As we near the end of looking at every Doctor Who story, we’re taking a detour this week to write about some of the spinoffs. I probably won’t be covering them on an episode-by-episode basis, although The Sarah Jane Adventures is the spinoff that tempts me to do that more than the others, because I do think it is the most important one. Most people would probably say Torchwood, but SJA did something very significant by providing a very high quality sci-fi drama for children, written by some of the country’s greatest writing talents. That matters.
The BBC has always been amazing at producing good quality children’s shows, and dramas containing sci-fi or fantasy elements have been some of the most memorable over the years. I have already written about The Box of Delights (1984) on the blog, and some other great examples were The Chronicles of Narnia (1988-90), The Borrowers (1992-3) and The Demon Headmaster (1996-8). Running concurrently with The Sarah Jane Adventures we had the fabulously fun MI High (2007-14) and the fantasy competitive adventure show Raven (2002-2010, now revived in 2017). The Sarah Jane Adventures ran from 2007 to 2011. What you might notice about these examples is that genre television for children continued to be strong during the period when Doctor Who was off air, despite genre television in fact being considered in general to be a dead duck during the 90s.
I have strong feelings about the importance of children’s television, and the existence of quality series like SJA really does matter, and continues to matter. The BBC is still doing great things, with the anthology children’s series Creeped Out (if you haven’t seen it, give it a try). But the tide has long since turned in the other direction.
A bit of context for readers abroad. When I was a child there were four channels. The main two were BBC1 and ITV. When I got home from school there would be children’s programmes on both channels, for a couple of hours, including some high quality dramas. Things have changed. In 2003 the Labour government brought in the Communications Act, which removed the requirement for broadcasters to show a suitable proportion of children’s programmes. Instead they became a “tier 3” obligation, meaning that broadcasters have to listen to Ofcom’s recommendations, but are free to then make their own decisions. The decision they seem to have made since then is to not do very much at all, aside from the BBC. Faced with strict restrictions about the quantity and kind of advertisements the commercial networks can show during children’s programmes, it is simply more lucrative to stick on some cheap cookery or property renovation show, and run some adds about stair lifts or oven cleaner.
So the BBC now show about 97% of original children’s programmes in the UK, whereas the commercial channels buy virtually everything in, of the little that they do show. Over the last 20 years, ITV’s original children’s programming has fallen from over 400 hours to about 40. The other main commercial channels are similarly hovering around 10% of their figures from a couple of decades ago. Between 2004 and 2015 spending on children’s programmes by UK broadcasters (including the BBC) fell from £196 million to £89 million.
And this is a disastrously bad thing for the UK television industry as a whole. One of ITV’s landmark children’s dramas was Press Gang, running from 1989 to 1993. It was written by Steven Moffat, his first television work, and was completely brilliant. The television landscape that gave him his big break no longer exists. Those opportunities have been diminished for future writers, and also for actors. Press Gang starred Julia Sawalha, who went on to become a regular in Absolutely Fabulous, and of course Doctor Who fans will know her from The Curse of Fatal Death. Russell T Davies’s first television drama was a children’s programme: Dark Season (1991), and he still cares passionately about the UK providing high quality children’s shows, because when we are good at it, we are brilliant, as SJA goes to show.
One of the reasons why it is so important is that it can provide a way to explore real-life issues for children within a safe environment, and SJA is a fine example of that. It shows adoption and living in a family with divorced parents, both in an extremely positive light, but doesn’t shy away from the problems associated with divorce, with the return of Clyde’s absent father. It tackles loneliness and isolation (The Curse of Clyde Langer), fear of the future (The Mad Woman in the Attic), drug addiction in a child-friendly way (The Gift), and teaches not to judge by appearances:
The universe is an amazing place. It’s got so many surprises for us, but one thing I never expected to see was the universe being saved by a Sontaran!
I’m only scratching the surface here. The Trickster episodes are especially significant, dealing with the sudden disappearance of a loved one (Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?), fear of death and loss of parents (The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith), and The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith also tackles the fear of death, along with how people can be blinded by the need to be loved, and how romance can hide an ulterior motive. Finally, The Sarah Jane Adventures had to tackle one last issue, when the child fans of the show had to deal with the unexpected passing of Elisabeth Sladen, tactfully and beautifully handled by a documentary accompanying the end of the final series.
SJA was not just about tackling issues though. It also provided us with some great entertainment, and some creepy new monsters (most notably the Trickster, whose appearance played on the uncanny valley), while also optimising the budget by making use of some existing Doctor Who costumes. The first three seasons kicked off with returning Doctor Who monsters: the Slitheen, the Sontarans and the Judoon.
Once we got past the teething troubles of the pilot episode, the cast was always impressive, and it’s such a shame we didn’t at least get one full series with Sky, who was shaping up to be an excellent replacement for Luke as Sarah’s adopted child. Mr Smith was an obvious stand-in for K9 at the start (with the rights to use him being limited by attempts to get that hideous Australian series off the ground), which allowed for some amusing tension between them when they eventually appear together, both effectively there to fulfil the same role.
