Already brimming with evangelical fervour after stumbling across Season Two, I was not prepared for just how good 'The Sarah Jane Adventures' Season Three would turn out to be. It starts well. Very well.
1. Prisoner of the Judoon
An escaped alien prisoner, stranded on Earth, needs to use a technology company's nano-forms to escape (and thus wreak havoc, naturally), a company where Rani's mother Gita just happens to be trying to sell floral displays (with her headmaster husband in tow). The prisoner's Judoon guard and Sarah's teenage cohorts are in pursuit of the alien. Sarah Jane herself is otherwise occupied...
A great opener. Though there are more than a few shudders on the way, as the story progresses the emphasis is most definitely on fun. The earth-bound setting allows for far better Judoon-obey-the-law jokes than either its Doctor Who forerunner 'Smith and Jones' or its book form counterpart 'Revenge of the Judoon' (and 'Prisoner of the Judoon' is much more entertaining than either of them. In spite of his authoritarian literalism, or more likely because of it, I ended up feeling rather attached to Judoon Captain Tybo.) Though the story as a whole is an excellent kids story, it's not free of niggles: in the middle of a tale with so many light touches, the abduction of a little girl is extremely dark in contrast to the rest; the part one cliff-hanger (boy genius stating the obvious to super-intelligent computer) is resolved a little too easily; Elisabeth Sladen is well over the top in her altered state. Yet, all-in-all, Prisoner of the Judoon is highly entertaining (the Chandras and Tybo especially so) and a great way start to the series.
2. The Mad Woman in the Attic
Ealing, 2059. Sarah Jane, Luke and Clyde are long gone. A teenage boy investigates an attic and learns that '"The Mad Woman of Bannerman Road" is one Rani Chandra, who says she used to protect the Earth from aliens. Rani has a flashback to 2009 when, aged 15, she received an email from an old friend whom she had once told about her encounters with beings from other worlds...
In its initial stages at least, TMWitA is an exemplary piece of television, with compelling ideas and some startling imagery, and for any regular viewer, the opening few minutes are extremely intriguing. Yet there are a few flaws as the story unfolds: once we're back in 2009, it feels a little straight-forward; there is the occasional verbal over-exposition of the plot and some really crappy incidental music (though nowhere near as bad as that of its parent show). But there's also a great deal to keep you hooked. Anjli Mohindra carries the story really well, the fairground scenes are suitably unnerving and Brian Miller makes a very endearing caretaker. From a purely Doctor Whoish point of view, there's a great little flashback sequence at the beginning of part two (Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker!). The ending is rather sentimental (somewhat of an occupational hazard) and drawn-out but with K9 coming back to Earth, pretty much all is forgiven. All tied up nicely. Until the twists... The CGI at the very end disappoints a little but Joseph Lidster's trademark chopped-up narrative and Alice Troughton's excellent direction generally doesn't.
3. The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith
Sarah Jane sneaks out of her home for "a meeting at the town hall" but Luke, Rani and Clyde don't believe her and track her to a restaurant. Where she is dining with a man. Sarah Jane finds out that she was followed but still seems happy and announces that the man is Peter Dalton. Two days later, Peter proposes and Sarah Jane accepts. The engagement ring he gives her glows an ominous red and when Rani and Clyde investigate Peter's home, they find it has not been occupied for a long, long time...
Most likely the one that has spawned the most column inches, TWoSJS's obvious fan triggers shouldn't hide the fact that it is beautifully set up: the youngsters spying on Sarah Jane's romantic assignations; managing to keep a stray alien secret from the fiancé; the faint noises of Tardis materialisation. The light comedy ("People are eating!") that makes up most of part one makes it all the more heartbreaking when things goes wrong later. Nigel Havers and Elizabeth Sladen are really affecting as the ill-fated lovers and David Tennant, at his most Tom-Bakerish, was never better than here. The villain of the piece should come as no surprise and it's a shame about the periodically syrupy music but, despite the odd contrivance or two, the ending shouldn't leave a dry eye in the house.
