Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith

Sarah Jane Smith is getting old. She’s getting forgetful, to the point where she puts Clyde and Rani’s lives in danger. Luckily, her replacement, Ruby (Julie Graham, with clothes on), just moved in next door. After initially appearing aloof and frosty, very much like Sarah Jane herself at the very start of the series, Invasion of the Bane, she quickly warms to the children and ingratiates herself with the regular party.

Initially, Sarah Jane’s forgetfulness is presented as old age. We know it isn’t, because this is The Sarah Jane Adventures, we know Sarah Jane is going to survive the duration and we know there’ll be an SF-lite explanation for it all. But at first, this is addressed as old age. More than that, memory loss and language difficulties possibly indicate Alzheimer’s. Either way, this is the kind of real-life scenario the show handles very sweetly: dealing with your parents aging, having to become independent of them and accepting a greater degree of personal responsibility. Everything that follows can be understood by this central message.

And then Ruby turns out to be a Qetesh who was manipulating events from the start. And keeps her stomach in a cellar.

Clyde can tell something’s wrong when Ruby announces Sarah Jane’s ‘sudden departure’  and lashes out at Rani. Rani runs home crying, to be comforted by her mother, Gita. Mina Anwar gives a touching soliloquy, effectively reminding Rani that a close friend wouldn’t take off in such a manner, and that you look out for the people that are so close to you. Clyde and Rani take slightly different journey’s that arrive at roughly the same thematic conclusion, looking after each other and confronting that which threatens them. Clyde almost confessing his feelings for Rani emerges from this situation and draws on the awkward moments shared in past episodes. Luke coming home to help his mum in trouble is an appropriate flourish to the narrative.

Gareth Roberts previous episodes for The Sarah Jane Adventures are all series highlights. The Trickster episodes in particular gave the series a simple, sinister recurring villain and were also Faust for kids. What’s not to love about that! Roberts’ Missing Adventures are a precedent for his Series 4 episodes: the spirit of Douglas Adams and Season 17 has been channelled just a little here: Goodbye Sarah Jane Smith (and even more so The Empty Planet) gives a conceptual nod to Adams’ The Pirate Planet, with eccentric and faintly surreal technology holding planet-shaping influence.

A paragraph on Clayton Hickman. It’s difficult for this reviewer to assess his input, having no prior knowledge of any other script work of his. But Doctor Who Magazine isn’t a bad thing, his DVD covers are beautiful (worth getting Revisitations for those alone), Totally Doctor Who was brilliant (I’d happily swap that show back for Confidential) and these episodes are wonderful. So Hooray for Clayton Hickman.

Goodbye, Sarah Jane SmithI do have problems with nasty aliens that want to savage the Earth just because… well just because they’re nasty aliens, ultimately. Ruby’s plea for pity, explanation of her flight from execution and Sarah Jane’s unwavering lack of mercy echoes the Christopher Eccleston episode, Boom Town. The problem isn’t Sarah Jane’s actions, the morality of a character doesn’t have to match one’s own for audience engagement or enjoyment. In fact, pressuring the viewers comfort zone in this way is exactly what good drama should do. But where Boom Town problematised this, Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith justifies it and then ignores the moral problems this has raised. It also feels at odds with the themes of growing up/aging, and most of all accepting responsibility, especially Clyde’s handling of, but refusal to use, a gun.

But the fact that this becomes a problem I feel the need to engage with in a television series marketed with a very specific demographic of young children (6-12 year olds, according to the BBC Commissioning Department) is an indicator of the show’s strengths elsewhere. The Sarah Jane Adventures as a whole is a lovely SF-lite drama serial for children, which treats its audience with more respect than a large number of prime-time ‘adult’ shows. And Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith closes this series on another high.

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