|No, no, it’s just that, you know, your profile picture made you|
look… and, I mean, this isn’t a criticism, but… less tentacular.
It is still New Year’s Day. Actually, we’ve moved backwards in time a few hours for Invasion of the Bane, the debut of The Sarah Jane Adventures. This is often called the pilot, which, in fact, it wasn’t – a pilot is an episode shot as a demo so that a full series can be considered. The first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures was already commissioned when this got shot, and it was, in reality, a New Year’s special for a series that hadn’t actually aired its first episode yet.
It’s worth rehearsing the development of the show, though it’s well documented enough. The BBC, following the success of Doctor Who, went a bit spin-off mad, commissioning Totally Doctor Who and Torchwood, then moving on to wanting a children’s drama featuring a teenaged Doctor on Gallifrey and, briefly, considering a set of annual specials under the name Rose Tyler: Defender of the Earth. The latter idea was quickly abandoned in the name of peace and sanity, The former, meanwhile, seems to have gotten about as far as Davies and Gardner laughing uproariously and then ordering some people killed.
Once the appropriate heads had been affixed to the appropriate pikes, Davies sent word back to the BBC that while he would not be doing Young Doctor Who, he was eager to do a children’s series focusing on Sarah Jane Smith, who he’d just successfully brought back in School Reunion. Because Davies was at one of those points in one’s career where he was invincible and allowed to do whatever he wanted, his plan to appeal to the youth of Britain with a show about a middle aged woman from 70s television was, in a rare burst of good sense from an entertainment industry that would usually respond to this much like Davies did to Young Doctor Who, enthusiastically approved.
There is an underlying tension here, and it’s one that never quite disappears from The Sarah Jane Adventures. On the one hand, it’s television aimed at people who were not actually alive when Doctor Who was originally on the air. On the other, more than any other show in the Doctor Who family The Sarah Jane Adventures is concerned with the material past of Doctor Who. I don’t just mean this in the sense that it features Sarah Jane, returns of three other 70s characters, and bunches of other moments that are overtly and consciously nostalgic for the past. (Really, it’s a wonder the Silurians and Sontarans didn’t make their returns in The Sarah Jane Adventures)
No, what’s really and oddly nostalgic about The Sarah Jane Adventures is that the show is set up to work like classic series Doctor Who, complete with half-hour episodes and cliffhangers. And even though Invasion of the Bane is an hourlong special, it’s still given the most familiar setup imaginable: exciting new technological object, mysterious goings-on, aliens are behind it and turn out to be evil. It’s Spearhead from Space, The Mind of Evil, The Claws of Axos, The Green Death, Robot, and, perhaps more importantly, everybody’s idea of what Doctor Who is “supposed” to do. There’s a self-conscious traditionalism here, marking The Sarah Jane Adventures as, in part, a series for people who can’t let go of a nostalgic image of what Doctor Who used to be.
This is, to say the least, something of a complex joke. On the one hand, of course, there’s some straightforward snark here: if you really want Doctor Who like you had it in the 70s, fine, but the resulting show really is only for kids. On the other hand, The Sarah Jane Adventures is self-evidently made out of a genuine love for the material it mimics. While Davies, at his most cynical, is surely capable of the Robert Holmes level of “fuck you” that pandering to the “we miss half-hour episodes, cliffhangers, and bog standard traditionalism” crowd via a children’s show entails, this is a script written by Gareth Roberts, who movingly represented what happens when he’s exposed to cynicism through the experience of the Cybermen in Closing Time.
Gareth Roberts writes exactly one sort of story: love letters to the idiosyncratic. This is not in any way a criticism of Gareth Roberts, because it’s an absolutely delightful niche to fill, but any given Gareth Roberts script is going to be an enthusiastic burst of squee punctuated by good jokes. And so it is with Invasion of the Bane, which is not even remotely a cynical redo of 70s Doctor Who tropes. Instead it’s a glossy, almost luridly colored whirlwind of a classic formula, done with glee and relish.
But this opens its own set of oddities. The Sarah Jane Adventures is a children’s show, yes, but Invasion of the Bane, at least, was not, strictly speaking, watched by children: 80% of the viewers were over the age of sixteen. So while on the one hand Invasion of the Bane is a children’s show, it’s very much the sort of children’s show that is “for adults,” in a sense that goes well beyond the “for kids but not intolerable to adults” approach pioneered by Sesame Street. This is often a position that people suggest Doctor Who occupies – that the show is in some sense for ten year olds, but this has clearly only ever been true as one of many audiences the show has been for, and one would be hard-pressed to find an era of Doctor Who pitched at children with mere concessions to an adult audience. Family television and children’s television are two distinct genres.
