Outside the Government: The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith

(24 comments)

It's October 29th, 2009. Cheryl Cole is at number one, with Whitney Houston, Black Eyed Peas, Michael Buble, Jay-Z, and Robbie Williams also charting. In news, Morrissey collapses while performing "This Charming Man" in Swindon. Zine El Abine Ben Ali wins 90% of the votes in Tunisia and a five-year term of office, which seems like a sure bet that he'll be around for ages. And footballer Marlon King is sacked from Wigan Athletic after a sexual assault conviction.

On television, meanwhile, we have The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith. The biggest thing about this story is, of course, that the Doctor is in it. That this is demonstrably the most important thing about it is also in many regards the fundamental challenge of it: how does one do an episode of a spin-off to Doctor Who that features the Doctor and not have it become a de facto episode of Doctor Who instead of an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

The first trick is a relatively obvious one: make the Doctor’s absence a tangible part of the plot. After teasing his appearance repeatedly in The Mad Woman in the Attic, we have a first episode here in which the sound of the TARDIS is in effect used as a sort of accent and punctuation: something that repeatedly teases the eventual arrival of the Doctor. It’s only the second episode in which Tennant features at all, and even there he effectively drops out of the climax so that Clyde can save the day instead. Tennant, in other words, is deliberately treated as something to use sparingly, so that this feels unmistakably like an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures and not like an episode of Doctor Who that went out with the wrong opening credits.

It is, of course, questionable whether or not this was necessary. There is in the end nothing that would have effectively made this anything other than a story where the guest star overwhelms the show. And in some ways that’s the real point of it: a private episode of Doctor Who for the kids. There is, after all, something thoroughly delightful in that idea. The usually not actually true statement that Doctor Who is for children (as opposed to the reality, which is that it is a show that carefully avoids not being for children) here applies wonderfully. The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith is a secret treat for kids - something that feels a bit like staying up past your bedtime.

In something of a concession to this reality, the second episode of The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith revels in these possibilities. Indeed, much of its runtime is devoted to a longer sequence of the Doctor running around with Clyde, Luke, and Rani than the plot actually needs - a sequence that exists mostly, if we’re being honest, to set up things like Clyde actually calling the Doctor out on an “I’ll explain later.” Which is wonderful and worth doing, to be fair. Indeed, it’s almost enough to cover up the fact that the resolution to this story is blatantly just the resolution of Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane done at high speed. 

This gets at the one serious problem of the episode, however, which is that so much of it hinges on the idea that Sarah Jane and Peter really are in love. This is to say the least uncomfortable. Sarah Jane and Peter really did only know each other for, by the timeline in the episode, five weeks before getting married, with the engagement happening on what seems to be the seventh date. In a show that is usually impeccably good at presenting a moral and ethical world to kids, this comes uncomfortably close to fairy tale romance and unrealistic expectations of love.

And beyond that… Peter is the sort of person who will try to mind control his fiancee to make sure she does what he wants. No matter how much you handwave away the “but she wasn’t mind controlled when she agreed to the proposal,” you still have Sarah Jane professing her genuine love to someone who fucking sci-fi raped her, which, no. Just no. We’ve praised The Sarah Jane Adventures in the past for its ethics, but this is absolutely horrific. There is no standard whatsoever by which knowingly attempting to covertly mind control your bride to be is not horrific abuse, and this story normalizes it so that the abuser can get a stirring speech about how Sarah Jane made him into a better person. It’s absolutely appalling.

But this is, in the end, a symptom of the second episode and its Doctor problem. Because it has to spend so much time larking about with the Doctor, the actual plot gets short-changed. Sarah Jane does almost nothing over the entire episode just so we can get more Doctor. And so a resolution that needed to be a lot more nuanced than it was got short-changed. 

Which gets at the funny thing in the story: the first episode is far better than the second. As fun as it is to see David Tennant, even in the course of a gap year one more chance to see Tennant’s Doctor in action is not that rare or exciting a treat. Especially because, if you really wanted to get into extended universe stuff, you were practically drowning in Tenth Doctor material in 2009. Between Journey’s End and The Eleventh Hour there were twenty-three novels, six audios, and a smattering of comics and video games to boot. 

The real fun, to be honest, is in the feuding between K-9 and Mister Smith, and in the wonderful comedy bit of trying desperately to hide an alien that arrived in the post from Peter. Gareth Roberts is absolutely on fire in the first episode, and as good as the Doctor and Clyde are, they actually can’t quite live up to the manic glee of the beginning.

