The Kickstarter has less than $1000 to go before Torchwood: Miracle Day gets the same thrice-weekly coverage that Sarah Jane is. I just added a new reward where you can get all four volumes of TARDIS Eruditorum in ebook form for $15, which is $5 cheaper than you’ll get them anywhere else.
It’s October 25th, 2010. Bruno Mars is at number one with “Just The Way You Are (Amazing),” while Duck Sauce, Cee Lo Green, Wanted, and Katy Perry also chart. In a moment of being somewhat personal, then, I should note that Katy Perry is charting with “Firework,” a song that, whenever it comes up, I think of a very dear friend I was particularly close to at this moment in history, and specifically the fact that boom does not fucking rhyme with moon. In light of this, news seems almost superfluous, but let’s note that the International Space Station hits the record for the longest continuous human occupation of space. Woo-hoo.
On television, meanwhile, it’s Death of the Doctor. It is, obviously, the marquee episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ fourth season. Featuring not just one but two major guest stars, the lion’s share of the budget, and Russell T Davies himself on scripting duties for his only Eleventh Doctor story, it’s not clear that there are ways that the series could have trumpeted any louder that this was a big episode.
And yet none of that is what jumps out. As with Enemy of the Bane, it’s impossible to look at this now and not have it feel rather elegiac. This is the last time that Sarah Jane Smith and the Doctor will ever appear on camera together. That run of adventures started with Jon Pertwee in 1974, and ended with Matt Smith thirty-six years later. It’s a huge deal of an episode in that regard. Let’s face it, one of these days someone is going to get Davies out of retirement to write something else that features the Doctor, even if it’s just a comic book or something. But nobody is ever going to get Lis Sladen to appear on screen with Peter Capaldi. It can’t be done.
Given this, it’s nice that her last adventure with the Doctor is at once so retrospective and so forward-looking, combining loads of classic series montages with a very up-to-date “here’s Sarah Jane adventuring with the present of the show” plot. Davies lets his inner anorak cut loose, working in jokes about Peladon, a reference to the unseen adventure that provides the backstory for Timelash, tries and fails to solve the regeneration limit, and even briefly lampshading the complex relationship between City of Death and Mona Lisa’s Revenge. Anyone coming to this story for the raft of obvious sentimental reasons will find a wealth of exactly what they’re looking for. In particular, the sequence in which Jo and the Doctor make their peace over him not coming back for her is wonderful, giving a satisfying alternative to the vision of post-TARDIS travel mapped out with Sarah Jane back in School Reunion.
But while the story is leavened with all manner of candy for the die-hards, it is first and foremost still a pair of episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures, and is primarily about succeeding as the story in between The Vault of Secrets and The Empty Planet. Which is, of course, obvious. Everybody involved has played this game before, and gets that you can’t have the guest actors overwhelm the main show. And yet it is worth asking exactly what Death of the Doctor is about as an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s worth looking at several wrong answers to that question.
It is not, for instance, about death. It plays at that for its first few minutes, but any chance that it’s about the reality of death goes out the window the moment Sarah Jane definitively rejects the possibility that the Doctor is dead. This is actually a bit of an odd and interesting moment: nobody watching either Doctor Who or The Sarah Jane Adventures could possibly actually be so thick as to think that the Doctor is going to just die, and no amount of insisting that there’s proof he has died or that you really have killed him and this is not some sort of trick that is going to be resolved with a robot duplicate can possibly change that. And so the audience is necessarily on Sarah Jane’s side here, in that they know she’s right. And yet Sarah Jane is played as being absolutely pathological here, suddenly judging aliens by appearances and seeming to be mad with grief. It’s not entirely clear how the episode expects this to play out, or even, to be honest, whether Davies has particularly thought about this. (Let’s be honest, it’s exactly the sort of thing he’s classically prone to forgetting about.)
