It is impossible to watch the new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, which starts on the CBBC Channel on Monday, without feeling horribly conflicted.
First and most importantly, there is the joy. Joy at a children’s drama series that has shown that - in a genre where primary colours and slapstick tend to dominate - imagination, wonder and emotional truth still have their place. Joy at a series which spun off from Doctor Who with such confidence that it hasn’t felt the need to constantly reinvent itself (yes, Torchwood, I’m looking at you). Joy at a show that knows that, while it is squarely aimed at children aged 6 to 12, the audience doesn’t mind that their heroes are older kids led by a woman in her sixties.
But there’s also sadness. This series is half the length of previous ones - three two-part stories instead of the usual six, which were recorded contiguously with series 4. And then we lost Elisabeth Sladen, who had played Sarah Jane Smith since Jon Pertwee’s last series of Doctor Who.
So these final three adventures become an unintended finale for a drama which showed no signs of having any intention of getting tired. The good news is that, for the most part, these final stories demonstrate everything that is special about The Sarah Jane Adventures and its regular cast.
The first story, Sky by Phil Ford, sees two warring alien races - the Flesh Kind and the Metal Kind - bring their battle to Earth as they hunt for a baby who holds the secret to ending the war. Wouldn’t you know it, the baby has been left on Sarah Jane’s doorstep, plunging the Bannerman Road team right into the heart of the action.
With an explosive meteor crash within minutes of the show’s opening demonstrating the show’s unflinching belief that a CBBC budget shouldn’t prevent the best SFX possible, there’s a lot to enjoy in the opening story. Floella Benjamin - another face as familiar, if not more so, to parents as to their children - takes a break from the House of Lords to reprise her role as the head of alien research body The Pharos Institute.
The war between the Flesh Kind and Metal Kind has to play out in dialogue rather than guns’n’explosions, unfortunately - and with just one Metal Kind character reaching Earth, it does run the risk of feeling like a bit of a family squabble rather than the global apocalypse we’re led to suggest. When it comes, the resolution is satisfying, though.
And that resolution comes rather earlier in the story’s second episode than one would expect, the final sections being used instead to set up what were clearly intended to be long-running arcs. Those will not now play out on screen, of course.
But there are signs that the next, and final, two stories will encapsulate the very best of what The Sarah Jane Adventures can do. Ford’s script for the second story focusses on Clyde Langer (Daniel Anthony), who finds himself ostracised from all his friends and having to fend for himself. And fittingly, what turned out to be the last ever story is put in the hands of writer Gareth Roberts. Having co-written the pilot adventure with series creator Russell T Davies, Roberts went on to write stories that reshaped and deepened the character of Sarah Jane in ways that, if they had played out in a peaktime drama, would have won plaudits from critics who otherwise look down their nose at children’s television.
It feels such a shame that anyone should ever have to write that final full stop of the final sentence of Sarah Jane Smith’s televisual life - but I’m glad that task has fallen to Gareth Roberts. In the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, he reveals that the final scene is a group one, with the Bannerman Road family (including Tommy Knight’s Luke, making a fortuitous return from university). One of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ greatest triumphs has been turning a woman who was a bit of a loner into a warm and loving mother - a character trait Lis Sladen so obviously shared.
So what of the legacy of Sarah Jane Smith? The show’s three principal young actors are now all going their separate ways, and I think it’s unlikely that SJA will gain a direct spin-off without Lis. One can hope that the dedication and commitment that BBC Wales has shown in producing a high quality children’s drama will continue, though, and that the Corporation’s new Cardiff studios, which would have housed SJA alongside Casualty and Pobol y Cwm, will gain a similarly impressive children’s drama to enthral a new generation of kids.
- The Sarah Jane Adventures, Mondays and Tuesdays 5.15pm, CBBC Channel