It’s October 3rd, 2011. Sak Noel is at number one with “Loca People,” with One Direction, Goo Goo Dolls, and Dappy also charting. There is presumably some reason why the Goo Goo Dolls are charting with “Iris,” a years old song at this point, but I certainly don’t know it off the top of my head. In news, really basically nothing has happened in the two days that have passed since The Wedding of River Song. There’s a factory fire in Surrey, and Amanda Knox’s conviction is overturned. And the day the second episode of this airs, there’s a car bombing in Mogadishu.
While on television, The Sarah Jane Adventures returns with Sky. There is, of course, something of an dilemma here in terms of how to approach this final season of The Sarah Jane Adventures. On the one hand, they are a clear memorial to Lis Sladen – a run of episodes that can only be taken in the context of her death. On the other, they were never meant to be this. They’re just the first half of Season Five, shot alongside Season Four in the expectation that everyone would be back in a few months to finish the run. It’s just that the second half never got made because Lis Sladen died of cancer not long after these filmed. This paradox hangs over the entire season in a way that can’t be ignored.
It’s something we’ve talked about before, but it’s perhaps worth stressing once more how much of a blow Sladen’s death was. For a variety of reasons. The fact that it came so close after Nicholas Courtney’s was one. I mean, fandom always takes deaths of major players in Doctor Who kind of hard. On aggregate, we take actors the worst, and fair enough, because far more people know who Lis Sladen and Nicholas Courtney are than know who Verity Lambert and Barry Letts are. But Sladen and Courtney were big even by the standards of actors. They were people who figured generationally in people’s lives. Children who grew up watching Sarah Jane and the Brigadier watched Sarah Jane and the Brigadier with their children. Parents who grew up watching them watched them with their grandchildren. That hurts in its own unique ways.
But Courtney was 81, mostly retired, and had been in ill health, while Sladen was 65 and still a television star. For those who paid attention there was a sense something might be wrong, but for the most part it felt as though one minute she was on BBC One watching David Tennant regenerate, the next she was dead. I mean, it was the first time I decided to post something other than an actual TARDIS Eruditorum post on the blog, because it hit so hard that I felt like I just had to say something about it, because it was one of those days where writing was how I grieved. I remember a friend messaging me on Facebook just saying “Oh No. :(.” And I knew it was probably Doctor Who from what friend it was, so I went to Doctor Who News, and I remember gasping. I was in my parents’ living room, and I told them, and my father, who doesn’t say a lot since his stroke, just let out a long, sad “oh,” because he’s learned to over-articulate tone and emphasis to communicate when the aphasia robs him of the words he wants.
And she was a star of a children’s show, so on top of that there was the whole very real mess of explaining to children that there were never going to be any more episodes of their favorite television show because the actress who played their favorite character was dead. Which is not easy, both in the sense of how to do it and in the sense of the emotional drain that telling awful things to people you love is. In that regard, the final three stories were a really big deal. It was Doctor Who’s version of watching Heath Ledger play the Joker, only instead of the unsettling spectacle of a performance so intense it feels like it contributed to the actor’s death you get a quiet farewell to an entertainer beloved by millions across generations.
Given all of this, Sky hits with a weird sort of perversity, because it wasn’t written to engage with any of that. It was written to deal with the fact that Tommy Knight was continuing to reduce his involvement with the series to focus on school, thus leaving a hole in the cast, both in terms of having someone to deliver certain types of exposition and in terms of having someone to fill the role of Sarah Jane’s child, since her status as a parent had become an important aspect of her character in the series, and indeed, is the major difference between her in this series and her in 1970s Doctor Who. And so it introduced a new major character, Sky Smith, who was slightly younger than Rani, Clyde, and Luke, but who had the same basic origin as Luke, in that she was created by aliens for a nefarious scheme and then ended up in Sarah Jane’s care.
Which is to say that Sky is very much concerned with the future of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but aired in a context where the focus was overwhelmingly on the fact that said future was never going to be realized. And that hangs over the episode, in the same way that the knowledge of why Hartnell is only on the TV screen and is talking so strangely hangs over The Three Doctors. This overwhelms almost everything about the story, in fact.
Nevertheless, it’s worth making some observations about the lost future it indicates. For one thing, Sky manages something impressive, which is to not immediately be the most punchable character imaginable. She’s impish and funny in the way that “the younger sidekick” role, structurally, is more or less obliged to be, but clearly everybody made a conscious decision to avoid playing it too excessively. There are the expected jokes about things she doesn’t understand, but they’re underplayed. The jokes aren’t “ha ha, look at the comical situation that emerged from the mutual misunderstanding,” which tended to be how early Luke was played, but instead quieter jokes based on incongruity – Sky frequently understands a big and complicated thing, only to shortly thereafter express bewilderment over a small and seemingly obvious thing. They work pretty well, and help smooth what could have been a rough transition. It’s too early to tell based on the five episodes in which Sinead Michael appears, but she could well have worked out to be a wonderful, classic character. It’s really top notch stuff for children’s television, and is the sort of thing that makes you wish this show could run forever.