Guest DVD review — The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Third Series

Something a little different to begin the New Year — I’m gonna shut up and let someone else inflict his opinions on you. :-)

Last year I reviewed the third series of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Today, Edward McAndrew has stopped by to give the same DVD set the once over. Take it away Edward…

The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete Third Series
Reviewed by Edward McAndrew

Having never really looked at The Sarah Jane Adventures before, I tried to approach the series with an enquiring and open mind. ‘Tried’ being the operative word. With that in mind, the SJA isn’t in any sense very bad, but having approached this series as a Doctor Who fan, I can’t say it’s very good either.

The show’s main drawback appears to be from ‘younger kid syndrome’, where it tries to live up to the show it was a spin off from, but never really has the support and love that the older one gets. This comes as a surprise, as I was familiar that Gareth Roberts – one of Doctor Who’s and Sarah Jane’s writers – was credited as saying the polar opposite.

However, as a drawback to a show, it isn’t a huge one, just somewhat disheartening.

All that said, at least I approached with an open mind.

Episodes 1+2: “Prisoner of the Judoon” 4/10

It was a bit of a lie before when I said I hadn’t looked at The Sarah Jane Adventures. When it first came out I watched “Invasion of the Bane”. It was pretty fun if I remember correctly, but I was turned off from watching more of the series by the trailer for the next episode and the Slitheen’s reappearance.

This showed one of the series’ main problems in my opinion, one very much present in the first episode of series 3; SJA’s love of bringing back a Doctor Who monster.

I don’t mind the concept of bringing back a successful monster, but it’s something that I expect to be done with good reason. The merit of having a new monster is that a good part of the episode can be spent trying to figure out what your new villain is all about. This episode actually does both of those, by bringing the Judoon painfully back, but introducing a fairly interesting monster along side him.

I found the Judoon’s presence on Earth actually one of the most justified throughout the series, but I can’t help but really hate the creature itself. The Judoon were interesting enough the one time we saw them, but there’s no depth to the characters, and while they do fit in fairly well when they turn up as backup characters, it was painful to watch one wandering around with a bunch of kids in abandoned British streets. It almost feels like someone at the BBC realised they were an episode short, ran to the costume department, grabbed the closest thing, then just wandered some streets with actors pretending to be younger than they are.

At least with this episode, they brought in a fairly interesting villain, the dreaded Androvax, who spends his free time taking control of people’s bodies and plotting ways of being evil. I kid you not, this is a character who likes to willingly go around and just give planets a hard time, with a justification that gets less than 10 seconds of screen time.

The episode itself has the creative enough idea of getting rid of the most resourceful protagonist, by having Androvax spend most of his time in Sarah Jane. I will admit it was pretty fun seeing how the kids try to save the world while Sarah Jane is working against them.

But in the end, the episode does fall back on some easy solutions, including Luke the genius who can do anything, the power of love, and the sci-fi equivalent of magic dust, all in time for the prom without the parents seeing.

Not to mention any time the Judoon turned up, I was inclined to bury my face in my hands.

An alright episode with positives and negatives, but not a strong opening for the series.

Episodes 3+4: ”The Mad Woman in the Attic” 7/10

When this episode opened, a problem of the previous episode I hadn’t noticed was suddenly glaringly obvious. As the opening showed Sarah’s derelict attic in 2059, with no one in it but a curious kid and a crazy woman, I was amazingly intrigued until she was revealed to be Rani.

I thought she was the Time Lord Rani from the 80s.

Any references to Rani’s name in the previous episode had been so rushed I hadn’t even noticed her name, which followed with several minutes of amazing confusion.

However, what followed turned out to be a pretty good episode, which explored how Rani felt distant to the crew as she was a written replacement for another character, a couple of people alone and afraid, and the power of wishes.

The episode doesn’t suffer from anything too great, just lots of little things and a badly timed ending.

The story follows how Rani decides to investigate on her own as a response to an email an old friend sends her. Simple enough, until it turns out that he lured her there at the request of an alien for… A reason. He originally says it’s because he wants to see her again – then promptly ignores her. Then because there’s a weird rumour he wants checked out – but it’s revealed he already knows the alien. Then it’s because the alien wanted her – but she doesn’t seem to have any real plans concerning her, or any real wishes.

The episode ignores it, so it’s probably best to just look over the occasional plot hole and continue in good faith.