Which brings us back to the underlying problem of having the Doctor in this story at all, which is that it necessarily means that a portion of the story isn’t really a Sarah Jane Adventures story. Hold the Doctor out of the narrative for as long as you want, put in loads of scenes with him and the supporting cast, do what you want, but fundamentally, every second the Doctor is on the screen is a second that the show is doing “Doctor Who bonus episode” and not The Sarah Jane Adventures. In which case, given all of that, it seems fair to ask if it’s even worth having the Doctor in it.

And yet for all that one can argue, it’s kind of tough to say no. Certainly, when next this comes up, it’s going to be downright absurd to say no. There can be few Doctor Who fans who are going to begrudge the only opportunity there was to see Matt Smith and Elisabeth Sladen share a screen, or the one time that Russell T Davies wrote for the Eleventh Doctor. But the Tenth Doctor and Sarah Jane had three other meetings, two of which were substantive, and the third of which damn near single-handedly justifies the “Doctor’s Reward” section of The End of Time just for how amazing Sladen is in it. And so it’s tough to say that there’s a hole for completists that would be left unfilled if this didn’t exist.

Perhaps the more important argument, then, is what this does for the rest of The Sarah Jane Adventures. The Doctor didn’t appear in K-9 and Company. He’s never appeared in Torchwood. He’s never appeared as the Doctor, in a straightforward adventure with no winks at the audience about a larger joke in any show other than Doctor Who. Even when he’s appeared in other things like Children in Need, Davies ended up fighting tooth and nail to have there be no jokes and to have, for the length of Pudsey Cutaway, Children in Need just turn things over to Doctor Who. That’s how big Doctor Who is - it’s a show that simply does not bow to any other show. Ever. Until this story.

It would be very easy, especially in the year where Torchwood managed its moment in the cultural sun, to declare The Sarah Jane Adventures the third show. You have your main show, you have your adult drama that just did a challenging and sophisticated political thriller, and you have the third show developed that’s for kids and thus, by the obnoxious logic of television, clearly not as good or important as the real shows. The budget certainly points towards this - Davies writes in The Writer’s Tale about how things got tight enough on The Sarah Jane Adventures that they almost had to abandon the idea that individual stories would get their own directors and just start shooting out of order with directors assigned to locations for the season. This sort of letting up on the creative details would be unthinkable on either of the other shows, and only came close to happening on The Sarah Jane Adventures because, culturally, that show mattered less. It’s the show that didn’t get aired on US television before the DVDs came out. It’s the runt of the litter.

And now it isn’t. Now it’s the one that has the extra David Tennant story in it. It’s the show that the Doctor appears in. That’s an emphatic declaration of the show’s importance. Even if it’s cheaper and less flashy, it’s the one show that can actually, even if only for part of one half hour episode, be Doctor Who itself. And that’s why to do it: because it’s a profound vote of confidence in the series. It’s a declaration that this series matters and is important to pay attention to. And more weeks than not, it is. Yes, this episode had a major ethical bungle, but most weeks The Sarah Jane Adventures is doing genuinely important work - the sort of important work that got a big name “serious” actor like Christopher Eccleston to do a silly show like Doctor Who. It’s producing good, intelligent fare for children. Something The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith is for more of its runtime than not.


That’s important. In fact, it’s so important that the biggest show on television, Doctor Who, will do something for The Sarah Jane Adventures that it simply does not do, for any other show: lend them its lead character. 

Comments

Matthew Kilburn 3 years, 7 months ago

An examination in thought and feeling as ever... but the 'ethical problem' isn't one the programme shies away from depicting. The message of The Sarah Jane Adventures is often that there are no pat answers to problems and that life is complicated.

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Sean Case 3 years, 7 months ago

Oh, that is Nigel Havers as the groom.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 7 months ago

This episode and "The Death of the Doctor" really show what a great companion Clyde would have been. Missed opportunity!

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Kyle Maddex 3 years, 7 months ago

To be fair, David Tennant did show up as the Doctor on an episode of Extras, but that was for about thirty seconds, if I remember correctly.

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John 3 years, 7 months ago

In Extras he was playing himself playing the Doctor. And surely that falls into a category with "A Fix with Sontarans" or whatever, no?

