I think the popularity of Sarah Jane Smith and Elizabeth Sladen’s portrayal of her can be seen in the amount of times she’s appeared in her own solo adventures. Of course there was the 1981 ‘K9 and Company’- a pilot for a TV series, but one that failed to capture the public’s imagination. Then with the revived series in 2005 she featured in several episodes with David Tennants Doctor before being given her own spin-off, the CBBC show ‘The Sarah Jane Adventures’. One other spin-off Sarah Jane received however is not perhaps as well remembered and certainly is not as mainstream, indeed in the years since Sladens passing this odd little audio series has passed almost into obscurity. I’m speaking of course about Big Finish’s range of audio’s dedicated to the character, Big Finish being well known for their Doctor Who audio drama’s as well as those featuring beloved cult TV characters such as; The Avengers, Terrahawks and upcoming Prisoner audio series. The Sarah Jane Smith audio series was released between 2002 and 2006, it comprises of two series and nine audio dramas in total, picking up her story post The Hand of Fear (her final Doctor Who story) and the events of K9 and Company. However those familiar with the lighthearted Russell T Davies spin off best be warned- this is a very different beast....
The series opens with the rather aptly titled ‘Comeback’ and manages to tell at once a standalone story as well as setting up the events for the rest of the series to come. Written by 70’s Script Editor and well known Doctor Who author, Terrance Dicks, the opener whilst introducing us to a much older and paranoid Sarah- forced to live life on the run due to her mistakes, feels a lot like an early 70’s Doomwatch Episode mixed with a little of the X Files. That’s not a bad thing and indeed the idea of a dark and gritty Sarah Jane spin off appealed to me a great deal, after all if any Doctor Who character is going to come up against conspiracies and secret organisations, it’s her. This opening story however also reveals many of the flaws that would haunt the rest of the series and stops it from reaching those levels of greatness it tries so hard to reach. To begin with, the series features Sarah and two ‘Companions’ for want of a better word, Josh and Nat. Josh is there to do the fighting and Nat is there as the techie- the problem is their both terribly annoying. Josh has a rather irritating habit of doing stupid accents- I suppose as comic relief but most of the time its unfunny and just plain distracting whilst Nat is a little bit too big headed and likes whining. Admittedly these earlier stories show them are their worst and they do soften up later in the series but personally I feel this tight knit little ‘family’, for want of a better word, takes away from the darker elements the series is trying to pursue. This series opener also has some of the worst sound design in the entire series- the bank robbery is utterly ridiculous and the amount of over the top accents makes one wonder if it’s being played for laughs. However the story is still interesting and the connections with the rest of the series are well established, making you genuinely interested in what is going on.
With ‘The Tao Connection’ the series takes a downward step and we are given what is easily the weakest story of the lot. Written by ex-Pertwee producer, the late and great Barry Letts the story contains a lot of his favourite tropes- Buddhism and mysterious goings on in a remote establishment in the country. The problem is it takes an awful long time to get going and spends most of its time too-ing and fro-ing and not really trying to make you care. I’ve seen a few complaints about the villain’s sexuality and whilst I do confess I found it to be an interesting plot point when the true horror of his crime is revealed at the end, he’s a stock homosexual and the language and dialogue he uses can be slightly offensive at times even if meant well. Most disappointing is that whilst Tao has absolutely no connection to the series over all plot (excuse the pun), it fails to be an entertaining stand alone adventure- the performances however are great and given a few tweaks it could have been so much better. If you’re buying these separately give this one a miss.
Test of Nerve on the other hand see’s the proceedings pick up again, there’s no paranormal or supernatural elements to be found here- oh no, instead were treated to a tense thriller in which Sarah is forced to make earth shattering decisions when a Terrorist threatens to release a nerve gas on the London Tube. It’s here that I feel the series reaches its absolute peak and is indeed my personal pick of the bunch, gone are any old school tropes and in its place is a story that gives Sarah Jane a reason to be paranoid. It’s also at this point that the regulars become a lot more likeable, forced into difficult situations the characters drop a lot of their comic relief and are all the better for it. Nat, who up to this point was my least favourite character in the entire series has the best scene and manages to be truly sympathetic and endearing, it’s a testament to just how good Sadie Miller can be when provided with some decent material to work with. Test of Nerve is also tied directly into the general narrative and I feel that had the series been a little shorter and contained audio’s with stronger links to the overarching plot like this one the series as a whole would have been stronger (something I’ve heard that Series 2 learns from). All in all it’s very difficult to talk about this audio without giving too much away, it’s tense and at times upsetting but lives up to what I feel the series was trying to be- a contemporary thriller series in the style of the X Files and Doomwatch without containing any 70’s ‘Who’ tropes.
And speaking of 70’s ‘Who’ tropes we getting a couple more in the next adventure- ‘Ghost Town’, which whilst ripping off the Mind of Evil (1971) by having someone attempt to scare delegates at an international peace conference to death, manages to at least be entertaining if a little clichéd. Josh is at his strongest here and it’s nice to see Sarah interacting with other journalistic characters from her past, her friend and idol Yolanda is a strong and likeable character and someone who it seems very likely Sarah would attach herself too. The story itself is not afraid to poke fun at its own narrative with Josh remarking that it seems like something out of an episode of ‘Scooby Doo’. Unlike the Tao-Connection, I feel that despite the old school nature of its narrative Ghost Town succeeds because it’s a fun adventure, just where you need one. Whereas Tao Connection and less so Comeback could have benefitted with a slightly darker more modern edge as they are setting the series up, Ghost Town situated between the series two darkest entries is a short brief fun adventure allowing the audience to catch their breath before the series finale. It may not be entirely necessary but it’s enjoyable and I can’t fault it for that.
And so we move on to the final story in the series- Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre and if you’ve read this far and are thinking of listening, I suggest maybe skipping this part of the review as I’ll be discussing spoilers in depth. I’d be lying if I said Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre was not a disappointment but that is only because I have a little thing called hindsight. Knowing that Miss Winters doesn’t return in the following season I was really looking forward to a strong rematch between her and Sarah. Miss Winters, as played by Patricia Maynard in both these audios and her original TV story ‘Robot’, was an interesting choice of villain and I loved how they created a dark and twisted criminal mastermind out of what was admittedly a rather camp villain in a rather camp TV story. Sadly however, Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre spends a lot of it’s time meandering towards the final showdown only for the last few minutes to be a rushed finale with Sarah muttering that now they know who their enemies are they have to be ready for a rematch, a rematch that I know never occurred. Still despite these misgivings when Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre gets going it gets good and the moments between Patricia Maynard and Elizabeth Sladen are the best in the entire series, if ever there was a nemesis for Sarah, Miss Winters was it. The regulars are pushed somewhat to the side but not unnecessarily, Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre is a story about Sarah dealing with her own fears and her own past and like the similarly themed Test of Nerve its one of the best in the series and a superb finale- despite making me wish for more Hilda Winters.
All in all I feel like I’ve come across as a little bit harsh on this first series of Sarah Jane audios. Truthfully I loved listening to them and rather than dread putting the next one on I looked forward to it and thought the overarching plot and choice of villain excellent. Admittedly the series is deeply flawed- not really deciding if it wants to be old school fun and dark brooding contemporary thriller, the series dark spooking opening theme but 70’s funk style score reflecting this conflict. All in all though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to series 2, it has problems but a lot of potential too and I can’t wait to see where they take it. After all it’s Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane and anything with her in is worth listening too!