We all secretly know that it’s true: The Sarah Jane Adventures has more heart and invention than Torchwood and is therefore the best Doctor Who spin-off by far. There are times when, thanks to the warmth and charisma of its lead actress, it even eclipses the charm of its parent programme. How sad it is, then, that CBBC is about to air SJA’s final hours.
Of course, it’s only fitting that the show comes to an end. Sarah Jane Smith is irreplaceable and the death of Elisabeth Sladen back in April means that it cannot possibly continue. Her team of school-age investigators make for a terrific band, but Sarah Jane is their guiding light and the most vital element. Without her there is no series.
As in previous instalments, the recurring theme of this opening story is the meaning of motherhood. SJA is ostensibly about aliens and action, but really it’s an exploration of family units, however unconventional and complicated they may be.
The reason why children across the country flooded the Newsround message board with tributes to Elisabeth Sladen is because she excelled at portraying a nurturing side to her character shaded in by series creator Russell T Davies. She’s the adoptive mother of Luke, but also acts as an extra parental figure for Clyde, Rani and (by extension) the young viewers at home.
As we begin series five, Sarah Jane is dealing with empty-nest syndrome. Last year, Luke left for college and, despite regular Skyping, 13 Bannerman Road is feeling deserted. Then a baby is left on the doorstep and the situation immediately changes.
To say much more would be to spoil the surprises, but this feels very much like an attempt to reshape the team to compensate for Luke’s continued absence and lay down building blocks for something that will unfortunately never come to fruition. We have just six episodes and it simply isn’t enough time.
In a way, Sky by Phil Ford is a slight retread of the show’s pilot, Invasion of the Bane, in that it has – at its centre – a child whose purpose has been predestined by others. But it soon generates an energy of its own thanks to elements added from Three Men and a Baby and (weirdly, for a CBBC drama) The Terminator, while the introduction of a new metallic monster proves to be one of the tale’s major highlights.
Front and centre, though, is Elisabeth Sladen, putting in a performance that makes us realise just how much we’re going to miss her. When her death was announced in the press, I broke the news to my seven-year-old and it’s hard to say who was the most upset, the grown-up whose formative years revolved around classic Who or the young fan who’d embraced Sarah Jane’s second lease of life.
It’s not often that you get a character who appeals across the generations. What SJA gets absolutely right is that Sarah Jane remains immediately recognisable as this tenacious reporter of old, but with an added maternal touch that enchants its target audience. Its absence in the schedules is going to be keenly felt.
The Sarah Jane Adventures begins on CBBC on Monday 3 October at 5:15pm