|The 1980s called. They said you can keep their bloody
It’s December 28th, 1981. The Human League are now at number one with “Don’t You Want Me,” with ABBA, Adam and the Ants, and Eurovision winners Bucks Fizz also charting. Kraftwerk are lower in the charts, if you’re into that kind of thing. (I so am.)
Since the Five Faces series wrapped, an inconclusive attempt at an arms reduction treaty between the US and USSR takes place in Geneva, Arthur Scargill becomes president elect of the National Union for Mineworkers, which is likely to end well. Muhammad Ali fights his last fight, the US-supported El Salvadorian army kills 900 civilians, martial law is declared in Poland, the Penlee lifeboat disaster takes place off the coast of Cornwall, and the first test tube baby is born.
While on television we have one the only attempt in the course of the classic series to produce a spin-off: K-9 and Company. This is, perhaps, one of the stories that has most substantially shifted in how we must take it following the new series. Given that Russell T. Davies showed rather conclusively that, in fact, a series following the solo adventures of Sarah Jane Smith can work just fine. The existence of a K-9 centered spinoff is perhaps less of a glowing endorsement (though actually, I’ve never actually met anyone who’s even seen the K-9 series), but the fact of the matter is that K-9 appeared in fully a third of The Sarah Jane Adventures stories.
So like it or not, the fact of the matter is that this concept works. And if we’re going to continue being honest about this story, let’s note that at 8.4 million viewers it beat all of Season 18 of Doctor Who, and furthermore did it during the festive season and with a transmitter out in the northwest that meant it wasn’t seen there. The reason it wasn’t picked up had more to do with changes in leadership at the BBC than with the failure of this production. And so the default take on this story – that it’s a dead end that didn’t work – doesn’t wash. It did work. Just not for until over thirty years after this aired.
All of which said, it’s not hard to reason why the BBC might have been unimpressed with this pilot. While it’s clear today that the basic ideas behind this show work, this specific execution is deeply, deeply flawed – badly enough that it’s in many ways harder to see what convinced Russell T. Davies that there was actually meat on them bones than it is to see why people wrote the idea off for thirty-five years. The problem is that this pilot can’t decide if it’s a straight children’s show or an all-ages Avengers-like show with Sarah Jane and a robot dog.
The bulk of it is written like a quasi-serious adult drama. It’s certainly kid friendly, but it’s not for kids as such. In this regard it’s much like Doctor Who itself is. But once every couple of scenes the bottom suddenly drops out and the program becomes unequivocally and unabashedly a children’s program. And not a Children of the Stones sort of children’s program that still works for adults – a straight out, juvenile, silly program that adults aren’t even supposed to like or be watching
The crux of the problem is K-9, and this explains to some extent why this didn’t work until decades later. You have to have crossed the point in which the entire audience could be assumed to be in on the joke of how ridiculous K-9 is before this can possibly succeed. You have to have reached the point, in other words, in which the joke in School Reunion about Mickey being the tin dog would work. By 2006 the facts that K-9 was a rubbish idea and that he was also widely and genuinely popular had successfully integrated into one fact. K-9 became a beloved oddity of history. Like a truly and epically awful pop song, by 2006 K-9 had acquired enough layers of irony to finally work.
Unfortunately, in 1981 K-9 was still a character who was straightforwardly beloved and popular on his own merits. And so this program was pitched distinctly in terms of K-9’s perceived appeal. Despite the fact that by any sane storytelling standard this is a story and series about Sarah Jane, she doesn’t get to be in the title; she gets upstaged by the tin dog. K-9 is beloved by children, or at least the BBC firmly believes he is, and so the program is built around him. The logic underpinning this program is that K-9 is popular and so people will want to see a show about K-9.
The problem is that K-9 only ever worked within the context of the Graham Williams era, in which the show worked on multiple levels. So kids could take K-9 straightforwardly and adults could laugh at him. But this worked because he wasn’t the focus of the show – he was a secondary character on a show with other things going on. But it’s essentially impossible to do that with the title character. Doctor Who can have ironic distance from K-9. K-9 and Company can’t possibly – at least not in 1981. (And even in the present day, K-9 is still suited to being a secondary character.)
Other problems present themselves. Ian Sears as Brendan Richards serves mostly to reassure the viewer that Adric could have been so much worse. But more to the point, he represents a sort of irritating formulaicness – it’s 1981 and so we need a teenage computer nerd in our show with a robot dog. No thought has gone into his character beyond “let’s put a teenage whiz-kid” in. Similarly, Aunt Lavinia – who was apparently to be the supporting cast in half the episodes had this gone to series – isn’t developed beyond “let’s put a free-spirited elderly lady in!”
