mohindra). Paige left the show to concentrate on school work, but the timing allowed for a gradual phase-out - her character played a key role in the season's first two-part story and returned later in a brief role.
More importantly, Maria's absence was a major plot point for the season. It's revealed in the premiere episode "The Last Sontaran" that her father (Joseph Millson) has accepted a job in America, which means moving away from her friends; it plays out with great familiarity for kids who have seen best mates move far away. Sarah Jane's son, Luke (Tommy Knight), is especially hurt by this, spending the next several episodes missing her dearly. And in keeping with the honesty of such emotions, his heartache fades as the season progresses. By season's end, he still misses her but no longer needs to mention it repeatedly.
And by this point, he's also become good friends with the Chandras, who moved into Maria's old house across the street. In addition to Rani - presented here not merely as carbon copy Maria, but as her own character, an aspiring journalist with a Sarah Jane-esque nose for trouble - we get sweet mom Gita (Mina Anwar) and dad Haresh (Ace Bhatti), whose role as stern headmaster of the local school finds him at odds with Luke's mischievous pal Clyde (Daniel Anthony). That puts a fun spin on things, allowing younger viewers a chance to realize teachers are people too (and wonder how their own headmaster would handle such wild adventures) while also creating a winky bit of frequent conflict between him and Clyde, a prickly situation with which kids can relate.
The Chandras make their debut in the season's second story, "Day of the Clown," which reveals Sarah Jane to have a crippling fear of clowns. (Good for her. I've never understood anyone who doesn't.) Our villain is Elijah Spellman (Bradley Walsh), who's just opened a "Museum of the Circus" in town, and what a coincidence, the timing of his arrival matches a string of disappearances in the neighborhood. Kids are going missing, and others are seeing a ghostly death clown (complete with jagged teeth and demonic smile, obviously inspired by - and matching the utter terror of - Pennywise, the monster of Stephen King's "It").
Luke's handling of Maria's exit keeps the story linked to the previous adventure, and it's here the producers slowly begin to shape the season's family themes. Writer Phil Ford invents a link here to the fable of the Pied Piper, who whisked away Hamelin's children out of revenge. Our death clown - named Odd Bob for extra dread value - threatens to do the same at Luke's school. The family theme here is a simple fear of loss; the rest of the script concerns attempts at confronting and controlling fear, a nice touch, especially in a franchise known for children hiding behind the sofa. (Clyde's solution for defeating Odd Bob is too familiar yet works nicely within the story.)
Next is "Secrets of the Stars," which also stores its family themes in the corners of the plot, as Luke begins to fret over not having a birthday, which makes him feel separated. (This is brief a reminder of the running thread of season one, in which Luke, who has no parents but was made in a lab by aliens, struggled to fit in. For season two, Luke appears fully at ease with his humanness and, while still a bit geeky, isn't as much of an outsider.) The rest features an astrologer scam artist taken over by alien forces, with Russ Abbot in a fine guest starring role.
In "The Mark of the Berserker," we meet Clyde's estranged father Paul (Gary Beadle). Eager to prove himself to his slick-talking dad, Clyde reveals his secret adventures to him, then sneaks him up to Sarah Jane's attic. Paul steals an alien pendant that allows the wearer to control others' minds - making this the third story in a row featuring possession of some kind, a sort of sub-theme. Paul becomes consumed by the pendant's power and insists Clyde join him on his hypnotic joyride. Beadle's performance is notably strong, turning Paul into someone completely unlikable yet ultimately sympathetic - a fine line to walk. The entire story plays quite seriously with thoughts of how children deal with absent parents; there's anger in Clyde's voice from time to time (Anthony is also very strong, easily earning the spotlight in these episodes), and he's conflicted in wanting to see his dad as the "cool one," a role Paul is also eager to fill despite (or perhaps because of) his being too much the bad influence.
The script digs even deeper when Paul commands Clyde to forget his friends. (As is the case with these kinds of stories, the wish-maker's demands are spontaneous and poorly thought out, and in this case, Paul doesn't bother thinking of the consequences.) The excitement of Paul's carefree ways overwhelms Clyde, with or without the pendant twist, while the notion of a custody battle is taken to sci-fi extremes, a metaphor which will also spring up in the season finale.
But first we have "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith," which gives Sladen her finest moment to date as Sarah Jane. On the surface, it's a rehash of both the first season tale "Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?" and the "Doctor Who" episode "Father's Day," although a terrific script (by Gareth Roberts, who also penned "Whatever Happened") and great performances from both the main cast and the guest stars keep things fresh by sweeping us up in the clever drama.
The Trickster has returned, tempting Sarah Jane into saving the lives of her parents, who died when she was a baby. This creates the very sort of chaos on which the villain thrives, but while the story does a fine job with the adventure side of things (including a nifty alternate present day where the entire world has become one big "Doctor Who" quarry; could a second alternate present day consist entirely of corridors?), the real thrill is in the human angle. Sladen's performance is a gut-wrencher, with Sarah Jane, like Rose Tyler before her, making the devastating realization that some sacrifices are too difficult to bear.