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Daru 3 years, 7 months ago

I loved Clyde in this and *yeah totally* to Seeing_I above - but I always felt that Sarah Jane's character was kind of sidelined by this story. It felt quite unbelievable to me that she would fall for this guy (even if he was Nigel Havers) so quickly and then marry him. Still love the story though, mainly for The Doctor and Clyde.

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inkdestroyedmybrush 3 years, 7 months ago

this is, really, the most satisfying episode in the gap year of the Doctor for me. It feels like classic Who in that its simply not trying to be too angsty and Tennant's Doctor shaves for this one. essentially, without trying to over do things, it does things just about right, which is interesting on the face of it, because it shows the high wire act that they have to tread: the best episodes generally were ones that seemed to simply zip along without having to kill themselves and, before you know it, we're caught up in it.

does this not feel like a two part Classic Who episode? Its certainly better than Black Orchid, and it juggles almost as many characters in a much better fashion.

Clyde is certainly the glue of the show now, and this makes it apparent.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 7 months ago

I don't know that I'd call it a missed opportunity as one the show hasn't necessarily done yet. There are some rumours that Moffat is introducing another male companion for Capaldi's first season, and wouldn't it be smashing if that companion were an older Clyde.

I mean, that probably won't happen, simply because of Doctor Who's necessary tendency to move on from the past. I think this could turn out to be a serious problem as the show develops in our current media landscape. The Netflix-ization of television has led to people being able to marathon entire shows very easily, which I've noticed has lately kept folks from getting into Doctor Who, even though they're very enthusiastic about it. I've had friends think they'll only understand what's going on if they watch every show since 1963. When I explain to them not only that they can't, and that it's not necessary, and that they probably at most need only start watching from the start of the Smith era (and they can probably just jump in blind at Capaldi's first full episode), they don't understand.

This could result in a bigger continuity explosion than we got in the 1980s thanks to Ian Levine's influence. The producers always have to remember that what keeps Doctor Who alive is its ability to junk everything that came before and move into different, unconnected stories and problems. The increased reliance on continuity over the last few years has bugged me, because of this danger, and because the weight of so much detail in the Doctor Who universe/chronology could easily make the show incoherent.

So as much as I'd like to see a TARDIS team of three defined by the personality tension of Clara and Clyde's whimsy with what I think will be the intensity of the Capaldi Doctor, I'd also like to see something completely different.

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heroesandrivals 3 years, 7 months ago

That was what I took from it. He agreed to seduce her for the Trickster in exchange for his own life but in the process of that interaction he grew as a person.
A selfish rapscallion, yes., but also someone who aspires to be something else. Alas he doesn't suffer from a surfeit of choices; "be evil" or "don't be at all."
The fact he ended up with the latter is quite dark for a kid's show. (Sure, "Warriors of Kudlak" murdered dozens of kids but that was offscreen and it's possible that SOME of them still lived so those victims remain in a quantum 'uncertainty' state, neither alive nor dead until the plot is followed up on.)

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 7 months ago

Amazingly, this is the best Tennant story (IMO) in 2009. In other words, I consider it a Doctor Who story. I was against the idea at first because I felt it wasn't right (I felt that spin-offs could bleed into the parent show, but not vice versa). Part of me still thinks that, but only because of the amount of Doctor Who fans who just didn't watch this or didn't know of its existence because they're not into the spin-offs. But then again, it is, as you say, thus a 'bonus' - so when people do find it, it's an extra treat under the Christmas tree, as it were.

Also interesting that the Brig was originally meant to feature too (would that have sidelined Sarah even more?), and would've been totally squee-worthy with Doctor Who's Biggest Fan Doctor (Tennant) meeting the Brig.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 7 months ago

{In case anyone doesn't know, I believe the Brig plans fell through because Nick fell ill.}

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liminalD 3 years, 7 months ago

I always just flat-out skip to the end of Planet of the Dead for Carmen's prophecy and then watch The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, pretending that it's one of the 'actual' Doctor Who specials. It's WAAAAY better than Planet of the Dead, and I like to pretend that Clyde and Rani will show up on Doctor Who-proper one of these days. They go together so well, and they could be a stand-in for Sarah Jane in a similar way to how Kate Stewart has been a stand-in for the Brig lately. And as much as I'd have loved to have seen the Brig again here, I feel he might have made the story a little too cluttered, it already feels a little crowded :)

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Anton B 3 years, 7 months ago

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/doctorwho/articles/Rising-Star-Joins-Doctor-Who-for-Peter-Capaldis-First-Series

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 7 months ago

Interestingly, too, SJA makes note of the Doctor's upcoming demise.