Beyond that, the plot has massive holes in it. Admittedly, this is due largely to the episode length being cut rather late in the game. The Head of Drama changed over the summer and the incoming one, David Reid, didn’t think there was enough plot to justify a 90 minute episode. In Reid’s defense, there isn’t enough plot for ninety minutes here. But the fact that it got slashed in half late in the game didn’t help things.
Similarly the setting is lazy. Rural Satanists. Of course it’s rural Satanists. The extent of the twist that the episode can manage on this premise is that the friendly villagers aren’t evil. And it’s incredibly proud of itself for coming up with that, tragically enough. But more broadly, the rural Satanists are just a crass recycling of a standard mystery plot – one that even Doctor Who got bored with after The Stones of Blood. And unfortunately interesting concepts were the only way that this was ever going to work. To make K-9 work in a story the rest of the story has to be vaguely at the level of weirdness of K-9 himself. Instead you get the utterly mad spectacle of Satanists reacting in terror to K-9 because he’s, and I swear that I am not making this up, “a familiar of the goddess Hecate! A dog belching fire!” Sure, 1981 was too early to do a series that mocks K-9, but the degree to which this overplays its hand is impossible to take seriously.
And that just about sums up the problem. There isn’t actually an idea here beyond doing a bunch of standard Avengers-style mysteries only with K-9 in them. This isn’t a show about anything – it’s one that just assumes that sticking K-9 into a show is going to make it work. No thought has gone into why K-9 didn’t work on Doctor Who (or even whether he actually didn’t work beyond John Nathan-Turner’s bizarre belief that he made the TARDIS crew too powerful. Admittedly K-9 essentially became a glorified gun for the Doctor by the end, which was a real problem, but the idea that the TARDIS crew could meaningfully have been “too powerful” in a show where they were, by definition, sure to triumph over all adversity come episode four [unless it was a season finale, in which case episode six] is barking up the wrong tree, if you’ll forgive the metaphor), and so no thought has gone into how to integrate him into this show. The real evidence of this is in earlier conceptions of the story, which had K-9 secretly being evil and having been reprogrammed by the Master. Keep in mind that the Master has never even met Sarah Jane Smith at this point in the program. That’s how desperate and out to sea on what to do with the tin dog they were.
To her credit, Elizabeth Sladen almost holds this trainwreck together. For all that’s desperately wrong with the series, Sladen calmly demonstrates what everybody already knew: she’s more than capable of holding the lead in a series. It’s enough to make you wish that series had hit on the idea it eventually had with Romana of giving her the proper lead in episodes during her time. The degree to which the Sarah Jane Adventures constitutes a righting of a longstanding wrong in that Sladen never had the lead role in a successful series. Sladen is charismatic, charming, and capable of holding her own in any scene without needing to be pushy or domineering. She is raw class, she is.
Finally, we have to at least discuss the opening credits. They are strong contenders for the worst credits sequence ever made and really need to be seen to be believed. So, here. And let me note, I am so, so sorry.
Marking Ian Levine’s only credited contribution to a Doctor Who-related production they are… actually, I don’t even have adjectives here. The music is a complete train wreck, but to be fair, so is the editing. Not even Lis Sladen can pull off every shot she’s called on here, and the point about 2/3 of the way through where it appears that they have simply run out of footage to put in the credits and have decided to rerun shots from earlier in the credits.
Supposedly Ian Levine intended for the credits to be fully orchestrated and not synthesized. This has two major problems. The first is that Ian Levine has an excuse for every unfortunate thing he inflicted upon Doctor Who and that there comes a point where it becomes difficult to take any of them seriously. The second is that the idea of a fully orchestrated theme song that heavily features John Leeson enthusiastically shouting “K-9!” at various points is actually, in all probability, an even worse idea than the heavily synthesized version.
Given all of this, it’s easy enough to see why the BBC was less than enthused about the prospect of more of this. There’s no show here. The show that there is – The Sarah Jane Adventures – was an incidental implication of the show they made. It’s clear, watching this, that the people making it don’t know what show they have. Admittedly some of this is the BBC’s own fault – they wanted a show about K-9. To this day it’s not entirely clear that a show about K-9 is even possible. But this show isn’t even trying to figure out how to do it.
And this is the heart of the bad sign this show entails. John Nathan-Turner’s inability to think beyond high concept images makes its first really flagrant appearance here. With Bidmead as his script editor Nathan-Turner had someone who had enough of an artistic vision to compensate for his own weaknesses. But the incoming team – and they’re the ones on this project, with two of Season 19’s three script editors and the writer of six of the 26 episodes on the case – don’t have that clarity of vision. And suddenly it’s painfully clear how much of Season 18’s quality was down to Bidmead and not Nathan-Turner. For the first time since The Leisure Hive it is frighteningly apparent that the emperor may not be wearing any clothes.
Still. Lis Sladen’s magnificent.