The Invasion of the Bane.

TV When the only thing that grates in a piece of drama is the judicious use of the word 'muffin' something must have gone right. Really, you'd have to be a cynical sausage not to come away from the first story of The Sarah Jane Adventures, The Invasion of the Bane thinking that it was a Doctor Who spin-off too far. As promised, this was a full bloodied piece of drama, skewed only slightly younger than it's parent series, full of heart and fun and madness. Unlike Torchwood I can't really compare this to anything else because the last real kids show I watched was probably Box of Delights on dvd last year, but I think the key to the show's success is that you didn't actually feel like you needed to make any allowances for the fact that its not supposed to be directed your target audience. It had as much fizz bang and wizzle as anything else in the franchise and was far superior to most episodes of the show set in Cardiff.

Sure the story was simple and not completely original, dealing as it did with an alien compound in a foodstuff brainwashing the populace into becoming zombies, with a ceiling dwelling alien at its nexus. And it was all very Pertwee era really with a factory, despite the day-glo orange fixtures, that wouldn't have looked out of place in The Green Death and the alien leader, Mrs. Wormwood, the kind of theatrical megalomaniac currently missing from the main show - Samantha Bond's steely eyes and cold delivery being perfectly alarming in a Delgado Master way. And with all the shapeshifting they were all from the same genus as School Reunion's Krillatines, except I would say far more repulsive in their non-human form. Unlike those Pertwee stories, the allegory here was at the kid-friendly level of extolling the nastiness of junk food, with the clever kids, not drinking the sugary stuff, not being possessed. Still I'm sure theres a merchandising opportunity should Barrs want to rebrand Irn-Bru for a younger audience.

But as I wrote of The Blood of the Daleks last night, the key here was execution. This seemed to be directed better than any of Colin Teague's Torchwood episodes and it was quite shock to actually be able to see anything other than HD-downmix blur. The music was unmemorable alth0ugh that's actually a good thing in this case because it didn't drown out whatever the drama was and I didn't detect any of the annoying repetition that's dogged some episodes of the other spin-off -- this seemed to be the work of someone else, someone with a better sense of pacing, flow and storytelling. I hope that these sensibilities will continue into the main series in this case.

I was really worried that despite having her name in the title, Sarah-Jane would recede into the background, simply advising the kids as they went off on their own adventures. Perhaps predictably they took the Rose/Everything Changes route of introducing the Rose/Gwen character Marie up front and then presented Sarah-Jane as the slightly distant figure, but then, cleverly, and with some relief they took advantage of the fact that most kids will know who she is from School Reunion and ran their stories in parallel. So as the kids got lost in the factory in true Children's Film Foundation fashion, Sarah-Jane was confronting the villain.

Unlike K9 and Company, this showed a real respect for Sarah-Jane as a character; unlike the tin dog, the younger cast members weren't allowed to overshadow her, still keeping her front and centre in the drama. So even though the kids had a hand in the solution at the end, she still had that powerful moment when she realised how to get back into the factory, perhaps remembering Mickey's approach from School Reunion.

To a degree, quite properly, she's become something of an ersatz Doctor with all of the gadgets. You can see items such as the sonic lipstick (I mean really) and Mr Smith as useful narrative devices in the half hour format to get to the nub of the problem. It's a shame K9 won't be around too much, but that scene in which in floated in space was really quite touching and it's nice that they at least acknowledged his contractual absence. It's nice too that she is working outside the government, but unlike the buffoons in Torchwood, not always taking the military option (unless you count that bottle of defensive spray) and diplomatically making friends with aliens even if they happen to look like they want to possess your body for centuries and go on a shagging spree.

What about that room, a love letter to her days traveling with the Doctor and working with UNIT? The picture of Alistair? The photo of her and K-9 and was that Tom? All of those continuity references were perfect, there for the long terms fans but ignorable by the target audience. I mean Artron Energy, how cool is that? It's a shame that the anthology/amalgam/whatever he was ended up with a Star Wars reference for a name. Although Alistair and Harry are quite old fashioned names now I suppose, but I was really hedging for John. Plus Sarah wasn't afraid to use the D word in front of the children.

What with all this and the Gallifrey mention in The Runaway Bride, the franchise is becoming increasingly free and easy with the mythology and I for one whole heartedly approve so long it's done as sympathetically as here. Given that this story was set at least a year and a half after School Reunion (as per the K9 (sniff) conversation) that puts this in late 2008 perhaps even 2009 (consults Lance Parkin's Ahistory) I wonder how the Butler Institutes's environmental clean up operation is proceeding and if the reconstruction of San Francisco has begun yet.

Some might bristle at the contemporary references though. Does 'muffin' have currency amongst the play-ground set now? Don't I sound like I'm a hundred years old? But at the least the Jeremy Kyle and Hollyoaks references seemed ok and how funny to hear them in a BBC show. Nice to see the welcome return of Blue Peter although I wonder what Konnie Huq would say if she knew that in the Whoniverse she'll still be in the job two years hence?

The key success is casting. Yasmin Paige playing Maria is a fine actress and Liz Sladen is obviously having great fun working with her. There was a real depth and warmth and naturalness to her performance topped off with bags of good humour. As Luke, Tommy Knight had a perfect Brent Spiner-like stillness that didn't spill off into Haley Joel Osment AI territory. I'd say the only weak link amongst the kids was Porsha Lawrence Mavour who has that straight out of stage school sheen the other two lacked. Given that Kelsey was sidelined in finale, it looks like that character's job will be to get into the trouble that the other three will sort out, the Shaggy/Cordelia of this Scooby-gang. Rounding out what appears to be the guest cast was Joseph Millson as Marie's father -- good sense of irony and likeability.

And there is the middle of it all was Liz Sladen. I'd like to finally get around to listening to those Big Finish stories to see if this is a different version of the character, but her work here was absolutely in keeping with the past of the character and her appearance in School Reunion. Sure enough, she is like the eccentric aunt and she seemed far more relaxed than in K9 and Company. Then she seemed have a kind of authoritarian attitude thrust up on her but here she'd still retained that slightly goofy sense of fun and also managed somehow not to look silly holding up, and I'll say this again, a sonic lipstick.

This has the potential to be a really great, really fun series. The way is open for all kinds of different types of stories and I'd imagine much of the time it'll be in the territory of Round The Twist or Erie , Indiana, general weirdness working its way through in twenty-five minutes, with Luke discovering this world he's been born into, Marie discovering the new side the world she thought she once knew and Sarah-Jane finally finding her place in that world. Unlike Torchwood, it feels like a genuine Doctor Who spin-off rather than something that's been bolted onto the 'verse and apparently the return of many old favourites is promised. Perhaps this will be the true place for the reintroduction of Lord Lethbridge-Stewart with the kids being scared by a Yeti sitting on a toilet in Tooting-Beck.

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