Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? (Part One)

TV Deep in the mists, probably the late nineties, I was at one of those parties having one of those conversations with someone who’d clearly been drinking more than I had. I could tell I was having one of those conversations because somehow we’d managed to discover that I was (what was then) a late blooming Doctor Who fan and they were talking about how great Jane Asher had been in the series – I think they must have spotted one of her cookbooks on a shelf in the random strange house where these kinds of parties tend to happen.

Despite my protestations they were adamant that Jane had been in the programme, all posh like, and had been absolutely brilliant. Briefly, like Maria in this week’s episode, I began to question my own memory and wondered if the milfian cake maker had actually been in the series somewhere in its long history and I’d somehow blanked it out. Then, when they said between burps ‘You know with the bloke with the scarf’ and ‘Paris’ it became apparent that he’d gotten her mixed up with Lalla Ward, which is interesting because only lately have they begun to look at all alike.

Of course, as with pretty much every actor in the uk who isn’t Christopher Lee, Asher has been in something connected with the good series, replacing a character usually played by the clearly alive and therefore available Carole Ann Ford in the radio drama-documentary Whatever Happened to Susan Foreman?, the title of which could have been of some inspiration to Gareth Roberts when naming …

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?: Episode One

… otherwise it was a massive coincidence and he’ll have a surprising moment when someone points it out to him.

Since the great New Earth scandal I’ve tended to be quite suspicious when anything is previewed/reviewed as well as this episode has been. I’ve seen this one stamped with classic status and one of the best bits of new Who everywhere from The Stage blog through to the popular press and certain other discussion boards to the extent that you have to question whether a half hour series can really sustain the plaudits. I mean I gushed over last week’s episode, but that’s the kind of thing I tend to do when I’m tired and desperate (see FearHerGate). But for once, everyone was right, this was amazing.

Was it the series getting around to the alternate reality timey-wimey story just seven episodes or four stories in? Yes. Wasn’t it similar to Doctor Who’s Human Nature in that we were seeing a world with the title character at a time of great peril? Yes. Did the performance of not as little as you think she is apparently Yasmin Paige threaten to tip into the kind of shouty melodrama not seen since Gates McFadden tried to justify the existence of Welsey Crusher in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Remember Me? Yes. Was the sight of her screen Dad spinning up and down on a skateboard the singular most bizarre image on television this year? Oh yes.

Yet, this was exciting and surprising and funny and truly scary in all the ways it should be. It was these things because instead of cynical adult going through a world that was almost but not exactly like there own cracking jokes about Tony Blair and airships, this was an early teen discovering that everything she knew had changed, a girl not yet a woman, the least likely to be believed and whom adults always seem to assume are telling tales, even though in this day and age shockingly they actually probably are more clued into what’s going on in the world than we are, even when they’re sitting at the back of the listening to bloody Leona Lewis through the speaker on their mobile phone.

I was probably rather harsh on Yasmin because she had a rather a job to do carrying the episode and mostly did it with aplomb. At no point did Maria crumple under the pressure, not really, dragging her dad to a library, shouting Andrea down in a way that Sarah Jane would have been proud of (shades of the Doctor’s rant from the end of Bad Wolf too), generally being the force of nature she needs to be. For this girl, the event was a problem to be solved and all she needed to do was think her way through it (all the while us older viewers shouting ‘It’s in the box’). That said, I've had mornings, including probably the one after the aforementioned party, when I've woken up and felt like I've been living in a different reality, but a bacon butty rather than this box of delights usually sorted it out for me.

Actually Jane Asher was probably perfect casting, a figure very much in the mould of what Sarah Jane might have been like had she not become a journalist, fallen in with the Doctor and been spat out at the other end of the continuum. Her teary reaction to remembering what she’d done as child was a wonderfully played contrast to similar scenes in which her old best friend glared down an alien. Not sure about the accent, though it must have been chosen to make the difference with our hero as stark as possible. Purposefully, Andrea seems to be weaker and more interested in frippery than Sarah probably as a way of explaining how she could come under the spell of The Trickster.

He’s a grim bastard isn’t he? The Trickster was a classic example of how lighting, costume, a gravely voice and a well shot prosthetic can certainly be a match for CG. Isn’t it heart warming to see after all these years that the old trick of filming a mouth upside down is still a valid way of creating an alien? Actually he reminded me of Bruce Dern’s gatekeeper from The Lord of the Rings films with the evil dial turned up to eleven. Could he be the Black Guardian for the new age? I mean were does something like this come from other than the realm which hovers above the Whoniverse?

Sadly, true to his name The Trickster rather created the main plot hole in the episode. Why hasn’t the universe imploded given the amount of things that Sarah got get dungarees mixed into during her time with the Doctor and since and how come he hasn’t noticed her absence? Did someone else fill in the gap or did he travel alone, leaving countless unbound stories in his wake? Is The Trickster so powerful that he can make this kind of change and not create ripples? Clearly Maria hasn’t simply slipped into another reality – it is her reality in new clothes, otherwise how did her Dad also experience a similar problem at the mind bending and truly unsettling close.

Still there’s no denying this was an excellent episode. Even the brief appearance of Sarah at the opening was a joy as the bond between her and Maria grows ever larger and we discover that to Alan she stopped being the crazy lady who lives across the street, she's become a bit mumsy and that Maria's become her best mate (perhaps indicating that she understands what her relationship meant to the Doctor all those years ago). It also resisted the urge to shoehorn in Luke and Clyde into the main action in these early stages preferring instead to keep with Maria front and centre, even as she was epically dragged through the not very good at his job Graske’s strange realm (I mean wow -- look at that!) and dropped into a costumed past.

Next week: How we used to live.

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