There are many things I love about Doctor Who — and, by extension, its recent spin-off series — but, unlike most of the millions who now watch it, a huge proportion comes from exploration of its production. BBC3’s behind-the-scenes documentary series Doctor Who Confidential may be no more, but there are still ways of investigating the passion and drama on the other side of the camera. And not just for the main series: in its current special edition, Doctor Who Magazine looks at the final series of CBBC spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, which came to an unexpected and premature end when its star, Elisabeth Sladen, passed away from cancer in 2011.
So far, so usual: I know regular readers will be rolling their eyes and wondering why I’m writing about Doctor Who again. But the DWM special issue, with its forensic reconstructions about the shooting schedules and script changes by Andrew Pixley, ends up — unintentionally, perhaps — becoming something rather unique. When Lis Sladen died, there was no question of the show continuing without her, so production came to a halt.
But it did so at a time when the production team were already considering major changes to the show. Multiple questions were hanging in the air: would Sladen’s young co-stars want to stay on? Indeed, should they? If they left, how would the producers stitch new characters into the tapestry of the show in a believable way? And with BBC Wales moving its drama production to new facilities at Roath Lock, should the on-screen show change location, too?
If Sladen had survived to see her show continue into a sixth series, those questions would have been answered behind closed doors, existing maybe only as a footnote while we spent more time looking at the programme that was constructed out of the answers.
Instead, we end up with a look at a series that will now forever be in flux. A series of production questions that will now never be answered, a TV show eternally preserved in amber. On screen, the series ended with a caption saying “The story goes on… forever.” But in the real world, what can the series’ sudden cessation tell us?
The magazine attempts to summarise what the three unfilmed stories from The Sarah Jane Adventures might have been. As you might expect, the first of the three (Meet Mr Smith by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman) feels the most complete and solid. The second, The Thirteenth Floor, is talked of as something that would stretch performers Anjli Mohindra and Daniel Anthony - but we do not find out exactly why, as much of the story is now to be reused in the second series of BBC Wales’ newest CBBC drama, Aliens vs Wizards, and so the full synopsis was withdrawn from DWM’s hands before printing. That’s annoying, but at the same time it shows that great stories will eventually find a home.
It’s when it comes to the final story of series five where things actually become interesting - because, at this point, there was no synopsis at all. While a conclusion of a series-long story arc was definite, the bulk of the last two episodes themselves would be structured around whatever format changes the programme would go on to experience in its next series. So, in lieu of a formal synopsis, Pixley instead interviews executive producer Russell T. Davies. And it’s this section that, for me, is so revealing.
One of the biggest changes the series faced was a potential recasting of Sarah Jane’s young friends. Both Anjli Mohindra (Rani) and Daniel Anthony (Clyde) had expressed a wish to leave the series:
Danny had decided to move on, and asked to be written out at the end of Series Five, and having talked about it with Anjli, she thought it might be a good time to move on as well. Oh, we were gutted! … To be honest, I applauded their decision. Good for them. Time to move on.
But at the same time, we decided to fight! Simply because we loved them so much.
The interview goes into more details about the process of keeping actors in a long-running show. In budgetary terms, the process of “optioning” actors - provisionally booking them for future series well ahead of time - is out of the question for smaller dramas, as it requires more money up-front.
For children’s TV, there are other concerns, though - how long should a young actor stay with a show? Several years ago, CBBC seemed to have a very strict interpretation of the age bracket it should be aiming for. The most famous casualty of this was Grange Hill - which had its own, other problems as it neared the end of its life, but in its final series concentrated on a much younger cast, changing the whole tone of the programme and, if not completely responsible for the series’ eventual demise, certainly hastening it.
These days, CBBC is, it seems, much more relaxed about the ages portrayed in its TV series — just as Disney’s High School Musical movies and other shows were followed by children younger than the onscreen protagonists. So the production team were faced with a choice: write scripts that enticed its current cast to stay with the series, or do one blow-out story that gave them the best send-off possible and which propelled the series into exciting new directions. “Actually, leaving this show in a state of anything-can-happen is rather marvellous,” says Davies. “You can wonder about it for the rest of your lives!”
In recent years, Davies (in conjunction with Benjamin Cook) wrote The Writer’s Tale, one of the best books about writing there is, because it takes place throughout the actual writing process with all its missteps, occasional self-doubt and moments of pure, exhilarating genius. His openness about the halted production of The Sarah Jane Adventures isn’t quite in the same league, but it’s nonetheless more revealing than we’re used to. Insights such as this are rare and valuable, however heartbreaking it is that they come from the loss of a well-loved actor.