But any pretense that this is a story about death is abandoned by the time Katy Manning blusters in dropping a vase of flowers (in a deliberate imitation of her famed audition for the part in 1970), and instead the story becomes what it always had to be given the existence of two high profile guest stars: a big frothy romp that has fun with them. Within the context of The Sarah Jane Adventures, this mostly involves reveling in the fact that it can go from archive clips of Jon Pertwee to having Matt Smith guest star within the scope of a single episode.
In this regard we come back to the running theme of this chunk of The Sarah Jane Adventures on the blog, which is that it is a series that has already caught sight of its own mortality, despite the fact that nobody involved had anything like a clue of how the series would soon come to an end. (For reference, the completed stories from Series Five were shot at the same time as Series Four, in the summer of 2010. Sladen passed away in April of 2011, shortly before The Impossible Astronaut aired.) In that regard, this sort of story feels necessary and proper: an unapologetic and open-hearted celebration of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ heritage and background.
It’s easy to forget just how necessary this was – The Sarah Jane Adventures has always had a complex relationship with its heritage, after all. The Doctor only made his The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith appearance because it fell in a year where there was a paucity of Doctor Who – the Tennant cameo could only have worked in that context. Other than that, the series has largely avoided an extended engagement with the parent show beyond nicking a monster for the season opener each year. And this is by design – scads of ideas for classic series sequels came up here and there. Secrets of the Stars was, at least at one point, considered as a sequel to The Masque of Mandragora, and it wears those influences so clearly that it’s in some ways a challenge to figure out why they didn’t just go with it. And a sequel to Planet of the Spiders was bounced around as well. But none of this ever happened – instead The Sarah Jane Adventures remained extremely focused on itself and its own time, gesturing to Sarah Jane’s past as backstory, yes, but crucially, as a completed backstory.
And yet had The Sarah Jane Adventures ended without doing this sort of thing at least once it would have felt like a serious lack. Of course, the flip side is that this becomes the iconic Sarah Jane Adventures story – the one that gets collected as an extra on The Green Death DVD and that, even more than The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, gets treated as a secret Doctor Who episode. This is, of course, patently ridiculous – Matt Smith is blatantly only here so that the kids get the same sense of “this is something special” that long-term fans do when Jo Grant shows up or when there’s a clip of William Hartnell from The Three Doctors. (It’s a strange but existent phenomenon that nothing makes long-term fans think something is special quite like including clips from things they already own on DVD.) This isn’t a Doctor Who episode at all, but firmly a story that could only happen on The Sarah Jane Adventures, a show that really does split its influence between the classic and new series.
And yet for all of that, this story’s status as the big, important Sarah Jane Adventures is frustratingly erasive. Clyde and Rani are pushed to the sidelines here – for obvious reasons, but nevertheless. The biggest emotional beat goes to the guest stars. And while the whole thing is very clearly a Sarah Jane Adventures episode, it’s one where the most Sarah Jane Adventuresish parts are pushed to the background. If you come to this having never seen an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures – and more than any other episode this is the one that people have, do, and will come to from that angle – it’s easy to miss the series itself in favor of the homages and references to Doctor Who at large.
But this runs the real risk of making it seem like the most important thing about The Sarah Jane Adventures is simply that it existed in the first place. It becomes another DVD set to own and have on your shelf to display the full depth of your fandom – to show that you’re the sort of fan who owns this, presumably alongside K-9 and Company and the “Myths and Legends” DVD set. This may be a realistic account of its legacy, but it’s a sad and fundamentally unfair one that ignores the twenty-six Sarah Jane Adventures stories that aren’t primarily about the show’s guest stars.
It’s not, to be clear, that Death of the Doctor isn’t great. Of course it is – it’s got a fantastic cast, an a-list writer, and a bit of extra money splashed at it. It’s as good as you’d expect a team-up of Russell T Davies, Katy Manning, Lis Sladen, and Matt Smith to be. It’s one of the best episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures. And it’s a touching, moving and wonderful tribute to decades of history and future that it would have been deeply sad to have had The Sarah Jane Adventures conclude without ever doing. It’s a vital episode of the series. It’s just a pity that its quality distracts from the series itself.