"The Gate is waiting for you."

It is, for all intents and purposes, an extra DW Special.

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Galadriel 3 years, 7 months ago

Was Peter even fully aware of the conditions of his deal? According to the flashback, all he was told was "I will give you life, and the true love you've always dreamed of. All you have to give me is your agreement." The wording leaves a lot of ambiguity--perhaps he didn't make that connection between Sarah Jane's love and his life until the wedding.
After all, it's Sarah Jane's declaration in part two that "if we got married, then the deal would be complete. He would give you back your life." Granted, that fits the Trickster's mode, but he also isn't known for being explicit until the deal is filled--ie, the Graske in Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane.

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Galadriel 3 years, 7 months ago

Well, I did remember that he produces the ring and says "the angel said people would try to stop us being happy," but that isn't concrete evidence either way.

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Galadriel 3 years, 7 months ago

I'm sure we'll cover this more with season five, and even with season four's "Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith," but I had such fervent and unrealistic hopes that someone from SJA would be in the fiftieth as a tribute, just as Kate was for the Brig. It wouldn't have fit, but I wanted it anyway.

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Galadriel 3 years, 7 months ago

As for the Doctor's absence in Torchwood, I've heard that was a deliberate choice so children wouldn't want to watch it--but by the same token, placing him in the SJA creates the potential--no, an excuse--for the adults, as you said.
IMO, even though it was clear the romance was doomed, the emotional reactions felt realistic, and the body language after the time-trap broke was heartbreaking

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 7 months ago

I know! It's a little weird that I'd make this suggestion on the same day of the new companion's announcement. I'm discovering these odd coincidences everywhere in my life lately, but they're all very convenient.

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Matthew Blanchette 3 years, 7 months ago

"and the third of which damn near single-handedly justifies the “Doctor’s Reward” section of The End of Time just for how amazing Sladen is in it."

No. I'm sorry, but no. Lis Sladen is great, but that moment is contrived, and nothing justifies that jejune and unnecessary segment of what is undoubtedly the worst thing RTD has ever written (and I don't mind RTD, but good god).

Just... no. Please tear it to shreds when you get to it.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 7 months ago

Even if they'd just placed a prop into the Black Archive (like they did with Jack's vortex manipulator), that would've been a nice nod.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 7 months ago

Playing himself as the Doctor in a weird riff on "The Twin Dilemma." One of the odder moments in Doctor Who's renaissance.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 7 months ago

I agree. SJA was a much better show than Torchwood, and much more in keeping with the spirit of Doctor Who. Much as I enjoyed Torchwood (for all its faults) and much as I think "Children of Earth" is one of the best things ever to go out under the umbrella of the Doctor Who universe.

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XRE 2 months, 1 week ago

"And beyond that… Peter is the sort of person who will try to mind control his fiancee to make sure she does what he wants. No matter how much you handwave away the “but she wasn’t mind controlled when she agreed to the proposal,” you still have Sarah Jane professing her genuine love to someone who fucking sci-fi raped her, which, no. Just no. We’ve praised The Sarah Jane Adventures in the past for its ethics, but this is absolutely horrific. There is no standard whatsoever by which knowingly attempting to covertly mind control your bride to be is not horrific abuse, and this story normalizes it so that the abuser can get a stirring speech about how Sarah Jane made him into a better person. It’s absolutely appalling."

Jesus dude...calm the fuck down and get over yourself.

No.

Sarah jane was no raped in any sense of the word.

Her husband to be didn't really love her, but he felt affection for her and realized what he was doing was wrong before he fixed things. And he probably felt that way considering he was being given a second chance at life. near death experiences changing how one feels after all.

For Sarah jane meanwhile I don't think she legitimately loved him so much as made a mistake by rushing into something with someone who seemed to for the first time in her life really click with her. Her profession of love later on practically confirms she wasn't really in love with him. She after all forgets him almost immediately and likely wasn't considering the full implications of his actions in the heat of the moment. But I guess we'll just cheerily ignore that because...criticism or something.

Mind control is not an equivalent of rape like...at all. Especially when the form of mind control equated to having the wedding she agreed to of her own volition (and yeah that does justify quite a bit) happen faster than it would have and otherwise putting her super computer away.

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