One of the greater problems with the episode is a simple mix-up of characters. Not the starting mix-up of Ranis, but rather the red female alien with her odd hair and the computer of the red female alien with her odd hair. I can’t be blamed for this one at least because the two look exactly the same, and are never presented together at the same time. I choose to believe this was an awkward mistake of sorts to keep my faith that the BBC aren’t playing horrible practical jokes on everyone.

As a cliff-hanger, they reveal that the young Rani is the woman in the attic… Which they revealed at the start of the episode.

They then move on to save the day (it’s pretty heart warming and fairly fun) only for Rani to have apparently accidentally wished Sarah Jane & Co away about an episode earlier. Which the alien ship makes come true… using… science! It may as well have been fairy dust for all the sense or plot relevance it actually held, because merely one minute after this occurred, it turns out the boy who was in the attic had the same magic-science powers and could put everything right.

It was a fun episode in the end, and I liked the concept of Rani going insane alone after all that time, unable to move on with her life until her salvation, but it really needed more time to sink in. The audience isn’t given much time to really come to terms with how Rani’s foolish overreaction cost her the lives of those around her — it just feels tacked on.

Which really ruined the end of an otherwise fun episode.

Episodes 5+6: ”The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith” 9/10

First out, this is a really good episode.

Second, it really annoys me that this episode seems a class above the rest, almost as if they were making it better because they had David Tennant in it.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor and deserves lots of love, but it just seems as though they tried to make the episode better because they had the more loved ‘older sibling’ turning up.

That all said and done, I really loved Tennant’s performance in this episode. You can almost feel that he is trying to put out extra for his last performance as the Doctor, this episode having been filmed after “The End of Time”.

This episode is chock full of goodies, a deeper –if rushed– look into Sarah Jane, a really fun villain, and a great one-time supporting character of Sarah’s fiancée.

I found the deeper look into Sarah Jane really well done. I have always been fond of Sarah Jane since her appearance with the third Doctor when I was a kid, and she has remained my favourite companion since. So being able to look into her a bit more, and see that she shares Rani’s fear of ending up alone, the mad woman in the attic as it were. This makes Sarah’s sacrifice at the end truly heartbreaking and brilliant. I had never felt for the character so much than I did when she finally exited the church.

Having not really seen much else of the SJAs, I really loved being introduced to The Trickster as a character. He seemed an awful lot of fun, his actions made sense most of the time, and he was devious to an almost brilliance. I’m personally a huge fan of the Bad But Brilliant characters the universe of Doctor Who likes to introduce us to, a character who is bad and the antagonist, but is also amazingly likeable.

Finally, the character of the fiancée is really well written and presented. Occasionally Nigel Havers’ acting comes across as a little wooden, but it’s entirely forgivable/ignorable in light of the rest of the character. Throughout the episode, it was nice to spend a lot of the time wondering whether he was a good or a bad person, with a fairly nice pay off at the end. Like the rest of this episode, the character’s story is somewhat bittersweet, but it’s done fairly well.

In the end, this episode is a bit darker than the others, but only because it looks into some characters a bit more deeply than before, which I think does the episode great favours.

Easily the best of the series.

Episodes 7+8: ”The Eternity Trap” 6/10

With the ‘next time’ trailer in mind, I went into this episode expecting some sciency-wiency explanations of ghosts all while running around an old building playing with the clichés of old horror movies.

And that’s exactly what I got – sans playing with the clichés in favour of falling into them, but that’s generally forgivable for a story about ghosts. Something I didn’t count on was the absolutely graceless acting, and complete lack of interesting characters.

The only character with any depth is the pretend-scientist who is either a deep character with autism or just another one of the bad acting/writing mixes we see throughout the rest of the episode. Even then, his development consists of going from “obsessed with ghosts” to “no longer obsessed with ghosts”, and I’ve had bigger personal shifts over a bowl of cereal, let alone a horrifying day and night being hunted down in a castle.

The rest of the characters while horribly written and acted are actually pretty fun. It’s always fairly entertaining to have a character that steals and murders townsfolk and children who is personally justified in their actions. The character of the father is completely hopeless, with his only useful trait being that he can wield a sword and interact with the physical world.

Actually, all of the techno-ghosts can interact with the real world, but not with each other if they’re on the wrong frequencies, an explanation as to why the ghostly protagonists haven’t done anything to stop the antagonist for over 300 years. Did no one ever think of hitting him though? All the ghosts seem susceptible to being physically hurt, if only slightly, so why didn’t the ghosts just drop a couch on the git? They had at least 300 years to get it right, and they outnumber him by about 90 to 1.

