Looking Back At THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony returns to 13 Bannerman Road.
Spin-offs from Doctor Who.

They seem like a no-brainer, sitting here in the twilight of the Jodie Whittaker/Chris Chibnall era, with the return of Russell T Davies in the wings, and talk of a Marvel-style Who-universe (we will need hitting with several more hammers before we ever in good conscience call it a Whoniverse) opening up.

But when Russell T Davies was the boss of Doctor Who the first time round, the idea of spinning off whole series from the main Doctor Who universe was an enormous gamble.

Sure, the likes of BBV and then Big Finish had been doing amazing things with whatever strands of the expanded universe they could get. Big Finish in particular had access to all the Classic era Doctors, and were redefining many of them on a bigger, broader, more emotionally complex canvas than TV Who had ever allowed those characters in the 20th century.

But there’s a difference between the audience for content like that – aimed specifically down the eager throats of hardcore, cash-spending fans – and the audience for the main TV show, which is families, children, yes, the hardcore, cash-spending, convention-going fans too, and essentially casual viewers stuck in doorways, aiming to go somewhere else, but unable to look away because Doctor Who was so exciting.

Spinning off from the main show in 2007 was a big risk.

True, having brought back Doctor Who in 2005, Russell T Davies had invented an adult-appropriate spin-off in 2006, in Torchwood. To do that, he had liberally laced the entire second series of New Who with references to this mysterious organisation, and then taken us into it, turned it into a folly that brought about the most fan-tastic series finale of all time – Daleks fighting Cybermen, with the Earth in the middle. That was Torchwood. When he then spun the organisation off into its own show, it was with downright chutzpah that he hit the reset button on the organisation, shifted it from London to Cardiff, and put it under the control of the Doctor’s newly immortal travelling companion, Captain Jack Harkness.

But that was a spin-off with a whole series of mentions, references, and build-up. It was the X Files, in Cardiff, and with at first only a tangential connection back to the parent show.

Could he do it a second time, with just one episode of mainstream Doctor Who to prepare the audience?

What’s more, could he do it for a different, more targeted audience – as a full-on children’s show – with a companion who hadn’t been in mainstream Doctor Who since 1976 as a full companion, barring The Five Doctors in 1983? And with Sarah Jane, no less – the only human companion to have already had one bite at the spin-off cherry, and not been commissioned?
Honestly, in retrospect, it seems like an obvious thing to do – and long-time Doctor Who fans could and did tell you so back in the day – because they knew about the secret that was Elisabeth Sladen.

At the time though, it was an act of faith and an act of love by Russell T Davies.

Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah Jane, was much more beloved by the fans than she probably knew. But she’d been burned by the programme and the showrunner before. When John Nathan-Turner got rid of the quirky robot dog, K9, there was uproar. Well, what passed for uproar in the early 80s – there were sternly-written letters to the BBC. As a sop to the fans, Nathan-Turner floated the ide of shipping K9 off into his own spin-off, and despite never having worked with the awkward prop during her time on Doctor Who, Elisabeth Sladen and Sarah Jane were chosen to be the humans who would become the sidekick to the robot (it was that sort of era – anyone remember Knight Rider?)

Sadly, the pilot episode didn’t ignite into a series and K9 and Company (or A Girl’s Best Friend, as the pilot was called) became a slightly sour-tasting oddity, a one-off that could have been more.

Spool forward to 2006. It’s a very different world and a very different Doctor Who than it was in the Eighties under John Nathan-Turner. Russell T Davies grew up watching Elisabeth Sladen in the Tardis. So did the then-new Doctor, David Tennant. Russell was a writer in charge of the show, rather than a producer in charge of the show, as JN-T had been. Doctor Who was one of the hottest shows on British TV, and suddenly, the slightly cheesy world of associations with the program in the Classic years was transformed into a cache you could use, potentially, outside of the geek world. If you’d been a Classic companion, suddenly you were a brick in the edifice of what Doctor Who had been, what it was, and what it could be in the future.

And, as it seems necessary to reiterate, practically everyone loved Sarah Jane, and practically everyone loved Elisabeth Sladen if given the chance.