In one sense The Sarah Jane Adventures fits into a larger body of popular culture that exists to sell some object that was popular decades ago to children of today by playing off the fact that their parents like it. This is the logic that led to, for instance, the 2002 revival of Masters of the Universe, or the periodic revamps of Transformers, My Little Pony, and GI Joe. What’s key here is not merely reboot fervor, which had been going around since Alan Moore casually redid the entire concept of Swamp Thing and has been affecting Doctor Who since at least 1988, but the specific mechanism of using one generation’s nostalgia to sell something to another generation.
But this isn’t just reinvention either. The Sarah Jane Adventures is carefully positioned within the larger schema of the Doctor Who stable. Like Torchwood, the show basically presupposes that its audience watches Doctor Who. If anything, it’s even more dependent; where Torchwood sets up a mystery about its central character that at least pretends to be able to function on its own, The Sarah Jane Adventures is unequivocal about the fact that it is the adventures of a former Doctor Who companion, and that these are the secondary adventures of Sarah Jane, though not, it is quick to point out, the lesser ones. Indeed, what’s really telling is that the show goes out of its way to acknowledge that it’s in the same continuity as Torchwood by having Sarah Jane encounter an alien from the same species as Mary from Greeks Bearing Gifts. It’s one thing to put in a nod to a show that the target audience is assumed to watch, but the presence of a nod (and not the last one) to a show that the target audience actively shouldn’t be watching is telling.
A more accurate assessment might be that The Sarah Jane Adventures functions as an excuse for grown-ups to watch classic-style Doctor Who stories, though even this seems a bit thin, given that Doctor Who itself serves up at least one of these a season. Doctor Who isn’t for children in a way that suggests the exclusion of other audiences, but there’s yet to be a season of the new series that doesn’t have at least one episode that takes children as its primary audience, and Invasion of the Bane is firmly in the tradition of the monster two-parters that come early in each of the Davies seasons. So this isn’t an unfilled niche as such.
No, what Invasion of the Bane seems to offer is a piece of Doctor Who that is allowed to belong to children, unlike the proper series which is certainly made with them in mind, but which also does things like Love and Monsters or Father’s Day that are clearly aimed at an adult audience but rendered suitable for children. And this also explains the reverence for the past of Doctor Who. The Sarah Jane Adventures consists of Davies and Roberts (along with some other writers) saying “here is the Doctor Who we got to have as children, and we’re passing it on to you.” Grown-ups may watch, but it’s not quite the same as watching classic-style Doctor Who. It’s watching classic-style Doctor Who being given to a younger generation. To partake of The Sarah Jane Adventures as an adult isn’t to engage in nostalgia, but to engage in an act of giving away the past to the supposed future.
What, then, do we have in the specifics? First of all, the story’s centerpiece: a dystopic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the magic isn’t found inside the big corporate factory, but on a perfectly ordinary street. There’s the same focus on extraordinary spaces within mundane ones that Torchwood has, but here the focus is specifically on finding them in the everyday world (stressed in the voiceover at the start and finish). Whereas the grown-up world of businesses and factories is dangerous. A wondrous sort of danger, yes, but dangerous nevertheless. This is actually just a little bit self-defeating for Doctor Who, which, as a piece of corporate mass culture (albeit the BBC, which is a special case), seems more akin to Bubble Shock than to a random house on Bannerman Road. But if this is the case, it is clearly more accurately described as self-defeating than as hypocritical.
And, of course, there’s Elizabeth Sladen. If there is an aspect of Doctor Who that is beyond reproach, it is surely The Sarah Jane Adventures, for the simple reason that there is absolutely no way to begrudge Lis Sladen a late career renaissance without feeling like one might be a slightly nicer person if one just started punching babies in the face. That she’s no longer with us only intensifies this. Given my existing preference for redemptive readings, my desire to swim against this tide is essentially nil. I’m thrilled Sladen got one last generation of children. I’m made fundamentally happy by the fact that The Sarah Jane Adventures exists, even if I’ve not actually watched, erm, virtually any of it. (This seems a fairly standard state of affairs, at least in American fandom. Torchwood, on the other hand, is relatively acknowledged.)
Given this, then, the slightly stand-offish nature of Sarah Jane in this episode is interesting. The fact that she’s not standard television lead material is, in its own way, acknowledged by the episode, which has her spending most of it resisting letting Maria into her world. Some of this seems to be about not wanting to put her in any danger, but out of a sense that her world isn’t for children in some more fundamental sense. She’s wrong, of course – in reality children are the only people she can truly share it with. And this is, in the end, what ultimately unites the cast – the existence of secret knowledge that adults and people who listen to adults too much cannot know (to the extent that they deny the evidence of their senses if confronted with it) – is, of course, perfect for all of this, paralleling exactly the structure of the show itself. Adults old enough to have seen Sarah Jane and kids get who this is for, and their sharing of it becomes a secret knowledge hidden in plain sight. This, by any reasonable standard, is a wonderful thing.