It’s October 15th, 2009. Chipmunk are at number one with “Oopsy Daisy,” with Shakira, the Black Eyed Peas, and two separate Jay-Z tracks also charting. In news, since July, Ireland approved the Lisbon Treaty on the second attempt, the 2016 Olympics were given to Rio di Janeiro, and North Korea freed two American journalists following intervention by former President Bill Clinton. While more around the time of this story, Tim Berners-Lee publicly apologizes for excessive backslashes in urls, a Ugandan MP proposes making certain instances of homosexual activity capital offenses, and Stephen Gately, one of the lead singers of Boyzone, died in Spain. Also, Edgar Allen Poe’s funeral is held.
On television, meanwhile, The Sarah Jane Adventures is back. It is interesting to compare the positions of Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures going into their third seasons. Torchwood was a show in visible need of some sort of revamping or, at the very least, of Davies actually being heavily involved in the season instead of largely sitting on the sidelines. The Sarah Jane Adventures, on the other hand, was rapidly perfecting a sort of business-as-usual approach that served it well. So where the mantra of Children of Earth amounted to “everything really does change for once,” the mantra of The Sarah Jane Adventures in its third season amounted to “let’s do it again.”
Prisoner of the Judoon exemplifies that, ticking all the boxes of what one would expect a season premiere of The Sarah Jane Adventures to be while still managing to be its own thing. You’ve got the return of a Doctor Who monster, a story built so that everybody gets at least one moment to shine, and a nice high-concept premise to hold it all together. The latter, of course, is that Sarah Jane’s found herself possessed for the first time since The Hand of Fear. Lis Sladen, unsurprisingly, plays it with gleeful relish – Sarah Jane as possessed by the Androvax is all lascivious growl and menace.
It’s an interestingly calibrated performance – it would have been easy to make the big “Sarah Jane is possessed” story an opportunity to be scary. The last time Sarah Jane was absent from the story was Mark of the Berserker, which used her absence to make the story scarier. Without Sarah Jane to keep things in line, Clyde’s father became an extremely threatening figure capable of doing much more damage than any villain possibly could when Sarah Jane is around. This time, however, Sarah Jane’s absence is, if not comedic, at least a source of fun – an opportunity for Lis Sladen to let her hair down and act out instead of being the buttoned-up, straight-laced figure. The story is a big party in the same way that New Earth was for Billie Piper.
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast gets to shine as well. Luke gets to capably act as a surrogate Sarah Jane and stop the aliens, Rani gets some lovely comedy bits with her parents, and Clyde gets to be practical and a leader figure. All of these have their varying significances. Luke is consciously moved away from being the awkward social outsider – there’s one scene early on of Clyde ribbing him for being bad at jokes, but he’s been allowed to grow into a more mature and confident character. Part of this is just the good sense of dealing with the realities of young actors: Tommy Knight has visibly matured and simply doesn’t look or feel as young. And given this, it’s the sensible way to make the character more mature. Luke has gone from being “the genius” to a character who can save the world through knowledge of alien computers and who can talk down Mr. Smith when need be.
Rani’s evolution is in many ways subtler. Certainly Anjli Mohindra feels more relaxed in the role, and her rapport with Daniel Anthony is a real boon. Her relationship with her family is also interesting. It’s notable that we basically haven’t seen Haresh at his job as headmaster of the school since Day of the Clown, and instead Haresh and Gita have become slightly bumbling, comedy adults, their own plot driven, in this case, by Gita cheerily abandoning any sense of reason and simply behaving like a lunatic, with Haresh gamely tagging along. This dynamic works, but has an odd effect, leaving Rani’s role to mainly be the figure that connects part of the supporting cast to the main cast. Equally, however, the next story is consciously Rani-focused, and so this is perhaps not a major issue for this time.
It is Clyde who goes through the most interesting transformation, however. The iTunes versions of these episodes all have a (somewhat annoyingly repetitive) opening tag that enthusiastically explains the premise of the show to a clip montage from the season. What jumps out is not that these exist, but rather that the narrator is Clyde, positioning him as, in many ways, the main character of the series and as the character who, rather unexpectedly, took over the role vacated by Maria when she left at the start of Season Two, namely that of the window in on proceedings.
This is in most regards useful for the show. From the start, the idea of the “point of view” character in The Sarah Jane Adventures was odd. The title character was originally the supposed “point of view” character in Doctor Who, albeit from a point in the series where Doctor Who was a familiar enough format to not quite need one (and indeed, the concept was effectively abandoned for four years after her departure). Furthermore, the series is a spin-off of Doctor Who, which means an audience who is already familiar with some key underlying premises. And so Maria was a point of view character only inasmuch as she introduced the supporting cast to the audience by meeting them. With that role now firmly surplus to requirements, we find ourselves instead needing Clyde as the primary character.
But Clyde isn’t there to introduce us to the world. He’s there to love it more than any other character. Clyde is, ultimately, the most aspirational character. He’s there for the same reasons Rose Tyler is – as the character who, through meeting aliens and seeing the wonders of the world, transcends his under-privileged background. Clyde is the main character because he, more than anyone else, works with Sarah Jane out of love. And so he becomes the one who is most like Sarah Jane – more even than Rani, who merely echoes Sarah Jane’s superficial origin story of being a reporter. Clyde, on the other hand, is the one who most straightforwardly acts like a companion in waiting. (And, sure enough, see the two occasions on which Clyde interacts with the Doctor. But more on that later.)
Everyone, in other words, is carefully and deliberately well-served by the script here, and the result is an episode that fairly definitively states “this is what The Sarah Jane Adventures is as a show,” which is exactly what you want in a season premiere. Save, obviously, for the tiny detail of Sarah Jane’s absence, but even she gets to shine repeatedly in the show’s opening sections, and there are just enough bits of Sarah Jane in the second episode to reiterate what role she plays.
The rest of the time, then, Prisoner of the Judoon is a well-oiled machine. Of particular note is the handling of the Judoon themselves, or, for most of the story, itself. Not for the first time, The Sarah Jane Adventures puts effort into individualizing “monster” races. So instead of, as we got in Smith and Jones, a horde of basically identical rhinoceros aliens, we get Captain Tybo, a single rhinoceros alien who even gets a small character arc as he goes from being aggressively heartless and prone to angrily enforcing petty rules to ultimately letting Clyde and Rani off the hook at the end of the story. The result is mainly a series of fairly good gags – Captain Tybo angrily enforcing a variety of extremely minor laws is reliably funny. The speed limit is particularly delightful, culminating as it does with the spectacle of a rhinoceros in a police car asserting that he is on an undercover mission.
The result is also a rather charming message – one that suggests that rules are subject to common sense and worth disobeying sometimes. Which is a nice, softly anarchic message that ties in very well with what Doctor Who is supposed to be. As with most of The Sarah Jane Adventures it’s understated, but it’s clearly there. This is children’s television that exists to tell us that cops aren’t always on our side and rules are, if not made to be broken, at least probably worth breaking. Not for the first time, there’s a real sense that The Sarah Jane Adventures is the show where everyone is putting the most effort into making sure that what they do is for the social good and making the world a better place. Torchwood did indeed reinvent itself in 2009 to become absolutely brilliant. The Sarah Jane Adventures just started that way.