The Empty Planet

Revelling in all the elements that make Russell T Davies such a “Marmite” writer, Death of the Doctor was undoubtedly the event story of this season. With its returning companion, series-hopping Doctor, and lashings of nostalgia and flashbacks, no-one’s going to pretend it was restrained – though most people probably wouldn’t have it any other way. But where does that leave the rest of this season? Perhaps it’s the wisest decision that with The Empty Planet, The Sarah Jane Adventures have given us the direct contrast of a resolutely polar-opposite approach, with a story that jettisons even the eponymous character.

I’m dubious about Sarah-lite stories in such short runs, but equally it’s a delight for SJA to take advantage of a small scale arguably better suited to attempted epics like its previous season finales. In the same way a relatively low-key setting made Amy’s Choice and The Lodger among the most effective stories of Doctor Who’s fifth series, The Empty Planet likewise thrives on the limitations a small budget imposes.

This isn’t to suggest, however, that its small scale equates to a lack of ambition. While it’s almost impossible to wonder where this budget episode is offsetting Death of the Doctor’s costs, the potency of its 28 Days Later-lite imagery more than makes up for this, with even brief shots of central London lending a sense of scale converse to the story’s simple concept.

Along with Russell T Davies, Gareth Roberts seems to be one of few Sarah Jane Adventure writers willing to shake up the series, and, so, like its (more attention-grabbing) immediate predecessor, this story feels gratifyingly willing to do something more interesting than routine offerings like The Vault of Secrets. Stripping away all the recognisable elements of the series (Mr Smith, the attic, and, of course, Sarah) could have been a risky move, but focusing on the equally lovely Clyde and Rani pays off, with their easy chemistry, and dialogue a lot more realistic that, say, Luke’s wannabe-grandstanding speech from the series opener.

Unfortunately, given that the majority of this story is a three-hander, the best that can be said for the actor playing Gavin is that he makes you realise how proficient Daniel Anthony and Anjli Mohindra have become in their roles, to the extent that – once again, in contrast to their marginalisation in the more cluttered preceding story – they carry these two episodes effortlessly. Also, speaking of Luke, the format of this story very much emphasises how little his departure has damaged the show.

This season’s acknowledgement of its characters – and cast – growing up continues here, with Clyde and Rani’s burgeoning attraction being developed (though remaining nicely underplayed), and Clyde’s comment about his friends ‘meeting hotties at Whispers in Acton’ seeming notably distinct from the focus of previous seasons.

However, as much as things change, they also stay the same, and there are – of course! – still dastardly aliens (or, at least, thick ones) to defeat. Though undeniably products of their CBBC origins, the Robots are nevertheless a striking fusion of design and realisation, with a solidity and bulk that’s rare in mechanical humanoid designs (new series Cybermen included) – all the more impressive for SJA’s former paucity of original creatures. Given the economy with which the production team treats its monsters, I’d be surprised if we don’t see the Robots again – which is no bad thing; it’s so easy to be blasé these days, but the Robots are miraculous by the standards of any twentieth century season of The Sarah Jane Adventure’s parent series.

(Also, speaking of returnees, it’s a nice surprise to see Jocelyn Jee Esien again as Clyde’s mum, for the first time since the second series – even if only in a fleeting scene, it’s good to see she hasn’t been forgotten, especially since she has considerably more effortless charm than Rani’s mum, Gita.)

Obviously, the problem with SJA is how to go about being objective about a show not primarily aimed at anyone over, what, sixteen (and that’s pushing it). However, I personally hold that prescribed demographics are irrelevant if you enjoy something, and, though bearing its target audience in mind, its last two stories (after a slightly lacklustre pair of openers), have been highly enjoyable. Next week’s historical also bodes well, suggesting that the production team are intended to keep pushing the envelope of this now-venerable spin-off.

Though not on a par with Roberts’ previous Trickster episodes (presumably we’re to be a treated to a rematch this time round, presumably in “Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith…”?), and suffering from a somewhat ungainly infodump and particularly neat ending, The Empty Planet is nevertheless in the high end of SJA offerings. However, these complaints feel churlish, since they are crimes Doctor Who itself is equally guilty of, and particularly when the series so obviously delivers everything the kids out there (whether in age or mental terms) could ask for. After all, where else would you get the glorious deranged image of colour-coded robots invading a Bonmarché discount store?

Neil Clarke writes the Doctor Who reviews page ‘Shall We Destroy?’:

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