I recall after becoming a fan of Doctor Who in 2010 it took me a long time to really come to appreciate the classic series, but that was nothing compared to the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures. I mean really, who cares? Yeah okay, Sarah Jane Smith is wonderful and the chance to see Elizabeth Sladen getting the spin-off she was robbed of back in the 80s is nice, but it’s a fluffy kids show that has no substance for more mature individuals!
That was the lie I told myself and for many years I continued to believe it. Eventually though I did decide to look into it and I have to say I’m glad that I did. One thing that I was looking forward to most of all after discovering this rather enjoyable series was the fact that the Doctor himself could occasionally show up in it - unlike Torchwood, which kept him away for very good reason!
So as we celebrate the Eleventh Doctor in all his incomparable glory, coupled with the fact that the Twelfth Doctor is definitly showing up in the next spin-off Class, I thought maybe we should acknowledge 11’s presence beyond the show he calls home and look at the one time he made it into the world of The Sarah Jane Adventures.
One thing that did worry me going in (this being the first story from TSJAs that I watched) was whether the Doctor would overshadow proceedings in a show that’s supposed to follow-up with one particular companion after she’s moved on from him. I needn’t have worried! Writer Russell T Davies (in his sole Matt Smith script) wisely declines to write the Doctor into the story until the end of part one, though the Doctor does cast a large shadow it’s not his story so much as it’s a story he just so happens to be in. Davies instead allows for another former companion than just Liz Sladen’s Sarah to return to the world of Doctor Who, and that’s Katy Manning as Jo Grant (or Jo Jones to use her married name).
Right from the very start of the story Davies makes it feel like a big one with UNIT troops showing up at Bannerman Road to collect Sarah and bring her to the impressive-looking UNIT Base 5 at the foot of Mount Snowden. This is a show that usually plays out more low key so opening in this way grabs the attention from the off. Once Sarah’s in place at the base Davies brings in Jo and with just the right amount of expositionary dialogue to get those without knowledge of The Jon Pertwee Years up to speed – Look kids, it’s a former companion to the Doctor from one of his earlier lives! – Davies can let the fun begin.
Sarah and Jo are told that the Doctor is dead and they have been brought to his funeral, but we swiftly learn they don’t believe this to be true, Davies knowing full well that the audience feel the same way. They’re right of course because the Doctor appears within moments and Matt Smith proceeds to fulfill the collective fandom’s dreams of having the Eleventh Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith and Jo Grant in the same story, one written by Russell T Davies to boot!
The meeting between Jo and Sarah (only 37 years late) is everything we fans had hoped it would be. Even in a funeral setting Manning portrays Jo as the same lovably air-headed klutz we’ve always loved her for being and allows the majority of viewers who, we must remember, are new to the character to take to her instantly. It goes without saying that she and Sladen are wonderful together and you have to ask why no writer had previously tried to have them meet each other.
The villains of the piece are the Shansheeth, a rather daft-looking race of vulture-like monsters, who have teamed up with a rogue UNIT agent and have stolen the Doctor’s TARDIS. They are trying to steal the memories of the two companions to create a TARDIS key so they can use it for themselves in order to change history – the goal being to avert death on a universal scale. I have to applaud Davies for writing villains, in a CBBC show of all places, with less villainous motives. They’re changing history yes, but they’re ultimate goal is to save lives with it. There’s scope for some interesting moral dilemmas there and I daresay the parent show would’ve exploited that possible plot point but he doesn’t really touch on it. Still, it’s good to see some villains who aren’t just in it for the sake of GENERIC EVIL VILLAINY for a change.
Also, the way Sarah and Jo override the memory-stealing scientific liberty the Shansheeth attack them with by remembering ALL their previous encounters with the Doctor is a welcome bit of fan-service. We get the closest we ever will to seeing the “classic” Doctors in this show with all of the first five (as well as 10) getting a look-in. This didn’t need to happen but Davies made sure it did and I have to praise him for including that little touch. Similarly we get some closure on other “classic” companions as we find out what’s become of Liz, Harry, Tegan, Ben, Polly and Ace and the implication that the Doctor still checks in on all of them at times.
Overall then, Death of the Doctor is a good story and proves exactly why Doctor Who having spin-off shows, like The Sarah Jane Adventures in this case, is definitely a good thing. For the chance to see Sarah Jane Smith’s final on-screen meeting with the Doctor prior to the tragic death of Liz Sladen (“No, don’t cry. While there’s life there’s…”), as well as seeing her finally meet Jo Grant and both of them meet the Eleventh Doctor, that makes Death of the Doctor essential viewing. If you only ever watch one serial from The Sarah Jane Adventures make it this one.
On watching this it saddens me that Russell T Davies never wrote for the Eleventh Doctor again because he certainly has his characterisation down to a tee. Maybe, just maybe, the Twelfth Doctor will get something from the pen of Mr Davies one day?
And I can’t finish without drawing attention to the way Jo is convinced that this new man is the same Doctor she always knew:
“Oi! Imagine it from my point of view, last time I saw you, Jo Grant, you were, what? 21? 22? It's like someone baked you!”You have to love that!
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.