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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

it’s yet more ‘Doctor Who’ with ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’

There are three Law & Order shows and three CSI shows, so why not three Doctor Who shows? Hell, why not three hundred Doctor Who shows? Russell Davies doesn’t need to sleep, does he?

You might not have heard, since it’s been kinda low-key, but there’s a third Doctor Who series on the air in England: The Sarah Jane Adventures. And now it’s coming to the Sci Fi Channel, debuting tomorrow, Friday, April 11, at 7:30pm Eastern. It’s a 90-minute premiere, with ten more half-hour episodes to follow. Next Friday, April 18, there’s one SJA at 8pm followed by the 90-minute Doctor Who premiere at 8:30pm; after that, it’s two SJAs at 8pm followed by DW at 9pm. Battlestar Galactica follows at 10pm every Friday. Like my Friday nights weren’t dorky enough already.
I’ve seen all of SJA already, of course — in, ahem, the usual way that we enormous Doctor Who dorks have been doing when we don’t want to wait — but I’m still gonna watch ‘em again on Sci Fi. It doesn’t have the Doctor or David Tennant like Doctor Who does, and it’s not sexy like Torchwood, but still: it’s pretty much Doctor Who. The idea is that journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), who traveled with the third and fourth Doctors (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker) so long ago, has been revitalized by her meeting with the Tennant Doctor in the episode “School Reunion,” and now she’s back in the fighting-aliens swing of things, working out of her cool-creaky old suburban house with the help of her 13-year-old neighbor, Maria Jackson (Yasmin Paige), and a strange boy of around the same apparent age named Luke (Thomas Knight): he’s a kind of cross between Kyle XY and Starman, and Sarah adopts him as her own child at the end of the first episode (though I’ll let you wait to see how that comes about).

As the presence of the youngsters suggests — never mind the fact that the show was produced for Children’s BBC, or CBBC — SJA is much more in the vein of the original Doctor Who. It’s aimed at 6- to 12-year-olds, and the stories are commensurately simpler, but its frequent bubble-gum brightness does not mask some deeper, tougher issues. Maria lives with her divorced father (Joseph Millson) — her mother (Juliet Cowan) is a minor pain in the ass who shows up once in a while to make a nuisance of herself — and the problems of kids and parents coping with divorce isn’t ignored. Nor is Sarah Jane’s difficulties in coping with motherhood for the first time in her 50s.

The aliens up to no good include some familiar faces from Doctor Who — the Slitheen are back, for one — and the stories hit some social commentary on life in the Western world in the 21st century, and offer, as well, some very perceptive insight into adolescence. But it’s Sarah Jane who’s the most interesting aspect of the show, from the perspective of an adult fan. Oh, how she still pines for the Doctor: that much is perfectly obvious. When she tells herself — and tells us — that “life on earth can be an adventure, too, you just need to know where to look,” it sounds an awful lot like wishful thinking, even giving all the actual adventure and danger she manages to find without leaving the planet. Poor Sarah Jane…

Neat things to watch for in The Sarah Jane Adventures:

• The first episode features a cameo from an alien race that has appeared in Torchwood.

• Sarah Jane has some cool toys — a “sonic lipstick” and a Dick Tracy-style watch that detects alien life — that apparently the Doctor left for her.

• Corridor running! Ya can’t have Doctor Who without it.

• Sarah Jane lives on Bannerman Road (as in “Delta and…” What, you didn’t watch Sylvester McCoy?)

• Sarah Jane’s secret attic headquarters is stuffed with mementoes of her life with the Doctor: pictures of the Brigadier and Harry Sullivan, drawings of the TARDIS, a book she wrote called UNIT: Fighting for Humanity, and more. Prepare for freeze-framing.

• With K9 off on an important mission, Sarah Jane relies on the help of a mysterious supercomputer she calls “Mr. Smith.” Is it only me who finds something just a little weird about that?



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  • Ooooooo. I can’t wait for Sara Jane Adventures. Thanks for the reminder!

  • God, I wish I could afford cable so I could add myself to the viewers when these shows air in the States.

    I was really impressed with SJA; I thought it would be “kiddish,” but that was just me forgetting the difference between British and American TV. In terms of consistent quality and depth of character, I’d say it’s better than Torchwood. In fact, one of my favorite bonuses of the nature of the shared universe of these shows is how Sarah Jane occasionally shows Torchwood up as a bunch of amateurs. Without spoiling, there were definitely a couple times when I was like, “Way to be on the ball, Torchwood.”

    . . . and then I stop myself there, because if I think too hard about the fact that all three shows take place in the same universe, I start wondering exactly how the Earth is not destroyed twice a day.

    Anyway. I’m pleased to see you mention SJA here, because it is so good and I hope people watch it. The plots might get a bit goofy, but it’s definitely not just a kids’ show.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s a smart kids’ show, and so it will appeal to a lot of people who saw through the kiddie aspect of the original *Doctor Who.* But it is definitely a kids’ show — it just doesn’t pretend that kids are stupid.

  • “But it is definitely a kids’ show — it just doesn’t pretend that kids are stupid.”

    Which I am embarrassed to admit was a pleasant surprise since I am so used to American TV and movies that do precisely that. You’d think with all the British TV shows I’ve watched that I would have learned to give their entertainment industry a bit more credit by now.

  • I wrote a lengthy review of SJA on my site as
    well – it’s a really fun show. I like it because i
    it hearkens back to a time . . . 30 or so years
    ago . . . when there were sci-fi shows for kids
    that were intelligent and corny all at the same
    time – just like kids! (I’m thinking Land of the
    Lost” here).

    Furthermore, it’s nice to see a show where the
    kids are actually likable. AND where the central
    character is an intelligent, capable, cool, and
    attractive 59-year-old woman!

    The last four episodes particularly rock.

  • Good start to the show last night. I loved seeing Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny from the Brosnan Bond movies)…

    … but the thing that impressed me far more than anything else was Elisabeth Sladen. I simply cannot believe she’s 60; she looks more like 40 years old. She must be blessed with some incredibly long telomeres. ;-)

    The girl who plays Maria reminds me an awful lot of Indira Varma, who played Niobe on the HBO/BBC series Rome.

  • MaryAnn

    when there were sci-fi shows for kids
    that were intelligent and corny all at the same
    time – just like kids! (I’m thinking Land of the
    Lost” here).

    Oh yeah. If I were a kid today, SJA would be warping my brain the way that LotL did when I actually was a kid.

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