School Reunion, the third episode of the second series of New Who, went through a number of iterations under the pen of Toby Whithouse and the guiding hands of Helen Raynor and Russell T Davies. What emerged eventually was a work of practical genius. The alien threat was real (and getting Anthony Head in to play the lead villain was a superb idea), but the pacing of the episode left enough space for its main heartbeats to be about what happened to companions after they left the Doctor, or the Doctor left them. It was made pertinent to the modern show with both Rose and Mickey Smith contemplating a post-Doctor future, but more than anything, it allowed Sarah Jane (summarily dropped off back on Earth in 1976) to have grown up, to have got her life together without ever forming close connections to anyone, without ever having a long-term relationship, and without ever having children – always waiting for a blue box to fall out of the sky, and her Doctor to whisk her away again.

The episode ended with the proper closure between Sarah and the Doctor that the relatively ad-libbed ending of her time with the Fourth Doctor had lacked. And it ended with Sarah Jane being finally able to live in the here and now, and to build for herself.
And that right there is where The Sarah Jane Adventures begins. The audience of children had had their appetites well and truly whetted for Sarah Jane – you couldn’t help but love her character on screen, or the Sladen twinkle when it flashed at you. And the Sarah Jane adventures would show Sarah Jane getting on with the business of living her best life (to coin a phrase), as well as defending the Earth from alien predators, helping aliens in trouble, and being a great example of a ‘Doctorized’ human being. Someone inspired by the Time Lord’s example, and taking it forward into their life.

The set-up needed tweaking, though. She had a brand new K9, and in short order, she gained a hyper-intelligent alien son, a supercomputer in the attic, and a couple of nosey but well-meaning local kids to become HER companions, people to whom she could pass on the lessons of the Doctor AND of her life as Sarah Jane Smith.

Crucially, the writing was always just as potent, just as real, and just as determined never to condescend to its audience of kids as Doctor Who had become under Russell T Davies. There were stories which more or less borrowed from Classic and New Who – The Lone Sontaran, from Series 2, has a lot in common with the Sontarans’ first story, The Time Warrior, which had also introduced Sarah Jane to the Doctor. And the first episode of the show after the pilot brought back the Slitheen from Series 1 of New Who for an attempt at revenge. But the show was also always willing to break new ground, and it delivered some truly creepy and occasionally cruel threats that were unique to The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Stories like The Mad Woman In The Attic and The Wedding of Sarah Jane would hit hard on questions like the path not taken in life, while creations like The Nightmare Man (Julian Bleach) and the Trickster (Paul Marc Davies) ensured the series had enough creative integrity to keep audiences hooked, and to keep them coming back for more.

There was little to indicate that The Sarah Jane Adventures would be anything but a fixture of children’s TV schedules for years to come. In 2010, the show received the Royal Television Society’s award for Best Children’s Drama.
When Elisabeth Sladen revealed to those close to her on the production that she had cancer, she was on more of a public high than had been the case since her semi-retirement from acting in the 1980s. Everything was finally going right for a post-Doctor Who Sarah Jane Smith, and Elisabeth Sladen was the darling of children everywhere again. Where once she’d been their big sister, poking her journalistic nose in where it didn’t belong, now she was the pack mum, the best aunt you could wish for, and in a very real sense the leader of a band of alien investigators, all of whom looked up to her.

The show, and Elisabeth Sladen’s life, ended before its time.

But while it lasted, The Sarah Jane Adventures was pretty much the pitch-perfect Doctor Who spin-off. Aimed specifically at a young demographic, it nevertheless dealt with issues both real and fantastical, with a strong lead in Elisabeth Sladen, and an endlessly inventive set of scripts that occasionally skirted close to Doctor Who territory, but were handled with an increasingly unique “Sarah Jane” energy. It was brief, and bright, and brilliant. The universe of TV is poorer for its loss, but also infinitely richer that for that handful of heartbeats, Sarah Jane was here, defending the Earth and seeing that right was done by one and all.

Watch The Sarah Jane Adventures today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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