4. The Eternity Trap
Ashen Hill Manor is haunted. In 1665, Lord Marchwood employs the alchemist Erasmus Darkening, thinking he can make gold out of base metals. Marchwood's two children spy on Erasmus but he spots them and they disappear. Back in the present, Sarah Jane, Clyde and Rani (with Professor Rivers and her assistant, Toby) go to look for evidence of hauntings...
'The Eternity Trap' is much more than one might expect of the average scary kids show, managing to be a whole lot more edgy than the norm. There is a definite sense of menace throughout and some of the finest music of the entire run. The gang (without Luke) investigating a haunted house would be pretty much all there was plot-wise, were it not for some exceptional touches: the message on the mirror, the repeating phonograph voice, the toy room, the people on the staircase, Donald Sumpter's creepy Erasmus. The absence of Luke, Mr Smith and K9 makes everything seem a lot more grown-up than usual and though the script is at times a little creaky, this is more than offset by great performances from Daniel Anthony, Anjli Mohindra and Adam Gillen as Toby. For something that could so easily have turned into Scooby Doo, 'The Eternity Trap' is really, really good.
5. The Mona Lisa's Revenge
Clyde enters an art competition and wins first prize, a trip for him and his classmates to see the first showing of Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' in Britain. While the class are at the gallery, the Mona Lisa comes to life, steps out of the painting and replaces herself in the picture with the curator's assistant. Soon other people become trapped in other paintings: gallery staff, the police, Sarah Jane...
'The Mona Lisa's Revenge' has to be seen to be believed. Honestly, I can't remember the last time I saw a programme for children that left my lower jaw dragging on the floor quite so much. Not in a scary way; more like 'What on Earth-..!?' The first ten minutes or so is pretty standard fare: a bit of mother-teenager angst to kick off with; then Clyde wins the competition (with an actually not-very-good painting) and he and his classmates all troop off to see the Mona Lisa; something happens to said painting. So far, so what. But then it shifts up several hundred gears into something truly bizarre. ("A whole new kind of wrong.")
There are a host of unforgettable visuals, a lot of sparkling dialogue but, most gob-smacking of all, the eponymous anti-heroine herself. Not since Henry Woolf in 'The Sun Makers' has anyone hit that impossible balance of crazed/dangerous/hilarious as Suranne Jones does here. Her impassioned "...to be trapped in here!" in part two is the quintessential Doctor Who villain played to perfection: threat and victim and cosmic joke all in one. Unmissable.
6. The Gift
Sarah Jane and her friends chase an overweight boy into a warehouse. He is revealed as one of two Slitheen attempting to use a matter compressor to squash Earth into a diamond and make themselves rich. K-9 tries to destroy it so the Slitheen grab Rani and hold her hostage, threatening to kill her. In the nick of time, two more Slitheen appear, teleport the villains back to their ship for trial and introduce themselves as the Blathereen...
The season finale, an altogether less successful concoction of light and dark, is a little flat by comparison to the rest but outshining five such exceptional stories was always a tall order. It kicks off with a chase, into a washing machine storehouse or something, and oh dear, it's a Slitheen. Doctor Who Season 2005 had many strengths but the Slitheen weren't one of them. As a one-off satire on the true nature of political authority, fair enough, but more than that? Anyway, the Blathereen turn up (same as the Slitheen but different - frankly, I don't care). After saving the day, they offer Sarah Jane some Rackweed, a super-plant with which she can feed the world. Of course it's part of an evil plan but our heroine dutifully falls for it and spends the rest of the story clearing it up. Or rather the kids do. The threat is serious enough but lacking is the wit and sparkle of earlier stories. One is left with a fairly straight forward scenario, with Sarah Jane, saviour of the world, being fooled all too easily, not once but twice. (And the comedy ending and moral postscript to the story are pants.) Not a bad way to wrap things up, just not as good as the rest.
One rarely hears anything more than a few, small niggles about 'The Sarah Jane Adventures'. Perhaps this is lowered expectations, it being for a younger audience and perceived as deserving less critical scrutiny. Or maybe it's more successful than anyone thought it had any right to be.