The season finale "Enemy of the Bane" also repeats franchise material, but it also does so with inspired verve. Here, the vile Mrs. Wormwood (Samantha Bond), the villain of the series pilot special "Invasion of the Bane" and mastermind behind Luke's creation, returns, this time seeking help. She speaks of herself as Luke's true "mother," putting Sarah Jane once again in a position of losing her adopted son (which previously occurred in the season one finale "The Lost Boy"). Luke, meanwhile, is understandably confused by it all, eventually becoming open to the thought of Mrs. Wormwood, formerly the stuff of his nightmares, as a "biological mother." Once again, the series turns to thoughts of what defines family.
But it's also a ripping adventure, full of double-crosses and last minute escapes and the fate of the galaxy and a few unexpected bits I dare not spoil for you. To make longtime franchise fans faint in excitement, there's also the return of Brigadier Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart! He's called in to help when Sarah Jane finds herself needing to break into UNIT headquarters (no small task, that), adding a bit of caper thrills to the proceedings. And oh, how wonderful it is to see Nicholas Courtney once more in his most famous role; Courtney, while admittedly a little older and a little slower in the action department, is obviously relishing the guest spot, just as fans will relish seeing him save the world one more time.
The Brigadier is family, too, which returns us once more to the themes of the season. Throughout this round of episodes, Sarah Jane and her friends are reminded about the nature of family - true family, extending beyond blood relations, including everyone who matters to you - and leave the season far wiser. Oh, and they also get to battle Sontarans, defeat demonic clowns, visit alternate timelines, and save the world a good half-dozen more times.
BBC Video collects all twelve half-hour episodes onto the three-disc set "The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Second Season." The discs are housed in a simple double-wide keepcase with an overlapping tray on one side - it's all a bit clunky, really.
The episodes included in the set are:
Disc One: "The Last Sontaran" Parts 1 & 2 and "Day of the Clown" Parts 1 & 2.
Disc Two: "Secrets of the Stars" Parts 1 & 2 and "The Mark of the Berserker" Parts 1 & 2.
Disc Three: "The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith" Parts 1 & 2 and "Enemy of the Bane" Parts 1 & 2.
Video & Audio
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is about on par with the season one set, perhaps a tad better. Detail is terrific - even the CG effects look impressive - while color snaps. Grain is completely absent.
The Dolby stereo mix is vibrant and rich, about as full as you can get without stepping up to 5.1. Dialogue is clear and music and effects are quite bold. Optional English SDH subtitles are provided.
As with the season one set, each disc here includes "Sarah's PC," which features 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 Three also take you to "The Sofa Area," where you can flip through the text of a virtual coffee table diary which recaps the stories from both the first and second seasons, in case you need a reminder.
Each disc allows us to visit Mr. Smith, the show's supercomputer, using the same iffy interface as the previous disc set. (I'm still not a fan of having this footage shrunk down to fit inside Mr. Smith's computer frame - you can see an example from the season one set here.)
Mr. Smith's offerings for Disc One are a clip from "Blue Peter" (4:35) with Knight, Anthony, and Mohindra paying a visit to the show, and an audio sample (5:16) from "The Time Capsule," an audio book read by Sladen. It seems the only printed books related to the franchise are adaptations of TV scripts; all the original material is instead limited to CD, which is a shame for young fans who might prefer to read, not listen, to spin-off adventures.
On Disc Two, Mr. Smith shows us "Behind the Scenes with Tommy Knight" parts one (1:29) and two (1:27) and "Behind the Scenes with Julian Howarth" (2:08). All are essentially promos for the show that originally aired on CBBC. Knight's clips show him on set teasing the upcoming season; Howarth, the show's sound mixer, is an interesting (if still fluffy) introduction to the technical side of things.
For Disc Three, Mr. Smith has two short photo galleries that play in slideshow format (1:38 total).
Disc Three also has the "Telescope," which hosts both the cinema trailer (1:32) which promoted season two in theaters, and a promo clip called "The Ten Doctors" (0:57), which is nothing more than a re-cut version of the rather generic "Doctor Who" theme song music video created for that show's 40th anniversary.
Finally, if you answer correctly five questions in a row in the "Quiz Area," you unlock "From Raxacoricofallapatorious with Love" (5:14), an amusing special mini-episode produced for Comic Relief's Red Nose Day 2009.
Each disc also plays a preview for a BBC program as it loads.
"Coulrophobia. It's the fear of clowns."
"The Sarah Jane Adventures" works wonders as part of the "Doctor Who" franchise while standing strongly on its own. This is magnificent entertainment, thrilling not just for its young target audience but viewers of any age, longtime "Who" fans and newbies alike. Sladen, better than ever, leads a terrific cast through crisply written, fast-paced adventures that tinker with science fiction and fantasy without ever forgetting the human touch. And this second season is even better than the first. Highly Recommended.