This particular adventure was billed as the series highlight â€“Â featuring Matt Smith, Katy Manning and with Russell T Davies writing for the Eleventh Doctor â€“Â but did the anticipation pay off? Iâ€™d say: well, sort of…
The story starts off strongly, with UNIT advising Sarah Jane of, erm, the death of the Doctor. A shock revelation, and rather bold in a childrenâ€™s show. Fortunately, weâ€™ve got Sarah Jane to reassure younger viewers, with her stubborn refusal to accept what sheâ€™s hearing â€“Â and we trust Sarah Jane and her instincts, so I doubt that the supposed demise of our hero caused too much upset. Thereâ€™s a lovely scene with Rani and her father, where she pleads with him not to go anywhere â€“Â a quite typical Davies scene this, big on emotion and character development, and the two actors involved delivered the lines bang on target. Iâ€™m glad that the scene was with Haresh, and not Gita because Mina Anwar has a habit of overplaying her role, as demonstrated in The Vault of Secrets last week.Â The early scenes also introduce us to the Shansheeth, a race of vulture undertakers.
Iâ€™m not sure about you, but Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™d want my mortal remains to be in the care of vultures â€“ wouldnâ€™t they eat me?
So the gang are scooted off to Mount Snowdon, the location of a secret UNIT base. Itâ€™s a bit of a Russell-ism to have secret bases at famous locations, weâ€™ve had one underneath the Thames Flood Barrier, and another at Canary Wharf Tower. Snowdon is a great idea, but completely ruined by the Mill producing a CGI sci-fi base. How is that secret? And more to the point, it tramples all over credibility â€“Â we all know there isnâ€™t a dirty great base in Snowdonia, so letâ€™s not pretend there is, eh? Once at the base we meet a Groske, introducing us to another guest appearance in the form of the quite splendid Jimmy Vee. Itâ€™s good to have a Graske type creature as an ally for a change â€“ theyâ€™re rather loveable, so this works well, and affords some good banter with Clyde.
Itâ€™s not long before weâ€™re re-introduced to Jo Jones (nee Grant), whose entrance is charming and funny â€“Â I really enjoyed Jo fussing over the Shansheeth â€“Â itâ€™s been a long time since sheâ€™s seen any aliens, and she makes the most of it. Jo and Sarah Jane are quick to form a bond, and theyâ€™re soon bestest friends. Fortunately thereâ€™s none of that catty jealousy that Rose displayed, and itâ€™s a true joy to see these two iconic companions working together, and having a giggle while theyâ€™re at it. Katy Manningâ€™s performance seems very natural, and left me in no doubt that this is indeed our Jo. Weâ€™re also introduced to Joâ€™s grandson Santiago, although Iâ€™m not quite certain why, as he contributes nothing at all to the plot.
The plot starts to develop here, as Clyde discovers that the Shansheeth are up to no good, and the Doctor is indeed still alive. No real surprise there, although the Doctorâ€™s entrance into the story via body swapping with Clyde is a nice touch. Matt Smith is as engaging, eccentric and charming as ever, and puts in a sterling performance. Impressive, seeing as how he was jet-lagged after his return from the US after being delayed by volcanic dust. That really happened â€“ itâ€™s not a Doctor Who story or anything.
The pace begins to pick up a bit for the second part of the story, so inevitably weâ€™ve got some running about in corridors. Excellent. Thereâ€™s also another clichÃ© in the form of ventilation ducts, which is no bad thing, and itâ€™s here where Russell starts to get cheeky. In a response to all the fuss and bother about whether the Doctor could be played by black man, the question is put directly to the Doctor by Clyde, with the Doctor replying â€œI can be anythingâ€. But Russellâ€™s not stopping there, oh no! Just to have a bit of a laugh with (or about) us obsessive fans, he challenges the old thirteen regenerations limit, with the Doctor telling Clyde he could regenerate 507 times. Some fans might get a bit upset about this, but not me. The regeneration limit has to be addressed at some point, with Steven Moffat pointing out that the solution is to â€˜make something upâ€™. Well there you go â€“ Russellâ€™s just made something up. And itâ€™s funny too.
Itâ€™s an old tradition that companions should be restrained by force â€“Â and look, hereâ€™s Sarah Jane and Jo strapped to upright tables, and linked to mind probes. Turns out that UNITâ€™s Colonel Karim is a bad â€˜un, and is assisting the Shansheeth in creating a TARDIS key by utilising our companionsâ€™ memories. But why? Well, obviously, so the Shansheeth can use time travel to eradicate death. Now, call me pedantic, but why would a race of professional undertakers want to prevent death? Silly. Anyway, this mind probing activity is a splendid excuse for some footage of the Third and Fourth Doctors, and a plethora of flashbacks of monsters and former companions. I enjoy these references to the showâ€™s past, but there is a danger of having too much of a good thing.
As weâ€™d expect, the Doctor saves the day, despite not being able to get past a locked door (heâ€™s left the Sonic Screwdriver in the TARDIS â€“Â a deft piece of writing â€“Â I hate it when the sonic screwdriver is over-used, so I particularly enjoyed this). At the end of the story weâ€™re treated to quick updates on whatâ€™s going on with some old companions â€“Â Tegan, Ian and Barbara, Harry, Polly and Dorothy (presumably Ace). This nostalgia is lovely, and it could be argued, shows that The Sarah Jane Adventures isnâ€™t just for the kids.
Iâ€™ve got a few minor grumbles about the story, but all things considered, itâ€™s a bit of a belter. There are some stand out scenes, which for me includes the section where Jo asks the Doctor why he never came back. Russell likes to explore the idea of what happens to the people the Doctor leaves behind, and demonstrates ably how to handle the return of characters weâ€™ve known and loved. This series of SJA has been excellent thus far, and Iâ€™m looking forward to more.