In the end though, the episode is pretty fun, and even though it suffers, it could have been way worse.

Episodes 9+10: “Mona Lisa’s Revenge” 8/10

Okay, this is a pointlessly fun episode.

Not only is the concept of the Mona Lisa being a sassy lower class wench thoroughly enjoyable, just watching her wander around with a Sontaran blaster, kicking people in and out of paintings is enough of a hoot that most problems with the episode are hardly noticeable.

The episode doesn’t seem to be much about the main characters, but more about the art gallery director’s obsession with paintings instead of people, and his development. To put it simply, it doesn’t work. No one cares enough about this character, to the extent that when he has changed into a better person, the only girl he was potentially close to calls him out on his assery and storms off.

It’s fine to have background characters with depth, but when they get far more spotlight than the more relevant and interesting development between Luke and Sarah it just doesn’t work.

Also I had a slight problem with the fact that the girl wandering around looked as similar to the Mona Lisa as I do to Dick Van Dyke — we occasionally both wander around singing Mary Poppins songs, but that’s about it. Although it’s a fairly small criticism in the grand scheme of the episode, it does take away from the concept of a painting walking around.

The episode in general is about as subtle as a flying brick, which is a real pity due to the whole point of the Mona Lisa being brilliant through it’s subtlety as an art piece. Ever wonder why she looks so intriguing? It’s because the horizon behind her is painted at two completely different levels, drawing you in, making her appear both normal and magical, while never being overly obvious. The episode instead opted for fire, loudness, and a general lack of anything nearing subtlety.

Pretty fun as far as episodes go, but it seemed to be aiming for something it missed, not to mention the ‘art appreciation’ story threads it introduced at the start then promptly ignored.

Episodes 11+12: ”The Gift” I hate the Slitheen/10

This episode suffers in that instead of a big monster threatening the planet at the end of the series, we instead get another damned alien from Raxacoricofallapatorias trying to sell off the Earth.

It’s a story we’ve all seen before, and unlike when the Daleks turn up and perform the same actions on repeat, I hate the Slitheen. At least the Daleks don’t look like bug-eyed monsters with inexpressive faces. Actually, I find the Daleks more expressive than the Slitheen. That’s pretty sad.

It’s a story that’s about as predictable as mud — some aliens turn up and try to make a profit from the Earth, which would involve killing everyone in the process.

They explode in the end.

I will admit that there are some interesting areas to the plot, such as the plant that spreads very quickly, kills with spores, and chatters to other plants, along with it being a drug to the Slitheen. But that’s sadly where the interesting parts of the episode end, and where questions crop up.

Like why do the Slitheen always go for Earth? It’s obviously protected and gains a fair amount of protection — why not some other planet?

Why did the Slitheen reveal themselves to the main characters and alert them to their presence rather than just stick the plant somewhere on Earth? It would have flourished easily enough anyway.

Why stop the original Slitheen? There were two groups in the same episode trying to make a profit from the planet, and the ones who are dealt with within the first 2 minutes actually had a plan that made more sense. If you are to get rid of them, why not do it after they make the Earth profitable and sell it for yourself?

So the episode was filled with plot holes, was about as deep as a puddle, added nothing to the characters and was really unsatisfying as a series ending.

But overall, the series doesn’t do too badly for itself.

It’s riddled with problems, mainly concerning the writing, acting, pacing and look of the show, but its successes greatly outweigh its failures. The main characters are all interesting enough, the relationship between Mr Smith and K9 is quite funny, and most of the ideas are pretty clever.

It’s just a bit sad that the show doesn’t seem to get the same care that its older sibling does, because with just a bit more effort it could have been just as good as Doctor Who.

At the end of the day, you could certainly do worse, and if I find myself looking after kids some who might be a bit too young for Doctor Who, I certainly know what I’ll be reaching for.

George’s bit at the end

Well, that was way more comprehensive than my review. Nice to see that we agree on certain key things. I HATE the Slitheen too. :-)

I think we might invite Edward back for some reviews down the track. In the mean time, I’ll be returning to inflict my opinions upon you all next week.

The Sarah Jane Adventures are released on DVD in Australia by Roadshow.

Catch ya later,  George

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