Alexander Armstrong (Mr Smith) now provides voices for two of the BBC’s greatest cartoon exports: Hey Duggee and Dangermouse. As a father I really appreciate programmes like that, which are made for children but include enough intelligent humour to make them watchable for the parents as well – probably the key to huge international success (perhaps the best-known example: Peppa Pig). And The Sarah Jane Adventures never forgot its dual audience: parents and children, but in the case of SJA the adult viewership was increased by the Doctor Who fans, and that was never ignored. We had some lovely little treats, including the triumphant return of the Brigadier and Jo Grant, and this beautiful speech from Sarah (Death of the Doctor):
RANI: Do you think there’s lots of Jo Grants out there? You know, like the Doctor’s old companions?
SARAH JANE: I do a little search sometimes.
CLYDE: What do you Google? TARDIS?
SARAH JANE: It works. No, I can’t be sure, but there’s a woman called Tegan in Australia, fighting for Aboriginal rights. There’s a Ben and Polly, in India, running an orphanage there. There was Harry. Oh, I loved Harry. He was a doctor. He did such good work with vaccines. He saved thousands of lives. And there’s a Dorothy something. She runs that company, A Charitable Earth. She’s raised billions. And this couple in Cambridge, both professors: Ian and Barbara Chesterton. Rumour has it, they’ve never aged. Not since the Sixties. I wonder…
CLYDE: That’ll be us, one day.
RANI: Still out there, fighting.
SARAH JANE: Echoes of the Doctor, all over the world. With friends like us, he’s never going to die, is he?
No, he’s not, and neither will Sarah Jane Smith. She will always live on in the hearts of Doctor Who fans. So goodbye Maria, Luke, Clyde, Rani and Sky, and farewell Sarah Jane Smith. It was an amazing adventure. RP
The view from across the pond:
The Silver Bullet: a magical weapon used to kill a werewolf. Often referred to as a magic bullet, it is special for its uniqueness and power. Doctor Who found a magic bullet in the 1970’s. It was called “Sarah Jane Smith”. Played by the late Lis Sladen, Sarah Jane was the ultimate companion. When she left at the end of The Hand of Fear, I was heartbroken but even then knew: the show must go on. It would appear, however, that I was not alone. Someone in the BBC knew there was potential with her and out came K-9 and Company in 1981. Alas, mistitled, the idea of the robot dog with limitations was not good enough to maintain a series. What it was good enough to do was create the lore that somewhere, maybe in Croydon, or Aberdeen, Sarah Jane Smith was out there doing great things with her friend and partner, K-9. In 1983, she made one more appearance with K-9 and then, like a Weeping Angel, she was gone.
And then in 2006, she made a return to Doctor Who in the marvelously emotional episode School Reunion. Once again, Lis proved there was still a story to tell even as she said a teary goodbye to her friend and mentor, the Doctor. (I can tell you, I still get weepy over that episode!). Oh, how I wished she had gotten into the TARDIS to travel with Rose and Mickey and the Doctor instead of walking off into the sunset. Russell T. Davies may not have gotten everything right, but he did when it mattered. He, like me, wanted more of Sarah Jane. And in 2007, The Sarah Jane Adventures were born. (SJA for short!)
The series would follow in the Doctor’s footsteps in one notable way: it would be episodic to an extent. Each story was broken into 2 half hour episodes, giving a nice cliffhanger to each one. Unfortunately, the first story was mediocre. It was very evidently aimed at a younger audience and was a little hard to push through. Still, the same could be said about some of the Doctor’s first episodes too, so I remained optimistic and undaunted.
I still thank the heavens I didn’t bail on it! SJA ended up being intelligent, exciting, and fun. Lis was indomitable, like those Homo Sapiens the Doctor likes to carry on about! K-9 was, surprisingly, used sparingly, but that worked well for the series. Sarah Jane now had a massive computer that came out of the wall with a fanfare that was audible to the cast as well as the audience. Then we got Sarah Jane’s companions, the young Clyde Langer, Maria Jackson and her adopted son, Luke. Maria eventually left and was replaced with Rani Chandra, whose family actually becomes a part of the action adding an additional sense of humor. The cast was wonderful and the stories were surprisingly mature (once we got past that first one). The Death of the Doctor, as one might imagine, is one of two to feature the Doctor but it also brought another classic series guest star back to the fold. Enemy of the Bane gave us Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, returned to the action and as marvelous as ever. Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane is an unnerving episode following the tradition of the “what if” scenario perfectly. There are many notable stories, varying from good to excellent. Very few are weak enough to want to skip though I was a little disappointed with the return of the Mona Lisa, considering what we know about it from City of Death.
The series ended after 3 stories in season 5 due to the demise of the star and hero, the much-loved Lis Sladen. There’s a nice montage at the end which magically mirrors what happened in 1981: it lets the fans know that somewhere, maybe in Croyden or Aberdeen, Sarah Jane Smith is still out there, saving the world from alien invasion whenever the Doctor is tied up and unable to get here. Long may she be able to save us! ML